Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania Sports
Pennsylvania Sports
Overview: Pennsylvania Sports

HAMBURG PARK {illustration}Tuesday, July 26th, 1859, AT 4 O'CLOCK,  TRIAL OF SPEED Mile Heats, best Three in Five, to Saddle. Mr. Wm. Woodruff enters br. m. Sally Lewis., Mr. H. Randal enters b. g. Reed Bird. ALSO,  Exciting Match Time. Mr. Alexandrew, of New York, bets Mr. E. Smith, of Philadelphia, that he can produce a man to walk three miles in Twenty-Four Minutes, fair heel and toe, for $200 a side. Omnibuses will leave the Exchange and Tenth St. and Passyunk Road at 3½, for the Park. Will positively come off, rain or shine. E. EASTMAN. U. S. Steam-Power Job Printing Office, Ledger Buildings, Philada.
Flyer for a horse race and foot race at Hamburg Park, July 26, 1859.
Envisioning Pennsylvania as an experiment in utopian living, founder William Penn had his first colonial legislature ban "riotous sports" that might tempt his colonists into immoral and licentious behavior. Sports and athletic contests had long been associated with gambling, drinking, and other earthly sins. Still, even Penn himself was not beyond a little honest competition. He reportedly raced his horses in Philadelphia down what would fittingly later be named Race Street; but, then, horse racing was one sport that the legislature did not specifically ban. And even outlawed sports found willing participants in the earliest Quaker colonists. In 1687, Richard Crosby was fined five shillings for drunkenness and challenging a Swede to a bout of cudgels, in which the two opponents would joust at each other with short sticks.

As Scots Irish Presbyterians, English Anglicans, and other less restrained groups joined Penn's colony, their search for amusement, often fueled by alcohol, extended to cockfights, bull baits, cards, dice, foot racing, wrestling, and similar contests upon which they could wager. In response, the Pennsylvania Assembly and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting passed laws and bans to discourage these and other ungodly activities; laws and injunctions widely ignored by their fellow colonists.
Oil on canvas painting depicting two boatmen, the Biglin brothers, racing their craft against another boat, along the bank of the Schuylkill River.   Only the edge of the competing boat is visible. The upper and distant half of the painting contains a four-man rowing crew, crowds on the shore, and spectators following in flagdecked steamboats.
The Biglin Brothers Racing, by Thomas Eakins, 1872.

Official censure continued into the early 1800s. The Pennsylvania legislature banned horse racing throughout the state in 1820, but by then deep changes and emerging forces in American life were giving rise to competitive sports and recreations. Playing fields provided beneficial outlets for pent-up energies, important institutions of socialization, and training grounds for the learning of honesty, teamwork, fair play, subservience to authority, and other traits necessary for success and leadership in the competitive free market economy of the modern world.

While young men growing up on farms had plenty of opportunity for daily physical activity, their counterparts in towns and cities needed opportunities to flex their muscles. Benjamin Franklin found his by swimming, and, by the early 1800s, men were bringing their boats and bodies to the waterways for exercise and competition. Crews from the University of Pennsylvania began rowing against each other in the shallows of the Schuylkill as early as 1801. In 1835, the river witnessed the first formal race between eight-oared barges. Across the state, Pittsburgh became a national center of both amateur and professional rowing contests.
Group photograph of The Haverford College Cricket Team, Haverford, PA, 1878.
The Haverford College Cricket Team, Haverford, PA, 1878.

Immigrants arriving from Europe brought their sports and recreations with them. Cricket, a bat-and-ball game long popular with the British aristocracy, found its way to Philadelphia in the 1830s, followed, in the 1850s, by a new, more middle-class team game, soccer, which combined the ardent belief in physical fitness and team spirit then being fostered in England's private secondary schools. For well-connected young men, amateur cricket clubs became gateways for membership in the more prestigious social clubs that structured Philadelphia high society. About the same time, baseball, a more populist and homegrown bat-and-ball game, quickly spread throughout the Commonwealth in ways cricket never would.

Advertisement showing the interior of the well-attended gymnasium, operated by James Roper on the 800 block of Market Street, in which several men exercise in front of a crowd of spectators. In the right, three men perform balance moves on a balance beam next to a wall adorned with a rack from which boxing gloves and squash rackets hang. Beside the beam, two men wearing boxing gloves converse near the pummel horse that two men utilize. In the front center and left of the room, two pairs of men, one pair wearing face guards, fence; two men pull weights attached to the ceiling; and another tests his strength on the parallel bars near men climbing poles. To the rear, other exercisers climb vertical and inclined ropes, hang and climb from exercise ladders, straddle and perform pull-ups on horizontal poles, and dangle upside down from a trapeze. Around the room, spectators including several men and a few women in winter clothing, stand and sit to watch the gym attendees. Roper established the gymnasium circa 1831 which relocated to the 800 block of Walnut Street
Roper's Gymnasium, 274 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1831.
In the decades before the Civil War, Pennsylvanians began to look more favorably upon physical education and organized sports. Young men began to form a range of athletic clubs based around baseball, rowing, cricket, archery, and the like. Soon, private schools, colleges, and clubs sponsored a variety of teams and contests. Germans in Pennsylvania imported the gymnasium and exercise equipment, including climbing ropes, medicine balls, and barbells. Americans began to view sports as an arena in which merit and equality reigned; how well you could hit a baseball, pull an oar, or shoot an arrow carried with it a certain prestige. On early cricket and baseball teams the sons of the elite at times played with and against artisans.

Still, sports was not yet a crucible for equality. Blacks and whites rarely played together, and the growing physical and cultural separation of America's classes were mirrored in the emerging class divisions of American sport. In working-class white and African-American neighborhoods, the two Bs–boxing and baseball–flourished. Philadelphia's growing black population was as attracted to baseball as whites were, and while there was some integrated play, blacks, for the most part, had to form their own teams, athletic clubs, and leagues.

Concerned about the vice that flourished in concert with boxing, the Pennsylvania legislature outlawed prize fighting in 1867. In response, fight promoters staged "sparring exhibitions" in theaters and clubs across the Commonwealth, and the sport enjoyed unprecedented popularity in ethnic, working-class neighborhoods and towns. Dominated at first by the Irish–indeed, in the late 1800s, Italian and Eastern-European boxers in Pittsburgh and surrounding steel towns would take on Irish names to establish their credibility and toughness–inter-ethnic rivalries found their outlet in a growing array of athletic clubs and contests.
Breaker boys playing a game of pick up football with the tipple in the background.
Breaker boys playing a game of pick up football, northeastern Pennsylvania, circa...

Soon, corporations, factories, and businesses sponsored their own sports teams. Publicly, the owners encouraged sport as a wholesome alternative to the saloon, gambling den, and pool hall. More privately, they envisioned sports as a safe way to funnel working-class energies away from demands for better work conditions, higher wages, and union representation. In 1920, for example, the Carnegie Library in Braddock stepped up its summer basketball leagues to keep young men off of street corners and out of saloons, and to help "Americanize" the "hunkies" who had participated in the great Steel Strike of 1919.

Young women exercising with ropes and rings, YMCA Central Branch, Philadelphia, PA 1918.
Young women exercising with ropes and rings, YMCA Central Branch, Philadelphia,...
Industrialization and the rise of an American managerial class also brought with it the fear that the nation's Anglo-American elite was becoming physically weak and vulnerable. In the jungle of modern life, white Americans came to believe that only the fittest–and most Christian–would survive. Fitness found a new champion in the Young Men's Christian Association, whose gyms became centers for fitness and competition for old sports and new, including basketball, which was born in a YMCA gym in 1891.

In the waning decades of the 1800s, elite urban athletic clubs and suburban country clubs found that soccer and then tennis and golf could complement cricket. The new games soon overtook the old English import, which was just too slow. Private schools and elite colleges also adapted their own sports, including rugby, track and field, and the most manly and Darwinian of all–football, which evolved into a highly regimented and disciplined version of its much less structured rugby ancestor.

Washington and Jefferson, Swarthmore, and Penn emerged as early gridiron powerhouses, while neighboring Haverford won four of the first six intercollegiate championships in soccer. Football's popularity took it quickly beyond the colleges to athletic clubs, which began to entice college "ringers" with under-the-table cash. When the Allegheny Athletic Association entered a payment into its ledger to former Yale star Pudge Heffelfinger in 1892, professional football was born.

Team photograph
The Latrobe Athletic Association football team, 1897.
As talented working-class athletes began to out-compete their economic betters in open athletic contests, team sports, and professional baseball, wealthy Pennsylvanians retreated to country clubs for tennis, golf, sailing, and swimming– sports too expensive for the masses–and sent their children off to private schools to compete among themselves in football, baseball, and basketball. There were always a few individuals, however, including Ora Washington, the great black woman tennis star of the 1920s and 1930s, who found ways to demonstrate their talents despite the odds. Like their baseball playing counterparts, black tennis players and golfers were relegated to leagues of their own.

Some Philadelphia Flyers brawling with the Vancouver Canucks on ice.
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Some Philadelphia Flyers brawling with the Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia PA,...
By the mid-1900s, all the major professional sports were integrated, and all were well represented with major league baseball, football, and hockey teams in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and a basketball team in Philadelphia. Boxing was now regulated by a state athletic commission, as was thoroughbred racing after its legalization in 1959. By the early 1980s, both the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State had fielded national championship football teams, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers had remarkable championship runs, as had the Philadelphia Flyers in hockey.

As the twentieth century has turned into the twenty-first, our lust for fitness is evident in our gyms, the road races we run, and bicycles that we peddle. Our love for speed is made manifest in the packed crowds that fill the Pocono Speedway whenever NASCAR comes to town. And our abiding need to compete, to feel part of something greater, to test our own limits, to go faster, to jump higher, and to be amazed by those who can do it at the highest levels, makes itself manifest every time a kid, a teenager, or a grown man or woman kicks a soccer ball, tees up golf ball, serves a tennis ball, sinks a free throw, runs for a touchdown, hits a homer, or buys a ticket to watch the passing parade.
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