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1878-1899: Sports and Recreation: Overview

1878-1899: Sports and Recreation: Overview

The New Leisure Society. In the late nineteenth century a new middle class emerged that had more leisure time and more disposable income than common people had ever enjoyed before in America. They were the employees and managers of corporations, who, because they were working for someone else, kept strict hours, had a dependable source of income, and had less personal interest in their work than was common in small business, where the owner had direct contact with his workers. Eager to spend their newfound time and money outside the workplace, the middle class turned to sports, either as spectators or participants. Those not interested in athletic competition found other forms of recreation and leisure-time activities. Prior to the Gilded Age (the name given to this era by novelist Mark Twain) organized leisure was a luxury enjoyed by the upper classes, who had idle hours to spend in sports and recreation. Now, however, the elite had to compete with commoners on the playing field and for a seat in the audience. Blue-collar workers and unskilled laborers still lacked the resources to engage in the same sports and recreational pursuits of the middle class. They found their own fun in ways often considered uncouth by people conscious of their social status. Barroom games and saloon-sponsored teams were popular in lower-class neighborhoods.

Outlets for Social Anxieties. Middle-class men felt challenged at the end of the nineteenth century. Those who worked for large corporations often felt that they had lost some of the control over their destinies that self-employed people had. The womens movement and other civil rights activists threatened the sense of power and self-importance white men had traditionally enjoyed, and many felt compelled to declare their masculinity, especially in sport. Many American women also enjoyed sporting events and engaged in various recreational pursuits, sometimes in sexually segregated settings, sometimes with their husbands and boyfriends. Energy, vitality, and muscularity had become marks of the national character, and the new middle class proclaimed their American-ness for new immigrants and for the world alike.

The Amateur Ideal in Sport. Sports participation and spectator interest during the Gilded Age was unprecedented, and there was no shortage of games to play, especially in the cities. Nineteenth-century people had a peculiar attitude toward amateur athletics inherited from England. There amateurism was an ideal that celebrated sports for its own sake and insulated wealthy, upper-class people from participating with the middle- and working-class sportsmen. The lower classes took pay for athletic endeavors as if they were working a job. Amateur sports, such as golf, tennis, track and field, basketball, and college football, for example, represented the last attempt of the elite class to retain their traditional status. While most amateur sportsmen adhered strictly to the amateur ideal throughout the period, others, especially members of urban athletic clubs, who held winning to be the most important part of a sports contest, secretly recruited paid athletes to enhance their teams prestige. The reintroduction of the Olympic Games in 1896, in which only amateurs could compete, carried the amateur ideal into the twentieth century.

Sports Embrace the Business Ethic. Reflecting the business mood of the time, professional sports gained a foothold in America during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Although prizefighting and horse-racing offered money to its participants in the antebellum era, the chief professional sport after the Civil War was major league baseball. By the late 1890s, however, basketball, football, and golf also offered professional opportunities. Baseball, more than any of the other professional sports, mirrored the entrepreneurial and managerial experience of the era, as team owners maximized profits and players organized for increased pay. Despite agitation by players, team owners maintained strict financial control of baseball. Professional baseball, which evolved out of the structure of amateur clubs that flourished in the 1850s, overshadowed amateur baseball in establishing the rules and conduct of the game. The rise of professional basketball and football, however, was a consequence of efforts to resist the control of the Amateur Athletic Union, the governing body of amateur sports established in the 1870s. Boxing, or bare-knuckle prizefighting, as the sport was known for much of the era, epitomized professional sport: it was rough; there were limited rules; and it was a favorite of the working class.

Collegiate Sport. In the late nineteenth century the nations colleges and universities became hotbeds of sports activity, especially football. The first college sport, rowing, had its origins in the antebellum era. Although colleges organized baseball, basketball, tennis, and track and field competitions during the period, football provided a solid foundation for college sports that persisted into the next century. Football evolved from English rugby on the playing fields of elite American schools. Walter Camp of Yale University was responsible for the refinement of football, as well as for the promotion of the game, in American culture. College sports, including football, began as intramural activities but by the end of the century came under faculty control and supervision. Essentially amateur in nature, college athletes came from the ranks of those who could afford a university education. In the pursuit of victory, however, colleges hired professional coaches, recruited skillful but academically unqualified performers, and profited materially from the success of their teams. College sports received much criticism for these practices, which, some educators argued, worked against the academic mission of the university.

Sports and Social Stratification. College sports, especially those played on the campuses of Harvard, Yale, and similar universities, reflected the social stratification inherent in American sports at that time. In addition to college sports, the social elite attended and participated in yachting events, particularly the Americas Cup, tennis and golf tournaments, horse races, and other country-club and athletic-club events. In their leisure time the urban middle class flocked to the baseball stadiums. Some middle-class urbanits formed their own baseball clubs. For their recreational and healthful pursuits, both middle class men and women cycled through the streets of the burgeoning suburbs and urban parks. The working classes, who had less free time, bowled and played billiards in the saloons they frequented. Largely blocked from participating in the urban sporting mainstream, unskilled laborers, particularly Irish Americans and other ethic groups, engaged in sports and recreational activities frowned upon by proper Victorians. For Irish Americans prizefighting had the greatest appeal, and they idolized successful boxers. By the end of the century their heroes, such as John L. Sullivan, became the nations heroes.

Rise of the Amusement Parks. Amusement parks were a popular new source of entertainment for the masses. Often located at the end of new electric-trolley lines, on the perimeter of urban areas, amusement parks offered city dwellers a diversion from work and responsibility. While the most notable of the late-nineteenth-century amusement parks was Coney Island, New York, others included Paragon Park and Revere Beach, Boston; Willow Grove, Philadelphia; Palisades Park, New Jersey; Ponce de Leon Park, Atlanta; Euclid Beach, Cleveland; Cheltenham Beach, Chicago; Forest Park Highlands, Saint Louis; Manhattan Beach, Denver; and The Chutes, San Francisco. Amusement parks gathered together a variety of popular attractions and pastimes, all of which reflected the cultural change of the era. What made the amusement park remarkable were new mechanical rides, exotic sideshows, and the excitement of crowds of pleasure seekers gathered together to have fun.

Age of the Big Top. Akin to the amusement park, the circus offered the city people the same escape from the ordered world of work. Popular since the antebellum era, the circus became more popular during the late nineteenth century. A boom in railroad construction enabled circuses to reach more of the country. Because circuses moved from city to city, they had to be carefully managed. The swift construction and dismantling of the huge tent city required by two- and three-ring circuses with sideshows, menageries, and private quarters was done with factorylike precision as workers scurried to meet the demanding schedule of the travelling show. The circus was big business, and the largest and most successful shows merged with one another until finally the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus dominated the big-top field. Circuses offered so-called freaks of nature, both human and animal, and the temptation and conquest of death. They exposed audiences to natures thrilling mysteries and perils. More important, however, was the sheer astonishment aroused by the daring and skill of trapeze artists, lion tamers, high-wire artists, acrobats, and clowns.

Colorful Drama of the Wild West. Closely allied with the circus was Buffalo Bill Codys Wild West Show, which opened in 1883. For over thirty years it enjoyed a place as one of the most popular attractions in the land, and the show entertained Europeans as well as Americans. Ownership and the shows title changed over time, but the show always contained cowboys performing feats of skill and daring, mock robberies of stagecoaches, and well-staged battle scenes depicting the bravery of the U.S. Cavalry against Indian savagery. One of the star attractions from 1885 to 1901 was a young woman named Annie Oakley, who could shoot a coin tossed in the air at thirty paces. The Lakota tribal leader Sitting Bull also toured with Buffalo Bill (1885).

Fairs and Expositions. Along with spectator sports, amusement parks, and circuses, fairs and expositions provided cultural displays in a country that was increasingly diverse. At the New Orleans Exposition (1885) and the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), Americans enjoyed the various rides, ate ethnic foods, and saw exhibitions on the arts, industries, manufactures, and products of the soil, mine and sea. Fairs and expositions also played an invaluable role in the development of museums by displaying some of their artifacts, including those from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry, both in Chicago. Many Americans agreed with President William McKinley when he called worlds fairs the timekeepers of progress.

Holidays. As they had throughout their history, Americans celebrated holidays to commemorate landmark events in the nations past, the birthdays of presidents and other notable Americans, and other special occasions. Holidays such as Arbor Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Labor Day had their origins in the late nineteenth century. While these annual celebrations were observed nationally, others, such as the birthdays of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, were observed regionally. Ethnic and religious groups celebrated their own holidays as well. Sports and holidays became linked during this period, as people turned to athletic contests as a diverison on their days off work. Thanksgiving Day, for example, became known as a day for college football games played after a festive dinner. Civic holidays, perhaps more than any other leisure activity, bound Americans of different social classes, ethnic backgrounds, and religions around values of patriotism, heroism, self-reliance, and tolerance.

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