Review of San Francisco Bay Area Sports

Liberti, Rita and Maureen M. Smith, eds. San Francisco Bay Area Sports: Golden Gate Athletics, Recreation, and Community. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Pp. xviii +352. Notes, contributors, and index. Paperback $24.95.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

With the Golden State Warriors seemingly poised to capture the NBA Finals, an achievement that would consolidate and continue the ways the franchise recently has re-written NBA history, now is the perfect time to reconsider the place of the Bay Area in sport history.  Sport studies scholars Rita Liberti and Maureen M. Smith, fortunately, have provided us with a timely volume.  Featuring fifteen-essays, San Francisco Bay Area Sport: Golden Gate Athletics, Recreation, and Community is a satisfying survey of the Bay Area sporting scene. Spanning over 150 years of sporting sites and symbols, the volume both confirms and challenges our understanding of the historical function of sport in the San Francisco Bay Area, while also making broader contributions to American sport historiography.  In particular, Liberti and Smith should be applauded for including essays that introduce a striking diversity athletes and an expansive conception of sport. The equal space given to women’s sport and female athletes especially strengthens the volume.  The composition of the volume echoes the atypicality associated with the Bay Area, foregrounding manifestations and practitioners of sport often overlooked in academic studies.


University of Arkansas Press, 2017.

Liberti and Smith introduce the collection with the Warriors 2015 championship parade, where a fan ponders the implications of the franchise’s impending relocation to San Francisco. This anecdote suggests a recognition that this volume arrives a key cultural and socioeconomic conjuncture.  The Warriors’ move from Oakland to San Francisco symbolizes the rapid change in the region, where its historic brand of inclusive non-conformity risks becoming subsumed by an exclusivist techno-capitalist identity. However, the essays in the volume resist this easy reading.  The history of sport and recreation in the Bay Area reveals a long-standing tension between economic imperatives and cultural character. The variety chapters reflect this tension. While some essays honor the ways in which sport illuminates the unconventionality of the Bay, others highlight how traditional hierarchies of capital and culture structure sport in the region.

The theme of civic boosterism emerges in several of the earlier chapters, introducing multiple ways in which cultural and economic motives have complemented and contradicted each other. In Chapter One, “Oakland’s Nineteenth-Century Parks and Resorts: ‘Lungs of the City,’ Commercial Sporting Venues, and Instruments of Civic Boosterism,” Deane Anderson Lamont describes how civic leaders sought to attract more people to Oakland in the late 1800s by drawing on the region’s natural environment and prevailing ideas about healthfulness to build and boost both public and private parks.  In Chapter Two, ”Boosterism, Boxing, and the Battle for the Bay: The Jeffries-Johnson Fight in the Bay Area,” Louis Moore chronicles civic leaders in Oakland, San Francisco, and Emeryville wrestling with the prospect of hosting the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries world heavyweight championship fight. Moore demonstrates that the fight’s freighted-ness extended beyond matters of race. Its planning also involved tensions between business interest and reform sensibilities, encapsulating a central struggle of Progressive Era America. But, as the fight ends up in Reno, Nevada, Moore show that “money and morals” were not always opposed (pp. 26).

In Chapter Three, “Reforming the Big Game: The Bay Area Rugby Experiment of 1906-1919,” Brian Ingrassia recovers the turn to rugby at northern California’s universities in light of the nation-wide debate about the safety and sanctity of college football. He demonstrates that Stanford and Berkeley presidents aimed to boost their schools’ cultural and athletic reputations through rugby, tapping into the Progressive Era reformist sensibilities, as well as the eugenicist, white supremacist ideas that undergirded much of early twentieth-century progressivism. In Chapter Four, “Bay to Breakers: The Original Fun Run,” Claire Williams recounts the history of the race, which was founded to foster civic pride in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and in anticipation of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Williams’s chronology reveals the role of financial investment in making the race a success, situating a race known for its non-conformist, inclusive culture as product of market-based capital demands.

Linda Ivey explores another complex relationship between culture and capital in Chapter Five, “Protecting the People’s Mountain: Hiking in Marin County and the Roots of American Environmentalism.” Ivey applauds the various hiking groups that organized to protect the environment of Marin County, creating a sense of community rooted in responsible access to the region’s natural environment.  Although she productively counters presumptions by showing that activist hikers did not oppose tourism, she misses the opportunity to critique the rules and restrictions that policed access to public lands, for the idea of the “right kind of hiker” also created hierarchy of persons more deserving of the right to enjoy the natural environment (pp. 95). Adam Fitch likewise misses an opportunity to critique his subject in Chapter Six, “All in the Same Boat: Ky Ebright, Masculinity, and Cal Crew in the 1920s.” Fitch positions California crew coach Ky Ebright as a creator of ideal 1920s corporate men, cultivating a ethos of masculine optimism that prepared his young crew men to compete and succeed in the business world. However, he does not adequately probe how the celebrated masculine culture of 1920s crew perpetuated and legitimated economic and social inequalities.

The next few chapters also examine how sport has fostered identities and communities, in ways both inclusionary and exclusionary. In Chapter Seven, “Off the Bench: Asian American and Sport in the Santa Clara Valley during the Mid-Twentieth Century,” Joel S. Franks undertakes a work of historical recovery, illuminating the role of sport in allowing Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans in northern California to strengthen ethnic communities and experience democratic possibilities. Franks argues that Asian Americans accessed cultural citizenship through sport, as it provided a space through which they could resist nativist stereotypes and encourage multiplicitous understandings of Asian American identity. Jeffery Montez de Oca interrogates the popular of identity of the Forty Niners in Chapter Eight, “San Francisco 49ers: The Romance of Memory.” He emphasizes the role of blunt force capitalism in creating San Francisco in the realms sport and society, a reality obscured by the imagery of the forward-thinking, technocratic West Coast offense that spurred the Niners to success in the 1980s. Montez de Oca resists the urge to romanticize San Francisco and its sport culture, seeing both the city and its teams as products of economic choices that empower certain groups at the expense of others.

In Chapter Nine, “Pioneers in the Pool: The Santa Clara Swim Club Mermaids of the 1950s and 1960s,” Maureen M. Smith and Matthew R. Hodler turn to a California sport team much less romanticized than but possibly just as influential as the Forty Niners – the Santa Clara Swim Club (SCSC). They position the SCSC, which produced Chris von Saltza, Donna de Varona, and other Olympians, as an important institution in the history of women’s sport. Smith and Hodler also introduce age as a key category of analysis in the history of women’s sport, not simply taking the youth of the swimmers for granted but showing how the swimmers’ youthfulness provided the space needed for them to achieve national and international successes. Chris Elzey then adds to our understanding of the sporting Cold War in Chapter Ten, “A Friendly Competition: The 1962 US-USSR Track Meet at the Farm.” Elzey looks beyond the symbolic battle between communism and democracy, describing the organization of the meet and the experience of athletes at the 1962 dual track and field meet held at Stanford University. He chronicles a story of shared sporting success, rather than overwrought ideological suspicion. However, it would have been interesting if Elzey had interrogated the ways in which racial and gender ideologies may have encouraged Californians to offer a friendly embrace to the handsome Soviet athletes.

In Chapter Eleven, “‘Skate Fast, Hit Hard’: San Francisco Bay Bombers and Bay Area Roller Derby,” Beth Cavalier does engage critically with race and gender, arguing that during its heyday from the 1950s thorough the mid-1970s Bay Area roller derby progressively pushed boundaries of race and gender. Cavalier’s contentions about gender prove stronger than those about race, as her recovery of Joan Weston and Ann Calvello suggest they should be considered pioneering figures in the history of women’s sport. The Oakland Raiders of the 1960s and 1970s illuminate a different manifestation of Bay Area culture, as analyzed by Maria J. Veri in Chapter Twelve, “Sons of Oakland: The Raiders and the Raz/Rais(ing) of a City.” The team developed a fan identity built on a more regressive, working-class grit that existed uneasily with the city’s changing demography and economic desolation. Veri emphasizes the limits the Raider Nation identity, as whatever sense of multiracial community fostered by Raider fandom failed to effect “any meaningful social transformations,” (pp. 214). Rather, the Raiders drained civic resources that could have contributed to real, material improvements.

Rosie Casals, examined by Rita Libert in Chapter Thirteen, “Rebel With A Racket: Rosie Casals,” reveals a different operation of a working-class identity in the Bay Area sport scene. Liberti considers how Casals’s class and gender identities together informed her emergence as an unapologetic female athlete who rejected status-quo conventions.  Liberti emphasizes that Casals embodied non-conformity through both her physical style of play and her forward-looking fashion choices, positioning her as a revolutionary figure in women’s quest for equality in sport.  Judy Davidson’s study of the Gay Games in Chapter Fourteen, “The Early Gay Games: The Bay Area Years likewise recognizes that the Bay Area has produced progressive change in sport.  Yet, she also exposes the more conservative, exclusionary ideologies that undergirded the effort to establish the Gay Games as an athletic institution. By interrogating three episodes in the history of the Gay Games movement, she convincingly argues that it has been an “assimilationist project” that has primarily “privilege[d] a certain kind of subject – a white, professional middle-class masculinity that exalts and celebrates a particular kind of athletic embodiment, economic entitlement and influence,” (pp. 250-1). Davidson models the need to critique all aspects of sporting identities, cultures, and movements, going beyond celebrations of how sport can encourage non-conformist sociocultural progress, especially in a place like the Bay Area where such a stereotypic image predominates, to analyze the older structures of inequality that such progress often relies on and reproduces.

In Chapter Fifteen, “The Larry Krueger Incident: Sports-Talk Radio and the Consequences of Imagery,” Samuel O. Regalado analyzes the racist and xenophobic epithets that radio host Larry Kreuger hurled at Giants manager Moises Alou during an August 2005 slump. Regalado productively places Krueger’s outburst in context with the longer history of rhetorical attacks on the intellectual capacities of Latino, as well as African American, players and coaches in the Bay Area. He also situates Krueger comments within contemporary sports-talk culture, where an opposition to “political correctness” has served as a rhetorical shield that has allowed Krueger’s ilk to voice insensitive and backward beliefs about racial minorities.

Regalado’s essay, as well as Davidson’s, most clearly point toward the largely unstated theme that unites the variety of chapters. Although exploring a diversity of athletes, institutions, and organizations that differently navigated the tension between cultural identity and economic priority that has structured the history of sport in the Bay, all chapters reflect the power of whiteness. White-defined cultural opportunities and economic interest, whether oppositional or conventional, predominate throughout the region’s sport history. San Francisco Bay Area Sport introduces the reader to a mosaic of athletes, events, organizations that, nonetheless, together produce a more familiar picture of sport in America. In short, a less visible but more conventional hierarchy, organized around white privilege, grounds the celebrated diversity of the Bay.

Recognizing the consistent power of white-controlled capital and culture proves particularly relevant for interrogating contemporary Bay Area sport. It impels us to analyze the ways in which the Warriors’ coming relocation represents both a break with, as well as a continuation of, the region’s sport history.  It also provides a context for examining other recent developments in Bay Area sport, from Colin Kaepernick’s protest to the lawsuit of the Oakland Raiderettes. These episodes and others suggest that sport in the San Francisco Bay Area will continue to serve as a perceptive lens through which to consider and critique the political economy and cultural patterns of the Bay Area.  Fortunately, San Francisco Bay Area Sports provides a the perfect foundation for engaging in these future explorations.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami.  She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field.  You can contact her at

One thought on “Review of San Francisco Bay Area Sports

  1. Pingback: Bay Area Sports | Review Sports in American History – Travel San Francisco Bay

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