Sport History Rewind: Review of City Games

This post is a part of a new series, “Sport History Rewind.” In this series, contributors revisit and reevaluate important texts to determine the degree to which their analyses, arguments, research, and influence resonate in the field today. Of particular concern is how well the works fit into historiographical debates and compare with more recent sport-related scholarship. We hope that these posts will help highlight texts that are sometimes forgotten or overlooked, and help us better understand the field of sport history.

Riess, Steven. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Pp. 368. Notes and index. $28.00 paperback.

By Andrew D. Linden

A substantial addition to sport historiography, Steven Riess’ City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports analyzes the city-sport nexus in large American metropolises from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. His examination involves three traditional urban-studies time periods: the “Walking City” (1820-1870), the “Industrial Radial City” (1870-1960), and the “Suburbanized Metropolis” (1945-1980). Riess attributes his work on urban history to the influences of urban historian Richard Wade and urban and social historian Mark Haller, who wrote on topics such as urban politics, the rise of the western city, and crime in the urban metropolis. Thus, as a synthesis of sport history scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s, City Games’ most notable attribute is that it aligned traditional urban history with the then younger discipline of sport history.


University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Written in the late 1980s and published in 1991, Riess examines the differing case studies of the city-sport nexus in the field of sport history. As a reader—nearly twenty-five years later—perhaps the work has been weakened as the field has exponentially expanded in the past quarter century, leaving a large amount of scholarship unexamined. Nevertheless, City Games is still important as it contains a wealth of information and outlines a chronological history of the rise of big-time, modern, and professional sport and its relationship to the city in the United States. That the field has expanded only points to the influences City Games had on the field.

Riess’ analysis—while a veritable encyclopedia of the history of modern sport in the United States—focuses most specifically on the spatial dimensions of the city in relation to its burgeoning sporting culture. He also details the ways in which sport and physical activity played a pivotal role in the agendas of social reformers who desired to ameliorate hardships for citizens living within the expanding cities. Furthermore, he argues that land appropriated for leisure activity helped reform the cities through the development of city space. Sport, Riess explains, also facilitated the process of Americanization for immigrant groups and positively promoted the “sports creed”—the positive character attributes which could be gleaned from participatory sport—to troubled youth and the disadvantaged.

The “Walking City,” Riess’s first section, symbolizes the ways in which nineteenth century urbanization and the rise of populations created a distinctive urban sports culture in the eastern United States. A “modern sports culture,” Riess maintains, developed because of the symbiotic relationships between new spatial patterns in the cities, advancements in transportation, evolving class and race relations, politics, and the emergence of new social values. For the lower classes, community developed around the “sporting fraternity,” involving activities such as baiting, pugilism, and other forms of supposedly vice-ridden entertainment. Social reformers of the middle-classes alternatively used sport to encourage “rational recreation,” including the urban health reform movement, the creation of “order”—including being a “righteous citizen”—and the encouragement of appropriately using discretionary time for self-betterment.

Riess also examines other middle-class groups that became some of the first sport spectators in the city. Harness racing, which sport historian Melvin L. Adelman asserts was the first modern sport, attracted certain middle-income groups. Furthermore, the St. George Cricket Club and the New York Knickerbockers attracted some of the first “team crowds” in the major cities. There is, however, a lack of women in his section on the “Walking City,” suggesting that City Games is a bit outdated and lacks some of the most important, and more recent scholarship on American sport. Jan Todd’s Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful (1999) and Patricia Vertinsky’s The Eternally Wounded Woman (1994) would augment the historiography by proving that women had their own experiences in the young U.S. sporting culture, and provide evidence that their marginalization was due to specific gender relations and essentialised notions of femininity of the late nineteenth century. Martha Verbrugge’s analysis of women’s sport in Boston, Able-Bodied Womanhood (1988)—would also help this analysis.

According to Riess, the economic transformation of American sporting culture entails the most significant aspect of the “Industrial Radial City.” The rise of industrial capitalism, he explains, affected various groups of individuals in the city and helped develop a new sporting culture. Sport continued to evolve around social class divisions. The upper-class aligned with President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life,” the urban middle-class became involved in the national pastime, and the blue-collar sportspersons continued to develop its sporting life around the bachelor subculture, or the life of the tavern. Finally, according to Riess, the connections between political urban machines and sports magnates intensified due to the commercialization and professionalization of the big-time sports leagues.

Sport furthermore developed on racial and ethnic lines in the “Industrial Radial City.” “Old immigrants” continued to play games mirroring their heritages, while “new immigrants” adopted U.S. sporting culture as part of their acculturation to American society. Riess’s brief analysis of black sports culture focuses on exclusion, while briefly analyzing Negro League Baseball. Perhaps this approach marginalizes personal agency and grassroots movements. In the examination of black sports culture, for example, he assumes that all individuals had similar experiences. Yet again, his synthesis was published prior to works such as Michael Lomax’s Black Baseball Entrepreneurs (2003) and Neil Lanctot’s Negro League Baseball (2008), and David Wiggins’ Glory Bound (1997). Thus, his examination of the black experience in American sport provides a top-down approach in which he details their involvement in the white sporting culture, rather than their own unique involvements.

Riess’s abbreviated examination of the “Suburbanized Metropolis” focuses almost exclusively on the rise of professional sport in the post-World War Two era. Reading in 2016, this section is the weakest. Although Riess correctly asserts that the changing nature of the city—including the rise of mass transportation, the rise of the Rustbelt and Sunbelt, and the emergence of suburban culture—catalyzed the development and expansion of professional sport, there is currently a much larger amount of scholarship on franchise relocation and the business of sport than when City Games was published. Charles C. Euchner’s Playing the Field (1993) and Michael Danielson’s Home Team (2001), for example (among a host of others), more thoroughly analyze the relationships between city politicians and economists and their desires to become “major league cities.”

Moreover, while Riess cites a plethora of sport scholarship, in his chapter on the “Suburban Metropolis” he relies on few sources rather than significant sport history scholarship as little had been written by the late 1980s. For example, he uses the The NFL’s Official Encyclopedic History of Professional Football (1979) for much of his more recent information on professional football (among a few sources on earlier time periods, popular works, and unpublished manuscripts), and his analysis of the National Hockey League relies on James Quirk and Mohamed El Hodiri’s 1974 essay entitled “The Economic Theory of a Professional Sports League.” Much of the scholarship on these two leagues emerged after City Games. While this section completes the traditional urban history timeline model—and Riess acknowledges that an updated version of City Games would include the more recent relationships between entrepreneurs and sport—it was perhaps a late edition and does not offer as much to the historiography as his other chapters.

As a synthesis of sport history scholarship written in the 1970s and 1980s, Riess aimed to holistically examine the relationship between city growth and the role sport had in these changes. Yet, as many urban history studies do, City Games mainly focuses on New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. This limitation, which is acknowledged by Riess, illuminates a potential problem with historical syntheses. He relies on scholars such as Adelman, Dale Somers, and Stephen Hardy, as well as his already published works including Touching Base (1983)—his analysis of baseball in the Progressive Era. Thus, City Games can only examine cities that have been previously researched by sport historians. Perhaps a more nuanced (or a more updated) approach to the sport-city nexus would help flesh out the historiography.

Nonetheless, City Games remains an important piece of scholarship as it combines important parts of the urban sports historiography of the field’s nascent years. Riess’s thorough examination is useful for young scholars being introduced to the field, to scholars outside of sport history, or to students in a sport history, American history, or urban history survey. The limitations of his work only suggest the positive progressions that the field has taken in the past quarter century, which can assuredly be attributed to Steven Riess’s work within the discipline.

Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. Check out his website at

One thought on “Sport History Rewind: Review of City Games

  1. Pingback: Review of I Fight for a Living | Sport in American History

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