Between 1870 and 1920, sports in the United States were completely transformed, not as a consequence of but as one agent of the broader transformation of American life. Before 1870, sporting practices in the United States were largely informal, local, and class-specific. The decade that began in 1920 became known, before it even ended, as the Golden Age of Sports, as Americans flocked to huge stadiums; the mass media old and new—newspapers and magazines on the one hand, radio and film on the other—were saturated with accounts of big games and larger-than-life sporting personalities; and stars such as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Bill Tilden became national celebrities. The period from 1870 to 1920 thus saw the multifaceted development of the highly organized, commercialized, corporate and bureaucratically governed, national (or "popular" or "mass") sporting culture familiar in the early twenty-first century. The definition of "sport" itself shifted in this period. The word once narrowly referred to traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, to innocent childhood play (the "sport" of sledding and snowball fights), and to such disreputable amusements as the cockfighting and prizefighting of a vaguely criminal underworld (and the men, "the sports," who indulged in them). Now it began broadly to denote newly organized and widely popular athletic games, both amateur and professional, participatory and spectatorial, such as golf, tennis, baseball, football, and basketball.
THE RISE OF SPORTS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
European visitors to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s routinely noted how little time Americans gave to amusements. Americans' unplayfulness was only relative—southern planters and backwoodsmen hunted and fished in their distinctive ways, northern merchants and factory workers amused themselves after the manner of their classes—but both religious and economic factors constrained Americans' indulgence in sport. The Puritans' Calvinist abhorrence of wasted time persisted in evangelical Protestantism and informed a powerful work ethic, while practical necessities—initially of economic survival, then of revolution, then of nation building—and an accompanying philosophy of civic responsibility continually reinforced the importance of work and duty over pleasure seeking.
New forces emerged in the decades following the Civil War. The rise of organized sports can be viewed as a response to the pressures produced by burgeoning cities and the disappearance of meaningful work: both laborers and clerical workers sought release in organized recreations and spectator sports from the grind of their now routine-driven daily lives. Those same conditions of urbanization and industrialization were also what made the national sporting culture possible, through developments in transportation, communication, and technology. The railroads, telegraph lines, and popular press that produced a truly national culture created a place for sport within that culture, while manufacturers of sporting goods provided uniform equipment for games to be played in the same way in every part of the country.
In the early nineteenth century, sport had been embraced chiefly by the landed gentry on the one hand and by the unruly elements among the lower classes on the other, with the emerging middle class clinging most strongly to the traditional values of self-discipline, sobriety, and industry that were antagonistic to sport. The organization of elite and working-class sport over the final decades of the nineteenth century—in metropolitan athletic clubs and country clubs on the one hand, for example, and in the creation of professional baseball leagues and cycling associations on the other—created profitable industries out of long-standing sporting interests. It was the embrace of sport by the expanding middle class, the group most invested in the older work ethic and its Victorian moral trappings, that marked the greatest change. Here, new social and religious justifications were required.
Antebellum health reformers first made the case for physical exercise as necessary to the whole man (and sometimes woman), with attendant ideas about the self-discipline and moral improvement that could derive from athletic conditioning. But it was the "muscular Christianity" promoted by Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes in mid-century Britain that provided the rationale for American reformers in the 1860s and 1870s to vanquish the powerful religious antagonism to sport in the United States. Muscular Christianity had little impact on the sports such as baseball, boxing, pedestrianism, and horse racing that emerged in the antebellum period. But its influence on the beginnings of intercollegiate athletics in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s was crucial. The first athletic competitions between colleges—between the crews of Harvard and Yale in 1852, the baseball teams of Amherst and Williams in 1859, the football teams of Princeton and Rutgers in 1869—would have led nowhere had not liberal ministers and public spokesmen such as Edward Everett Hale, Henry Ward Beecher, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and preeminently Thomas Wentworth Higginson championed the ideal of a vigorous, manly, athletic Christianity in religious and secular periodicals. Muscular Christianity effectively wed modern sport to the older Victorian spirit of self-discipline and self-improvement. And it spoke powerfully not just to the emerging middle class but also to the traditional elites who were accustomed to leadership in American public life but were seeing their power and influence usurped by Gilded Age capitalists.
Muscular Christianity undergirded the expansion of sport in religious organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Muscular Christianity plus modern social science undergirded the playground movement, which sought to defuse urban pressures and Americanize new immigrants by providing recreational outlets and organized team sports in gymnasiums and public parks. And muscular Christianity plus Darwinian social philosophy plus Anglo-Saxon racialism plus upper-class anxieties undergirded the development of intercollegiate sports, chiefly football, the most manly of all the manly sports, over the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall, social reformers such as Luther Gulick and Henry S. Curtis, and Brahmin educators and reformers such as Francis Walker, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt in different ways argued that rugged sports were good for individuals, for communities, for the nation, and for "the race." Their ideas were regularly promoted in popular magazines such as Harper's Weekly and the monthly Outing by champions of sport such as Caspar Whitney and Walter Camp.
By the end of the century those unplayful Americans of the antebellum period now seemed to English visitors obsessed with sports. They participated in activities and on teams organized by civic, social, religious, ethnic, educational, fraternal, and occupational organizations, and they cheered on the performances of others in ballparks and gymnasiums in virtually every community. Much of the world of American sport was still fragmented along lines of age, class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, occupation, and geography; but there was also a single national sporting culture that registered chiefly in the periodical and daily press. Americans played with their own peers at country clubs or neighborhood parks, but they read the same accounts of major league baseball games, championship prizefights, and intercollegiate football games, of "national champions" and "All-Americans," in their local newspapers.
A powerful and complex sports ethic was part of this national sporting culture, a self-contradictory mix of muscular Christianity and Darwinian competition, of British elitism and American democracy. The values of sportsmanship and "fair play," and of amateurism more generally, derived from the sporting codes of elite English public schools and ultimately from the aristocratic code of gentlemen who had "won" at life simply by their birth. The values of gamesmanship, on the other hand—gaining an advantage through trickery rather than superior ability—could seem unscrupulous but were profoundly democratic, making victory possible for weaker and stronger alike and rewarding only the winners in the contests. What could seem mere hypocrisy—paeans to sportsmanship but obsession with winning—was in fact a profound ambivalence that played out not just on athletic fields but in American life generally.
SPORT IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN FICTION
American fiction did not fully explore the world of sport during this period of transformation, but a nascent sport literature did emerge. Much antebellum fiction had unobtrusively incorporated the sporting practices of its times into its fictional worlds. James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and his Littlepage novels, for example, had their distinctive sports: the pigeon-hunting and salmon-fishing episodes in The Pioneers, the sleigh riding and other winter sports in Satanstoe. Cooper, of course, cast the former scenes as mini-allegories in order to contrast his hero's sporting code to the reckless and wasteful behavior of the settlers, but these episodes also contributed more simply to the portrait of life in a new community at the edge of the wilderness. In a similar manner, the sporting customs of particular regions or classes were part of the background in a broad range of fiction. Beginning with John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832), plantation romances invariably included scenes of foxhunting or horse racing. The tales of southwestern humorists were rich with crude backwoods brawling and racing or shooting contests, while the more domesticated western fiction of writers such as Caroline Kirkland included the barn raisings and quilting bees of pioneer settlements. In a strikingly different vein, Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron-Mills" (1861) marked her characters by the sports of their social and economic classes. The deeper spiritual longings of the Welsh puddler Hugh Wolfe are evident in part by his abhorrence of the cockpit that draws his coworkers; the dilettante Mitchell, on the other hand, is an amateur gymnast and "patron, in a blasé way, of the prize-ring" (p. 437). The sporting practices in these novels and stories sometimes bore thematic weight, but they occupied the margins of the narrative, not the center.
This sort of casual inclusion of local and class-marked sports continued throughout the period under discussion in novels ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe's My Wife and I (1871), in which a croquet match serves as an elaborate metaphor for life as viewed by the different players in her novel; to Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), whose heroine frequents the horse races with her father and pleasure-loving Creole friends; to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920), whose social milieu is defined in part by the sports (croquet, archery, lawn tennis, yachting, polo) of New York's untitled aristocracy in the 1870s. The Age of Innocence looks backward to a social world predating the rise of modern sports. So too do those nostalgic evocations of boyhood that thrived in the Gilded Age—novels such as Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy (1870), Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (1876), Charles Dudley Warner's Being a Boy, and William Dean Howells's A Boy's Town (1890)—which invariably included, and sometimes centered on, the innocent sporting pastimes of premodern, rural America. The modern sports at the center of the new national sporting culture, in contrast, are not much evident in mainstream American literature before the 1920s. As sport became organized and institutionalized over the late nineteenth century and therefore less organically woven into everyday life, writers had to choose more consciously to deal with it or not.
One might argue that the spirit of modern sport saturated American fiction from the 1890s to World War I in the ubiquitous metaphor of "the game." The idea that business or politics or life itself was a grand and glorious, or crushing and demoralizing, "game" became a literary commonplace in the fiction of Stephen Crane (1871–1900), Frank Norris (1879–1902), Jack London (1876–1969), Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916), Owen Wister (1869–1938), and the rest of the "strenuous" school of American fiction. The implied game was often poker or some other form of gambling, as hero after hero played the hand he was dealt in life or risked all on the main chance; but at other times it was a contest of will and prowess, implicitly the athletic games now dominating the sports pages of the daily newspaper. Theodore Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood, in The Financier (1912), played baseball and football as a boy, before life taught him that fair play had no place in the world of business. Crane, Norris, and Davis had themselves been schoolboy or college athletes. Along with London, all of them also worked briefly as sports journalists for the daily press, and they translated sport, if only metaphorically, into their fiction. Crane claimed to have learned all he knew of war from football, and he used football (as well as boxing and racing) metaphors in the battle scenes of The Red Badge of Courage. Davis's soldiers of fortune in the novel of that name (1897), and in The King's Jackal (1898) and Captain Macklin (1902), live their adventurous lives according to a sporting code. In addition to London's handful of stories and two novellas about boxing, much of his other fiction is laden with metaphors of sport and gambling. In a most highly self-conscious way, "the game" is the central metaphor in Wister's The Virginian (1902), the ur-text of popular western fiction and Wister's homage to the values of Theodore Roosevelt, the sportsman president.
The relationship of the new popular sports to the emerging view of life as contest poses a chicken-andegg conundrum. What is clearer is that the sports themselves did not fully register in the fictional mainstream. Frank Norris and Richard Harding Davis wrote football stories among their tossed-off productions—Davis's "Richard Carr's Baby," included in his Stories for Boys (1891); Norris's "Travis Hallett's Half-Back" (Overland Monthly, January 1894) and "Kirkland at Quarter" (Saturday Evening Post, 12 October 1901)—but neither attempted a full-blown novel centered on the new college game. These stories are significant only as part of an emerging genre of the school sports story, chiefly in popular magazines, which developed the character types and plot formulas within and against which later writers worked. While there are no masterpieces within this considerable body of popular fiction, Owen Johnson's (1878–1952) Stover at Yale (1912) deserves recognition as the "classic" from this period.
THE EMERGENCE OF SPORTS FICTION
Stover at Yale was initially serialized in McClure's Magazine, where it would have been instantly recognized as a college sports story, familiar since the 1890s as part of the more broadly defined story of college life. Waldron Kintzing Post's (1868–1955) Harvard Stories in 1893, followed by Jesse Lynch Williams's (1871–1929) Princeton Stories in 1895, seem to have established the form. With the former dedicated "To the Class of '90," the latter "To '92," Post and Williams offered their tales of college life to their own classmates, whose recognition of the real-life models for the characters and incidents would bring back pleasant memories, but also more generally to that first generation of young men for whom college became a prerequisite for professional careers. The emphasis in these stories is on camaraderie, youthful escapades, and lighthearted pranks, a view of college life through a romantic haze appealing enough to send Princeton Stories through nine editions by 1900 (and to warrant a couple of sequels from Williams, The Adventures of a Freshman in 1899 and The Girl and the Game and Other College Stories in 1908). Both formal and informal games play an important role in this world, the Frosh-Soph class battles on the one hand, the contests of the varsity crew or eleven on the other. What is distinctive about sports within the larger world of college life is their utter seriousness: school life might be largely constituted of mock-heroic battles and sentimental friendships, but athletics require sacrifice, build character, and create heroes.
The fundamentally heroic nature of school sports remained its most distinctive trait in popular fiction into the 1920s. Its purest embodiment appeared fifty-two times a year from April 1896 into 1915 in the pages of Tip Top Weekly, which chronicled the exploits of Frank Merriwell, then his brother Dick, then his son Frank Jr., at Fardale Academy, Yale University, and the wide world beyond. Merriwell's creator, Gilbert Patten (1866–1945, writing as Burt L. Standish) is rightly considered the father of American sports fiction, but in many ways the Merriwell character can be viewed as a corporate creation. Patten concocted Frank Merriwell out of the "plucky" school of dime novels and Horatio Alger books, settling on a formula that Tip Top's publisher, Street & Smith, could reproduce endlessly. Success spawned several less successful imitations—Fred Fearnot, Dick Daresome, and Frank Manley for Street & Smith's publishing rivals (along with its own Jack Lightfoot)—but also a series of long-running periodicals through which Street & Smith itself largely created modern sports fiction. Tip Top Weekly was a juvenile magazine, as was Top-Notch (1910–1937), which Street & Smith started with Patten as editor (and frequently as chief contributor of sports stories and serials). The firm's Popular Magazine, on the other hand, began in 1903 as another juvenile offering but quickly evolved into a magazine of adventure fiction for young men. A typical issue of Popular in the 1900s and 1910s included a mix of westerns, mysteries, historical romances, political romances, romances of "gentleman adventurers" (out of the Richard Harding Davis school), and sports stories—the full range of male adventure genres, with sport occupying a prominent place. In the 1920s, when specialized pulps replaced the general-fiction formats, Street & Smith pioneered here as well, with Sport Story in 1923, the first and for many years only pulp magazine devoted exclusively to sport.
Out of Frank Merriwell came the countless heroes in school sports stories in juvenile magazines such as St. Nicholas, Youth's Companion, American Boy, and Boys' Life and in novels by Ralph Henry Barbour, William Heyliger, and dozens of other writers (some of them serialized in the juvenile magazines). Out of Harvard Stories, Princeton Stories, and the early efforts of such writers as Richard Harding Davis and Frank Norris came dozens of stories in the great middle-class general-interest magazines of the early twentieth century. Overwhelmingly this fiction concerned the sports of boys and young men. A couple of women's contributions to the college-life genre—Grace Margaret Gallaher's Vassar Stories (1899) and Julia Augusta Schwartz's Vassar Studies (1899)—included a tale of young women at sport (basketball in the former, track and field in the latter), and among the early-twentieth-century series books for girls, two of Jessie Graham Flower's Grace Harlowe novels, two of Gertrude Morrison's novels about the Girls of Central High, and the first three of Edith Bancroft's five Jane Allen novels recounted female athletic heroics. But for all the obvious reasons this body of fiction was dwarfed by the Patten-Williams-Barbour school.
SPORTS FICTION IN POPULAR MAGAZINES
The school sports story did not completely dominate the adult magazines. The chief producer of stories about country club and professional sports before 1920 was Charles E. Van Loan (1876–1919), a sportswriter for several western newspapers before placing his first short story with a national magazine in 1909. By the time he died in 1919 at age forty-two, Van Loan's sports stories from such magazines as Popular, Collier's, and the Saturday Evening Post—contrary to a common misperception, the pulps and "slicks" were parts of the same publishing world in this period—had been published in eight volumes, four on baseball, two on boxing, and one each on horse racing (Old Man Curry, 1917) and golf (Fore! 1918). Van Loan's stories recall the humorous sentimental realism of Bret Harte's western fiction, look ahead to Damon Runyon's Broadway tales in the same vein, and were instrumental in establishing this as the dominant mode for nonschool sport stories in the popular magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. Ring Lardner's wit was sharper, his ear for the vernacular more precise, his ironies more deeply cutting than Van Loan's, but Lardner followed in Van Loan's footsteps.
Van Loan wrote no stories about college sport, and his humorous style is strikingly absent from the work of the writers who did. Virtually from the very beginning football in particular was imbued with powerful ideologies, and as the game became the premier inter-collegiate sport and a great popular spectacle by the 1890s it was invariably treated in popular fiction with high seriousness. F. Scott Fitzgerald's (1896–1940) homage to Allenby, the football captain in This Side of Paradise based on Hobey Baker, as well as his acerbic portrait of the privileged and brutish Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, derived from an understanding gained as a Princeton undergraduate in the 1910s of the potent role football played in college life. Post's Harvard Stories and Williams's Princeton Stories are affectionately humorous when dealing with most aspects of undergraduate life but reverential when the subject is the mighty football captain or the strivings of an outsider to make the varsity team. Short fiction in the popular magazines, whether the "slick" Saturday Evening Post or the pulp Popular, fully established the formula for the college football story in this same spirit.
The college football story overwhelmingly concerned tests or proof of manly character. The hero of Frank Norris's "Travis Hallett's Half-Back" uses the physical courage and mental acuity learned on the football field to save his fiancée from a burning theater. The hero of Norris's "Kirkland at Quarter" puts honor in service of his alma mater ahead of personal interest. Manliness in this fiction was both physical and moral. Eventually the football romance—the hero winning both the girl and the game—became the dominant form, but in this early period football was more often an all-male world, a Darwinian arena incongruously governed by a gentleman's code of sportsmanship and fair play while endorsing a kind of Anglo-Saxon primitivism. Hard-driving coaches push young men at elite colleges to prove that they have not been softened and overcivilized by the privileges of their class and the comforts of the modern world. The most prolific author of this oft-told tale was James Hopper (1876–1956), a former football player at the University of California who had been a grade-school classmate of Jack London and later became a member of London's "Crowd." In eight football stories and a three-part serial in McClure's, Everybody's, and the Saturday Evening Post between 1904 and 1918 (with more in the 1920s) Hopper consistently portrayed college football in Londonesque terms.
The central football episode in Owen Johnson's Stover at Yale came directly from Hopper's 1904 story in the Saturday Evening Post, "The Strength of the Weak," a tableau in which the hero punts time after time despite the crushing assaults of an overwhelming opponent, his punts traveling shorter and shorter distances as the young man grows exhausted yet single-handedly staves off sure defeat. In Johnson's version, Dink Stover cannot prevent the superior Princeton team from winning, but his heroic self-sacrifice earns him the ultimate reward, the silent acknowledgment of the great men from past Yale teams in the locker room afterward. Johnson's novel deserves its classic status not for these football scenes alone but also for the larger treatment of undergraduate life centered around the profoundly undemocratic society system. In a novel that grapples with serious class issues in elite higher education (ultimately resolving them too neatly, to be sure), football more simply receives the heroic treatment typical of the popular magazine fiction of the day.
Dink Stover had appeared earlier in Johnson's The Varmint (1910), one of his series of books about prep school life, and in these Lawrenceville stories Johnson dared on occasion to treat football with something less than high seriousness. In "The Run That Turned the Game," from The Prodigious Hickey (1910), a soft fat boy, "Piggy" Moore, is terrified into playing on the house team, then loses the climactic contest against the rival house when he completes a long desperate run to the wrong goal. A year after this story's initial appearance in Century Magazine, George Fitch (1877–1915) published the first of his Siwash stories in the Saturday Evening Post ("Ole Skjarsen's First Touchdown: A Siwash College Story," 6 November 1909), the humorous tale of a strapping but dimwitted Swede that inaugurated the dumb-jock school of football fiction. It is not at all coincidental that Ole Skjarsen represented a new kind of college football player who would soon be dominating the game: the son not of an Anglo-Saxon gentleman but of an immigrant Swedish farmer. Later he would be the son of an Italian or Polish mill worker. The unambiguously heroic era of the college football story ended with the emergence of a more heterogeneous, multiethnic, and democratic world of college football.
This transformed college football world emerged in the 1920s, when the so-called Golden Age of Sports also saw the proliferation of sports fiction and sports films, thoroughly formulaic for the most part, although literary authors also responded more fully to what was becoming an increasingly conspicuous part of American social life and culture. A broader range of themes and narrative formulas emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. The period preceding this Golden Age thus marks the beginnings of a sports fiction genre whose full development lay in the future.
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"Sports." American History Through Literature 1870-1920. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/sports
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