Why We Need A People's History of Sports





Mr. Zirin is the author of A People's History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

There are those who insist that sports and politics don't belong in the same sentence, the same zip code, or the same universe.

They mouth platitudes about how these two worlds must be hermetically sealed from one another, lest the dirty world of politics infect the sanctity of the playing field. Before the 2008 Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said that "political factors" must be kept away from Beijing.

USA basketball Mike Krzyzewski chimed in, "None of these athletes (has) a responsibility to be political. They have the responsibility to represent their country." The chief of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Dick Pound, also thundered to the Canada's Olympians, "If it is so tough for you that you can't bear not to say anything, then stay at home."

This is rank stupidity and stunning hypocricy. It's a lie. People can say all they want that sports and politics have nothing to do with one another, but as the saying goes, "you don't have to believe in gravity to fall out of an airplane."

So much discussion of sports, both its past and present, is about sanding off, beautifying, or simply obliterating anything that might be seen as political.

Here is how sports history usually goes:

You have a hero - usually acting like the love child of John Wayne and Sarah Palin - with obstacles in their path. But all those obstacles are overcome with a good dose of true grit.

Whether the autobiography of Cal Ripken or Dennis Rodman, one problem with sports history: it is hyper individualistic and completely absent of context. In other words it's told a lot like history.

The other problem with sports history is that much of it is based on lies. Once again, this is a lot like history. You could call it "Lies my Gym Teacher Told Me."

Let's take baseball. The Baseball Hall of Fame is located in beautiful All-American Cooperstown New York. Why? Because that's where they tell us the game was invented by Army General Abner Doubleday.

There are some problems with this however. Three in fact.

The first is that the game wasn't invented in Cooperstown.

The second is that Abner Doubleday never set foot in Cooperstown.

The third is the tiny fact that Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball. In fact the good general didn't know a baseball from an iPhone.

This Doubleday myth was created in 1895 by millionaire baseball owner Albert Spalding of Spalding sporting goods. Spalding chose Cooperstown as the game's birthplace because of its small town postcard beauty, which seemed like a better fit than the actual birthplace of baseball, Hoboken, New Jersey.

And why did Spalding tell us that General Doubleday as the game's inventor? It played to the man's political goals: to merge baseball with the All American virtues of patriotism and war.

As Albert Spalding announced his discovery that Doubleday was the great creator, he said: "Baseball, I repeat, is war! And the playing of the game is a battle in which every contestant is a commanding general, who having gained an advantage, must hold it by every resource of his mind and muscle."

Because of people like Albert Spalding, we don't have a people's history of sports. We have instead a bosses' history of sports based on bluster and lies.

The real story of how the beauty of play developed into a trillion dollar business can only be understood by looking at the profound economic changes that took place as this country transitioned from a farming society, to the military and economic colossus it is today.

When this country was discovered, or conquered as the case may be, sports were considered a sin, the devil's work, and blasphemy against God and Church. Then as the country developed and sports became something to both sell to people as entertainment, and socialize working class immigrants to see America as the greatest country on earth. But the 20th century saw numerous examples, public and private, where sports exploded in growth but also became a platform for spectacular dissent.

I wrote A People's History of Sports in the United States to reclaim a sports history that is far more dynamic than we were ever led to believe. I wrote it because as Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, taught so many of us, we learn about history not only to understand the past, but lay claim to the future. And if we can reclaim sports, if we can crash down the palace gates of play, there's no telling what we can go after next.


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Lorraine Paul - 11/29/2008

In your case, baseball! LOL


Lorraine Paul - 11/29/2008

Thank you, Mr Zirin for your article. I wish it had been longer, however, it has encouraged me to try and find your book.

From the impression I received from your article looks like it would be the perfect companion to Prof Zinn's book. However, I must admit to a sneaking complaint about sport. My late mother always said that it would be a better world if the working class took as much notice of the political games played by politicians as they do in regard to football or cricket!

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