New York Sports: Glamour and Grit in the Empire City
Reviewed by Tony Collins
2018 wasn’t a great year for sports fans in New York. It ended with the Jets and Giants finishing last in their conferences, while the Knicks and the Nets spent the 2017-18 season fighting over the keys to the Atlantic Division’s cellar. And, with the exception of the Yankees, baseball and hockey fared little better.
But everyone in the city knows that things will change. This, after all, is the city that pretty much invented modern American sports.
It was here that the first modern baseball club, the New York Knickerbockers, were founded in 1845. By the 1850s baseball was so popular in the city that the press had already dubbed it ‘the national pastime.’ In 1857 the National Association of Base Ball Players — baseball’s first governing body — was formed by 16 New York clubs. The first recorded baseball game between two African American teams took place in Queens in 1859. By the start of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of people packed into stadia across the city to get the regular dose of nine-innings’ drama.
New York led the way, and the teeming industrial cities in the east and the mid-west were not slow to follow. Other sports would also emulate the juggernaut that baseball had become. In the 1880s the Polo Grounds hosted college football’s Thanksgiving Day match, then the Ivy League’s championship game. By 1893, when 40,000 people crammed into see Princeton down Yale, college football had become a mass spectator sport, a commercial spectacle far removed from the professed amateur ethos of its founders.
New York’s place at the heart of American sport was made possible by the massive influx of people into the city during the second half of the nineteenth century. Fueled by industrial and commercial expansion, the city developed an entertainment and leisure industry that would cater for the wide and often wild appetites of its diverse population.
These were catered for, and stimulated by, newspapers and magazines such as the National Police Gazette and the New York Clipper. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century, these newspapers offered sensation and sport to the newly literate masses. Boxing and baseball mingled with sex and murder in their pages. But by the end of the century the sporting fever had infected the more respectable dailies, including the Times, dominating the back and often the front pages.
Sport had become part of the everyday culture of New York. In the stories of Damon Runyon, the songs of Tin Pan Alley, and even in the pages of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, sport symbolized the demotic and vernacular of life in the city. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and Joe Namath were household names from the Hamptons to Harlem. Rooting for a team brought a sense of belonging and integration to those who had made the city their new home.
Sport cut deep into politics too. Robert Moses reign as New York’s public works czar was marked by the building of public sports facilities across the city, as well as Shea Stadium for professional baseball. So deep ran New Yorkers’ love of sport that when the Dodgers and the Giants left in 1957 for the green(back) grass of the West Coast, a sense of collective bereavement hung over the city.
Since then, sport in the city has continued to captivate millions while simultaneously reinventing itself. New York’s critical role in the early days of TV meant that its sports teams began to command national attention in the 1950s. Joe Namath’s Jets almost made football cool, while the New York Marathon heralded the start of running as a global mass participation sport. MetLife stadium represents either the future of sport or the epitome of corporate hubris depending on one’s political stance. Yet however deep the controversy or fierce the dispute, anyone who reads Stephen H. Norwood’s New York Sports: Glamour and Grit in the Empire Citywill understand that sport will not be displaced from its place in the hearts of New Yorkers.
Norwood’s book is a collection of fourteen chapters written by different authors, each examining an episode in the sporting life of the city since the 1890s. Reflecting the interests, and possibly the age, of the contributors, most focus on the latter half of the twentieth century, and cover a range of sports, including baseball, football, basketball, golf, horse-racing and the marathon.
Much of this ground has been covered before — baseball in the 1950s, Joe Namath, and football in the cold war, for example — but each chapter brings the historian’s rigor and command of archives to its subject. Some, such as Liebman and Fetter’s piece on horse-racing’s Belmont Stakes and George Kirsch’s on municipal golf, deal with sports that have hitherto not been fully explored by historians.
Dennis Gildea’s look at basketball in the city adds valuable insight to the woefully under-researched history of the world’s most popular sport after soccer. There are also valuable additions to the history of Jewish and women’s sport in America and a fascinating piece by Gerald Gems on the ways in which Italians found sport to be a path to integration.
These chapters are essentially snapshots of a much bigger picture, a picture that historians of sports have traditionally struggled to bring into focus. It is very difficult to articulate the ways in which sport permeates a culture; for example, how to explain what Babe Ruth meant to New Yorkers in the 1930s or to trace how the argot of games seeped into everyday language and changed over time.
This means that rather than being able to tell the history of a city through its sports, as one might do through its music, art or politics, histories of sport often fall back onto episodic moments or take the relevance of sports as a given. Why sport matters, to a city, a culture, or a nation, is a complex and difficult thing to articulate. To some extent perhaps this is in the nature of the discipline. Historians of sport tend to be interested in sports first and then seek to place it in a broader context.
While this is understandable, it can lead to sports being stripped of social and cultural context. Despite the excellence of its individual chapters, New York Sports doesn’t quite avoid falling into this trap. For example, the book says little about the economic and demographic changes that have transformed the city since the 1970s, something magnificently described in Lucia Trimbur’s Come Out Swinging, her 2013 participant-observer exploration of the evolution of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
Moreover, from a historical perspective, it is also important to understand that sport is as much a story of exclusion as it is inclusion. Sadly the book says little about African American New Yorkers’ contribution to the city’s sporting history, a grievous omission considering the centrality of New York to black sports culture. The same is true of the Hispanic and Latino experience. Nor, with the exception of Linda Borish’s chapter of Jewish women’s sport, is women’s role on or off the playing field is covered in any great depth.
There is a great book to be written about the rise of sports in the world’s greatest city. And when it finds its author, New York Sports will be an invaluable aid.
Tony Collins is emeritus professor of history at De Montfort University in the UK and the author of books such as Sport in Capitalist Society and How Football Began: A Global History of How The World’s Football Codes Were Born.