New Dimensions in Everyday Life

39b. Sports and Leisure

Bennett Park
The Detroit News
Ty Cobb slides home at Detroit's Bennett Park where major league games were played before wooden stands.

A sports craze was sweeping the nation. Work weeks were still long, averaging about sixty hours per week in 1890. But the average worker notched 66 hours in 1860, giving the typical American six extra hours of free time each week. Three more decades would see an additional 10 hours of average working time turn into free time.

What did Americans do with all this time? Participation in sports, leisure, and amusement activities multiplied.

Take Me out to the Ball Game

Baseball was quickly becoming the national pastime. It had graduated from a gentleman's game to a form of mass entertainment. As cities and towns dedicated more and more public land for recreational purposes, baseball became more and more popular. Those who did not enjoy playing were given the opportunity to watch.

Moses Fleetwood Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first African-American to play on a major league baseball team (the Toledo Blue Stockings).

The National League was formed in 1876 and Americans were able to watch touring professionals play the game. As a color barrier had been quickly established, not all athletes were given an opportunity. The National League and its rival, the American League, played for the first World Series Championship in 1903. The baseball craze led to the financing of large grandstand arenas such as Fenway Park in Boston, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Other spectator sports were also popular. Football had a large following, particularly on the college level. Universities were accused of hiring ringers (professionals) to help them win games. The rules were fairly lax, and many injuries resulted. In 1905, eighteen players were killed by injuries related to football.

Boxing became more respectable with a new innovation — gloves. Basketball was invented in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts by James Naismith, a YMCA instructor. Designed as an indoor sport, basketball enabled athletic competition during the winter months. Croquet and tennis provided the only opportunity in sport for coed play.


Other forms of mass entertainment also flourished. The most popular form of urban performance was the vaudeville show. An evening at vaudeville might last two or three hours, as audiences watched nine or ten different acts, ranging from singing and dancing to stand-up comedy and acrobatics. The first vaudeville theater was opened in 1881 by Tony Pastor in Manhattan. Eventually, New York had ten vaudeville theaters, and every major city could boast at least one.

For the children, Phineas T. Barnum and James A. Bailey presented "The Greatest Show on Earth," a three-ring circus complete with exotic animals, trapeze artists, and big tent.

Age of the Bicycle

The velocipede became popular in the later half of the 19th century. While the larger front wheel allowed for greater speed, the potential fall was quite dangerous.

On an individual level, the turn of the century was also the age of the bicycle. In 1885, the velocipede, a "bicycle" with one huge wheel followed by a smaller one, became instantly obsolete when the safer, modern bicycle with two wheels of equal size made its debut.

Many became addicted to this new form of exercise. Men and women took romantic rides through parks, and courtship took a step closer to independence from parental involvement.

The bicycle even had an impact on women's fashion. No one could ride around on a bicycle with a big Victorian hoop dress, so designers accommodated the new trend by producing a freer, less constrictive style.

On the Web
Bicycle Museum of America
Check out this webpage from the Bicycle Museum of America for stunning photos of bikes in their collections, including the 1883 Columbia Expert and the Shire Boneshaker from the 1870s. Interesting descriptions, too. The timeline covers bicycling from the 1810s to the present day
P. T. Barnum Never Did Say "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute"
You probably associate P.T. Barnum, circus sideshow genius, with the phrase"there's a sucker born every minute." Here's the "true story" behind the common error.
P.T. Barnum
In response to the celebrated 2018 film, The Greatest Showman, Smithsonian presents this somewhat less flattering biography.
Jack Dempsey
The "Manassa Mauler" Jack Dempsey won the boxing heavyweight championship in 1919, becoming one of the first great sports heroes. This biography from the International Boxing Hall of Fame gives the statistics and highlights of his career.
Octavius Catto and the Pythians
Long before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947, African Americans were playing organized baseball. One early pioneer in baseball was also a political activist and community organizer in Philadelphia: Octavius Valentine Catto.
P. T. Barnum: How he changed the English language forever
A visit to one of P.T. Barnum's spectacles only lasted a few hours, but the words and phrases he introduced to the English language will always with us.
In 1919 Babe Ruth captured the single-season home run record with 29 runs. He continued to top his own record with 54 homers in 1920, 59 in 1921, and 60 in 1927. The record would not be broken for another 34 years.
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