By Cait Murphy
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What artifact best captures the spirit of American sports? The bat Babe Ruth used to hit his allegedly called shot, or the ball on which Pete Rose wrote, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball”? Could it be Lance Armstrong’s red-white-and-blue bike, now tarnished by doping and hubris? Or perhaps its ancestor, the nineteenth-century safety bicycle that opened an avenue of previously unknown freedom to women? The jerseys of rivals Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? Or the handball that Abraham Lincoln threw against a wall as he waited for news of his presidential nomination?
From nearly forgotten heroes like Tad Lucas (rodeo) and Tommy Kono (weightlifting) to celebrities like Amelia Earhart, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Phelps, Cait Murphy tells the stories of the people, events, and things that have forged the epic of American sports, in both its splendor and its squalor. Stories of heroism and triumph rub up against tales of discrimination and cheating. These objects tell much more than just stories about great games-they tell the story of the nation. Eye-opening and exuberant, A History of American Sports in 100 Objects shows how the games Americans play are woven into the gloriously infuriating fabric of America itself.
STATUE OF A CHUNKEY PLAYER
On a flat field that could be as short as 100 feet or as large as several hundred acres, two men start to run. Then one of them rolls1 a three- to four-inch-wide, concave stone disc.2 The contestants maneuver their wooden spears, trying to place them through the ring. The winner is the one who comes closest.
The game was called chunkey, and it was a very big deal for hundreds of years. “All the American Indians are much addicted to this game,” one British observer wrote in 1775, “which to us appears to be a task of stupid drudgery.”3 The American artist George Catlin, on the other hand, referred to a game he witnessed in North Dakota as one “of great beauty and fine bodily exercise.”4
The game itself might have had a ritual purpose; some historians suggest that the rolling disc evoked the movement of the sun.5 The stick and stone call to mind male and female and therefore the idea of sex and creation. Sometimes a cross would be etched into the stone, signaling the four directions.6 Whatever the cosmology, it was a ton of fun. People would come from miles around to watch an all-day match, feasting and drinking along the edges of the playing field. There were rivalries between communities, and the players were local heroes. It all sounds a lot like tailgating at the Turkey Day classic, with a side of Vegas. Gambling was rife, with wives, children, and freedom sometimes staked. Committing suicide after a loss was not unknown.7
The 8.5-inch-high, red stone sculpture shown on the next page, was crafted near Cahokia, about five miles east of what is now St. Louis. Found in the early twentieth century, it shows a chunkey player with an oversized disc in his right hand; in his left he holds two somewhat undersized chunkey sticks. The figurine can also be used as a pipe.
Chunkey was played over much of the North American continent, but it was founded in Cahokia, a major urban center that used both sport and warfare to spread its culture.8 At its peak around 1100, perhaps 10,000 people lived, worked—and played—in the meticulously planned Cahokia.9 The largest city in North America outside Mexico, it had huge buildings, pyramids, and a grand plaza for ceremonies—and chunkey games.
So what happened to Cahokia? No one knows. One theory is that the city may have become too large to sustain itself. Another is conflict. In addition to the 120 mounds, some with entombed human remains suggestive of ritual deaths, the Cahokians also built an elaborate wall around their most important sites; this suggests fear.10 Drought and the onset of the “little ice age” around 1300 could have been factors. For whatever reason, by 1400, Cahokia was no more.11
Modernity played havoc with what was left. In the nineteenth century, some of the mounds were leveled to make railway beds. The biggest, known as Monks’ Mound, had a footprint twice the size of the Colosseum in Rome.12 Others were lost to farming.
The state of Illinois bought a large part of the area in the 1920s for a state park, but missed what had been the Grand Plaza (and probably the chief chunkey field); a housing development was planted there in the 1940s. In the mid-twentieth century, an interstate highway took another chunk. Since then the site has been treated better. The 2,200 acres are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Excavations continue. Parts of about 80 mounds still exist, the most visible remnants of America’s first city.
OLDEST AMERICAN “LAWN BOWLE”
The Puritans have a well-earned reputation as historic killjoys. They liked rules and considered it their godly duty to keep people from the fires of hell by telling them exactly how to live. Building what Governor John Winthrop called a “city upon a hill” that the world would watch in awe was not a job for libertarians, and certainly not for libertines.
Naturally, then, they disdained fun and games. Except they didn’t—at least not entirely. As early as 1622, eight years before the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a sermon by a London-based Puritan clergyman advised that Puritans could perform their duties to God at all times, “yea, even in our eating and drinking, lawful sports, and recreations.” Winthrop noted that “outward recreation,” in the form of “moderate exercise,” lifted melancholy and refreshed his mind.1 Moreover, all Puritan villages had militias, whose training resembled a day camp, featuring horsemanship, jumping, weight lifting, wrestling, and races.2
And that brings us to Katherine Naylor’s privy—an outdoor toilet and rubbish pit. Naylor, a late seventeenth-century resident of Boston whose father had been banished to what became New Hampshire for nonconformity with Puritan theology, became a successful businesswoman after she divorced her abusive second husband. Naylor was also a relative by marriage of the poet Anne Hutchinson, whom the Puritans banished in 1638.
Naylor was a woman of uncommon ability and of some prosperity. That is the evidence from a 1994 excavation done in preparation for Boston’s Big Dig, the mammoth infrastructure project that reconfigured the center of the city. When archaeologists uncovered Naylor’s centuries-old, three-seat toilet, they found a trove of artifacts, including silk, Venetian glass,3 and the oldest known bowling ball in the country (see the following page). Made of oak and the size of a small grapefruit, this “lawn bowle” has flattened sides decorated with carved concentric circles, as well as a small hole where a weight would have been inserted.4
Boston’s Puritan elders did not approve of bowling. A 1647 law forbade the activity at inns and taverns; another banned football in the “streets, lanes, and enclosures of this town.”5 In each case, the concern was that sport would infringe on public order. A complaint to the General Court noted that bowling was associated with “much waste of Wine and Beer,”6 perhaps the first recorded mention of the association between sports and suds.
As historian Laurel Ulrich Thatcher wrote in her essay on the Naylor “lawn bowle,” there would have been no need to legislate against bowling if the sport had not been popular. The lawmakers seemed concerned not about bowling per se, but rather its association with other vices, such as gambling, loose behavior, profanity, and breaking the Sabbath. Thus, it was legal for the Naylor family to bowl in the privacy of their own property; doing so in public was not.7 In a sense, the Puritans were legislating against excess, not good clean fun.
But times change. The stern first generation of Puritans gave way to a less insular society. Many of the newcomers—sailors, merchants, and other ne’er-do-wells—didn’t care about building a God-fearing city on a hill. By 1714 taverns were openly advertising their bowling facilities. When it came to sport, the Puritans were the first, but hardly the last, to learn that the great American public had a way of making its own rules.8
SOUVENIR FROM THE GREAT MATCH RACE
The date: May 27, 1823.
The place: Union Course, eight miles from New York City.
The contestants: Eclipse versus Sir Henry.
The race: Best two out of three, at four miles.
The prize: $40,000 to the winner.1
The real stakes: Regional supremacy.
In addition to death and taxes, one thing was certain in the United States in the early 1820s: when it came to the horse, the South was superior. There were racetracks big and small all over the South, and the culture ran deep. Not so in the North, where there were few tracks, and there was deep suspicion of the sins that accompanied the sight of running horseflesh.
And then came Eclipse. He had won a couple of obscure events before being put to stud, but when racing was legalized in New York in 1821, he went back to work, winning every race he entered, including four over southern-bred horses.2 By 1822 northerners were bragging that Eclipse was “the greatest horse for bottom and speed in America.”3 Southerners had their doubts. In November 1822 Colonel William Ransom Johnson of Virginia—the self-described “Napoleon of the Turf”—issued a challenge: Eclipse versus a southern horse of Johnson’s choosing. It was accepted.
After a series of trials, the southerners chose Sir Henry as their champion. Although he and Eclipse had never met before the day of what became known as the Great Match Race, they shared a bond. Both were grandsons of the great Diomed, an English champion who4 was brought to stud in the United States. Diomed’s blood coursed throughout American racing. Eclipse would carry 126 pounds; Sir Henry, the younger horse, only 108.5 They would go four times around the one-mile oval, best two out of three, with only a short rest in between.6
It was the first modern-style sports spectacle. An estimated 60,000 spectators—New York had a population of 120,0007—made their way to the Union Course, where they could buy overpriced souvenirs such as the red-on-yellow cotton handkerchief (see previous page). About 20,000 of the attendees were from the South.8 The newspapers covered the event extensively; the saloon talk was of little else, and the betting was outrageous.9 Vice President Daniel Tompkins was there, as were future president Andrew Jackson and almost-president Aaron Burr. The New York Stock Exchange closed for the day.10
Sir Henry won the first heat in a record time of 7:37.5.11 Eclipse raced bravely, but his young jockey, William Crafts, rode him cruelly, lashing him bloody down the stretch. One of the horse’s legs and a testicle were cut. In the 30 minutes between heats, the call went up for Samuel Purdy, Eclipse’s regular jockey, who at age 49 had been deemed too old for the big race. Some of Eclipse’s backers tracked him down: Would Purdy ride? Yes, he said, and ripped off his overcoat. He had worn his racing silks underneath, just in case.12
In the second heat, the old pro showed how it was done, coaxing Eclipse to the rail in a nifty move on the inside to take the lead in the last mile, then holding off a game Sir Henry. Eclipse finished in 7:49, two lengths ahead.
So it would come down to the third heat; neither horse had ever had to run three in a day. They were exhausted but had the competitive spirit of true athletes. Eclipse took the lead at the start and hung on the whole way, winning in 8:24. Over the three heats, a distance of 12 miles, the difference between the two was no more than a length.
Although the Great Match Race was a conflict contested by animals, the humans involved were acutely aware that it was something more. “It was the first great contest between the North and the South,” Josiah Quincy, a member of the Adams family, would write in 1881, “and one that seems to have foreshadowed the sterner conflict that occurred 40 years afterwards.”13
The first written reference to lacrosse, North America’s oldest continuously played team sport, dates to 1636, when a French missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, witnessed a competition in present-day Canada between Indian tribes.1 De Brébeuf, one of Canada’s patron saints, spent 15 years among the Huron; he appreciated their culture and became fluent in their language. Still, he was appalled by the spectacle.2 As a compatriot later complained of the sport, “Almost everything short of murder is allowable.”3
In some ways, that was the point. There was a spiritual component to the game, which might be played to honor the Creator or as a plea to heal the sick; it was also used to train young men and to mediate disputes. The Creeks and Choctaws once played a match to decide rights to a beaver pond.4 The Mohawk version of the game was known as “tewaarathon,” meaning “little brother of war,” which is telling. French priests, for their part, thought the stick resembled the ceremonial crozier carried by Catholic bishops—thus, “la crosse.” Tribes along the east coast, and as far south as northern Mexico, played slightly different styles; in one form, the competitors used two sticks. The balls were made of wood or stuffed leather. The goals could be miles apart, and dozens or hundreds of young men might play for days.
Many non-native observers disapproved of such aggressive frivolity; missionaries in particular didn’t like the game’s non-Christian religious element. They didn’t take it seriously enough to write detailed descriptions of the play, but clearly, the spectacle was enthralling, a fact that Indians could use to their advantage. In June 1763, for example, during Pontiac’s war against the British, several hundred Chippewas and Sauks staged a version of lacrosse known as baggataway outside Fort Michilmackinac, near present-day Mackinaw City, Michigan. The British soldiers, including the commander (who had a big bet on the Chippewas), became so interested that when a player pushed a ball through the door of the fort, the soldiers were unprepared for the teams that rushed through, picked up weapons that their women had stashed, and killed half the garrison.5
European settlers began playing lacrosse in the early 1800s, and a group of Canadians organized the first club in 1844. This stick, made of hickory with a calfskin net, hails from that era. Crafted by a Cayuga artisan, it is particularly beautiful, with geometric carving along its length; the top of the webbing emerges from the nose of a carved dog head. At the butt, a human hand grasps a ball; just below, there are two clasped hands.6
For many years lacrosse was a regional sport in the United States, prominent mostly in the mid-Atlantic. It also continued to play an important role in the cultural life of a number of tribes. Today it has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports. In 2015 the University of Denver won the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s title, the first championship for a school west of the Mississippi. And in a reminder of the sport’s roots, the trophy given to the year’s best collegiate player features an Indian player with stick held high, poised for action.
STERN ORNAMENT FROM THE AMERICA
John Cox Stevens was one of the great sports impresarios in American history. He introduced cricket to the United States; backed Eclipse in the Great Match Race (see the 1823 entry); and owned the Elysian Fields, where the first organized baseball game was played (see the 1853 entry).1 In 1851 he turned his attention to a bigger goal: beating the British.
In that year he formed a syndicate of six men, including James A. Hamilton, son of Alexander, to pay for the construction of a yacht to sail to Great Britain during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Called the America, it was designed by George Steers, who had made his name as a crafty designer of the pilot boats that sailed New York waters. These boats had to be fast to outrace the competition, and they had to be robust and maneuverable in all kinds of water.
Steers took all of his experience working with pilot boats and applied it to the America; 171 tons of Yankee ingenuity, she had a hollow, concave bow, with sails made of closely woven cotton that could be set relatively flat. It carried no topsails, giving it a simple profile; its hull was wedge-shaped and its rudder rounded. The center of displacement was aft of the beam rather than forward.2 All of this, noted the Illustrated London News, was “rather a violation of the old established ideas of naval architecture.”3 This large gilt eagle, about eight feet wide, was placed on the stern, keeping wooden watch on all that passed.4
As the America approached the Isle of Wight on August 1, 1851, the English cutter Laverock challenged its crew to a race. If there was dust on the high seas, the Laverock would have been left in it. The America won easily.5 Prior to this spanking, the British press had been characteristically patronizing regarding the unconventional Yankee yacht. Now, however, Stevens’s call for a race met with silence from the British. The Times of London noticed and scorned “the pith and courage”6—or lack thereof—of British yachtsmen.
Stung, the Royal Yacht Squadron invited Stevens to take part in an open regatta on August 22, a 53-mile circumference of the Isle of Wight, with the winner to be awarded a Cup of One Hundred Sovereigns.7 Stevens accepted. At 10:00 a.m. the 15 yachts sailed. The America got off poorly, but took the lead shortly after the first mark and never lost it, even when it lost its jibboom and had to pause to clear the wreckage. By the time it reached the vicinity of the royal yacht, the second-place Aurora was literally miles behind. This led to a famous exchange, which sounds too good to be true and therefore probably isn’t: “Which is first?” Queen Victoria asked an officer.
“Which is second?”
“Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”8
The Aurora narrowed the gap when the wind died down, but the America still won by 18 minutes. A week later the yacht left the speedy Titania in its wake, proving that the victory in the regatta was no fluke. Stevens sold the America and returned home via steamship, carrying the Cup of One Hundred Sovereigns. This 27-inch-high ewer, of high Victorian design, would become known as the America’s Cup, the oldest trophy in international sports and the most prestigious prize in yachting. That, of course, was not known at the time; the first America’s Cup race would not take place until 1870. But it was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic that something important had happened. The America revolutionized maritime design and forced others to take the young country’s capabilities seriously.
Life after the regatta was picaresque for the America. For the next decade, it was sold and re-sold to various Englishmen. During this period, the eagle ornament pictured on the previous page was removed and found a new calling above the door of a pub, The Eagle, on the Isle of Wight.9 (The Royal Yacht Squadron got it back and presented it to the New York Yacht Club in 1912.)10
Returning stateside in the early 1860s and fitted with a few guns, she was renamed the Memphis and served as a Confederate blockade runner until Union forces finally caught up. Scuttled in Florida, she was later raised and then joined the Union’s blockading fleet off Charleston and served as a training vessel at the US Naval Academy.11
A former Union general, Benjamin Butler, bought the yacht in 1873. In the South, Butler was known as “the beast” for his harsh rule during the occupation of New Orleans and Norfolk—and also, perhaps, for being remarkably ugly. Although Butler made a mysterious fortune during the war and rigged the sale to buy the former America,12 the famous yacht could not have landed in better hands; he pampered her rotten. But after his death in 1893 his heirs neglected her until she was sold, battered but still historic, in 1916 to a group of yachtsmen who wanted to keep her in the United States. The America returned to the Naval Academy in 1921; she was towed from New England to Maryland, stopping at yacht clubs all along the way. Two thousand midshipmen welcomed her back to Annapolis,13 where she lived until a snowstorm in 1942 damaged her beyond repair.
There was no formal epitaph for the America; the most apt tribute had been penned in 1851, not long after her famous victory. Punch, the British humor magazine, offered a new verse to a well-known song:
Yankee Doodle had a craft,
A rather tidy clipper,
And he challenged, while they laughed,
The Britishers to whip her.
Their whole yacht squadron she outsped,
And that on their own water;
Of all the lot she went ahead
And they came nowhere arter.14
SOIL FROM THE ELYSIAN FIELDS
In Greek mythology, the souls of the heroic dead enjoyed paradise in the Elysian Fields. It’s fittingly poetic, then, that perhaps the first organized baseball game took place on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey.
The aptly named Alexander Joy Cartwright has long been credited with devising the first modern rules; it is on this basis he is often referred to as “the father of baseball.” There is some truth to the legend; in September 1845 he wrote 20 rules and regulations for his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. Among them are some familiar concepts, such as three strikes for an out, three outs to an inning, and foul territory.1
But Cartwright was more like Moses, setting down familiar practices for what became known as the “New York game” (as opposed to the “Massachusetts game”).2 As one early baseball historian, John Ward, put it in 1888, “They recorded the rules of the game as they remembered them from boyhood, and as they found them in vogue at that time.”3 But others did as much or more; for example, not only did Daniel “Doc” Adams create the shortstop position,4 but he also led the legislative effort in 1857 that set the bases 90 feet apart and established nine innings as the standard. These “Laws of Base Ball” sold at auction in April 2016 for $3.26 million.5 Adams, too, was associated with the Knickerbockers.
Over time the New York game, itself derived from “town ball,” which was a fairly primitive and informal pastime derived from the English game of rounders, evolved into the much more challenging one that became baseball. There is a nice symmetry to the fact that Cartwright, Adams, and their Knickerbocker cronies often played in the open area around Madison Avenue and East 27th Street, the future location of the first Madison Square Garden.
Looking for more space and less congestion, the gang began to take the ferry to the Elysian Fields, an expansive park on the other side of the Hudson River. It was there, on June 19, 1846, that the Knickerbockers played the New York Base Ball Club in what could be considered the first formal game played under modern rules.6 The Knickerbockers lost 23–1.7
This modest chunk of soil comes from that field; some of the original Knickerbockers might have slid on these exact ounces of dirt.8 In 1853 on a visit to the area, a young man named James Orr attended a ball game there. Orr was so taken with the new sport—he would call watching this game one of the most sublime moments of his life9—that he dug up a piece of the field to remember the occasion. He put the soil in a box with a note explaining where it was from and why it was important to him. The family kept it for generations.
Three years after Orr’s sublime experience, an English-born sportswriter named Henry Chadwick—confusingly, he is also often referred to as the “father of baseball”—visited the Elysian Fields and had a reaction not unlike Orr’s. This, he said, was “just the game for a national sport for Americans.” Chadwick became a tireless publicist for baseball. He also invented the box score,10 reason enough for his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
Modern scholarship has cast some doubt on whether Cartwright was quite as important as he has been made out to be; indeed, his Hall of Fame plaque is riddled with errors (he didn’t set the bases 90 feet apart, for example). Unlike the silly myth of Abner Doubleday inventing the game on a rainy day in Cooperstown, however, there is a solid basis of fact related to Cartwright. He was an early player, in every sense of the word, on the Elysian fields of baseball.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S HANDBALL
In his early days in New Salem, Indiana, Abraham Lincoln made his name among the tough Clary Grove gang by wrestling their leader, Jack Armstrong, to a draw.1 That was the first of many matches; Lincoln lost only once in 12 years, as far as the US Wrestling Hall of Fame can determine. Indeed, young Lincoln was known for two things: his character and his strength.
- "Immensely entertaining and beautifully written... [Murphy's] selections resonate socially, politically, and technologically across American sports history, with each item containing a perceptive explanation of its significance. This is a great concept for a sports book, and it's expertly executed."—Booklist, starred review
- "Cait Murphy's A History of American Sports in 100 Objects has the balls to map our love of the game, one photograph at a time."—Vanity Fair, Hot Type
- "Murphy is an insightful artist who has opened the doors to new understanding about the importance and the impact of sports on the playing field and in the community in general. To be more specific, she has brought to the reader of sports literature an understanding that is the soul of boarding schools and summer camps--places where everyone plays games--and the appreciation of the game itself becomes as important as winning. We call that good sportsmanship."—Roanoke Times
- "Entertaining... Murphy writes in a conversational, witty fashion, making wry observations without losing touch with the larger historical, social, and political significance of the events and athletes that give the objects their significance... An enjoyable romp through the things that helped make the sports we love."—Kirkus Reviews
- "It's almost unfair that someone could have as much fun putting together a book as Cait Murphy clearly did while working on this one. Her buoyant trip through the history of American sports is filled with surprise and delight."—Daniel Okrent, author of Nine Innings
- "How do we love sports? Cait Murphy counts the ways in this gem of a book. It ought to come with a warning label: these pages may be addictive."—Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man and Opening Day
- "The items found within these pages are less objects than memorial markers, jumping-off points for a satisfying exploration of our nation's sporting history. Cait Murphy's descriptions are easy and informative, opening 100 windows though which to leap feet first-and, thanks to some adroit writing, the landing is always certain. Whether you're being reminded about things you already knew, or informed about vital history that may have eluded you, the ride is always a fun one."—Jason Turbow, author of The Baseball Codes
- On Sale
- Oct 11, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books