The New American Sport History
The book The New American Sports History: Recent Approaches and Perspectives by Pope explores diverse topics, such as the historical debate over black athletes’ superiority and eroticism of athletic activity. Further, it also elaborates sports in different societies, marketing of the marathon and gender differences. In addition, in the book, the attention is paid not to traditional topics, but to such issues as the class, race, ethnicity, national identity and gender in sports. Sport as people know it is a very recent phenomenon. However, at the end of the nineteenth century, most of the features that people take for granted became a big part of sports. The use of the word “sports” is rather new. In the eighteenth century, the word “sports” could be used in a phrase like “sporting man”, and even an individual could be named a “sport”. This book review focuses on the transformation of sports from the early folk games to the modern spectacles.
In 1900, sports were represented by the athletic games that were played by highly trained amateurs and professionals. Spectators cheered their favorite teams in the stadium. By then, events were supported by such institutions and organizations as the National League (Pope, 1997). However, those who were excluded from the mainstream created a sporting space with leagues and sports of their own. Equally significant, all ideas associated with sports, including fair play, universal rules, measurable performance, tension of competition, joy of physical excellence and others, constantly spread into a larger national culture.
An increasing number of Americans could cross deep social chasms with the help of sport. To the Americans, sport became a form of national currency or language, a set of shared values, experiences and practices, which were so common that they became invisible. According to Pope (1997), British colonists seemed only to play the games they were used to in their ancestral homeland. North America was not a virgin land at all since many Indians inhabited it. The Eastern woodland tribes played a game referred to by colonists as stickball. However, British colonists did not adopt any Indian games. Most of the Indian games, including stickball and others, were connected with sacred dancing, drumming and chanting, shamanism, dietary restrictions, pipe smoking, body painting and other ritual practices.
Further, the book explores the early years of baseball. Baseball emerged in1845, during the outbreak of Civil War, from simple children’s informal games. It later grew into an organized sport that had standardized rules (Pope, 1997). In 1857, the National Association of Base Ball Players was formed. In addition, the rising spectator interest, more frequent press coverage of baseball, and the release of the baseball guidebook illustrated the modernization and the popularity of the sporting activities of those days. According to baseball propagandists, the game deserved a pastoral image in the early years. However, it was an urban product.
During the pre-Civil War years, Brooklyn and New York City practically dominated the development of the sport. However, most of the northeastern cities boasted their teams. By 1860, San Francisco had introduced a baseball club, even though “The New York game” triumphed over other game styles. Dozens of sporting clubs appeared in Brooklyn and Manhattan amid 1845 and 1855. The first to emerge was the Knickerbocker Baseball Club (Pope, 1997). In 1842, some gentlemen who were searching for social enjoyment and outdoor exercise gathered along the streets in Manhattan to play a children’s game. There was the growth of the city’ commercial and residential community that forced the individuals to seek for another playing field. However, after three years of unorganized play, Alexander Cartwright recommended the establishment of many permanent clubs.
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Cartwright also promised to recruit more members. Those teams accepted Cartwright’s proposal. They created a constitution, set the rules for the game, and established a secure permanent site at Elysian Fields in New Jersey, Hoboken. The playfields were charged at a fee of 75 dollars yearly, and they had both the dressing rooms and fields. The most significant factor in explaining the baseball’s leadership role is its appearance as a popular pastime in the history of American athletics. The baseball was not only the first organized sport, but also the first sport to enjoy its widespread popularity (Pope, 1997). Also, it was the first sport that changed individual’s attitude towards athletics. Compared to any other sporting activity, baseball brought change to social and urban environment. Its rapid spread illustrated the great need for outdoor recreation.
Athleticism, the sporting ideology, produced womanliness in women and manliness in men. However, there existed much debate on the types of gender roles athletics prepared people for. According to historian Frederic Paxson, participation of women in sports helped them acquire the franchise. Other theorists from less liberating perspectives argued that sport is an institution that aims at breeding the race bearers.
Just like men, women participated fully in different forms of sporting activities. Both middle and upper-class women practiced sports. Most of the women changed their nature of work, trying to find some time for recreations. Others played cards, gambled, skated, fished and also ran footraces (Pope, 1997). Before the Revolution, when domestic production was important, women of different ranks transformed such work as spinning into competitive contests. Women’s participation in sports went beyond confines of the domestic production and home chores. Women and girls started riding as if it was an ordinary thing. Although some theorists argued that women preferred riding, most of them enjoyed racing.
Some concepts, such as class and hegemony, are often used freely, especially in cultural studies. The new American sports history was borrowed from the British Marxist tradition, and back in 1960’s, shifted the analysis of class from isolation to struggle analysis. Thompson, among others, claimed that the isolation is not an accurate way of defining class, and a better way to do it is through relations with other classes (Pope, 1997). White Americans had many visible great job alternatives and role-models. On the other hand, Afro-Americans had few occupational choices. Entertainment and sports were the most achievable goals for the black people. As a result, black athletic superiority became unchallenged. Edwards claims that this particular circumstance was the most unfortunate since it encouraged many black people to strive for success in a highly competitive profession that did not leave much room for the athletes of any other skin color.
The majority of black aspirants lacked talents to become superstars, and, therefore, found themselves in ghettos. The dream of success in athletics became a reality for only few black youths. However, the large number of individuals was left with unfulfilled fantasies of glamour, wealth and stardom. Women marathoners largely contributed to the overall change of socioeconomic status among women (Pope, 1997). 2,000 women are said to have participated in a relay in New York. During that time, women runners became symbols of feminism since back then feminism was mainly a middle-class protest movement that was concerned with bettering women’s education, and making different professions available for them. Further, women became able to protect their property after marriage. All these opportunities were assumed to be for women. However, only the upper and middle-class women took advantage of them. Correspondingly, women of upper-class could be engaged in time-consuming and financially unproductive amateur sports, for instance, marathon running.
Before, marathon footrace was viewed as an event for the lower-status individuals, not only in terms of economic class of those who participated in it, but also in terms of the amateur sport bureaucracy. In the early 1970s and 1980s, there was evidence of widespread preoccupation with strenuous living (Pope, 1997). One of its dimensions is the popularity of fitness. Even during bone-chilling Nebraska winters, runners could grimly run many miles so as to reach their monthly quotas. Women also participated in a tiring aerobic dance routine. Nevertheless, both sexes groaned under the weights of several machines such as Nautilus. Some specialists created individualized fitness programs that were complete with different elaborate performances. As a result, a big number of individuals quit smoking and reduced their intake of red meats. Others chose to quit drinking alcoholic beverages.
The second dimension of the strenuous life that manifested in 1980’s comprised self-presentation (Pope, 1997). Muscle-bound body was a significant form of self-presentation. During scorching summers, women revealed their fitness by use of loose-fitting runners, shorts and T-shirts. Men put on muscle revealing T-shirts and short shorts. Both men and women, energetic and strong, filled the television screens in both rock music videos and commercials.
In conclusion, there is much that I like about this book. It explores sport and how it flourished in the nineteenth century. The book also explains how baseball was introduced and how the rules that codify it were evolved during the Civil War. Rules of football were standardized in both American and European varieties. Generally, the book elaborates on how other sports, such as basketball, appeared. The Civil War played a significant role in spreading the popularity of games. In addition, Pope also explores how American society has grappled with racial, regional and ethnic differences in diverse nation. It was also fascinating to learn how women’s interest in sports has grown. All in all, it makes people understand the new American sports history.