Fourth of July weekend: a time to celebrate our independence. A time for family picnics, hot dogs, hamburgers, fireworks, and concerts. There are parades in almost every town and Old Glory waving everywhere you turn. If George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin were alive today, what would they think? The Old Coach would like to think that they would be pretty amazed and pleased with where we are today compared to conditions during their lifetimes.
Just imagine, a hot, stifling (remember, no air conditioning) early July 1776 day in Philadelphia. Representatives from each of the 13 American colonies are meeting to decide whether or not to declare that we are no longer subject to British rule. Not one of them has a cell phone or Internet access to quickly look up information. None traveled by air, rail, or interstate to attend the meetings. At the end of the day’s deliberations, they didn’t retire to their room at the Hilton and tune in to one of the 250 different cable channels to catch the late news or see ESPN highlights of the day’s major league baseball games or Women’s World Cup Soccer results. It wasn’t until almost a century later that the game of professional baseball was in its infancy. And the Women’s World Cup didn’t come about until 1991.
An early version of the game that we affectionately call “Our National Pastime” had been around since the early days of our republic, and the first rules of baseball had been published by Alexander Joy Cartwright in 1845. Even though Abner Doubleday in 1839 claimed to have invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, variations had been around for more than 50 years. In 1846, the first organized game took place in NY City between a club team named the Knickerbockers and a cricket club.
The first professional team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, formed in 1869; and in 1876, 100 years after our first Independence Day, the National League was formed with eight teams: Cincinnati; Boston Red Stockings; Chicago White Stockings; Hartford (Connecticut) Dark Blues; Louisville Greys; Mutual of New York; Philadelphia Athletics; and St. Louis Brown Stockings. The American League wasn’t elevated from the Western League to the major league level until 1901, which is why it’s called “The Junior Circuit.” The eight founding teams were the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Americans, Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Blues, Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, and Washington Senators. In 1903, the league champion from each league met in what became the first World Series.
The game of soccer, in one form or other, had been around for several thousand years by the time of the American Revolution. There are historical mentions of a game that involved kicking a leather ball stuffed with fur into a small hole that was played by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty in the second and third centuries B.C. There are also references to similar contests being played in ancient Japan, Greece and Egypt. The first international game was thought to be between a team from China and a team from Japan in 50 B.C.
Early kicking games in England during the eighth to 16th centuries were so violent that they were banned by several monarchs. King Edward III in 1331 and Queen Elizabeth I in 1572 outlawed the game, punishable by jail time. Although in 1605 the game became legal once more, it wasn’t until 1815 that a standard set of rules was established by the Eton School. Early American colleges, Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, and Brown, were playing intercollegiate matches by the Eton rules in 1820. Over the next 75 years, the rules were amended to our present game.
Soccer was played in the 1900 Olympic Games, and in 1904 the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was organized by France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland into the current ruling body in soccer. The first World Cup took place in 1930, with 13 men’s teams meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, to determine the best in the world. In 1991 the first Women’s Soccer World Cup was played in China. The U.S. team won.
Of course, our Founding Fathers wouldn’t have been able to enjoy either American football or basketball. Those games had yet to be invented. A common view during our colonial period was that sports should be discouraged because they detracted from time spent performing essential tasks. But Washington did promote games like bowling, field hockey, competitive running, horse racing, wrestling, horseshoes, and handball. He considered these as a way to ease the stress of soldiering in times of war (https://sportscolonialtimes.weebly.com/history-of-sports-in-colonial-america.html).
No one in 1776 would likely have predicted how sports have become such a dominant part of our national fabric. Who could have anticipated that athletic contests would have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry where professional athletes earn more money than the President of the United States or some of the wealthiest business owners?
When we compare the lives of individuals in colonial times with their modern-day counterparts, we can see many differences and few likenesses. It’s true that today we enjoy so many of the inventions, scientific discoveries, technologies, etc., that didn’t blossom until years later, but man’s competitive nature is a trait that has been with the human race since the beginning of recorded history and flourishes today.
Perhaps when Americans celebrate a July 4th a century from now, there will be new games that have replaced baseball, soccer, basketball and football in popularity. Perhaps the NFL and MLB will have expanded into international play with franchises on every continent. Hopefully, our sports will return to being used as a teaching tool for developing teamwork, physical fitness, mental toughness, and sportsmanship. I think that would make our founding fathers very proud. I think that would be worth celebrating.