We all know that games like baseball, basketball, soccer, football, ice hockey, golf and tennis became favorites in various parts of the world during the last half of the 19th century, solidified their positions early in the 20th and now have huge international followings. Those are the "winning" sports. But what of the losers? Was it some arcane process of natural selection or merely quirks of fate that prevented other games from becoming popular?
Take battle ball, for example. Besides having a catchy name, it was touted in 1895 as a sport capable of "quite replacing tennis as a competitive game." Its inventor, Dr. D. A. Sargent of Harvard, described battle ball as a combination of bowling, baseball, cricket, football, handball and tennis. The main advantage of battle ball was that it could be played by a large number of contestants in a small area. Anticipating that the game would catch on with women, Dr. Sargent also boasted that, despite its name, battle ball was a "dignified" sport, "antagonistic without allowing any opportunity for injury from personal contact or collision."
Played on a 50-by-25-foot court, battle ball could have as many as 20 players on a side. At each end of the court was a goal line on which sat three pairs of Indian clubs. Seven feet above the line was a cord stretched from posts at the corners. A leather ball weighing a hefty two pounds completed the equipment.
Apparently the object of the game was to prevent unemployment among CPAs. If, in throwing the ball over the opponent's goal, a player hit an Indian club, his team received five points. If the ball missed the pins as it rolled across the goal line, the player's side received 10 points. If the ball flew over the pins but under the cord, the team got three points. Finally, balls heaved over the cord cost the thrower's side one point and loss of ball. It was recommended that a referee be employed to call fouls, but apparently there was only one infraction for the official to watch for—stepping over the center line. That cost the errant player's team two points. "The entire separation of the opposing sides, excluding all roughness...make it more suitable than basketball for women," wrote The New York Times. Despite this recommendation, battle ball did not catch on, probably because the digital computer had not yet been invented.
February 16, 1976
A couple of years later a brief flurry of excitement greeted royal, a game designed for bicyclists. As described in Current Literature in 1897, royal appears to have been almost as complex as battle ball. The object—to drive a "play wheel" (a 4½-inch-wide pneumatic tire mounted on a 28-inch bicycle rim) through the opponent's goal while riding a bike—seems simple enough. But the playing area called for a center alleyway of cables that, according to Current Literature, formed "two upright sides, between which the play wheel rolls, and is driven backwards or forwards by the riders.... Players ride in single file and always circle to the left. The two teams are constantly meeting and passing each other in opposite directions on opposite sides of the alleyway. The game requires much skill in riding, and is very exciting." Especially, no doubt, for the poor and undoubtedly dizzy soul charged with the task of picking up the play wheel every time it flopped on its side.
At least the 1901 innovation of Henri Deutsch was simple. The premiere of that entrepreneur's new sport took place on a Sunday afternoon in September 1901 at Bayonne, France. The site was the local plaza de toros, where a capacity crowd of 6,000 gathered to watch the first combat between a bull and a motorized matador.
As Deutsch promised in his prefight advertising, the entrance of the caballero de plaza, Ledesma, was like none other in the history of bullfighting. Instead of arriving astride a horse, Ledesma waved to the crowd from the seat of a 12-hp Peugeot. Occasionally a word passed between the bullfighter and another man in the car. This was Chevrin; as Deutsch's chauffeur, he had been named to drive Ledesma into battle.
For a long moment the bull and Ledesma stared at each other. Then the Peugeot lurched forward. In response, the bull moved with great speed—away from the car. In the succinct description of The Times of London the animal "turned tail and ran."
Maneuvering furiously, Chevrin followed the toro as closely as he dared, for he was concerned that the bull would suddenly turn and charge the light machine. But the animal obviously wanted nothing to do with it. When Chevrin turned one way, the bull turned another. It was a contest of agility alone as the car and the animal, trailed by a disorganized horde of picadors on horseback, swerved from one side of the arena to the other. Hoofbeats mingled with the roar of the engine as clouds of dust rolled up from the floor of the stadium. The crowd was neither stimulated nor amused. Deutsch presumably took the money and ran.
Rivaling this fiasco was a sport introduced at the Royal Aquarium in London during the summer of 1895. It was called "Angling for Humans," and was a series of contests pitting leading fishermen of the time against equally illustrious swimmers. In this test of skill and power, the rules called for the swimmers to attach themselves to fishing lines, dive into the water and "cleverly imitate salmon in their efforts to regain their freedom." At the other end of the lines were the fishermen, who were supposed to "land" their opponents. "The result," wrote one reporter, "was always entertaining and frequently very exciting, especially when the angler and the 'fish' were fairly matched."
According to the London Telegraph, in the first contest a Mr. Hardy of Ainwick used a seven-ounce trout line as he "essayed three times to overcome Ives, a strong swimmer of 196 pounds weight, the latter on each occasion succeeding in breaking the line." Equally successful as a fish was a Miss Burnett, who for 20 furious minutes thwarted "Mr. Slater of Newark, who angled in the Nottinghamshire style, with a green-heart rod and a spinning undressed line." Not so fortunate was "Miss Sylvia of slighter build" who "gave in to the angling of Mr. Ogden of Cheltenham in eight minutes."
These are just a few turn-of-the-century sports which did not pan out. But considering the rate at which television is promoting even sillier pastimes, it would not be surprising if one of them turned up between the Demolition Derby and the National Invitational Wrist Wrestling Championships on your screen next Saturday afternoon.