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Sports History Sports Evolution

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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017

Did you know that structured and highly organized sports in America (and for that matter all throughout the world) have begun with humble roots?

It is noteworthy to cite that at the onset of the 19th Century, Americans’ leisure time was spent on playing folk games and simple pastimes like hunting and bowling. The social, political and economic developments, however, changed the norms and nature of the simple, humble games the people played. Basically, all American games played today have one in common: They used to be simple-no scoring and record keeping necessary.

In the colonial era and through the end of the 1700s, Americans participated in games from Europe. Wrestling, golf, footraces, bowling, cockfighting, pitching quoits (like horseshoes), gouging (no holds barred combat), billiards, and cudgeling were widespread.

Until the 1830s, sporting matches were by far and large more prominent in the South than in the North. Life in the North was difficult because of the harsh climate so their focus is work. Another reason: The Puritans and Quakers, New England’s most prominent religious group, treated most sports as unwholesome and slothful. In the South, leisure time was abundant and the dominant Church of England was more tolerant. It didn’t seem an insult to them that cockfighting, hand to hand combat, and more importantly, horse racing be staged.

Horse racing in the South bordered on fanaticism. The wealthy gentry enjoyed breeding horses and running them over quarter-mile tracks. Southerners of more limited means liked placing wagers on the races. In 1879, Diomed became the first celebrity horse. He died in 1808 and the outpouring of grief was tremendous. Then came the legendary horse Hambletonian. Stupendous profits were made by merchants selling ribbons, plates, medallions and other memorabilia bearing Hambletonian’s likeness to his adoring public (Christopher Bates). The amount of money on bets and the ever growing interest on the race eventually led to record keeping and schemes for order in the race tracks.

Starting 1810s and 1820s, a number of significant developments in American society changed the face of American sports. Industrialization was foremost. In 1800, sporting equipment had to be handmade. Hence, their cost was prohibitive. Only the rich can afford them and the makers were in control of the prices. As industries began mass-producing equipment, even working class Americans can already accommodate the budget into their bill.

Urbanization was another important catalyst in transforming American sport. Crowding into the cities denied Americans as much fresh air and exercise as they had in the countryside. The necessity of inventing opportunities to get exercise and sports was very well appreciated. Organizers had to make encroachment on the open spaces for this purpose. And then formality at last took place as there was already a need to organize players into teams and leagues. Why? In order to protect and maintain playing grounds.

Advances in print technology also hasten the evolution of sports. The invention of the telegraph in the 1840s facilitated scores and statistics to be gathered rapidly from around the nation. Co-importantly, the invention of high-speed printing presses gave birth to the rise of cheap weekly newspapers dedicated to sport, giving Americans a running vocabulary of sport that still in use today.

The transportation boom also reshaped the nation’s sporting life. The spread of steamboats and railroads made it easy to travel inter-cities in a reasonably quick time. Thence, direct competition between cities, states, and educational institutions became commonplace. By 1850, several prominent rivalries were already underway, particularly in the area surrounding New York City.

The most influential twist in American sports, however, was the shift in the mindset of America’s religious and moral leaders. The so-called “muscular Christianity”-took hold among reform-minded Americans in the 1840s and 1850s. Inspired by the Olympic competitions of ancient Greece and the thinkers of the Enlightenment, those who advocated muscular Christianity argued that sports could build character, improve public health, encourage moral behavior, soothe urban tensions by promoting camaraderie, and produce more fit Christians (Christopher Bates). Thanks to muscular Christianity! There began a dramatic increase in sports participation in the United States. Following that monumental religious nod, more and more sports gained national prominence. Horse racing has never been more popular moving beyond the South and establishing a nationwide presence.

“Among wealthy Americans, yachting also emerged as a popular pastime in the years before the Civil War. In addition to his efforts on behalf of horse racing, John Cox Stevens founded the exclusive and prestigious New York Yacht Club in 1844. In 1851, his yacht America defeated a number of British competitors from the Royal Yacht Squadron to claim the first America’s Cup. The United States would dominate this competition thereafter, winning every America’s Cup for the next 130 years (Christopher Bates).”

Americans of lesser means turned their attention to the new sport of baseball. There was a false notion that baseball was “invented” in the city of Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday in 1839. Baseball is, as researches have shown, a refinement of the English game of rounders, and it was played in America as early as 1829. Alexander Cartwright and his teammates on the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club published the new rules of baseball. By 1850, Spirit of the Times referred to baseball as America’s “National Game,” and in 1858, the first formal baseball league-the National Association of Base Ball Players-was formed.

Poorer Americans caused professional boxing to be popular in the antebellum era. Perhaps due to lack of funds or for special effects, fights were waged with bare knuckles under a set of rules developed by English boxer Jack Broughton in 1743. The rules ruled as foul grasping and punching below the belt, and dictated that a fight was over if a boxer is unable to stand for more than 30 counts. But lo and behold! There was no scoring system, so a fight could easily stretch on for dozens or even scores of rounds!

The first sanctioned public fight to be staged in America under the Broughton rules matched Jacob Hyer against Tom Beasley in 1816. Hyer won, making him the America’s first legitimate boxing champion. Though Hyer retired from the boxing ring immediately afterward, his son Tom eventually took up the family trade, and he became the first American boxing celebrity.

Tom Hyer’s fame is attributable primarily to an Irish boxer named Yankee Sullivan. In the 1830s, Sullivan traveled to America after the death of several fighters had caused most English towns to disallow boxing. Sullivan established his own saloon in New York, and crushed every American fighter who had the balls to challenge him.

By 1841, Tom Hyer was widely recognized as America’s heavyweight champion and its best pugilist, and sports analysts had taken to describing him as “the Great American Hope” and the only man who could crush Yankee Sullivan. But that dream match was not easy to organize. For some reason, it took many years to finally forge a Sullivan-Hyer match. At last, the two men finally met in Rock Point, Maryland, on February 7, 1849. They slugged it out before a large and enthusiastic crowd, many of them thirsty for Sullivan’s blood. Hyer won the fight in 16 rounds, winning the $20,000 prize.

The years leading up to the Civil War also witnessed the holding of the first formal intercollegiate sports competitions. In universities, students were playing sports as early as 1800, but, as the old humor of history, the events were largely unstructured and casual.

Harvard, for instance, had an affair in the early 1800s called “Bloody Monday.” Though the competition bore some passing likeness to rugby or soccer, it was largely a free-for-all, and a lame excuse for upperclassmen to punch, kick, and otherwise torture freshmen. There were no provisions for level playing fields.

But by the 1850s, however, collegiate sports were growing more structured. In 1852, Harvard and Yale clashed in a boat race that is historically considered the first ever intercollegiate sporting extravaganza.

In 1859, baseball also became a college hit when Amherst College took a game against Williams College, winning by a score of 73 to 32, a perfect smash.

Track and field, football, and bowling followed suit shortly thereafter.

African Americans also have a startling contribution to sports evolution. Beyond the fact that slaves organized their own foot races, ball games, boxing matches, and other competitions, free black athletes also got prominent roles in white Americans’ viewers’ sports. A number of the earliest prizefighters-beginning with former slave Tom Molineaux-were of African American origins. Most nineteenth-century jockeys were black, and there were also a host of outstanding African-American baseball stars.

The trends already underway when the first shots were unleashed at Fort Sumter would only escalate once the Civil War was over. In the 1860s, baseball cemented its pedestal as America’s National Pastime, and also became professionalized-the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings was the first team comprised entirely of salaried players.

Horse racing also prospered to grow in popularity-the famous Kentucky Derby, in fact, was first staged in 1875.

Boxing continually gained momentum and its fan base is spreading throughout the globe, and as early as the 1890s six-figure purses were not unusual.

College sports boomed in the postbellum years, becoming an important part of the fabric of American life, especially of students, faculty and the parents.

By the 1890s, football, basketball, and hockey had made their launching in the sports pages, and the landscape of modern American sports was largely in place.

As sports evolved into organized and systematized events, the diversity of fans also followed. In the past, sports were mainly a man-thing. Children and women were not part of the picture. But as time goes by, sporting events became unisex, making the arena a whole lot more exciting.

Another merit must be mentioned on order as well. What used to be a casual setting is now conventional in its appeal. Bleachers and partitions are provided to maintain order and classification of audiences. There are also safety measures well implemented in every sporting venue. This way, accidents won’t dim the jolly mood of the undertakings.

Sponsorships must be mentioned too for the sake of extending our sight on the evolution of games. Famous brand companies take advantage to “own” the airing of the events in the hope that such media attention will bring revenues to the tunes of millions if not billions.

Sporting World has really spiraled out of control-for good and sophistication.


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