Americans love their sports. Many of us watch the year flow by, not from month to month, but from baseball to soccer to basketball to football season—until spring training rolls around and the cycle begins once more. Over our morning coffee we have been known to glance at the front page of the newspaper and then turn with relish to the sports page. Our daughters and sons decorate their rooms with team banners and grown men and women show up at football games with cheese wedges on their heads or the name of their favorite team painted on their faces. Analogies to sports abound in our political and business conversations, as we declare someone has “struck out” with a bad idea or “fumbled the ball” with a clumsy response to a challenge. And, young or old, we seem always ready to recount our most memorable sports experiences, as players or fans.
As fans, athletes, or teachers, we know that sports instructs us in valuable lessons in team work, self discipline, and the ability to accept both victory and defeat with good grace. But how many of us realize the value of sports history in our classrooms? In this issue of History Now scholars, writers, and teachers remind us that sports history is a window onto many of the key issues and events in modern American history.
Mark Naison begins the issue with an overview of “Why Sports History is American History,” reminding us that racial and gender struggles played themselves out on the baseball field, track, and in the boxing ring. New York Times columnist Gail Collins follows with “The Battle of the Sexes,” an account of the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that put an end to the myth that women could not compete successfully against men on the tennis court. In “Before Jackie: How Strikeout King Satchel Paige Struck Down Jim Crow,” Larry Tye traces the battle against racial discrimination in baseball through the career of one of the most talented players of the twentieth century. African Americans and women were not the only groups to face discrimination; in her account of the Olympian Jim Thorpe, Kate Buford shows us the tragic consequences of prejudice against Native American athletes. In his essay “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” Thomas Hauser focuses on the evolution of the boxer’s political and social consciousness and the impact of his refusal to serve in the armed forces. Next, Barbara Winslow analyzes the far-reaching changes in sports generated by landmark legislation in her essay “The Impact of Title IX.” And finally, in “The History of Women’s Baseball,” Kerry Candaele uses his own mother’s professional baseball career as a jumping-off point to remind us of the wartime years when women had “a league of their own.”
In their joint essay, “Sports: Illustrating U.S. History in the Classroom,” our two master teachers, Bruce Lesh and Philip Nicolosi, offer readers creative and useful suggestions for effectively turning the major themes of this issue into classroom lessons. Our archivist Mary-Jo Kline provides readers with a wide variety of additional sources on American sports, while our contributing AP, high school, middle school and elementary school teachers have produced excellent lesson plans on the topic. Finally, our interactive feature, “Important Moments in Sports: Video Clips” brings Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted and the prelude to the King/Riggs match to life, courtesy of NBC News.
Spring training has begun—only a few weeks until we hear the magic words “play ball.” We hope this issue of History Now will help teachers everywhere use sports to illuminate critical moments in modern American history, no matter what team you root for in the coming season.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence, and Civil War Wives: The Life and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant.