Cait Murphy. A History of American Sports in 100 Objects. New York: Basic Books, 2016. $29.99, hardback.
Reviewed by Josh Howard
Just a couple of short semesters ago, I found myself teaching the second half of a World History survey at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, TN. I admittedly felt a bit overwhelmed and underprepared even though one of my major fields as an MA student had been World History Pedagogy. As an MA student, we focused entirely on how to choose an appropriate textbook for survey classes. Not to fault the instructor, as many people in that track were preparing to teach high school, but textbook instruction is not a great way of engaging students (especially in World History II at 8 A.M.). In an attempt to try something different, I instead used a free open-source text alongside A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. I often bring artifacts into the classroom to provide a tangible learning experience but that’s not possible for me with much of world history. MacGregor’s work provided an entry-point to a distant past through material culture. There were flaws in MacGregor’s selections and each entry is exceedingly brief, but that’s a worth tradeoff for such an easily digestible work.
Like MacGregor, Cait Murphy takes on an impossible challenge – distill the entirety of American sport history into 100 objects. Ranging from circa 1100 to 2016, Murphy’s list is laudable. She included objects from seemingly every sport played in the Americas at some point, whether popular or not, and maintained a steady balance between the stories of Famous Men and the Everyman. Murphy is a historian of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era having written non-sport works on the era and Crazy ’08, an excellent work of baseball history on the formation of the modern game during the 1908 season. Murphy is more than able to channel this knowledge to find excellent material on her area of expertise while still finding equally equality entries for other topics. If you did not know about Crazy ’08, you would never guess Murphy was a baseball historian from her selection of artifacts. Overall, this is an entertaining list of artifacts some of which you will certainly know, but some of which will be a bit surprising.
The difficulty I found in Murphy’s work is that she often takes the reader into a sporting event rather than the more important historical contexts surrounding that object. Here are two examples to illustrate what I mean. An example of a quality entry is “The Modern Football” of 1925. Murphy succinctly explains how technology, design, and the corporate sporting goods market resulted in massive on-field changes that allowed American Football to evolve as a passing sport fully distinct from its predecessors. In contrast, take the many entries that focus on objects simply belonging to major historical figures like Babe Ruth, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Amelia Earhart and so on. Murphy focuses on either the specifics of a single isolated event or creates a biography with little or no focus given to the material culture of the object itself. For instance, an early entry is “Annie Oakley’s Rifle.” This one-page entry does not detail anything about the rifle beyond an image and its caliber, but instead reads as a short biography of Oakley herself. Oakley is certainly a historical sporting figure worthy of entry yet this entry falls short in making an argument as to what made her rifle worthy of such a Top 100 list. This focus on famous athletes creeps in more with recent objects.
Despite this criticism, Murphy’s love of sport shines through for an ultimately laudable work. Her entries on more recent history, women’s history, and Civil Rights history are all excellent. One entry pairs the story of Milan High School of Hoosiers fame with the following year’s Indiana state champions from Crispus Attucks High School, the first all-black champions. This contrast is a creative way of illustrating the effect of popular culture on historical memory alongside the continued story of racial injustice. Her entries on less popular sports are excellent as well. An example of this is the five-page interpretation of the “10th Mountain Division Parka” from 1945. The 10th was already one of the US military’s celebrity divisions because of its many skiers and other world-class athletes like ski-jumper Torger Tokle and downhill champions Toni Matt and Walter Prager. After the war, 10th Division veterans were at the core of the American ski industry by founding dozens of ski areas, Skiing magazine, and designs for inventions like chairlifts. Murphy tells this story through a single reversible parka specially designed to allow for camouflage in both snowy mountains and wooded areas. Again though, while the interpretation and storytelling are excellent, the connection of the story to the parka is a bit lacking, and it is notable that Murphy neglected to explain the significance of a high school named for Crispus Attucks.
A few critics refer to books like Murphy’s as “copycats” that crop up from a “cottage industry…using the same template to deliver clever – or not – takes on all manner of civilizations.” This is overly harsh. Murphy’s book works as an excellent gift, coffee table book, or as a companion piece for a US History or Sport History survey. Every entry provides a skilled instructor a brief introduction to a broad concept. Students will likely be familiar with the majority of objects so the work would be relatable. Further, about half of all objects are from the 1960s to the present, meaning most of these objects are captured on video somewhere (like YouTube).