The 1930s Sports: Overview

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The 1930s Sports: Overview

The year 1930 marked a dramatic change in American sports. The retirement of golfer Bobby Jones in that year signaled the end of a period when almost every sport had a single superstar. Throughout the 1930s, only Joe Louis dominated his sport as others had done in the so-called "golden age" of sports in the 1920s.

Like everything else in the United States, sports were deeply affected by the economic troubles known as the Great Depression. Many baseball and football franchises struggled to make a profit on gate receipts. Attendance at baseball games fell sharply in the 1930s, leaving little money for park renovations and forcing ballplayers' salaries down. Those who held out for more money, such as Joe DiMaggio in 1938, were publicly scorned. National Football League (NFL) teams lost money, and several withdrew from the league. In boxing, gate receipts had long exceeded the one million dollar mark for popular bouts. But in 1930 the Jack Sharkey-Max Schmeling fight failed to reach that mark. However, the Depression did increase participation in recreational sports, as many unemployed people found themselves with time on their hands.

As revenues fell, sports promoters and athletes looked for other ways to make money. Sports became more commercialized, and a debate raged about whether athletes should be amateur or professional. Many amateur athletes took to endorsing products or held paying jobs while they played for college teams. Sports journalists including Paul Gallico frowned on such promotions as night baseball and all-star baseball and football games. Some argued for a return to the "purity" of amateur sports.

The widening popularity of radio also made an impact on sports. Boxing matches, the Wimbledon tennis championship from England, and Army-Navy football games could all be heard live, via radio, across America. The 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, proved a major draw for radio listeners. Sports sponsorship became an important form of advertising. In 1934 baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sold the rights to the baseball World Series for $100,000 to Ford Motors. Soon other major corporations were paying big money to promote their products during sports broadcasts. It was the beginning of a permanent link between big business and sports.

The entertainment industry also made an impact on sports in the 1930s. Aside from endorsements, radio announcing, and prize money, many athletes turned to Hollywood to make a living. In 1930, Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller screentested for the role of "Tarzan, King of the Jungle." He is now better known for his screen performances than for his five Olympic gold medals and sixty-seven swimming records. Other athletes who broke into movies are tennis player Bill Tilden, figure skater Sonje Henie, and swimmer Buster Crabbe.

In many ways sports were ahead of other areas of American life in recognizing the achievements of African Americans. In the 1930s, colleges moved toward desegregation (ending the separation of the races) in track and field and in football. Black track star Jesse Owens and boxer Joe Louis became national heroes. Black athletes did a great deal to raise awareness of racial prejudice. But in the 1930s there was still a separate Negro League in baseball, while the NFL, which had accepted blacks until 1933, was all white from then until 1946.

The 1930s also saw the collapse of many of the taboos surrounding female athletes. The first women's gymnastics championships were held in 1931. In 1939 the first women's bicycling championship took place. But it was Mildred "Babe" Didrikson who did the most to raise the profile of women in American sports. Of the 634 amateur athletic competitions she entered in the 1920s and 1930s, she won in 632. She was part of a losing basketball team once and was disqualified from a high-jump contest where she appeared to set a world record.

Technology began to influence sport as never before. Britain's Malcolm Campbell repeatedly broke his own land speed records in his automobile, Bluebird, while in 1932 a 2,200 horsepower boat managed a record 101.351 miles per hour (mph). Two weeks later another boat managed 103.4 mph. In the Indianapolis 500 a diesel-powered car averaged 86.17 mph, finishing in thirteenth place without having to make a refueling stop. The photofinish camera made an appearance in 1936, and in 1937 underwater cameras decided the result of swimming contests.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were used by the German Nazi Party to try to demonstrate the superiority of German athletes. Germany won the most medals, but the games were dominated by stunning performances by black American athletes such as Jesse Owens. The 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight became a "freedom versus fascism" grudge match. Louis emerged the victor.

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The 1930s Sports: Overview