People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play by Dave Zirin

I found this book randomly at one of those community book sharing spots that seem to have popped up in my neighborhood over the years. I am a massive sports freak, but I think I was particularly intrigued by this book because it was right at the beginning of the social protests of 2020, and it seemed like apt reading for the moment. Even though it was written in 2009, the history still holds, and I was blown away by some of the things that I learned. One of my main takeaways was that sports and politics and culture have always, always, always been intertwined. ALWAYS. Those that say that sports and politics shouldn’t mix, stick to sports, keep politics out of sports, etc., have no sense of the history of sports and that sort of thinking is simply nonsensical. This book makes clear that sports have always been a reflection of society, for better and for worse, and it is almost impossible to put the protests of today in context without understanding what has happened in the past. Kap took a knee for a reason — and he wasn’t the first to stand up to injustice while wearing a uniform on the playing field.

  • Adam Smith from Wealth of Nations: sports helped check the power of “fanatical” religious sects
  • New World — fun and games play a necessary role in the developing modern society, transmitting values and providing a release from the workweek
  • Southern colonies — horse racing was most popular
  • Bloody cockfights, bare knuckled boxing, eye gouging matches
  • Sports became away the colonies formed an independent (white) identity apart from Britain
  • Plantation owners actively promoted sports as way to direct energies and create harmony in bondage
  • in the new world, sports was a balm against the harshness of the new climes, a source of community and a means of escapism
  • sports spread and flourished during the revolutionary war to stave off boredom
  • founding fathers were always aware of the question of class from the beginning — games played among the working many were brutal compared to the wealthiest — bull baiting, rat baiting (dog vs. rats)
  • in the north and south, among black and white, sports became a necessary release for those denied a seat at Alexander Hamilton’s wealthy table
  • also a way for women to rebel — symbolized movement for suffrage
  • Susan b anthony: The picture of a free, untrammeled womanhood
  • early baseball was called rounders — 1845 Alexander Cartwright founded Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York
  • baseball was leisurely in pace
  • ABaner Doubleday founding baseball was a myth born from Albert Spaulding (sporting goods) — he trumpeted the games roots in Cooperstown — Doubleday was a vet who graduated from West Point and a Union General who fought Indians, Mexicans, Confederates
  • sports was a way to put calluses on the hands of children even though they couldn’t work
  • “good sports” — taught obesiance to authority, values, godliness and could toughen kids up and separated from “bad sports” like cockfighting and rat baiting — “Muscular Christianity”
  • baseball — always backward looking to a simpler time (Pre civil war)
  • 1869 — Cincinati Red Stockings fielded a team with a payroll for the first time
  • 1879 — start of the reserve clause for owners — binding a player to the same club for life
  • 1885 — billy volts started the first players union/around that time period was a systematic expulsion from black players from the game
  • 1860–1900 the population of the US grew from 31 million to 75 million
  • YMCA reached US in 1851 — place for acculturation and a bulwark against rebellion — inverted triangle = mind, body, spirit
  • 19th century — horse racing was dominated by african american jockeys
  • First boxers in US were slaves/southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting together their strongest chattel and having them fight it out while wearing iron collars
  • for women of the era, exercise was a privilege, sign of status
  • “Muscular Christianity” — Teddy Roosevelt “All of the masterful nations in history encouraged rugged sports.” build a new anglo saxon super race
  • Roosevelt burnished his resume after he organized the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War — myth that they were effective but most of them died
  • Roosevelt loved war, saw masculinity and Muscular Christianity as symbiotic with a nation poised to conquer
  • Football — early games were a drunken brawl with deadly results
  • 1905–18 players died resulting from injuries on the field
  • Walter Camp — father of american football, introduced the forward pass, line of scrimmage, 11 men per side — thought football should be a place to teach order and obedience
  • team work, strategy, tactics
  • Machismo for the middle class
  • Paul Robeson — only black student at Rutgers, standout football player in early 1900's
  • WWI — deeply unpopular war — woodrow wilson saw sports as a critical way to prepare future troops
  • era of racial pseudoscience
  • Jack Johnson knocked out Jim Jeffries (white vs. black) while the all white crowd chanted “kill the nigger”
  • race riots all over the country after the win, 150 people died — white lynch mobs attacking blacks
  • congress passed a law banning boxing films
  • Johnson was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for prostitution
  • Kennesaw Mountain Landis was the judge for Jack Johnson in his case and against the black sox in 1919 — most of his decisions were either reversed on appeal or nullified by presidential pardon
  • 1920’s = jazz age, revolt of the rank an file
  • federal government used wartime powers to crush dissent — Palmer Raids
  • new woman on the scene known as the “flapper” — shorter bob haircut, set traditional gender roles on their ear
  • Grantland Rice — sportswriting served to create outsized heroes of ordinary jocks
  • Negro Leagues — independent locus of power and a source of pride and support
  • Rube Foster — Father of black baseball — under his leadership the negro leagues became the most geographically diverse black owned business in the US
  • African american accountants, bookkeepers, trainers, skilled and unskilled — Foster taught the major leagues the bunt and run
  • Working class women, factory teams in sports sprouted, management saw this as a good strategy for pulling women away from radical movements that many were part of the previous decade
  • Depression — destroyed people and their confidence, sense of self, identity, private shame in people
  • As time wore on, Roosevelt’s New Deal involved the Works Progress Administration, putting people to work on public buildings such as the construction of parks and gyms — playing became more common
  • Radio came about
  • Communists in US believed sports to be exclusively a tool to keep people distracted from their exploitation
  • Lester Red Rodney — sports editor for communist party newspaper the daily worker from 1936–1958
  • wrote about the intersection of sports and struggle, first writer to scout Jackie robinson
  • covered sports with an eye to it’s social impact, launched first sustained campaign to end the color line in baseball
  • 1.5 million signatures delivered to Landis
  • DiMaggio: said the best pitcher he ever faced was Satchel Paige
  • jesse owens — call for boycotting in 1936, he never took it seriously
  • Avery Brundage headed olympic committee — was a hitler supporter — nazi pomp and circumstance in 1936 launched the kind of nationalism associated with the olympics today
  • Germany was cleaned up, Jews treated “correctly” for the duration of the games
  • 200M silver winner Mack Robinson — younger bro Jackie
  • Hank Aaron carried ice blocks up stairs, said the strengthened his wrists — Joe Louis did the same work
  • Louis knocked out Max Schmelling in one round in 1938
  • black press and white press began to interact and raise awareness for integration of baseball
  • global death toll of WWII 60 million
  • thousands of japanese interned in US — one was Pat Morita, who remembered baseball being played the camps as a way to pass time
  • 14,000 strikes involving 7.7M workers, more than any comparable period in american history
  • 2M african americans went to work for defense plants, another 2M joined federal civil service
  • league of their own — all white working class players, went to charm school — even after WWII league drew 2 to 3 thousand players at tames until 1954
  • Landis died in 1944 — Happy Chandler took over
  • Jackie Robinson — court martialed on charges relating to his refusal to give up a seat on the bus — joe louis actually stepped in and saved an officer from being pummeled by Robinson, and he was such a good athlete at UCLA that he might have spent years prison if not for being so good
  • after WWII, more disposable income, more diversity in stands, more support for Jackie
  • Eddie Stanky, yelling into Phillies dugout: “Listen, you yellow bellied cowards, why don’t you yell at someone who can answer back?” after Chapman, Phillies manager, organized his team to chant nigger throughout a game
  • Robinsons true personality was angry, combative, confrontational
  • His success led to the negro leagues demise in a way — blacks generally lost interest in baseball after the negro leagues left — talent was raided
  • Football color line from 1934–1945 — Redskins owner George Marshall was staunch segregationist
  • 1946 — AAFL, Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motely and Bill Willis, ended color line
  • NASCAR — roots lie in bootleggers racing each other, tradition being they would race on sunday afternoon and run liquor sunday night
  • 1950’s — greatest abundance of economic expansion in history
  • Mccarthyism began in 1947 when Democratic president Truman put in place a regulation that forced 8M government workers to sign anti community loyalty oaths to keep jobs and allowed the FBI to investigate more than 2M federal workers
  • Robinson made a statement supporting the anti community measures which lead to Robeson being hounded into exile
  • Mccarthyism partially explains the gap between Truman’s desegragation of the army and Brown v. board of education and the beginning of the civil rights movement
  • two months after the war, 800,000 women fired 2M two years after wars end
  • 1950’s women were back in the kitchen
  • 1955 = Emmitt Till murder
  • 1959 — Robinson started writing a column for the New York Post
  • Chavez Ravine in LA — poor mans shanghai-la — 1949 — residents informed that their community was going to be leveled for public housing
  • LA’s business interests accused the public housing proponents of being communists, particularly Frank Wilkinson of the housing authority — sets stage for Walter O’Malley (Brooklyn Dodgers owner) to swoop in and grab the land for pennies on the dollar
  • 1962 — Dodger stadium opens
  • City College NYC — mostly african american and jewish players, got soaked by bookies for very small sums, responsibility was laid with them — set the template for how NCAA would deal with college kids for a number of years, exploitation of labor, in a way
  • George Marshall’s racism was the foundation for the Redskins empire — “Hail to the Redskins, fight for old DC = fight for old dixie/wanted them to be the team of the south
  • April 1945 Red Sox held a tryout for Jackie Robinson, then 1949 they had a shot at Willie mays. Mays and Williams could have played the same outfield together. Red sox last team to integrate in 1959.
  • Kennedy — Crippled by back pain, Addison’s disease, spastic colitis, painkillers just to function — was always photographed playing sports, looking good, being active
  • 1960’s — sports was where the best of muscled white male america came together to act as an exemplar for the rest of folks on how not to be soft
  • 1961: 50,000 people participated in demonstrations of one kind or another in 100 cities, 3600 in jail
  • Willie Mays: wasn’t political, criticized for not being so
  • Elgin Baylor: refused to play in a game in WV to protest refusal of local hotel to permit him to register with teammates
  • Robinson was viewed as the white mans negro due to his faith in electoral politics and belief in integration
  • Cassius Clay and Malcolm X were allies and friends
  • After he beat liston, changed name to Muhammad Ali, causing a firestorm
  • Elijah Muhmmad gave him the name, honor, and a way to see he would side with him over X — Ali turned his back on Malcom, which he regretted
  • NYTimes called him Clay as editorial policy for years after
  • SNCC Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee — first to use image of a panther, slogan was from Ali “We are the greatest”
  • Nam: Air Force dropped more bombs on the country than were used in all of WWII
  • 1966: AFL proscribed all facial hair save mustaches
  • Little opposition to war at the time ali spoke out but he didn’t create anti war sentiment amongst blacks, which was already there
  • Cossell: Ali understood it, he was at the heart of the violent, turbulent almost indecipherable time in america, and ali was in all of those fires at once, he helped shape it
  • Fought Ernie Terrell, the famous “what’s my name” fight, criticized for beating the crap out of him
  • MLK: As Ali said, we are all victims of the same system of oppression
  • “I wasn’t trying to be a leader, i just wanted to be free”
  • One hour after refusing induction into the draft, he was stripped of his licenses and belts/3.5 year exile
  • Ali was the first to argue for reparations in an esquire editorial — use money from war to build homes in the south for black people
  • disavowed by the nation of islam for radical views
  • Bill Russell — fierce pride, called bad attitude by boston press, target of racial harassment — when he tried to move from boston to reading to a new home neighbors filed a petition trying to block the move
  • Garden averaged 8000 people a game during his run, far short of a sellout
  • “I didn’t play for Boston, I played for the Celtics” — flea market of racism
  • Haskins and Texas Western beat all white Kentucky for title in 1966 — all black starting 5
  • Adolph Rupp was a notorious racist, bitter from loss for life
  • Clemente: led a charge to prevent games from being played after MLK assassination
  • Tommie Smith and John Carlos: Olympic project for human rights, couldn’t find housing close enough to their university/Alcindor actually boycotted 68 games
  • Boycott didn’t happen overall — athletes didn’t want to give up opportunity
  • Black fists raised on stand, wore no shoes to protest black poverty beads to protest lynching, both expelled from olympic village
  • LA Times called it a nazi like salute
  • Brent Musberger: a pair of dark skinned storm troopers
  • Carlos’ wife committed suicide in 1977, lack of support from community, very poor and stressed — stress and criticism from both whites and blacks
  • BYU and Mormon church — denied leadership positions to blacks and said their dark skin was the mark of the curse of ham
  • Chris Wood from Adelbert College basketball — dumped from team for refusing to stand during anthem — Dave Meggyesy did the same in prof football, held helmet in front of him and bowed his head during anthem
  • 1969–70 school year, FBI Recorded 1785 student demonstrations 313 buildings occupied
  • In nam, troops carried out almost 1000 fragging attempts to kill commanding officers
  • us soldiers and nam troops established an agreement not to open hostilities one on another unless fired upon first
  • military collapse in this sense was part of the end of the war
  • Nixon would call in plays from the white house for Allen to use in Redskins games
  • Aaron closed in on Ruth’s record, he received 930,000 letters, most of anyone not named Nixon
  • when he broke the record, commissioner didn’t show up at game
  • clemente — first latino star, everyone loved him
  • earthquake gutted nicaragua, he sent in paratroopers to help national guard but government was shooting people who were trying to get food, so he went to make sure the aid got to the people — plane crashed and he died
  • Jack Scott — AD at Oberlin, hired women coaches, more coed sports, break machismo atmosphere — wanted to democratize sports
  • Arthur Ashe — issue of South Africa apartheid came to forefront
  • NOW — National Organization for women formed in 1966 after LBJ left the issue of gender discrimination out of Civil Rights act
  • Billie Jean King — demanded equal pay, more endorsements, better training and locker room facilities/beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets — match helped women stand taller “Battle of the Sexes”
  • Title IX — equal funding for women and mens educational opportunities before title ix fewer than 32,000 women were in college sports, now (2008) 150,000 +
  • women who play sports are far less likely to be involved in abusing relationships or have eating disorders
  • Marvin Miller and Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause in baseball — flood actually said color had nothing to do with it — shut out of 1970 season, never played again
  • 1980’s — $$$$$ into sports but political backlash
  • Looting decade — millions in corporate tax breaks
  • Regan was on the offensive against social reforms and the spirit of the struggle of the preceding years — making the rich richer, attacking unions, promoting imperial power, abusing vulnerable
  • Triumph of upper america
  • elimination of free school lunches for 1M kids
  • average ceo earneed 34x more than employees in mid 70’s; 110x more in late 1980's
  • LA games — first privately financed games, surplus of 200M
  • LA Dodgers GM Campanis: blacks may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or a GM
  • five years after his comment 28 MLB teams hired 48 managers only 6 people of color
  • Rec centers shuttered, after school jobs and programs not offered to colored people; hip hop arrived under conditions of no work like blues arrived under oppressive conditions
  • basketball was cheap, easy creative — Kurtis Blow wrote “Basketball”, anthem, legendary song
  • MJ + Spike Lee — filmed commercials in She’s Gotta Have it Style, it’s gotta be the shoes, shift in tastes from whiteness to blackness — nba recognized trend and went with it
  • you were either for or against rap
  • narcissism was the choice with many new superstar players, not politics
  • Navratilova was the opposite — proud, outspoken lesbian
  • 1986 study of gymnasts — 74 percent practiced some form of bulimia or took a laxative
  • 1982 — first gay games in SF
  • 1986 — IOC held Tom Waddell (game founder) house on lien as part of a lawsuit against the unauthorized use of the word olympics in gay games
  • sports played prominent role in iraq war — whitney houston at 1991 super bowl
  • craig hodges, a muslim, handed bush a letter in 1991 at bulls championship ceremony detailing his opposition to the war
  • Jan 1991 alan wiggins, former 2b for the padres of 1984 championship died of aids — only had two teammate attend funeral, steve garvey and lee lacy — Magic Johnson was embraced, however
  • recession in 1990 — largest economic downturn since WWII — unemployment for blacks in South Central la was 45%
  • 52% of those arrested in Rodney King riots were latino, 10% white, 38% black
  • recession coupled with LA rebellion led to Clinton — “personal responsibility”
  • Under clinton, america’s prison population rose astronomically
  • three months before 1996 elections, clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, ending welfare as we know it — pushed 2.5M people off welfare rolls
  • south central, for example, was a cradle of baseball talent (eric davis and Darryl)
  • Clinton backed off on campaign promise to send asylum to HIV positive Haitian refugees — Ashe spoke out against it, and he died of aids
  • Abdul Rauf — refused to stand during anthem, 2001 his gulfport mississippi home was burned down
  • women soccer earned 1000 a month, bonus if they won gold; men got bonus no matter if they medaled in 1996 olympics
  • players striked, and one of the “scab” players was brandi chasten
  • clinton and orrin hatch: Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act — no burden of proof for supplement makers anyone, which led to steroids in baseball, 1998, etc — FDA had to prove a product to be unsafe
  • only one black driver has ever won a nascar race, wendell scott in 1963. they declared someone else the winner in front of fans, and then after the crowd left conducted a review and gave him the trophy
  • Pat Tillman was an avid reader, fiercely against the war, even while fighting

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.