Elzey, Chris, and David K. Wiggins, eds. DC Sports: The Nation’s Capital at Play. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2015. Pp. xix+ 317. Notes, Index. $24.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper
It was another bad start to the season.
The Nationals entered the April 17, 2009, game against the Marlins with a 1-7 record. Since the team returned baseball to the capital in 2005, the squad had finished at the bottom of the National League East Division all but once and never ended a season with a winning record.
A turnaround would not be forthcoming against Florida. In front of 17,000 disappointed Washingtonians, the Marlins defeated the Nationals, 3-2. To add salt to the wound, third baseman Ryan Zimmermann and first baseman Adam Dunn took to the field in jerseys that had NATINALS emblazoned on the front. The spelling snafu seemed to epitomize the luckless franchise and perhaps even all of DC sports.
Indeed, argue Chris Elzey and David K. Wiggins in DC Sports: The Nation’s Capital at Play, Washington, DC, seems to have an adversarial relationship with professional teams. The Capitols (basketball) won just two games in its inaugural 1944 season before taking up residence in New Jersey. American Soccer League’s DC Darts secured two ASL championships, then jumped ship for Miami in 1971. That same year, the Senators moved to Texas. As Elzey and Wiggins note, “for a city routinely thrust into the national spotlight, Washington has had a strange history of being ignored by big-time professional sports” (p. xiii). DC Sports assesses this “strange history” and attempts to answer the question, “What is it about Washington?” (xiv). In seventeen, mostly chronologically organized chapters, various authors explore different pieces of DC’s sport culture to explain the uniqueness of the government town.
DC Sports covers a diversity of activities. In chapter one, “The Extraordinary History of Cycling and Bike Racing in Washington, DC,” John Bloom argues that the smoothly paved surfaces of the capital city fostered a thriving cycling culture, one initially dominated by men. Ryan A. Swanson next explores DC’s sport facilities in “Less than Monumental: The Sad History of Sport Venues in Washington, DC.” Specifically, he analyzes the histories of the White Lot, Griffith Stadium, and DC Memorial Stadium. In chapter three, Wiggins describes the significances of the Howard and Lincoln Thanksgiving Day football games, from 1919-1929. He argues that the matches offered opportunities to build school spirit, exhibit racial pride, and demonstrate upper-class black respectability. Similarly, in chapter four, “Teeing Off against Jim Crow: Black Golf and Its Early Development in Washington, DC,” Marvin P. Dawkins and Jomills Henry Braddock II illustrate how black Washingtonians fought for access to segregated public courses. The authors argue that the DC residents became models for others to follow in the fight against Jim Crow.
Along with descriptions of athletic endeavors, DC Sports also discusses those who wrote about them. In chapter five, Dennis Gildea examines the career of Washington Post writer Shirley Povich. Povich started as a copyboy–a position he earned by impressing Post owner Edward B. McLean with his caddying skills–then moved up the ladder to police reporter, night rewriter, sports reporter, and finally sports editor. Gildea suggests Povich gave the “toy department” credibility by moving away from the “Gee Whiz” style of 1920s writers such as Grantland Rice. His more balanced pieces notably commented “on race and athletics more intelligently than any other mainstream daily in the land” (p. 84). Also discussing sportswriting, Claire M. Williams and Sarah K. Fields explore the depiction of female athletes in the capital city. In “Between the Lines: Women’s Sports and the Press in Washington, DC,” the authors identify trends in the historical coverage of women’s sport. Female athletes lacked opportunities to compete in the early nineteenth century; therefore, press clippings were similarly scarce. Coverage boomed in the 1920s and then again in the 1970s, both times in response to the increased participation of women in sport.
The significance of race runs through most of the anthology. For example, in chapter seven, “Exercising Civil Rights: Public Recreation and Racial Segregation in Washington, DC, 1900-49,” Martha H. Verbrugge discusses how the Civil Rights Movement connected with the fight for access to public recreational spaces. In contrast, Chad Carlson’s chapter, “’The Greatest High School Basketball Game Every Played’: DeMatha vs. Power Memorial, 1965, highlights “an unusual moment of racial tolerance.” In a game that pitted New York’s Power Memorial vs. DC’s DeMatha, Carlson explains that “the sportsmanship and respect exhibited by both teams suggests that the game was mostly about basketball, and not racial division” (p. 130). He also argues that DeMatha’s upset victory put DC basketball on the map.
Next, DC Sports covers the (many) unsuccessful histories of Washington’s professional teams. In “Whips, Darts, and Dips: The Rollercoaster Ride of Men’s Professional Soccer in Washington, DC,” Charles Parrish and John Nauright chronicle the disastrous plight of men’s soccer in the city. As they explain, “The history of professional soccer in the District is largely a tale of futility” (p. 148). Between the American Soccer League and the North American Soccer League, DC hosted several different teams, including: the Britannica Soccer Club, which became the Darts; the Whips, comprised primarily of Scottish players from the Aberdeen club; the Diplomats, formerly the Baltimore Bays; Team America; and currently DC United. Parrish and Nauright caution that “If DC United were ever to leave, its exodus would represent continuity, not change” (p. 163). DC similarly maintained a rocky relationship with professional baseball. As Stephen J. Walker argues in chapter ten, the unexpectedly successfully 1969 Washington Senators “reenergized a city yearning for good news”; however, the goodwill evaporated almost instantaneously and owner Robert E. Short moved the team to Texas within two years (p. 177).
Washington’s football team stands out as the exception. Stephen H. Norwood describes, in chapter eleven, how President Richard Nixon cultivated a friendship with Redskins coach George Allen that served to counteract the social upheavals of the 1970s. According to Norwood, “Both [men] were obsessed with winning, believed in the value of intense competition and discipline, and shared a mistrust of youth and the press” (p. 186). The two stood as powerful, anti-counterculture symbols. Chris Elzey then recounts the fragmented history of basketball in Washington. Unlike with football–but in line with soccer and baseball–basketball “franchises were shuffled in and out of the city almost as regularly as congressmen representing a perpetually dissatisfied district” (p. 207). Likewise, in chapter thirteen, John Soares notes Washington’s late entrance into the professional hockey realm, yet argues that the Capitals led the way in signing minority and foreign-born players.
DC Sports also shows the significance of amateur sport in the capital. In chapter fourteen, John M. Turrini discusses the history and significance of the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM). He posits that the MCM became known as “the People’s Race” for two reasons. One, press coverage highlighted the large percentage of first-time marathoners that ran each year; two, due to military restrictions, the MCM could not offer prize money. Professional runners therefore remained home. Zack Tupper finishes the conversation about amateur sport in “Georgetown Basketball in Reagan’s America.” He contrasts Georgetown coach John Thompson, who grew up in and protested against segregation, and President Reagan, who epitomized the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.
Although many of the chapters note the fickle nature of DC sport franchises, the anthology ends on a high note. In chapter sixteen, James R. Hartley first recaps the dismal history of baseball in Washington, then turns to the contemporary successes of the Nationals. “After so many years of disappointment and frustration, Washington baseball fans finally have a team they can proudly support,” he posits (301). Daniel A. Nathan concludes DC Sports by recounting his experiences as a longsuffering DC sports fan. Such memories, happy and sad, serve to forge community.
The strength of DC Sports lies in the themes that run throughout the anthology. As previously noted, race appears prominently in several chapters. From the fight against Jim Crow on the golf course, to Georgetown’s pushback against President Reagan in the 1980s, the well-researched chapters demonstrate how race relations influenced sport. Likewise, the interconnection of community and fandom surfaces repeatedly. For example, Parrish and Nauright illustrate how soccer’s foreign connections impacted spectators, while Norwood convincingly shows how conservative politics increased the popularity of football.
Perhaps the most interesting theme, and one that inherently separates DC from other cities, is discussions of how the status of Washington as the bed of the government impacted local sport. For example, in Verbrugge’s chapter on public recreation, she explains the problems that arose when public places fell under dual governmental mechanisms. “Federal and municipal officials wrangled over every feature of public recreation, from jurisdiction to daily operation,” she explains (p. 109). As such, local racial attitudes often conflicted with federal non-discrimination policies, leading to de facto discrimination. Although a more explicit identification of the connections between chapters and overarching concepts might have helped the reader navigate what appears to be, at first glance, a hodge-podge of stories, DC Sports offers a glimpse into the distinctive history of a unique city.
National fans excited about the recent turn-of-events may be well advised to read DC Sports. Sadly, if one point shines through strongest in the anthology, it is that DC teams do not usually stay put, whether successful or not. For the sake of DC fans, hopefully the Nationals can add a different chapter to Washington’s “strange history.”
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.