Sports, leisure and entertainment


Considering America's infatuation with sports and recreation today, it is hard to imagine how few games Americans' early ancestors had for play.

Baseball, generally recognized as the national pastime, did not begin to gain a sizable following until the 1840s and for many years was widely regarded as a game for the idle rich.

The Civil War helped to democratize the game, as Union Army recruits took to baseball and taught it to fellow soldiers and to their captors in prison camps in the South.

Soon after the war the first professional clubs were formed, and thereafter baseball occupied an unchallenged position as the Nation's No. 1 sport until the late 1940s.

Football in the early 1900s was essentially a college game and even then was criticized for its brutality. Boxing developed slowly, hampered by legal bans and public disapproval. Golf and tennis were dismissed as recreations for the wealthy. Eventually, all these sports attained great popularity.

Bicycling became the rage in the 1890s, but interest diminished as the automobile took over. Basketball, a latecomer, was widely accepted by players and the public.

Never again is one decade likely to see so many exceptional athletes in such a variety of sports as the 1920s produced. The 10-year span has rightly been called the Golden Age of Sports. There were outstanding performers not only in the major sports but i in polo, in billiards and pool, in automobile and motorboat racing, in ice-hockey and figure skating, in yachting, in rowing, and in 6-day bicycle racing. New sports were introduced. The mad, amazing, delightful decade kicked off the greatest expansion in sports and recreation America had ever known.

After World War II there were unprecedented opportunities for the enjoyment of leisure. Shorter workweeks, higher pay, and longer vacations encouraged travel and sightseeing. A growing interest in physical fitness sent people into the open. They learned? to play golf, tennis, handball, and volleyball. They bowled,] skied, skated, and went camping, fishing, hunting, boating,-hiking, jogging, bicycling, and swimming. When they were not out on the roads, waterways, beaches, or playing fields, they crowded into baseball parks, football stadiums, basketball and hockey arenas, and racetracks as spectators, and literally millions sat before their TV sets to watch highly paid athletic superstars perform.

The remarkable diversity of the American people is nowhere more dramatically illustrated than in the variety of sports they so enthusiastically pursue.


Much of the credit for the present-day game of baseball belongs to Alexander Joy Cartwright. As a member of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club, young Cartwright took it upon himself in 1845 to standardize a game that had evolved from the old English sport of rounders.

It was no easy task. One version of baseball was played in Boston, another in Philadelphia, still another in New York. There was no agreement as to the number of men in a team, how long a game should last, or the rules of play. Even the shape and dimensions of the playing fields varied.

Cartwright was by profession a draftsman and a surveyor, and he made good use of his talents when he designed a baseball field as he thought it should be. His "baseball square" — later called a diamond — turned out to be so right for the game that it is still used today, basically unaltered, in all ball parks and sandlots.

Even more astonishing is the fact that most of the rules that Cartwright set down more than 125 years ago remain unchanged.

The Cartwright-style diamond was laid out on the cricket grounds of the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. There, on June 19, 1846, the first modern game of baseball was played. The players and umpire wore their own clothes; the Knickerbockers first wore uniforms in 1849.

Alexander Cartwright did not participate as a player in the historic event of 1846. Instead he acted as the game's umpire, enforcing his own rules. In this role he may have been responsible for yet another baseball first when he fined one of the players for swearing. The fine amounted to 6 cents.


Walter Camp has been called the most influential figure in American football, and with good reason. No other person did so much to revolutionize the Rugby-type game of the middle 1800s and turn it into the truly American sport it is today.

Born in New Britain, Connecticut, on April 7, 1859, Walter Camp was a natural athlete. His ability was recognized when he entered Yale and was quickly selected for a halfback position on the football team.

In those days a college football team consisted of 15 players — 8 forwards, 4 halfbacks, and 3 fullbacks. It was a wild sport with few rules and little or no strategy: this turned college football from a kicking and running game into a brutal battering contest and caused public outrage at the resulting toll in death and injuries.

After playing the game for a while, Camp began to envision ways of making football more scientific and the play controllable. He made suggestions to the rules committee, and they were for the most part accepted. Among the suggestions were recommendations that there be 11 players to a side, and that "the man who receives the ball from the snapback ... be called the quarterback". The creation of the position of quarterback was perhaps Camp's most significant innovation. Another dramatic change, at Camp's suggestion, was to allow tackling below the waist.

Camp excelled in other sports besides football. He was outstanding in baseball, track and swimming. After graduating he studied medicine for 2 years, then entered business. But he never allowed his career to interfere with his close ties to Yale. He remained active at his alma mater for many years as general director of athletics and advisory football coach. He also served in the Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee for 48 years.

Although the early All-American teams, beginning in 1889, were picked by Caspar Whitney, the selections were later made by Walter Camp (a custom he continued throughout his life). He died in New York on March 14, 1925.


Of all the major sports played in the United States, the only purely indigenous game is basketball. It was invented in 1891 by Canadian-born James Naismith, who taught physical education in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the International Training School (now Springfield College). Using a soccer ball and two peach baskets, he designed an indoor, no-contact sport to keep his students out of mischief during the winter and to fill the winter gap between the football season in autumn and baseball in spring.

The game was an instant success with the Springfield students. Shortly thereafter it began to be played in training schools gymnasiums across the country. Enthusiasm for basketball soon spread to schools and colleges in the United States and Canada. The game was also introduced in many countries throughout the world by graduates of the International Training School in Springfield. Its growth was rapid. Soon the United States was laced with-basketball leagues, and the players ranged from grammar school to college age. By 1939 the rules of basketball had been printed in as many as 30 languages, and the game was played in more than 75 countries.

The game was made an official part of Olympic competition in 1936, in Germany, when basketball teams from 22 countries participated. Dr. Naismith was present at the official ceremony honoring his game.

Professional basketball, originally tried in the 1890s, failed to capture the public imagination until the 1920s. With the founding of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949, basketball became one of America's big three professional team sports. The game's coverage was substantially increased in 1967 when a rival league, the American Basketball Association (ABA), came into existence.

Dr. Naismith witnessed the phenomenal growth of his game from a minor indoor recreation to a major American and international sport. He remained at Springfield until 1895, then moved to Denver, Colorado. Three years later Naismith was on the move again, this time to Lawrence, Kansas, where he became the ever-enthusiastic director of physical education at the University of Kansas. He died in Lawrence on November 28, 1939.

Nowadays millions of spectators pass through the turnstiles each year to attend high school, college, and professional basketball games, while millions more watch the action on their television screens — a far cry from the days of Dr. Naismith with his peach-basket goals and soccer ball.


The United States in its short history has contributed in remarkable variety to the entertainment of humankind. Black-face minstrels, glamorous motion picture stars, hard-riding cowboy heroes, glittering musical comedies, breathtaking circuses, and spectacular television shows — all are exuberant expressions of the innovative genius of American show business.

The daytime radio serials, or soap operas (so called because they were often sponsored by soap companies), now adapted to television, were created here and, for better or worse, have captured an audience of millions.

Popular entertainment was a latecomer to America because the piety and hardship of colonial days delayed its growth. A few wandering players could be seen among settlers during the Colonies' first century, and throughout the 1700s many Americans regarded playgoing as an indulgence in sinful worldliness. By the 1800s, however, the high spirits of a fast-growing Nation were finding a natural outlet in the theater.

America has originated many distinctive variations of show business and has breathed new life into older forms as well. Since the 19th century, US entertainment merchants have excelled at razzle-dazzle. They made turn-of-the-century theater big business, mapped transcontinental vaudeville paths, transformed the movies from a peepshow novelty into a global industry, and, by creating national radio and television networks, brought much of the world into the American living room. Not only have these triumphs been accompanied by unprecedented commercial success, but since 1900 they have won international acclaim for American performers, playwrights, and film-makers.


Struggling to survive in a harsh wilderness, colonial pioneers had little time for entertainment. Cities and towns were too small and the distances between them too great to provide a steady theatergoing audience. Besides, plays, games, lotteries, music, dancing, and all other secular "divertisements" were forbidden by grim and pious Puritans as the Devil's work. The Puritans' disapproval of the boisterous English theaters of Shakespeare's day had even been passed down to later generations.
Beginning with the early 1700s, bands of strolling English players appeared in the plays of Shakespeare and other playwrights, performing in candlelit taverns, coffee-houses, and in halls that were hastily built just, outside the city limits to avoid prosecution.

America slowly developed her own performers, who worked hard to achieve a distinctively national style.

Theater-going in America before the Civil War was a lively, sometimes dangerous undertaking. Only a handful of fashionable, big-city theaters could boast well-dressed, well-behaved audiences. Most theaters were cold in winter, stifling in summer. Men in muddy boots sprawled across the seats, spitting tobacco juice. Heroes were cheered in mid-speech. Villains were hissed and sometimes pelted with rotten fruit. Stage action often had to be stopped until fist-fights in the audience subsided. Rats scuttled past the people's feet scratching for food. Cheap balcony seats were filled with thugs. Fire was always a danger.

And yet, the American theater survived and prospered. American actors received international attention, though many Americans still regarded the stage with suspicion. This attitude persisted for decades. When the actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at a performance in 1865, one clergyman sermonized that "the theater is one of the last places to which a good man should go".

The growth of 19th century cities gave birth to new forms of entertainment, and vaudeville was among them. The first vaudeville theater was opened in 1861 on New York City's Broadway, promising a "straight, clean variety show" for the whole family. The show was an instant hit and soon had hundreds of imitators. Vaudeville became a national industry after 1900.

In 1919 the New York City Theater Guild was formed, aimed at bringing serious contemporary drama to Broadway. The organization had a profound effect on the development of the American stage. In addition to introducing new techniques of staging, acting and directing, the Guild encouraged a new generation of playwrights to examine American life.

The Theater Guild was also instrumental in molding musical comedy. More folksy than the operetta, and unlike the variety revue because it adheres to a plot, musical comedy has become America's most distinctive contribution to world theater. The melodic tunes and memorable lyrics written by George and Ira Gershwin, and their peers were destined to be hummed, whistled, and sung the world around.


The first American 2-minute movies were shown as bonus attractions in vaudeville houses until the early 1900s, when thousands of small theaters devoted solely to films, and called nickelodeons because they charged a nickel, opened across the country.

In 1903 "The Great Train Robbery" — the first American film to spin a coherent story — was made. Though this primitive horse opera lasted only about 8 minutes and seems embarrassingly crude to the modern eye, it would be hard to exaggerate its impact on contemporary audiences.

Despite clergymen who denounced films as "wholly vicious", the urban poor flocked to the movies in unprecedented numbers. Movies were cheap and lively, and even recent immigrants who were unable to read the English dialogue found it easy to follow the stories because of the broad pantomime.

Within a few years the center of motion picture production had shifted to Hollywood, California, and shrewd entrepreneurs such as Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn had built the movies into a national industry that grossed even more than any other expert agriculture, steel, and transportation.

By 1925 motion pictures were more a necessity than a luxury for many Americans. More than 130 million people went to the movies each week. There were 20000 motion picture theaters, some seating 7000 persons.

Only sound was lacking to make a reality of everybody's dream of "true talking pictures". From the first, audiences had come to expect musical accompaniment for the movies, either played on a house piano or an organ, or, in the more posh movie palaces, performed by a live orchestra. By 1923 it was possible to record sound on film, and later musical scores were added to feature films, and newsreels began to crackle with authentic sounds. The first full-length talkie, Warner Brothers' "The Jazz Singer", appeared in 1927.

The first sound cartoon was introduced to the public in 1928. It was Walt Disney's best creation "Mickey Mouse".

In the 1930s Americans turned in unprecedented numbers to the movie screens for escape from their daily woes. Several new film genres delighted audiences and helped ensure Hollywood's preeminence in world movie making. Those included frothy, large-cast musicals (of which the best loved were the nine that paired dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers); gangster and detective films that made heroes of professional tough guys; and a host of brilliant comedies.

Much of the prestige and profit of movies depended both on great actors and the genius of the directors.

Production costs tripled between 1941 and 1961, and the postwar development of television seemed to signal the end of the old Hollywood. But it did not happen. Hollywood's days of glory are not over: American movie-makers of a new generation remain among the world's most innovative directors, and the Nation's interest in films is reviving.

The most sought-after award in the movie business is the Oscar, annually presented since 1929 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Five nominees in each of some 25 categories are picked by their fellow craftsmen. Winners are chosen by secret ballot cast by the Academy's more than 2800 members.


For all the importance of movies in shaping modern culture, the impact of radio has been just as great. For the first time free entertainment reached into the average American parlour for nothing but the cost of the set. An early radio might have come to $100, and the minimum price of sets has since steadily fallen.

Morning and afternoon entertainment programs were devoted to the housewife. During the 1930s some 50 soap operas chronicled the daily woes of a host of characters. The longest running daytime serial was "The Romance of Helen Trent", broadcast five times a week from October 1933 through June 1960.

Late afternoons were for children, who put aside their homework to follow the exploits of different heroes.

Evenings offered more varied fare: news commentators, dance bands, programs of classical and semi-classical music, comedies.

The skilled radio dramatists' power to persuade was awesome. In 1938 Herbert G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" was broadcast. Thousands of listeners panicked and fled from their homes, fully convinced that Martians had actually landed and were laying New Jersey to waste.

In many ways the story of television's phenomenal growth parallels that of radio. Development was interrupted by global war. And once full-scale telecasting was underway, its enormous popularity meant drastic change — in some cases, near disaster — for older forms of entertainment. The rest of the entertainment world was in panic. By 1951 movie theaters had experienced a 20 to 40 per cent drop in attendance. Theater owners tried desperately to hold on to their audiences by slashing ticket prices and giving away free sets of china, as they had done in the Depression years. Hundreds of theaters were forced to close their doors.

Sports crowds dwindled. Other areas of economy felt TV's impact during peak viewing hours. Radio networks, too, watched helplessly as longtime listeners abandoned their radios to watch television. They finally managed to survive by concentrating on programming for special audiences, such as teenagers, ethnic groups, and lovers of classical, jazz, or country music.

At the same time, many prospered thanks to television. Tavern owners were the first to realize the potential of the medium. Their business boomed during televised sporting events.

Television has proved its ability not only to educate, uplift, and inform, but also to entertain. It has brought brilliant drama, superb music, sharp satire, and incisive documentaries to countless millions of viewers.

Thanks to television, American entertainers have appeared in every major country and are well known all over the world.