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History of Modern Sports

The period of 1865 to 1950 was critical to the formation of “Modern” sport that is recognized today. In an article by Allen Guttmann titled From Ritual to Record: the nature of modern sport, Guttmann outlines seven characteristics that played a central role in the development of sports. These concepts were created as a sociological history of sports and took into place both American and European competitions. Guttmann’s notions of secularism, rationalization, bureaucracy and quantification, among others, all advanced the culture of sports; yet the most important of the stated characteristics is equality.

Equality in modern sports can be broken down into two meanings as defined by Guttmann, first that “everyone should, theoretically, have the opportunity to compete”, and secondly that “the conditions of competition should be the same for all contestants”. While this definition and subsequent stipulations seem logical and more common sense than learned knowledge, they have not always been the case American society. Sports were often divided by race and gender, even though African American leagues such as Negro League baseball had athletes that could excel against any competitor, regardless of skin color.

Egalitarianism took time to develop in sports, and taking note of critical events in history allows for a greater appreciation of where modern sports are today. Two examples of inequality in sports during the time period of 1865-1950 occur in baseball and boxing. In baseball the adoption of Jim Crow laws led to the unwritten rule that African Americans were no longer able to play in Major League Baseball. In boxing white Americans desperately pleaded for their hero Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement in an attempt to reclaim the heavyweight title from a black man, Jack Johnson.

Both of these sports underwent changes in perception of equality during this time period. In Baseball there is a complete reversal of opinion during these 95 years, from barring African Americans to naming a black athlete rookie of the year. This time period leads sports to ultimately take on their “Modern” form by the mid twentieth century. In Baseball credit for “breaking the color barrier” is given to Brooklyn Dodger’s second basemen Jackie Robinson. However, what is usually not mentioned is that Robinson was not the first African American to play professional baseball.

In 1883 Moses Fleetwood Walker, a black man, signed on to play catcher for the then minor league Toledo Blue Stockings. In 1884 the team joined the American Association, and therefore Walker became a Major League baseball player. Walker was a decent ball player and made 42 appearances that season while hitting . 261. However, 1884 would be his only major league season. Jim Crow laws enabled owners to bond together and collectively agree not to have African American players.

While no formal document was written banning black athletes, this in essence was the forming of the color barrier in baseball. A black player would not participate in a Major League Baseball again until April 15th, 1947. Professional boxing had a somewhat different approach to race than that of Major League Baseball. Black men were allowed to fight white men as long as it was not for the World Heavyweight title. In fact while Jack Johnson became the first black man to win the World Heavyweight title in 1908, he had been the reigning World Colored Heavyweight champion since 1903.

In 1908 after trying for years to get a shot at the overall World title, then champion Tommy Burns, caved to relentless pressure from Johnson for a fight. The fight took place in Sydney, Australia where Johnson won in fourteen rounds. Johnson’s victory caused uproar in the United States. As a sign of the times, popular author Jack London called out for a “Great White Hope” to reclaim the crown for the white race. Johnson was able to defend his title successfully for several years until his loss in 1915 to Jess Willard in a scheduled 45 round fight.

Although Johnson was said to have one most of the opening 20 rounds, at the age of 37 fatigue set in and he was knocked out in the 26th round. Perhaps Johnson’s most famous title defense was against former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries in 1910. Jeffries had been retired for six years and had refused to fight Johnson before Jeffries retirement. The battle was labeled the “Fight of the Century” with a crowd of over 20,000 in attendance. Johnson’s eventual victory in the 15th round led to riots throughout the country as the last of the “Great White Hopes” had failed to salvage the title.

The establishment of a colored heavyweight champion in boxing is much like the formation of the Negro league in baseball. The country would tolerate a stage on which African Americans could compete, as long as it did not challenge the superiority of the white athlete. Baseball and boxing are also similar in that both of their bans on African American participants were unwritten, thus explaining why the theoretical color barrier in boxing was broken first.

It only required one person, the current champion, to allow a black man to fight for the title, whereas in baseball owners would be subject to the criticism of all the other owners in the league. Therefore, no owner wanted to be the first to integrate and break the unwritten agreement. The institution of fair and open competition supersedes all of the other characteristics defined by Guttmann of what comprises a sport. Without a level playing field the game is not truly a sport.

Furthermore, without allowing everyone to participate, it is possible the best athlete of all may be restrained from competition. Consequently, in order for the sport to truly evolve and be the best that it possibly can be, there must be equality. As is witnessed in the case of two of the most popular sports of the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century’s, evolution was needed in order to provide equality and spread popularity. The consent to let everybody participate in sports with the same rules regardless of race or gender is the predominant mover that brought sports to their modern form.

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