The Rise of Sports

WHILE THE WEST WAS GOING THROUGH ITS GORGEOUS EPOCH OF gambling, drinking, and gun-play, a series of athletic crazes were sweeping through the states of the East. Baseball developed from its humble beginnings in the days before the Civil War to its recognized status as America's national game. The rapid spread of croquet caused the startled editors of The Nation to describe it as the swiftest and most infectious epidemic the country had ever experienced. Lawn tennis was introduced to polite society by enthusiasts who had seen it played in England, and the old sport of archery was revived as still another fashionable lawn game. Roller-skating attained a popularity which extended to all parts of the country. What the sewingmachine is to our industrial wants and the telegraph to our commercial pursuits, one devotee wrote rapturously, this new system of exercise had become to society's physical and social wants.

Track and field events were also promoted with the widespread organization of amateur athletic clubs; gymnastic games were sponsored both by the German Turnverein and the Y.M.C.A.; and in the colleges a spectacular sports phenomenon loomed over the horizon with the development of intercollegiate football. Society welcomed polo as an importation from abroad, took up the English sport of coaching. And finally a craze for bicycling arose to supersede all other outdoor activities as city streets and country roads became crowded with nattily dressed cyclists out on their club runs.

All this took place in the late 1860's and the 1870's. Previously the country had had virtually no organized sports as we know them to-day. Neither men nor women played outdoor games. Alarmed observers in mid-century had found the national health deteriorating because of a general lack of exercise more widespread than among the people of any other nation. Ralph Waldo Emerson had written despairingly of "the invalid habits of this country," and from abroad the London Times had issued grave warnings of possibly dire consequences for our national wellbeing. No transformation in the recreational scene has been more startling than this sudden burgeoning of an interest in sports which almost overnight introduced millions of Americans to a phase of life shortly destined to become a major preoccupation among all classes.

It was a phenomenon somewhat difficult to explain, but the first faint stirrings of popular interest may be traced to the decade before the Civil War. The decline of the informal sports associated with country festivals and frontier frolics, a consequence of the breaking-up of old forms of village association as the nation became more urbanized and of changes in farm economy which brought about the disappearance of such workplay occasions as the barn-raising and the husking-bee, had drawn attention to a parlous state of affairs. Many observers suddenly realized that the spectator sports of the period were a sorry substitute for what was being lost. This was not so important for the rural population, but it affected the townsman very seriously. "Who in this community really takes exercise?" Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked in the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in 1858. "Even the mechanic confines himself to one set of muscles; the blacksmith acquires strength in his right arm, and the dancing teacher in his left leg. But the professional or business man, what muscles has he at all?"

A campaign was started to break down the prejudice against sports as an idle diversion and to encourage more active participation in outdoor games. "The Americans as a people -- at least the professional and mercantile classes," Edward Everett declared, "have too little considered the importance of healthful, generous recreation. . . . Noble, athletic sports, manly outdoor exercises . . . which strengthen the mind by strengthening the body, and bring man into a generous and exhilarating communion with nature . . . are too little cultivated in town or country." With far greater emphasis but on very much the same grounds the editor of Harper's Monthly Magazine and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes lent the weight of their authority to the new cause. The former held the want of sports responsible for turning young America into "a pale, pasty-faced, narrow chested, spindled-shanked, dwarfed race -- a mere walking mannikin to advertise the latest cut of the fashionable tailor." The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table declared himself satisfied "that such a set of black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from the loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage."

These diatribes bore some fruit in the 1850's. Skating was taken up so widely that the vogue for it became known as Higginson's Revival. Rowing grew so popular ( Charles W. Eliot was on the Harvard crew) that the New York Herald declared that if the boating era should continue another five years, "the coming generation will relieve America from the odium of physical decline." Nevertheless the flowering of sports awaited the post-war period, when they were given a primary impetus through being adopted by the world of fashion. The early rowing clubs had been composed of "young men of the highest respectability," but as the new games of the 1870's were introduced from England, for the rise of sports in the United States owed a very considerable debt to the sports revival in the mother country, it was more than ever society's leaders who first played them. The attempt was even made to monopolize them. Again and again the complacent statement may be found in contemporary articles in the better magazines that such and such a sportwhether tennis, polo, or bicycling -- does not "offer any attractions to the more vulgar elements of society." But the real significance of fashionable approval of sports lay in the fact that it awoke the interest of democracy. The common man eagerly followed where the aristocrat led. He could not be kept from any diversion within his means. "We may turn up our noses generally at those who in this country profess to lead fashions," Caspar Whitney, an early sports writer, declared some years later, "but in the matter of showing the way to healthy, vigorous outdoor play they have set a fine example and one that has taken a firm hold upon the people."

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