Sports were invented in Cincinnati in 1869. That year player-manager Harry Wright assembled the first professional baseball club, the Red Stockings, and matched them against the top teams in the nation. They won 58 games, tied one, and lost none. Big crowds trekked out to the ballparks and parade grounds to see them. Each fan paid 50 cents, and by the end of the season, the ’69 Red Stockings had performed in front of 200,000 people. Thousands more read about them in the burgeoning sports pages. Others complained about the players’ salaries. The modern spectator was born.
There have, of course, been athletic contests for millennia. Long before baseball, long before the Roman gladiators and the ancient Greek Olympics, humans staged contests of speed, strength, and skill. We’ve always loved games. When we weren’t tilling the fields or killing our enemies, a lot of us were playing—or watching others play, or betting on people playing, or just thinking about playing. As a kid, I thought Adidas stood for “All Day I Dream About Sports.” I still believe it.
Most ancient games were not like our sports. Only two hundred years ago, the contests people spent all day dreaming about were cudgeling (two men hitting each other with sticks), rat-baiting (sicking dogs on a field of rodents), and bare-knuckle brawling. Sure, there were occasionally more elegant and orderly athletic events. There was a long tradition of professional horse racing and boxing. But for the most part, our games were unorganized and local. There was no Adidas.
The Red Stockings stood for something different: a mass movement of standardized, marketable, spectator sports. Within a few years, professional leagues were springing up everywhere from Minnesota to Montevideo. Former Red Stockings pitcher Albert Spalding began marketing his “sporting goods.” Athletics became consumer culture.
For nostalgic Marxist types, the invention of modern sports is tragic. It grew out of urban industrial capitalism. Our leisure time was increasingly structured by a bureaucratic society. Our sense of community was replaced by commerce. The spectator was cut off from the spectacle. Instead of grappling with our mates, we were paying to watch strangers grapple for us.
It’s true that the development of sports was tied up with notions of social control. For a long time, games were frowned upon as the devil’s handiwork. As one historian puts it, “sports typically encouraged impulsiveness; a group of drinking, wagering and shouting men watching a battle of cocks or a prizefight hardly squared with middle-class notions of propriety… Furthermore, sport was virtually the antithesis of work.” The New Englandermagazine summed up the puritanical view in 1851, “Let our readers, one and all, remember that we were not sent into this world for sport and amusement, but for labor.”
As we gathered in overcrowded cities and trudged away at factories, the prevailing view of sports shifted. If they were carefully organized, managerial types thought, sports could curtail drunkenness and unrest. They could help maintain a vigorous workforce. In mid-century, while Olmsted and other landscape architects created parks for healthful exertion, educators like Frederick Sawyer promoted supervised gymnastics. Sawyer thought sports could “empty the gambling rooms, the tippling shops, and the brothels.” Disciplined labor required disciplined leisure.
The new spirit of “fair play” was built on a good deal of unfairness. Sport provided plenty of opportunities for the rich to divide themselves from the poor. The Harvard-Yale football game became an essential part of the social calendar (Unlike soccer and baseball, rugby and American football remained elite sports well into the 20th century.) The Vanderbilts and the Astors hit the links at their exclusive golf club in Newport. Strict dress codes kept folks in their place as they do today (At my brother’s co-ed country club there is a rule against the “no bra look.” Phil Mickelson, take heed).
This is not the whole story of sports, though. Alongside the elite clubs, other sporting associations grew up – the Uniques, a Brooklyn-based African-American baseball squad, the Hebrew Maidens, an early women’s basketball team, and countless working-class clubs. What’s more, sport is still the antithesis of work. It still inspires drunkenness and anarchy. It still provides glorious, unpredictable performances. Players still outmuscle their foes and perform with spontaneous grace. Some might say the Red Stockings and their followers drained our energy for leisure and left us with bloodless consumerism. I’m not so certain. Sports can rouse our passions, whether nostalgic or hopeful, reactionary or progressive, sober or drunk.
I’m also not sure if bear-baiting outside the village tavern was a more authentic or natural form of leisure than the NFL. Personally, I’d rather pay $100 or so to sit in a 70,000-seat concrete bowl and watch oversized men in plastic armor engage in a complicated turf war. Or watch it on TV, consulting statistics, calculating salary caps and strategies, crying over dropped balls, and celebrating that moment when someone defies gravity and carries my team to victory. I’ll crack a beer and call my brother.
And so we launch The Modern Spectator, a magazine about sports culture and the many ways it infuses our society. We will publish essays, stories, and book reviews, provide quotes and links, and answer questions about the past and the future of our sporting world. We plan to keep our spectacles focused on overlooked sporting scenes while maintining a view of the big picture – the economics, the politics, the philosophies, and above all the comedy of our culture. We also hope that you will chime in on any aspect of sports and spectating. Don’t be afraid to be frivolous. Let our readers, one and all, remember that we were not sent into this world for labor, but for sport and amusement.