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1850-1877: Sports and Recreation: Overview

1850-1877: Sports and Recreation: Overview

Old Ways. The traditions of the past still defined recreations of most Americans in the 1850s through the 1870s, particularly in the years before the Civil War. Americans were flocking to cities, but in 1860 only six million, or one in five, lived in an urban environment. Old patterns of private entertainments, family amusements, and events such as cornhuskings, barn raisings, and country dances would continue to knit together the fabric of rural communities into the twentieth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, roles and recreations were largely dictated by ones sex. Although antebellum women, including Catharine Beecher and Lydia Sigourney, advocated physical exercise such as rowing, swimming, walking, and calisthenics, women generally engaged in domestic recreations, visiting neighbors and participating in quilting bees. Men spent much of their free time hunting and fishing and often gathered together for rougher amusements.

A Bloody Legacy. Entertainments that featured the shedding of blood lingered through the Civil War era and beyond. Men from all economic classes and races visited notorious animal pits where various kinds of creatures, often game cocks with razors affixed to their claws or ferocious dogs, would fight one another to the death. Blood sports flourished in cities in such sporting houses as Harry Hills in New York and the Spanish Cockpit in New Orleans. Reformers opposed these sports because they thought them debasing to the men involved as well as being cruel to the animals. By 1866, the year of the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, twenty states had outlawed blood sports, but the spectacles continued clandestinely.

New Attitudes. Significant changes did occur during the period in the ways Americans thought about and enjoyed their leisure. In the first half of the nineteenth century many Christian Americans viewed sports with suspicion if not hostility, believing that too much emphasis on recreation distracted one from the proper attention to duty and God. But American culture was becoming more receptive to the idea of exercise for its own sake, and in the second half of the century a belief emerged that participation in sports could effect moral as well as physical benefits. Private athletic clubs sprang up in the city. Baseball, track and field, rowing, and football gained acceptance as part of college life. By 1869 the Young Mens Christian Association had built gymnasiums in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and New York City; in the subsequent twenty-five years the organization added more than 250 gyms.

Spectator Sports. As people were increasingly moving into the cities they were gradually growing more used to being entertained rather than contriving their own amusements. In antebellum America organized spectator sports were occasional events, but footraces, harness racing, and prizefights sometimes drew huge crowds and much gambling. Long distance footraces were held for purses ranging from a few dollars to as much as $4,000 and could draw crowds in the tens of thousands. Harness racing was immensely popular and probably attracted more fans than any other sport. In the 1850s there were about seventy tracks nationwide. Although illegal, bareknuckle prizefights attracted the same crowdsand the same disapprovalas the blood sports. While such events were a far cry from the regularly scheduled, commercialized products they would become, gamblers and promoters were finding it increasingly easy to turn any sort of contest into a massive crowd spectacle.

The Civil War and Sports. The Civil War was a watershed event in the development of American sports, particularly in the emergence of baseball on the national stage. All wars disrupt the routines of life, and the soldiers who survived the Civil War gained a new appreciation for sports as the result of the recreations of the camp. When not soldiering, the men on both sides of the conflict, among other leisure activities, participated in baseball, football, footraces, shooting matches, and boxing. Interest in baseball, which had reached a critical point of development in New York City before the war, spread among the Rebels as well as the Yankees. By the end of the war the sport was positioned to grow into a national pastime.

Professional Baseball. The evolution of baseball from a disorganized recreation into a regulated game and then into a professional sport is probably the most important development in sports in the nineteenth century. In its rise baseball had reflected all the schisms of class, gender, and ethnicity in American society, for the elite amateurs who had codified the game gave way to professionals, and women and ethnic minorities were excluded from participation. The success of professional baseball prepared the way for the development and professionaliza-tion of football, basketball, and a host of other sports that would transform American culture. With the creation of the National League, sport in America was well on its way to becoming a well-regulated, commercialized product. The professional athlete soon became an American icon, the figure little boysand later, little girlswould dream of becoming.

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