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The National Pastimes of Sports

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The National Pastimes of Sports

Babe Ruth, pointing nonchalantly to the fences before smacking a homer. The Vince Lombardi trophy, named after a coaching legend, and awarded to the Super Bowl Champion. Michael Jordan, suspended in midair, poised for a winning shot. These are symbols of a competitive, sports-loving country and icons of America’s three best-known sports, first dreamed up over a century ago in the U.S. or the border provinces of Canada.

Balls and Bats

The origin of the peculiarly American sport of baseball, the “national pastime,” keeps getting pushed back in time. Contrary to myth, Civil War General Abner Doubleday—a hero of Fort Sumter and Gettysburg in the Civil War did not invent the game on a field at Cooperstown, New York, site of the game’s present-day Hall of Fame. The first “official” game of baseball took place on June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey, at Elysian Fields, surely a field of dreams; there the New York Nine trounced the Knickerbocker Club, 23–1. The game was organized by Alexander Cartwright, a banking clerk responsible for new rules like getting a hitter out by touching or throwing to a base. Previously, one would throw out a player by “plugging” him with a thrown ball, which often led to brawls.

A form of the sport was played as far back as 1823, when a New York City daily printed a reader’s comment on the game: “I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ in Broadway.” In 1791, records show Pittsfield, Massachusetts, banned “baseball” from within batting distance of the fragile windows of its town hall. In 1777–78, at Gen. George Washington’s Valley Forge military camp, soldiers played a game that involved running from one bag to another. Baseball evolved from many children’s games and adult sports; including British rounders, with its four bases and called balls; and English cricket, which features bats, tossed balls, and an infield and outfield.

In 1857, the Knickerbocker squad became part of the first amateur baseball league, which within ten years had over 400 clubs nationwide. The first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed in 1869. In the twentieth century, as professional teams played winter ball in the Caribbean, baseball became a hit in Central America. Introduced to Japan around 1870 by an American professor at today’s Tokyo University, baseball blossomed into a major sport following the U.S. occupation of Japan in 1945, when Japanese children took to the game played by American GIs.

Pads and Helmets

Many have noted that football—contemporary America’s most popular spectator sport, distinct from the futbol or soccer that is the world’s most popular game—has martial aspects. Quarterbacks hurl “the long bomb,” defenders “blitz” quarterbacks, and officials hoist yardage markers that look like Roman army insignia. Yet football was originally much bloodier than even today’s smash-mouth game.

The sport originated from Britain’s “mob football,” a soccer-like joust where a ball was advanced by kicking and by pummeling rivals. In America, the sport at first was basically a free-for-all scrum, so vicious that in 1861 Harvard banned it. A later variant—featuring an oblong ball and the touchdown, both introduced by Montreal’s McGill University in the mid-1870s—was rooted in rugby.

The game got a major assist from Walter Camp, a standout Yale University athlete and coach. From 1878 to 1889, Camp haunted football’s rule-making committees, where he proposed the line of scrimmage, four downs, the forward pass, and penalties for foul play.

But the sport remained brutal.

In 1905, 18 football players were killed on the gridiron, 33 in 1908. Then President Theodore Roosevelt pressured the leading football colleges to outlaw gang tackling and other dangerous ploys. Severe injuries fell off. By 1920, the game went pro. Olympian and college football great Jim Thorpe served as first president of the American Professional Football Association, based in tough industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Canton, Ohio, now the site of the Football Hall of Fame.

Even early football takes a back seat in aggression to the original game of lacrosse, America’s true indigenous sport. Its inventors, the American Indians, called it “the little brother of war” and played it to train for intertribal bloodlettings. The lacrosse stick, along with forwarding a ball, was wielded to mash an opponent. As in a martial campaign, thousands of Indians played it for days across fields stretching for miles.

As with football, American colleges adopted lacrosse in the late 1800s. Also as with football, Montreal aided its fellow cross-border sports enthusiasts. The city’s rule-setting Olympic Club defined the positions on the field, hardened the ball, and altered the lacrosse stick to make it better for catching and relaying the ball, not bashing an opponent. Yet the sport, with its reputation for attracting “crazies” willing to hit and get hit, retains its manly edge.

Jumpers and Hoops

Like the telephone—invented by a Canadian-turned-American, Alexander Graham Bell—the sport of basketball was created by Canadian-turned-American Dr. James Naismith. Born in 1861, and raised in Ontario, the young Naismith played a centuries-old game called “duck on a rock,” wherein kids would knock the stone off another rock with a high, arching shot from a distance of about 15 feet. Naismith studied theology and excelled at sports as a graduate student at the Canadian city and college most associated with U.S. sports—Montreal and McGill.

In 1890, Naismith enrolled at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, which today hosts the Basketball Hall of Fame. There Naismith was asked to create a “clean” indoor team game to keep students active during the winter months. Naismith minimized rough play by having the players pass, not carry, the ball and by placing the contended goal on a wooden hoop high off the ground. To reach the goal, players needed a high, arcing shot like the kind Naismith recalled from playing duck on a rock.

After inventing “hoops,” Naismith got his medical degree, then served as campus chaplain and basketball coach, from 1898 to 1938, at the University of Kansas, destined to be a powerhouse of his new sport. By the late twentieth century, basketball was the rage from Indiana prairies to the inner city, and played by European pros and Olympic athletes alike.

 

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