The 1900s Sports: Overview
The 1900s Sports: Overview
America's love of sports was firmly established by the dawn of the twentieth century. During the early 1900s, spectators thrilled to amazing athletic feats in baseball, football, basketball, boxing, golf, tennis, swimming, yachting, and various Olympic competitions. President Theodore Roosevelt, who dominated politics during the century's first decade, placed a high value on physical strength and athleticism. He expressed his attitude toward attaining success in both politics and life in sports terms when he stated, "In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the Line hard…don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard." As a child, Roosevelt often had been in fragile health, and he understood the importance of participating in athletics to develop not only a vigorous body, but also a strong mind and moral character. Many American's followed the president's example throughout the early 1900s, turning to sports as participants and spectators.
American sports during the decade reflected both the nation's virtues and its vices. On one hand, athletics were praised as a means for developing young men into mentally and physically strong adults who would be prepared to face the challenges of a competitive world. Yet the era was also marked by intense racism that prevented racial minorities from competing against whites in most sporting events. In sports, as in the rest of American society, the races were segregated (kept separate). Most whites believed that blacks and other racial groups were physically and mentally inferior and, therefore, not worthy enough to compete. Still, some minority athletes did gain recognition for their accomplishments. The African American prizefighting champion Jack Johnson stunned many whites with his superior boxing skills. Johnson was resented and hated for defeating numerous white opponents, and cries arose for a "Great White Hope" to emerge and defeat the black boxer. Although Johnson was a dominant presence in boxing, blacks remained barred from other sports, including major league baseball, Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) basketball, and even horse racing. Since entrance into white sporting leagues was impossible, many black athletes and promoters started their own athletic associations.
Baseball, which remained racially segregated until 1947, established itself as "the national pastime" during the early 1900s. In 1900, Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson created the American League by expanding the lower, level Western league to include major eastern cities. Soon the new American League joined with the existing National League to form a National Commission to govern baseball. The game was further enhanced in 1903 by the creation of the first World Series, which pitted the American League champion against its National League counterpart.
Basketball, which had been invented by James Naismith in 1891, also grew in popularity during the decade. The game spread throughout the nation as the YMCA promoted the new sport in an effort to increase its membership. Soon basketball had become a favorite activity on America's university campuses, where it seriously challenged football as the main college sport. Basketball was important in that it was one of the few organized sports available to women, who played under a separate set of rules, and immigrants, who learned the game at many of the nation's settlement houses (organizations that helped introduce immigrants to American life).
One of the most significant sporting trends of the early 1900s involved the rise of the professional athlete. Although basketball remained a mostly amateur activity throughout the decade, other sports such as baseball, football, ice hockey, and boxing increasingly were seen as business operations designed to earn a profit.
Perhaps the greatest achievement in sports during the early 1900s was the growth of the modern Olympic Games, which had been revived in the 1890s by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman. Three Olympic Games were held during the decade, with American athletes dominating the track-and-field events. Many viewed the superiority of the American athletes in international competition as resembling the nation's growing power in international political matters. Sports played a central role in American life in the early 1900s and would continue to do so for the rest of the century.