Our Sporting Grandfathers: The Cult of Athletics at Its Source


THE annals of sport in the stadium age of vicarious athletics reveal scarcely a hint of the crusading spirit which launched the beginnings of organized sports in America fourscore years ago. Prior to that time two great obstacles had actually checked the development of sports on this continent. One was the frontier, which, with its persistent and strenuous physical demands, made other exercise unnecessary. The other barrier, which lingered after the frontier had moved well across the country and left leisure in its train, was the troubled New England conscience, which could not condone athletic games and merry out-of-door amusements in the interest of health and happiness.

There was something in the Puritan heritage which long insisted that ‘unattractiveness is a powerful evidence of duty.’ It was this, doubtless, that made a champion of repression out of Lyman Beecher, whose turbulent physical energies could not be satisfied by the back-yard woodpile or even in a now-famous contest with an old woodcutter, and who therefore often took his fiddle, after his strait-laced wife had retired for the night, and enjoyed — in stocking feet — a jig to his own tune.

It was the same force which made Charles Francis Adams apologize in his diary for ‘idling away’ a morning in unsuccessful fishing for smelts, his one weakness in the way of sports. He could not realize that the young sons who joined him after school would in later years regard this as one day at least saved ‘from utter loss,’ and that the eldest of the boys would carry through life a regret that his Puritan inheritance had destroyed for his youth all sense of the joy of living, at a time when he should ‘have acquired aptitudes — sailing, rambling, the playing of games, the genuine love of outdoor life — which I never did acquire, and the lack of which I lament more and more every year I live.’

Out of New England, home of the Puritans, who proclaimed, though they did not always practise, the virtues of carnal self-restraint, suddenly came a new gospel that the body, temple of the soul, had too long suffered from a neglect which now threatened to undermine the very foundations of American culture. Puritanical self-denial was at last forced to yield to the unimpeachable evidence that the American people were undergoing a serious physical decline.

It was all the more tantalizing because true that foreign critics began to lay stress upon the prevailing deficiency of physical health in America. It was indeed humiliating, because, as one of the New England intellectuals argued, ‘it is the only attribute of power in which they [Americans] are losing ground.’ There were those like the essayist and editor, N. Parker Willis, who, pondering the implications of the fistic victory in 1849 of the American, Tom Hyer, over the British champion, known as ‘Yankee Sullivan,’ felt that there was an impending struggle ‘in which England and America will enter the ring for the championship of the world,’ and yet had to admit that Americans could be truly described as ‘a hollow-chested, narrowshouldered, ill developed looking race.’ ‘America,’ said Willis, ‘could doubtless afford at some cost of order and staid propriety to purchase an enthusiasm for physical culture and masculine vigor and beauty.’


There could be no denying that personal habits generally had failed to reflect an adequate adjustment to the new and more leisurely life which appeared as the strenuous experiences of the frontier colored the lives of fewer and fewer people. Disorders of the stomach multiplied as Americans continued to stuff themselves with a rich diet of badly cooked food; rapid eating was a long-established national habit. Anxious observers also found shrunken limbs, crooked spines, weak joints, and disproportionate bodies everywhere in evidence. To the thoughtful editor of Harper’s Monthly, Young America in 1856 seemed ‘a pastyfaced, narrow-chested, spindle-shanked, dwarfed race — a mere walking manikin to advertise the last cut of the fashionable tailor.’

Thoughtful men in America in the 1850’s began to ponder what Emerson referred to as ‘the invalid habits of this country.’ There was, to be sure, a touching and futile faith among the masses in patent-medicine ‘cure-alls,’ which were heralded from poster and advertisement. The beginnings of modern medicine and pharmacy seemed only to accentuate the tendency toward drugging. The healing art seemed to an intelligent critic (in the Atlantic Monthly) a case of ‘big wigs, goldheaded canes, Latin prescriptions, shops full of abominations, recipes a yard long, “curing" patients by drugging as sailors bring the wind by whistling, selling lies at a guinea apiece — a routine, in short, of giving unfortunate sick people a mess of things either too odious to swallow or too acrid to hold, or, if that were possible, both at once.’ Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared in 1860, in a startling address before the Massachusetts Medical Society, his firm belief that, in view of the prevailing dependence of the medical profession upon medication, ‘if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind, — and all the worse for the fishes.’

The need of the hour seemed to be some recreation that would offer relief from the prevailing strenuous living. ‘Our sorest need, as a people, is recreation — relaxation of the everlasting tension of our laborious lives,’ declared Bayard Taylor after seeing the world in his extensive globe-trotting. There were those who suggested the advantage of more holidays, and the desirability of a more spontaneous enjoyment of them.

It is not without significance that the New England prejudice — in religious circles — against the joyous celebration of Christmas began at about this time to break down. But the example of England and of continental Europe seemed to point particularly to the value of out-of-door exercise and play; for Young America in 1850 had not yet learned to play in the modern sense. ‘To roll balls in a tenpin alley by gaslight, or to drive a fast trotting horse in a light wagon along a very bad and very dusty road, seems the Alpha and Omega of sport in the United States,’declared one English critic, while others of his kind set down American recreation at the lower level of ‘chewing, smoking, drinking, and reckless driving.'

Nor could serious American students of this problem deny the indictment. ’I am satisfied,’admitted Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Harvard medico, ‘that such a set of black-coated, stiffjointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast of in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from the loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage.’ ‘We have,’he added, ‘a few good boatmen,— no good horsemen that I hear of, — I cannot speak for cricketing, — but as for any great athletic feat performed by a gentleman in these latitudes, society would drop a man who should round the Commons in five minutes.'

Those most interested even admitted that German gymnastics, a ‘beneficent exotic’ prematurely transplanted by protagonists like Dr. Karl Follen, had withered and died. Athletic exercises were not even a prominent feature of college life. There were lingering memories of a bathing shed on the ‘College Wharf’ at Cambridge which had been suddenly removed to make room for coal bins. ‘Manly sports were not positively discouraged in our day,’Harvard alumni admitted, ‘but that was all.'


It was not strange, therefore, that a new cult arose among the intellectuals of New England, who felt the call to challenge these conditions. Holmes was not the least of these crusaders; a puny, asthmatic type, he had a frank admiration for the physical giant, and dropped into the training quarters of the champion, ‘Benicia Boy,’and other prize fighters, where he watched the men at work and measured enviously their muscular arms and legs. For himself, Holmes found recreation in walking and in rowing on the Charles River, and proclaimed the virtues of this sport from his famous Breakfast Table.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, frail philosopher of transcendentalism, confided to his Journal: ‘I have so little vital force that I could not stand the dissipation of a flowing and friendly life; I should die of consumption in three months.’ He lamented the physical imperfections of the New England intellectuals, and proclaimed the glories of walking, which led him, along with Lowell and Agassiz, to join the Adirondack Club and to enjoy outings with the coterie of Boston literati. Like Holmes, he knew the records of the race track and once corrected to a quarter of a second the 2:19¾ record made by the famous trotter, Flora Temple, in 1859.

The ubiquitous Beechers threw much of their boundless energies into the cause. Catherine, who declared that there were not a dozen healthy women in all the vast acquaintance of the Beecher family, included an excellent essay on calisthenics at the end of her popular volume on Physiology. The ‘vigor of the paternal blacksmith’ still revealed itself in the sinewy arm of her famous brother. Henry Ward Beecher was, indeed, one of the exemplars of the new religion which aimed at ‘breadth of shoulders as well as of doctrines.’ The popular preacher was an excellent player of quoits and other games; he lectured on the ‘Laws of Nature,’proclaiming the virtues of physical strength with a vigor that aroused critics to assail his precepts as barbarous.

Beecher regarded wholesome, vigorous out-of-door recreation as a greater need for the relaxation of the excitable and excited American than the theatre or opera, young men’s associations, debating clubs, or even religious meetings. To him a horse was a ’gentleman.’ He made no secret of his fondness for fast driving as a form of ‘wholesome exercise,’ and invited himself to ride behind Robert Bonner’s famous trotters, at a speed at which all the trees would seem crazy and the fences mere chalk lines, with the earth and skies commingled. He proclaimed the inhumanity of not letting horses run. Fastness is a virtue.... I drive fast on principle. I do it for the sake of being at one with nature.... If I were engineer of a sixty-mile-an-hour express train, I should covet twenty miles an hour more.’ But he admitted the democratic values of ‘slow speed’ riding, of swimming and boating, of baseball and cricket. He advocated a system of gymnastic grounds and good bowling alleys in connection with reading rooms, where the evils of the commercial bowling and billiard establishments could be avoided. He hoped that some Christian association would undertake ‘this valuable reformation, and give to the young men of our cities the means of physical vigor and health, separated from temptations to vice. It would be a very gospel.’

Again, the eager young Yale collegian, Andrew D. White, found physical training an important aid to a far from robust constitution; his prowess in boating won a place for him on the eight-oared boat, the Undine, which took part in the first — but unsuccessful — race with a Harvard crew on Lake Quinsigamond. To the end of his life this great educator continued as an ardent champion of boating. White was convinced that ‘the most detestable product of college life is the sickly cynic; and a thorough course in boating, under a good stroke oar, docs as much as anything to make him impossible.’

According to tradition another later university president, Charles W. Eliot, rowed on the Harvard crew that defeated Andrew D. White and his team mates. In any event the nearsighted young Harvard assistant professor of mathematics was a member of the Harvard six-oared crew which, in 1858, won the famous and recordbreaking boat race on the Charles River from a miscellaneous field of competitors. Writing to his fiancée on the day of the contest, he explained: ‘I had rather win than not, but it is mighty little matter whether we beat or are beaten; rowing is not my profession, neither is it my love — it is only recreation, fun, and health. I am going to . . . row as hard as I comfortably can, and not a bit harder. I have been rowing so much within three days that my fingers feel as still as any hod carrier’s.’

Another Harvard alumnus, the idealistic young business man, Amos A. Lawrence, long felt concern over the effects of the lack of ‘manly and athletic exercises’ upon the coming generation. Lawrence himself continued through life the active enjoyment of skating, bowling, and other sports. As a stimulus to the younger generation he therefore proposed to the master of Groton Academy that he offer annually three silver medals worth twenty dollars each to the students who excelled in cricket, quoits, and singlestick. He shared the feeling of those who declared that athletic prowess in school ought to be a matter of as much concern as the Greek or mathematics prize. Indeed, the editor of Harper’s Weekly had a definite preference for the former. ‘We had rather chronicle,’he wrote, ‘a great boat race at Harvard or Yale, or a cricket match with the United States Eleven, than all the prize poems or the orations on Lafayette that are produced in half a century.'

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, liberal clergyman and author, was a strenuous young apostle of a newer and better day and the especial champion of the new crusade for health and happiness. Like Charles Kingsley in England, he set up a demand for a muscular instead of an ascetic Christianity, and rejoiced that in Beecher and his contemporaries a new set of saints had arisen to exemplify the gospel. Higginson launched a series of articles in the Atlantic, beginning with his ‘Saints and Their Bodies,’probably the most powerful single printed argument for the new athletics. He ardently commended field sports and the communion with nature that they permitted. So strenuously did he press the claims of skating that a widespread interest was aroused and some rigid-minded people sneered at the increasing popularity of this sport as ‘Higginson’s revival.’ But Higginson was very catholic in his tastes. He had a good word to say even for billiards and bowling, popular amusements which often aroused the moralists. Boxing seemed to him quite likely to brutalize the mind, although he admitted that a limited knowledge of sparring would improve the manliness of any youth. He agreed with Holmes that ‘anything is better than this white-blooded degeneration to which we all tend.'


It was a matter of no small importance that the new crusade found its chief sponsors among the religious leaders of the day. Many shared the pride of Higginson in the saints who exemplified the new gospel. Holmes was convinced that if the manly art of self-defense could be introduced among the clergy ‘we should have better sermons and an infinitely less quarrelsome church militant.’ For, as Higginson wrote in a published ‘Letter to a Dyspeptic,’‘if athletic amusements did nothing for the body, they would still be medicine for the soul.'

The older belief that physical vigor and spiritual sanctity are incompatible therefore began to pass, although it was vividly recalled that a young orthodox divine had once lost his parish by swimming the Merrimac River, and that another ‘was compelled to ask a dismissal in consequence of vanquishing his most influential parishioner in a game of tenpins ’ — it had seemed to the beaten party very unclerical behavior. It was an omen of better days, therefore, that a boat club had been formed at the Cambridge Divinity School. Equally significant seemed the later news that a number of the most prominent clergymen of Philadelphia had formed a baseball club, and made their appearance on Saturdays before a large number of spectators ‘as athletes in true club style — belts, caps, and all.'

The eloquence of the pious advocates of American regeneration through sport s found receptive ears in the late fifties when the routine of a national prosperity was rudely interrupted by economic panic. The great hindrance to adult play was doubtless absorption in business. An enforced leisure now came to many who had previously found themselves harassed by the demands of the workaday world. With it came the inevitable amenability of an idle and troubled people to the various gospels of the way to salvation. The response to the sports movement became scarcely less conspicuous than the sweep of a new current of orthodox religious revivalism.

The summers of the late fifties witnessed the final stages of a new boating era. Rowing clubs in the water-front cities promised a new and attractive brand of male comradeship. College students in the New England schools and in the University of Pennsylvania found a new lure in training for the regattas that were scheduled. People throughout the country became interested in the physical training of the rowers who competed. The editor of the Independent commented upon its benefits: ‘If he attain a seat in a university boat, must he rigidly practice austere virtues; and drill himself into such self-denials as tell on the moral character not less than on the muscular system.’ Developments seemed to bear out the forecast of an interested observer, who commented: ’If the boating era shall continue for the next five years, the coming generation will relieve America from the odium of the charge of physical decline.’ It was all the more to be regretted, therefore, that the gory spectre of civil war intervened to stay immediate fulfillment of this prophecy.

Its praises sung by the zealous protagonists of sport, swimming also found a new popularity. Except for the small boy and his swimming hole, bathing had long since been a leisure-class pastime, fastidiously pursued only by the fashionable set at approved seaside resorts, where dressing, flirting, dancing, and riding were the other chief amusements. On the beach the women wore clumsy but fashionable costumes of white trousers and red frocks, often with hoop skirts. The garb of the men was rather more abbreviated but less picturesque, exposing the calf but not the knee, the forearm but not the biceps. In this attire mixed bathing seemed harmless enough. Indeed, the gentlemen ordinarily took charge of the ladies in the surf, at times ‘handing about their pretty partners as if they were dancing water quadrilles.’ A resort at Old Point Comfort, however, confined the men to one stockade built out into the water, while in another, alongside, shrieks, screams, and laughter betrayed the ladies at play. An occasional natatorial enthusiast, like the aforementioned clergyman, sometimes ventured out into real swimming depth, and at certain beaches nude bathing, signalized by a red flag fluttering in the breeze, was provided for the men during the early afternoon — or napping — hours.

In the same period driving and riding became more popular pastimes. Fine saddle horses were sought by the wealthy, and Robert Bonner, editor of the New York Ledger, was only one of many who took pride in stables of fast trotters. Trotting racing was considered a good amateur sport. Even when pursued professionally, it seemed to Holmes, who gloried in American superiority in this field, a truly republican institution. The Autocrat looked upon horse racing, in which there was an undoubted British supremacy, as lacking this virtue. He looked forward, however, to the day when an American horse would beat the pick of the racing stables of England. The thought of such a rivalry evoked in him a patriotism which he was willing to demonstrate fistically with any man of less than eight stone four pounds who might dispute it. ‘I love my country and I love horses,’ he said, pointing to Stubbs’s old mezzotint of the famous Eclipse which hung above his desk. Meantime the average American home was taking pride in the lithographs whereby Nathaniel Currier immortalized the achievements of Flora Temple and her contemporary rivals.


Equally significant was the vogue of horsemanship with the gentler sex, toward whom many of the reformers had directed their arguments. Fashionable modistes produced new creations in the way of equestrienne costume, and thereby added to the popularity of the sport. The ladies soon found opportunities to display their new accomplishments to the public in riding exhibitions and contests at fairs, where the objective was grace and skill rather than speed. The still veins of ‘cynical old fogies’ were startled by the ’rushing, galloping, slashing exploits of the lady equestrians,’ but the public applauded and the ladies kept on riding.

Winter sports also came into their own. Indeed, Henry Ward Beecher could acclaim New Bedford the only truly civilized city because it was willing to close a street to horse vehicles in order that men, women, and children might enjoy the full use of their sleds. Nay, more, the city fathers even carted snow for the worn places, iced the track with water overnight, stationed a band of music there, and at night set up a row of lighted torches. ‘Though a man’s hair is as white as the snow under his feet, he need not be ashamed of a voyage on a sled!’ declared Beecher. ‘That part of the millennium which consists in sliding down hill we believe will begin first in New Bedford.’

Skating was another of the few sports which had a broad democratic appeal, and which in a few years became popular with old and young alike, and with persons of both sexes. Many of the zealous advocates of woman’s rights seized upon it as an important contribution to the means of ushering in the new day; some of them found it an excellent argument for the new bloomer costume. Skating soon developed an immense following. The ponds in the new metropolitan Central Park in New York were often frequented by crowds of fifty thousand and more, some seeking the more select rinks where five dollars admission was charged. There quadrille parties were often formed and the lancers were skimmed through. Races were arranged for various distances, and baseball games were soon played on the ice. Rinks were also built in towns like Roxbury, Massachusetts, and special excursion trains carried twelve or fifteen hundred Boston skating enthusiasts to Jamaica Pond and other near-by waters.

Until the 1850’s, bowling, with easy access to liquid refreshments and with its appeal to high and low alike, claimed status as the American national game. Then baseball, at first a modification of ‘old town ball,’ appeared to demand its rights. Taking on the essentials of its present form, it at once received the approval of the American public.

Baseball was at first a popular informal sport for the youth of the land, played largely in cow pastures without organization or regalia. Then clubs appeared, whose members at first divided into teams which played against each other. Then outside games were arranged, and spectators turned out to support the home team whether it registered a victory or a defeat to a score of something like 49 to 25. Indeed, a score of 75 to 46 for a twentyfive inning game played upon the Boston Common in 1855 is actually a matter of record.

By 1857 baseball had definitely supplanted bowling as ‘the national game,’ and was so acclaimed, not only by the sporting periodical, Porter’s Spirit of the Times, speaking for ‘the region of the Manhattanese,’ but also by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, speaking for the literati of the Bay State. Philadelphia was just then organizing its first baseball club, but the game had already made its way to the city square of Cleveland. The organization of the National Association of Baseball Players in 1858 marked the beginning of a more regular development under a definite code of rules. Every Northern community of any size soon had at least one team, and the competitive spirit assured a large attendance at games.


Champions of sport differed as to the importance or desirability of the competitive factor. Amos A. Lawrence regarded this as essential: ‘The excitement of uncertainty is required of a regular game — a party victorious and a party beaten — to draw out the energy of body and mind, to develop the powers of all the limbs and muscles and quicken the senses.’ Higginson, however, was inclined to wonder whether this was not contrary to the American spirit, ‘ both as a consumer of time and as partaking too much of gambling.’ Yet he found it pleasant to note the growth ‘of our indigenous American game of baseball, whose briskness and unceasing activity are perhaps more congenial, after all, to our national temperament than the comparative deliberation of cricket.’

Football, he added, ‘bating its roughness, is the most glorious of all games, to those whose animal life is sufficiently vigorous to enjoy it.’ Unfortunately it was long regarded as the sport of schoolboys; Higginson had himself been reproached with juvenility for having clung to football at Harvard till he was a ‘Senior-Sophister.’ When played, it was largely unorganized. Harvard sophomores started out in top hats and coats and vests in their annual battle royal with the freshmen, which the college authorities abolished in 1860 on account of its roughness. The early tradition of the game was that it was likely to start or end in a freefor-all fight.

Along with out-of-door games there came also new facilities for indoor gymnastics. The champions of reformby-sport eagerly studied for inspiration the history of the gymnasium from the days of the ancient Greeks to the newer German and Swedish movements. They rejoiced that the German revolutionary refugees brought with them to America the Turnverein and the Turnkunst, or gymnastic art. They clearly regretted that the Turners were as noted ‘ for their libations to Bacchus and their sacrifices to the god of tobacco . . . as for their culture and superiority in athletic sports,’ but they recognized that they ‘exert a wide, and, for the most part, a good influence.’

Meantime the rapidly growing populations of the cities had encouraged the growth of gymnasiums on a commercial basis and, by way of fulfilling Beecher’s pious wish, under the auspices of the new and increasingly popular Young Men’s Christian Associations. Just on the eve of the Civil War, too, while many elders disapprovingly shook their heads and pointed significantly to the back-yard woodpile, facilities for physical training and education were provided in institutions like Amherst, Oberlin, Yale, and the United States Naval Academy. Amherst advertised itself as the only college in the country where gymnastic exercises were conducted as a part of the regular college duties. The new colleges for women also made promises of ‘physical’ as well as ‘intellectual’ culture for their charges. The superintendent of public instruction in Boston even recommended a thorough system of physical training as a part of the common school system. Most communities, however, had to be content with academies for dancing and calisthenics and the promises of their patrons that the physical vigor of their pupils was not being overlooked.

Even the elders were not to be immune from the contagion. In 1860, Dr. Dio Lewis, a young Buffalo physician, who had been trained at the Harvard Medical School and who had developed a system of ‘light gymnastics,’removed to Boston to offer the boon of exercise to those in greatest need — ‘old men, fat men, feeble men, young boys and females of all ages.’ His movement was a success from the start. A year later he opened his Normal Institute for Physical Education, the first school in the country to train teachers of physical culture. He worked out the first important American reduction regimen, warning young women against trying to reduce by swallowing acids, vinegar, and chalk and against ruining themselves with corsets; and he deplored the effort of the young men to keep the flesh down by besmearing and saturating themselves with tobacco juice. Many of the delicate sex, however, preferred the less strenuous treatment of the ‘Swedish movement,’in which hired operators stretched and exercised their inactive muscles.


Thus, in a decade, did the groundwork of an extensive system of athletics and sports establish itself to save a nation that was suffering from the ignorant abuse of the leisure which had crept stealthily along in the trail of the American pioneer. There were many who were unaware of the problem and of the new way to salvation. There were doubtless also those who, like the inept Mr. Downey of the Harper's cartoonist, tried unsuccessfully the grand succession of bowling, skating, riding, rowing, baseball playing, and salt-water bathing, and finally found perfect satisfaction only in protracted bouts with lager beer. But it was no longer generally assumed in America ‘that a race of shopkeepers, brokers, and lawyers could live without bodies.'

As a result of these efforts of the prophets who proclaimed a new day of health and vigor, the saving virtues of physical exercise were spread abroad until even the pioneer Higginson could see ‘no reason why any other nation should surpass us.’ As a matter of fact, with true American receptiveness a strange amalgam of Yankee, British, and Teutonic influences in the sports world was being created, and new athletic pursuits without distinction of origin were welcomed to the new world. All this was balm to the souls of the reformers.

They did not — could not — foresee that the competitive spirit, the desire to excel the world, would in time threaten to erect a top-heavy superstructure upon the foundations which they had wrought. It is scarcely necessary to say that the characteristics of American sports in the stadium age of the twentieth century, when eighty or ninety thousand spectators take their exercise vicariously by watching twenty-two sturdy young giants maul each other upon a grassy green, have little in common with the crusading spirit which motivated the early apostles of American sport.