Sport History Rewind: Review of A Whole New Ball Game

This post is a part of the 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.

Guttmann, Allen. A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Pp. 243. Notes and index. $35.00 paperback.

By Andrew D. Linden

Written in 1988, A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports is Allen Guttmann’s analysis of American sport from the pre-Columbian era through the 1980s. In his third book (following From Ritual to Record and Spectator Sports), Guttmann continues his examination of sport as an effect of modernization and articulates the ways in which the trend of modernity from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries furthered into the twentieth. Divided into thirteen thematic chapters, A Whole New Ball Game attempts to alter the “great imbalance between popular fascination and critical investigation” of sport (p. ix). That is, too many “sports fans” write about the topic. Thus, Guttmann’s work, while surveying a plethora of themes and narratives in U.S. sport history, broadly attempts to present a critical analysis of sport in the United States. Writing for non-specialists, A Whole New Ball Game remains an important work for novice readers of sport history or young scholars studying the historiography of modernization theory in American sport.

Guttmann

University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Building off his work in From Ritual to Record, Guttmann reviews his criteria for modern sport; in other words, he argues that modernization stemmed from: the secularization of sport; the desire for equality in sport (through rules and sustaining abilities); bureaucratization, specialization, and quantification of our sporting culture; and a growing American obsession with records and achievements. The theme of modernization became an important methodological approach to sport history during the field’s nascent years (particularly in the 1980s). Guttmann’s other works along with Melvin L. Adelman’s A Sporting Time examined the rise of modern sport in the nineteenth century using this theoretical approach as a framework. In this work, however, Guttmann considers how the modernizing process led to many of the current problems (as of the 1980s) in sport.

In the first few sections of A Whole New Ball Game, Guttmann reopens the narratives of sport in pre-modern America. He attempts to counter popular notions that suggest Puritan rule in the North repressed modern sport while leisure culture in the South was the antithesis to Puritanical canon. Yet, southern sporting culture in the nineteenth century has been scrutinized by scholars who note that modern sports evolved in the northeastern urban metropolises of the 1800s (Adelman and Stephen Hardy’s How Boston Played certainly point to the region as an area of modernity in sport). Guttmann’s conclusion that modernization was very slow in the South, thus, correlated with other popular notions of the growth of sport.

The root of A Whole New Ball Game, however, is Guttmann’s assertions that popular sports such as baseball, basketball, and college sport, along with social dimensions of our sporting culture (race, class, and gender issues) have continued to follow a framework of modernization well into the twentieth century. His analysis of the national game–from a small urban phenomenon to the rise of baseball’s specialization, rationalization, bureaucracy, and quantification to an even more thorough modern sport as labor issues became prevalent in the middle of the twentieth century–contrasts with what Guttmann asserts was the American public’s “dream of a pastoral world where the grass is green, the sun is bright, and the crisp air carries the delightful sound of bats and balls” (p. 69). Baseball, while continuing a theme of modernity well into the 1900s, Guttmann postulates, continued to be presented as the halcyon game, invoking feelings of nostalgia and Americana.

While baseball’s modernization echoes the population’s love of the national pastime, basketball, children’s sport, and intercollegiate athletics, according to Guttmann, reflected the problems of modernity. Basketball, born from the YMCAs and influenced by the social reformer Luther Gulick (his pupil, of course, James Naismith, “invented” the game), evolved from a tool of the muscular Christian movement in the early twentieth century to a corrupted facet of modern America. Guttmann says that the 1950s point-shaving scandals were representative of the deterioration of the game from its idealistic origins, a consequence of the modernizing process in sport.

Children’s leisure followed a similar path. According to Guttmann, childhood activities  developed from the ideology of Gulick and the playground reformers to bureaucratized and professionalized league play, consisting of recruitment and the desire for championships as more important than physical and mental well-being. Finally, intercollegiate sports, which Guttmann asserts were representative of Americans’ larger understanding of academics in the United States, converted from student-run extra-curricular activities to big-time sport in need of reform by the middle of the twentieth century. Guttmann believes that college athletics could be reformed—as the Ivy League schools and other notable academic institutions had recently (in the 1980s) developed an academic-first agenda. Unfortunately, college sport has become even more modernized in the decades since A Whole New Ball Game appeared. The millions of dollars and corresponding scandals confirm Guttmann’s suspicions about the institution of college sport.

Guttmann’s chapters on black athletes and women’s sports analyze modernization through the broad theme of inequality in American sport. He astutely posits that modernization of U.S. race relations, while leading to desegregation as white teams ultimately desired to have the best teams on the field, effectively established new forms of racial segregation in sport. For example, residual racism consisting of the stigma of white player’s intellect versus black player’s superior physical strength, Harry Edwards’ notion of black athletes as a cog of the “plantation system” in sport, and a lack of black representation in sports ownership and upper-management identified the challenging nature of sport continuing to modernize.

Additionally, he believes that modernization led to many of the late twentieth century issues of women’s sports and exclusion. A search for an alternate model in women’s sport, he notes, halted modernity for decades. Recent activity (as of 1988), led by Title IX , the changing image of the female athlete, and economic allure to women’s sports, however, redefined women’s sport to more closely parallel men’s sport. Guttmann asserts that this led to many issues in the push toward equality. For example, he indicates that because boxing is such a brutal sport, we should question the celebration of women boxers (and he suggests that perhaps no one should box) and be cautious if women want to simply “imitate men,” as men’s sports are so wrought with issues (p. 157-158). This tension continues in the historical and sociological analysis of gender issues in sport.

Guttmann’s work raises numerous parallels between the modernity of the United States and the abundant problems in sporting culture near the end of the twentieth century. All sports, it seems, were affected by rationalization of the American society. Even nature and counterculture sports (for example, mountaineering and skateboarding), Guttmann suggests, were reformed by modernizing factors such as specialization and bureaucratization.

Overall, he argues that sports in the United States were a capitalist construct. In the twenty-first century, as sport (and physical activity) becomes more mechanistic, Guttmann’s trepidations seem clearer. And in essence, Guttmann’s conclusion articulates that modernization in American sporting culture is likely to continue. Written twenty-five years ago, his conclusions are still relevant. The future of sport, for example, has evolved into the digital age with recent trends of social media becoming the norm. This has, of course, created positives (specifically for the progression of sport marketing and the business of sport) and negatives (some may argue the progression of the business of sport is a negative). Guttmann’s articulation that sport mirrors, or follows, larger modernization patterns in U.S. culture, thus, is not likely to become outdated.

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 alinden@adrian.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. Check out his website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s