The following is an excerpt from Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America by Randall Balmer, available everywhere books and e-books are sold.
To Everything a Season
The Peculiar Passion Surrounding Team Sports
Competitive team sports developed in North America at a time of rapid social, economic, political, demographic—and religious—change. From the emergence of baseball in the 1840s to the invention of basketball in 1891, North America was in transition. The Industrial Revolution created vast disparities of wealth, but it also altered patterns of subsistence and male sociability; men began working outside of the farms and socialized with fellow workers. Americans gravitated toward the cities, where they encountered immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and other places. Railroad lines knitted the continent together in something resembling a tapestry, making frontiers accessible. Canadians were forging their national identity at the same time the United States played out its moral crisis on the battlefields of Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Chickamauga, exacting a fearsome toll of casualties, roughly 2 percent of the nation’s population.
The evolution of the four major team sports in North America—baseball, football, hockey, and basketball—coincided with these social changes, and in some ways they are intimately related. The development of the telegraph and the railroad, for instance, made both intercollegiate and professional leagues possible, allowing the travel of teams from one community to another and news about the contests to filter back to hometowns. The move from subsistence living to factories provided at least the possibility of discretionary income and leisure time, and thereby a pool of both players and spectators.
The sports themselves reflected these changes. The violence of football, played by the sons, nephews, and brothers of Union army officers at elite Northeastern schools, recalled the carnage of Civil War battlefields, while baseball reflected the immigrant experience, even as it pushed against the constraints of industrialization. The Canadian embrace of lacrosse and then hockey coincided with emerging Canadian nationalism, and it derived from an intentional break with English traditions in favor of a rough game that evoked the brutality and the frontier justice of Canada’s vast expanses of wilderness. Basketball, an urban game, mimicked the complexities of life in the city precisely at the moment when cities were burgeoning.
Each sport, therefore, reflected, or reacted against, the zeitgeist: baseball and the Industrial Revolution, football and the Civil War, hockey and the formation of the Canadian Confederation, basketball and urbanization. Each sport in turn developed certain characteristics and meanings that help to explain its appeal in different eras, in different regions, and to different demographic groups.
Competitive team sports developed in North America at a time of rapid social, economic, political, demographic—and religious—change.
The social changes of the nineteenth century also created anxieties. The Victorian-era cult of domesticity made white, middle-class women sovereigns of their households and the moral guardians of both their families and society. At least since the late seventeenth century (the earliest data we have), women have dominated religious life in North America while men’s participation lagged. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, many husbands no longer worked the land, passing their days instead at the factory or in some sedentary office job, with little access to fresh air and few opportunities for exercise.
Several remedies were proposed, including camping and fraternal organizations. The nineteenth-century movement that became known as Muscular Christianity originated in the British novels of Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, which valorized robust, athletic Christians. Awash in fears that Anglicans had succumbed to effeminacy, various churchmen began advocating for rigorous physical exercise as an antidote to the enervating effects of urban life during the Industrial Revolution. Muscular Christianity crossed the Atlantic and was picked up by a diverse array of proponents, all of them apologists for a strenuous religion.
In North America, the Muscular Christianity movement was adopted by Protestant churchmen in the decades following the Civil War, and it included such initiatives and innovations as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), church-league athletics, the Men and Religion Forward movement of the 1910s, and most recently, Promise Keepers. Drawing on the New Testament metaphors of militarism (“the full armor of God”) and athleticism (“running the race,” “finishing the course”), Protestant leaders jettisoned the Puritan aversion to sports as frivolity and recommended a strenuous life marked by athletic pursuits and aggressive, even pugilistic, male behavior. Therein lay an antidote to overly feminized churches as well as the revival of “old stock” Protestantism against the incursion of non-Protestant immigrants.
Muscular Christianity, then, served both religious and sociological ends. In the early decades of the twentieth century, large churches incorporated basketball courts and bowling alleys into their physical plants in what became known as the institutional church movement. Roman Catholics followed suit. The Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), with its boxing tournaments and basketball games, was begun inChicago in 1930 and spread across North America and the world; Catholic athletic leagues fostered competition among schools and gave rise to pep banners bearing such memorable sentiments as BEAT HOLY CHILD. Judaism emulated the YMCA with Young Men’s Hebrew Associations, and Reconstructionist Judaism sought to mimic institutional churches.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, large churches incorporated basketball courts and bowling alleys into their physical plants in what became known as the institutional church movement.
Many of the leaders of organized team sports were connected in some way or another with Muscular Christianity, and all of the sports themselves emerged out of a specific historical and cultural context. But, as with the unpredictability of the games themselves, the world of sports often confounded the intentions and the aspirations of its founders while simultaneously functioning as an engine for social change, especially on matters of race and ethnicity.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the four major team sports in North America—baseball, football, hockey, and basketball—were devised in the Northeast and can be plotted in a geographical arc from Princeton and New Brunswick, New Jersey, to New York City to New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, to Montréal. Other formative developments occurred not far away from that arc: the first known reference to baseball in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the first rugby-style football game in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the first international hockey game in Burlington, Vermont.
Randall Balmer is a prize-winning historian, leading public commentator on religion, and author of more than dozen books. He holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College.