The Rise of Professional Sport

While most nineteenth-century sport was participatory, the era’s most significant development was the rise of professional spectator sports, a product of the commercialization of leisure, the emergence of sports entrepreneurs, the professionalization of athletes, the large potential audiences created by urbanization, and the modernization of baseball, boxing, and horseracing. Baseball started to become a business in the 1860s with the hiring of the first paid players, the opening of Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, and the 1869 national tour of the all-salaried Cincinnati Red Stockings. The National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the first professional league, was formed in 1871, supplanted by the more business-minded National League (NL) in 1876. The NL’s success led to the rise of rivals, most notably the working-class-oriented American Association—which was created in 1882 but merged with the NL the next season. In the 1880s, major league baseball largely developed its modern character, including tactics, rules, and equipment.

Baseball, dubbed the “national pastime,” completely dominated the sporting scene in the early 1900s. Not merely fun, its ideology fit prevailing values and beliefs. It was considered a sport of pastoral American origins that improved health, character, and morality; taught traditional rural values; and promoted social democracy and social integration. Baseball’s popularity was reflected by the rise of the American League, the growth of the minor leagues from thirteen in 1900 to forty-six in 1912, and the construction of large fire proof ballparks.

Prizefighting was universally banned until the 1890s, when the bare-knuckle era came to an end—marked by Jim Corbett’s 1892 victory over heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, the preeminent sports hero of the century. Boxing continued to be permitted in just a few locations until the 1920s, when it was legalized in New York. It then became very popular, with heroes like Jack Dempsey fighting in arenas like Madison Square Garden.

Fighters came from the most impoverished backgrounds, hoping to use boxing to escape poverty. There were a few black champions in the less prestigious lighter weight divisions. However, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (1908–1915) was considered a threat to white supremacy, and there was a crusade to get rid of him. Thereafter, no African American got a heavyweight title shot until Joe Louis, who won the title in 1937. He became a national hero one year later by defeating Max Schmeling, symbol of Nazi Germany. After World War II, boxing was a staple of prime time television, but overexposure and widening public recognition of underworld influences curtailed its success.

Horseracing was rejuvenated after the Civil War under the aegis of politically connected elites. After a successful experiment at Saratoga, New York, in 1863, the American Jockey Club opened New York’s Jerome Park (1866), a model for elite courses in Brooklyn; Long Branch, New Jersey; and Chicago. Their success encouraged the rise of proprietary tracks—like those in Brighton Beach, New York, and Guttenberg, New Jersey—run by men closely connected to political machines and syndicate crime. By the early 1900s, every state but Maryland and Kentucky had closed their racetracks, if only temporarily, because of the gambling. In the 1920s, Thoroughbred racing revived because of increasing prosperity, looser morals, ethnic political influence, and underworld influences. Racetrack admissions surpassed admissions for all other sports by the early 1950s, and continued to do so until the early 1980s.

Public interest during the 1920s—the so-called “Golden Age of Sports”—was whetted by increased leisure time and discretionary income, by national radio broadcasts of events like baseball’s World Series and heavyweight boxing championships, and by the development of a pantheon of heroes. Every major sport had its great hero, role models who symbolized prowess and traditional and modern values. Idols included Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bobby Jones in golf, and Charles Lindbergh in aeronautics. While women were largely limited to “feminine” sports like tennis, figure skating, and swimming, some female athletes—notably tennis player Helen Wills—also became widely celebrated.

The Great Depression hurt sport, though people still looked to recreation for escape. Commercialized sports declined, but less than most businesses, as companies curtailed industrial sports programs, and colleges cut back on intercollegiate sports, particularly football. On the other hand, the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration constructed thousands of sports fields, swimming pools, and other athletic facilities.

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