Is anyone else feeling at a bit of a loss this week after seventeen days of Olympic competition have ended? I confess I’m an Olympic junkie—summer or winter. I enjoy most everything, but especially ice skating, snowboarding, curling and gymnastics, and volleyball. I got to thinking about the origins of so many of the sports that originated in other countries and caught on globally. Of course athletic competitions go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but what about the years we read and write about? What about sports in the old west?
Well, there were plenty of them. Seems through the ages men—and later women—couldn’t get enough of racing and swinging and throwing and jumping, and they wanted to do it better than the next person. Like Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun.
The earliest ice skating was done in Finland and later Denmark, but our American ancestors did their share of ice skating as well. There were even special skirts for the ladies so the blades of their skates didn’t catch their hems.
Bare knuckle boxing began in ancient Greece, and was recorded taking place in England in the early 1700s. Remember Tom Cruise in Far and Away? Boxing was a popular sport among the American settlers and spread to the western regions. Susan Cahn in Coming on Strong, Gender and Equality in 20th Century Sport notes a match between Nell Saunders and Rose Harland in 1876 at Hills Theater in NYC. They supposedly fought for a silver butter dish. This was considered the first women’s match in the United States.
The earliest known reference to baseball is in a 1744 British publication by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of base-ball and a woodcut that shows a field somewhat similar to the modern game, though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases. English lawyer William Bray recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey.
In the mid-1850s the baseball craze hit the New York metropolitan area. By 1856 local journals were referring to baseball as the national pastime. A year later sixteen area clubs formed the sport’s first governing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players. In 1869 the first professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed and went undefeated against a schedule of semipro and amateur teams. The first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, lasted from 1871 to 1875. Baseball teams formed all over the United States.
The oldest piece of paper to bear the word croquet with a description of the modern game is the set of rules registered in November 1856 with the Stationers’ Company in London.
Croquet became popular as a social pastime for English ladies and gentleman during the 1860s. By 1867 there were 65,000 copies of the laws and regulations of the game in print. It quickly spread to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. No doubt one of the attractions was that the game could be played by both men and women.
Croquet was soon eclipsed by a new game. Tennis began in the UK in the1870s.
I included Independence Day activities in a book I’m currently finishing up, and my research turned up newspaper articles listing the events during actual Fourth of July events. Here are activities I discovered listed on the programs and in the newspaper accounts: Croquet, foot ball, base ball, skiffs (I’m guessing these are regatta-type races with dinghies), blindfold wheelbarrow races, climbing a greased pole for a $5 bill, sack races, foot races, horse races, fastest trotting mile race, slowest trotting mule race, and a fat man’s race.
I would add to these other competitions such as arm wrestling and driving a spike, eating and drinking contests and chasing greased pigs. We are a competitive species, aren’t we?
So are you missing the Olympics or glad it’s over so you can get to bed earlier at night?