A People’s History of Sports in the United States
By Dave Zirin
The New Press; 268 pp.
In A People’s History of Sports in the United States Zirin sets out to deflate the misconception that sports are “only a game.” He chafes at those who dismiss them as entertainment or cordon them off from weightier subject matters, arguing instead that sports are a valuable prism through which to examine American history. Like the work that was Zirin’s inspiration—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present the book takes gleeful pleasure in puncturing popular myths; in an interview with the Guardian, Zirin savaged sportswriters for relying on tired cliches that “[paint] every athlete like the love child of John Wayne and Sarah Palin.” An unvarnished history of American sports, he argues, is grittier and more interesting, with a rich tradition of political protest and deep ties to our cultural conflicts. At times, sport has been “a fetter holding back the tide of change,” Zirin writes. “In other instances, it has been a Taser, sending an electric jolt into the body politic.”
1. Baseball lore long held that Abner Doubleday invented America’s pastime in Cooperstown, N.Y. Not so, Zirin says. He attributes the game’s growth to Alexander Cartwright, a New York City bank teller and volunteer fireman and points out that the first game took place not in picturesque Cooperstown but in the industrial hamlet of Hoboken, N.J. The notion that Doubleday created the game, Zirin claims, was fabricated in 1895 by sporting goods executive Albert Spalding who thought Doubleday, a decorated Union general, would make a fine founding father for the sport. Zirin notes that Doubleday himself never laid claim to inventing baseball, that his New York Times obituary failed to even mention the game and that there is no evidence that Doubleday “ever even set foot in Cooperstown.”
2. While Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s color barrier, he stood on the shoulders of courageous African Americans like Moses Fleetwood Walker, an Oberlin College graduate who played in 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 the first sustained stint with a “major league” club for an African American, and the last until Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Walker was the subject of a letter from an opposing team that began: “We…hereby warn you not to [play] Walker, the Negro catcher, the days you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker, if he comes on the grounds in a suit.” The letter, signed by Hall of Famer Adrian “Cap” Anson, adds, “We only write this to prevent much bloodshed.” Walker, who played despite the threat, feared for his safety to the point that, in a later game in Syracuse, he allegedly pointed a gun at fans in the crowd.
3. American sports weren’t above a little sexism either. Players for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which operated from 1943 to 1954 were directed to stock their “beauty kits” with astringents, face powder, rouge and lipstick. “Study your own beauty culture possibilities and without overdoing your beauty treatment at the risk of attaining gaudiness, practice the little measure that will reflect well on your appearance and personality as a real All-American girl,” Zirin quotes from a players’ manual.
4. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood is credited as the patron saint of free agency a pivotal figure in baseball. But as Zirin reveals, Flood’s decision to take a stand against the sport’s proprietary employment system torpedoed his career. In 1969, he told baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn that the sport’s reserve clause “violates my basic rights as a citizen and a human being.” The following year, no club would employ the lifetime .293 hitter and seven-time Gold Glove-winner, and he retired early the next season, sick of enduring the scorn of his teammates. “I am pleased that God made my skin black but I wish he had made it thicker,” Zirin quotes Flood as saying. But ever since his fight for independence helped usher in era of free agency, salaries in the sport have ballooned: in the words of another player, “Ten percent of Alex Rodriguez’s check should go to the family of Curt Flood.”
Zirin draws from such a diffuse body of material that the narrative seems loosely stitched together at points, and while he does a good job excavating America’s past, he doesn’t fully explain how to apply that knowledge in the future. Still, this sprawling, insightful and contrarian book is worth reading for its portrayal of the rebel athletes to whom it is dedicated, and to whom we are all indebted.
The Verdict: Read