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Sport fascinates Americans. It is axiomatic that foreign visitors to this shining land are startled—and left either amused or aghast—when banner headlines announcing World Series scores force international crises down to the bottom of the front page. Even The New York Times, the most respected newspaper in the country, devotes more space to sport than it does to art, books, education, television or the theater. Indeed, it devotes more space to sport in its daily edition than to all these subjects combined. Sport permeates our language, our art, our politics. (Eisenhower's first loss of popularity came when he passed up baseball's Opening Day in Washington to play golf in Georgia; the loss would have been greater still if he had spent the day working at the White House. Kennedy gained votes because he played touch football with his brothers.) It also permeates our economy. Americans spend $20 billion a year on sport, approximately one-sixth of the national disposable income.
What is American sport? Is it, as Francis Logan Paxson, the historian, called it, the social safety valve that replaced the frontier? Or did that dour observer, Thorstein Veblen, touch the heart of the matter when he wrote that sport was no more than an expression of the barbarian temperament? Lewis Mum ford let up on cities long enough to dismiss spectator sport as "one of the mass-duties of the machine age" and "a part of that universal regimentation of life." And Albert Parry, in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, found an even more sinister significance; he termed sport an instrument with which "the masses are to be kept in check, awed or distracted." Was Parry right when he said: "The wide interest of Anglo-Saxon masses in horse racing, football, baseball and similar sports tends to allay social unrest and lessens the possibility of political uprisings"?
These sociological pseudoprofundities tend to obscure the simple definition of sport as a pastime, a diversion, something to do. When man has time he does things. He writes, he paints, he diverts himself. Sport in America grew with the increase of leisure time and the liberalization of moral codes.
In Colonial days religion, in the form of New England Puritanism, tended to inhibit the rise of sport. The Puritans were, to generalize broadly, middle-class moralists in revolt against the Anglo-Catholic pomp and splendor of king and court. They transformed Sunday from a day of recreation, which it had been in Roman Catholic times, into the pious Sabbath of the Old Testament. They accepted the King James Bible, but they had the common hangman burn the Book of Sports, in which James I commended the games to be played after Sunday service. In Massachusetts the Puritans looked upon themselves as "saints, sacred and set apart from a wicked and persecuting world," and the struggle for existence gave force to the ban on amusements. The settlers had to work to survive, and even after they prospered, their stern code persisted. "Let others," wrote John Adams, "waste their bloom of life at the card or billiard table among rakes and fools." But John Adams played bat and ball as a boy, and loved riding and shooting and boating; he seined for minnows and turtles, hunted birds' eggs, played with bows and arrows, made toy windmills and water mills and whirligigs. Sport grew up through Puritanism like flowers in a macadam prison yard.
In Virginia restrictive laws against sport also prevailed at first. But with the introduction of slavery, the establishment of the plantation system and the creation of a leisure class, Virginia's restrictions abated. When, in 1674, the York County court fined James Bullock, a tailor, 100 pounds of tobacco and a cask, it was not because racing was against the law but because Bullock came from the wrong class, "it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race, being a sport only for Gentlemen."
The Middle Atlantic colonies, too, were more tolerant than New England. Hempstead and Salisbury Plains on Long Island were celebrated for their racing, and the British garrisons in New York and Philadelphia lent encouragement to cricket, racquets and fives. To an officer of the garrison that evacuated New York in 1783 goes the distinction of having written The Sportsman's Companion, the first sporting book published in America.
After the Revolution racing was the major sport. The match between Sir Henry and Eclipse, the first intersectional race in the country, attracted a crowd of more than 50,000 in New York. In 1826 William Fuller, an English boxer, introduced the science of pugilism to New York. Unfortunately, boxing did not receive the upper-class blessing it had had in England, and it soon fell under the domination of Native American and Irish political factions, who used it as a battleground for settling disputes. Boxing made a great contribution to slang. Such expressions as "fan" (shortened from "fancy"), "one-two," "cheese it," "breadbasket," "pal," "even Stephen," "mug" and "where do you get that stuff?" all stem from the prize ring of Regency England.
But for the most part there was little diversion and little leisure. When Boston workmen agitated for a 10-hour day, merchants and shipowners retorted that "the habits likely to be generated by this indulgence in idleness...will be very detrimental to the journeymen individually and very costly to us as a community."
But here and there were glimmers of the future. James Gordon Bennett Sr., seeking readers for his penny Herald, published accounts of races and prizefights, and so did Benjamin Day in the Sun. William T. Porter began publishing the sports sheet, Spirit of the Times, and gave employment to Henry William Herbert, who, using the pen name of Frank Forester, became the first writer in America to earn a living writing about horses and hunting. Technology, as John R. Betts pointed out in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review of September 1953, was beginning to play a part in the development of sport. By the late 1830s railroads were transporting both horses and men to distant tracks. In 1852 Yale met Harvard in the first intercollegiate rowing race after the general superintendent of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad offered free transportation to both crews to Lake Winnepesaukee, N.H.; the railroad made money on special excursion trains. Later in the century several railroads offered to transport horses or ball clubs at cost or half fare, and in the '80s and '90s lines carried canoes and bicycles at no charge. With the slogan of "Go where You can have Sport," the Bangor & Aroostook published a big-game and fishing guide; and a rival railroad advertised, "A Correct Way of Going to Maine for Hunting and Fishing is via the Maine Central Railroad."
In books published in the early part of the 19th century one can find references to a children's game called baseball, an offshoot of English rounders (the Doubleday myth was manufactured in the early 1900s). In 1842 a group of professional men and merchants began meeting in a Manhattan lot to play, and a few years later they formed a club called the Knickerbockers. Although baseball was the club's reason for being, the Knickerbockers were, according to Harold Seymour, a historian of the early game, "primarily a social club with a distinctly exclusive flavor—somewhat similar to what country clubs represented in the 1920's and 1930's." A Knickerbocker had to have a certain standing in society, and the club used the blackball system to screen candidates. But class lines were not rigid enough to keep the game—and all sport—from spreading, and ability came to count more than breeding. "Baseball," Mark. Twain wrote, "is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century." Beginning with the professionalization of baseball in 1869, sport underwent fantastic growth as the tempo of the country accelerated. Industrially, the U.S. swept from fifth place in 1840 to first in 1888. There was a noticeable shift in population from the farm toward the city, a trend complicated by the millions of immigrants from Europe. Between 1865 and 1884 alone, seven million immigrants, half of them German and Irish, entered the country, bringing with them the relaxed European Sunday that contrasted with the rigorous Puritan Sabbath. "Where is the city in which the Sabbath Day is not losing ground?" a critic asked. "To the mass of the workingmen Sunday is no more than a holiday...it is a day for labor meetings, for excursions, for saloons, beer-gardens, baseball games and carousels." In Muncie, Ind., the typical American town dissected by the Lynds in Middletown, the local newspaper reported that the citizens "do not want and will not have" Sunday baseball, but a year afterward a compromise was reached: the ball game was combined with a sacred concert, "the band playing at intervals." Elsewhere Protestant churches compromised by taking up the concept of "muscular Christianity." The Young Men's Christian Association founded a training school for physical education in Springfield, Mass., and this only added to the flood. Only in the rural areas did sport languish in the Gilded Age, and one historian—Foster Rhea Dulles in America Learns to Play—in part blames the lack of amusements for the agrarian discontent and Populism of the '90s. This would seem to support Parry's thesis.