Review of Philly Sports

Swanson, Ryan A. and David K. Wiggins, eds. Philly Sports: Teams, Games, and Athletes from Rocky’s Town. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2016. Pp. 330. Notes and index. $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

This past spring, the Philadelphia 76ers “won” the NBA Draft Lottery, earning the right to select Ben Simmons with the number-one pick in June’s draft. Securing the top pick could be described as victorious futility or a futile victory, a successful culmination of former GM Sam Hinkie’s strategic tanking or evidence that the organization depressingly had reached its nadir. Regardless, the Sixers’s three-year “process” represents another episode in “Philadelphia’s vexed sport history” (p. xvii).


University of Arkansas Press, 2016.

Philly Sports: Teams, Games, and Athletes from Rocky’s Town, a collected volume edited by Ryan Swanson and David Wiggins, chronicles the city’s “vexed” relationship to sport. Through fifteen chapters spanning more than three hundred years, scholars explore various moments, developments, and figures that illuminate both the reality of and complexity behind Philly’s “underdog ethos” “inferiority complex,” and “uncouth” reputation (p. xiv, p. xvi). The volume successfully achieves the stated goal of “deliver[ing] a nuanced interpretation of this fascinating American city and its distinctive ‘underdog vibe’” (p. xix).


Courtney Smith opens the collection with sport’s origin in Pennsylvania, examining the Quakers’s estimation of recreational activities. Her chapter provides convincing evidence that Philly’s “vexed” relationship with sport began with William Penn. While most New England colonies fostered vibrant sporting cultures, Pennsylvania fashioned itself as a “colony dedicated to virtuous living” (p. 4). Yet, colonists resisted the Quaker-imposed restrictions, with an increasing number of non-Quaker Pennsylvanians patronizing taverns that encouraged the development of a sporting culture that expanded to include horse racing, foot racing, swimming, card games, and cockfighting. Sport in Philly thus began as an underdog venture.

Michael Lomax and Thomas Jable next describe two of the sport cultures that emerged in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Lomax explores the importance of the Philadelphia Pythians baseball club for the city’s black middle-class in the 1860s. The Pythians exemplified “muscular assimilation,” “symbolizing black Philadelphia’s pursuit of self-determination and race elevations” (p. 19). Lomax also explores the intra-racial tensions that emerged, as efforts to use baseball to advance civil rights, led by Octavius Catto, gave way to desires to maximize competitiveness and profits. Like the Pythians and black baseball community, Philly’s white cricketers also used sport to make identity-based claims. Jable traces cricket’s maturation in Philly, which began in the 1870s. The increased centralization and organization of the sport coincided with increased exclusivity. Jable situates cricket’s trajectory within the “search for order” of the late ninetieth-century. Unfortunately, he limits his examination to the formation of various cricket clubs and associations, missing an opportunity to contextualize the ordering ethos of cricketeers with similar efforts outside the sport. Nevertheless, these two contributions illustrate that, despite the wishes of William Penn, sport served a prominent community function in Philadelphia.

In chapter four, Catherine D’Lgnazio examines the rise and fall of schoolgirl sport in Philly during the first half of the twentieth century. The significance of her study, however, reaches beyond the boundaries of the city. She compellingly demonstrates that national ideologies promoting protectionist athletic reforms suppressed the supportive, expansionist schoolgirl sport culture that had thrived in the city. This shift also resulted in interscholastic sport becoming solely identified with boys’ sport, a development that has had long consequences for gender equity in sport. This identification between sport and masculinity extended to all aspects of Philly sports, proven by the fact this collection includes no accounts of women’s sport in Philly from the latter half of the twentieth century. Although the volume’s later chapters demonstrate the particular prominence of the sport-masculinity association in Philly, exploring multiple examples of the struggle of women’s sport to gain traction in the city could enhance this argument. Furthermore, the inclusion of only one chapter devoted to women’s sport replicates and reproduces the city’s marginalization of female athletes.

The next two chapters demonstrate how racialized gender attitudes determined the city’s embrace of masculine athletic figures. According to Stephen Norwood, the 1950s Eagles, led by Chuck Bednarik, played a rough, defensive style that communicated a white, working class aesthetic. In the context of postwar concerns about masculinity, the Eagles and Bednarik served as powerful symbols for city seen as lacking cultural capital. Yet, while Philly unquestionably embraced Bednarik, the city had a “vexed” relationship with Wilt Chamberlain. Aram Goudsouzain argues that Chamberlain practiced self-determination, leading him to pursue basketball opportunities outside his hometown. Admired by African Americans for this attitude, “his talents, ambition, wealth, individualism, and ego upset the familiar balance between the city [meaning white fans] and the athlete” (p. 92). Read in sequence, Norwood and Goudsouzain’s chapters illustrate the centrality of race to definitions of masculinity and, in turn, Philly fans’s relationship to masculine athletes.

In chapter seven, Linda Borish explores the intersection between gender, ethnicity, and Americanness at the Philadelphia Jewish Y from the 1870s to 1930s. Borish asserts that physical culture opportunities allowed Jewish young men and women to form American identities, all while maintaining their Jewishness.  She provides an important perspective of Philly’s sporting culture that diverges from the stereotypical perceptions of the city. In contrast, Andrew R.M. Smith and Jamie Schultz analyze aspects of the city’s real and fictional boxing culture. Smith traces the history of Philadelphia’s boxing policies and structures that produced Joe Frazier’s aggressive style. Frazier was “a representation of the city’s pugilistic heritage” (p. 140). Yet, although Frazier reached boxing’s greatest heights, the boxing culture that produced him could not compete with the commercialization of the sport that emerged in the late-twentieth century. In fiction, however, Philadelphia remains a boxing mecca. In chapter nine, Jamie Schultz demonstrates the real impact the Rocky franchise has had on the city. She explores the multiple debates about where to locate the Rocky statue, contending that these debates illustrate the class fissures within the identity the city sought to fashion. Whereas elites resisted placing a popular culture symbol on the steps of the Museum of Art, Philly’s less-cultured masses insisted that the statue belonged on this iconic spot. After thirty years of debates, the statue secured a permanent place on the museum steps in 2006, a triumph for an “underdog” that, as Schultz recognizes, lends testament to populace’s belief in “their own latent greatness and the possibility of reviving their once great city” (p. 148).

John Wong next demonstrates the centrality of identity to the development of the Philadelphia Flyers. After recounting the failed efforts to establish a NHL franchise, Wong argues that the post-1966 Flyers succeeded due a strong institutional culture that followed a coherent development strategy. The team particularly focused on recruiting young, violent players who possessed a “team-first mentality” (p. 177). The Flyers’ organizational approach and hypermasculine culture proved successful, as they won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. Team culture and style also explain the significance of the 1969 Pennsylvania-Villanova basketball games, which Chris Elzey analyzes in chapter eleven. ‘Nova played the high-scoring, fast brand of basketball that began to characterize the college game in the late 1960s whereas Penn played the conservative, ball-control offense of an older era. Penn’s status as an anomaly extended beyond their on-court strategy. Penn’s players resisted the campus tumult of the 1960s and wore their hair short and cropped, as demanded by Coach Dick Harter. Elzey appropriately recognizes that, “Like many things during the 1960s, the game between Penn and ‘Nova reflected the complexities of a changing America” (p. 182). He then recounts the of Penn-‘Nova match-ups in January and December 1969, when Penn scored back-to-back victories over ‘Nova by employing stalling and other (somewhat controversial) tactics. These victories propelled Penn to greater successes in 1970s, proving that older tactics could still produce success in modern college basketball.

Wong and Elsey’s chapters evidence two of the different white masculine sport cultures that flourished in Philly. Yet, as Aram Goudsouzain’s chapter on Wilt Chamberlain demonstrates, racial difference complicated Philly’s relationship to their masculine sport heroes. In chapter twelve, Christopher Threston shows that the Philadelphia Phillies hoped to ameliorate racial tensions through the construction of a new stadium. Threston first recounts the fraught history of race and baseball in the city to provide context for the hopes invested in Veterans Stadium. The 1971 move to the Vet also coincided with a reshuffling of the Phillies’ roster. These changes together inaugurated an era of better race relations, as well as improved performance on the field. The re-acquisition of Dick Allen, who earlier had a bad experience playing for the Phillies, best captures the Phillies’ change. According to Threston, Allen claimed, “Playing at the Vet was like a breath of fresh air…” (p. 212). While the Vet would become “an ugly cement donut,” Threston importantly recovers the stadium’s role in helping to reconstruct the team’s race relations.   In chapter thirteen, David Zang explores physical spaces not often associated with sport – cemeteries. Zang visits the city’s cemeteries, mapping the plots of many of the Philadelphians who shaped the city’s sport culture. While the gravesites evince Philly’s diversity of sport culture makers, from the industrious Ben Franklin to John Baxter Taylor (the first African American to win a Olympic gold medal as member of the U.S.’s 4×100 relay team in 1908) to NFL Films founder Steve Sabol, they also capture the absence of women from the city’s sport history. Zang, unfortunately, chooses not to mention or interrogate this absence.

The Penn Relays, discussed by Dennis Gildea in chapter fourteen, represent another manifestation of the city’s reverence for masculinity. Gildea recalls attending the 1969 Penn Relays, which his friend Martin Klugman referred to as “the black Woodstock of West Philly” (p. 230). Gildea charts the history of the event, demonstrating its long status as “a showplace of black excellence, of black superiority” (p. 23). He cites the 1992 appearance of Carl Lewis and his Santa Monica Track Club teammates as an illustrative moment. According to Gildea, Lewis and his comrades’ track suits were “darkly flesh colored adorned with strategically placed and definitely suggestive gold stripes” (p. 238). He considers the suit “a form of communication” that “was an overt – and over-the-tip – acknowledgement of the black spirit of the Relays” (p. 238). The diverse spirit of the Penn Relays resembles the diverse reality of all Philly fans. In the final chapter, Mike Tanier provides a portrait of the mundane and passionate reality behind the city’s often-stereotyped fans. After touring the city’s streets and bars, Tanier celebrates the variety of sports-minded Philadelphians who can accept “loss, frustration, disappointment, and the malicious profiling of a nation that doesn’t understand him (or her)” (p. 250). Rather than having a “vexed” relationship to sport, he paints Philly fans as sympathetic underdogs who quietly fight against their unfair reputation as they unwaveringly support their beloved teams and heroes.


As noted, Philly Sports successfully complicates the city’s “underdog ethos.” However, the volume also demonstrates the limited, masculine definition of an underdog. Philly’s celebrated underdogs are primarily white men, with black men unevenly gaining the city’s adulation over time. Women remain excluded and, in turn, are absent from the city’s sport lore. Ora Washington, the pioneering African American female tennis and basketball star, is perhaps the city’s greatest underdog. Competing from the 1920s to 1940s, she faced the “double burden” of racism and sexism in route to her plethora of tennis and basketball titles. Yet, her absence from the volume is fitting.

Philly’s greatest underdog is not a Philly underdog because, as the contributions to this collection illustrate, the city’s underdog identity is a continually constructed interpretation of the sporting reality as experienced by (primarily white) men. The fact that many of the chapters concern the late 1960s and early 1970s, a historical moment when masculinity was being redefined due to African American’s struggle for equality and the rise of second wave feminism, further attests to the constructed, historically-specific nature of the city’s underdog definition. Overtime, this definition may shift, opening a space for Washington and other influential sportswomen such as Dawn Staley and Mo’ne Davis. But for now, Philly Sports remains men’s sports (and, for the sake of Sixers’ fans, let’s hope Ben Simmons can join this legacy).

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at

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