Review of Powerful Moments in Sports

Gitlin, Martin. Powerful Moments in Sports: The Most Significant Events in American History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.  Pp. 293. $38.00 hardback. $36.00 eBook.

Reviewed by Jorge Iber

Martin Gitlin’s work presents a series of short essays that cover some of the most significant sporting events in American history. As with all works of this type, a list of “best/worst of” or “most significant,” the key element in the undertaking is to provide a cogent argument for why the items included were deemed worthy of insertion into the manuscript.  Gitlin addresses this argument from the very earliest paragraphs of the book. His goal is to discuss and contextualize sporting events that have transcended “the desired intent” and have thus crossed “over into the realm of social and political significance.” In other words, the various essays detail events that and personages who clearly have “consequences beyond the outcomes of the games themselves.” (vii)  There is certainly no doubt that almost all of the stories contained herein meet the criteria (with a couple of exceptions, as will be noted later in this review). Gitlin then goes on to do something quite reasonable: he provides himself appropriate cover by stipulating that, ultimately, there can be no definitive list of “most significant” sporting events because the historical magnitude of individual episodes and personages is truly in the eye of the beholder. He is certainly correct in this assessment.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

It is difficult to argue that any of Gitlin’s topics do not merit being mentioned as “significant events” in American sporting history. There are essays on moments such as the Black Sox scandal; Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; the “Battle of the Sexes” between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King at the Houston Astrodome in 1973; Henry Aaron’s 715th homerun (hit in Atlanta) in 1975; and, of course, the protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.  Clearly, all of these were momentous in their societal implications. 

Most of Gitlin’s other selections are just as noteworthy: the Louis and Schmeling fights; Ali versus Liston; the establishment of Title IX; the death of the reserve clause in the Major Leagues; the dramatic and catastrophic downfall of golf superstar Tiger Woods; the “guarantee” by Joe Namath for Super Bowl III; and the arrival on the collegiate basketball scene of Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. There are a few items that were critical, but not as well known (or which have been mostly forgotten): the effort by Gertrude Ederle to swim the English Channel and the international political significance of ping-pong diplomacy fall into this category. Some of the events noted here are less significant as they are more localized (read that to mean important mostly to New Yorkers and Bostonians): the curse of the Bambino and the “shot heard round the world.” Both highly important, no doubt, but I would not put them in the same category as the other items; particularly in regard to racial matters, as so many of these other items clearly are. True, the fans of the Red Sox and Yankees are (unfortunately) everywhere, but these events do not have the societal impact of the others.

One thing that is problematic about Gitlin’s book are the topics it does not include (or, for that matter, even acknowledge in passing).  Granted, readers should appreciate his caveat about the impossibility of there being truly an “ultimate inventory” of such historical circumstances.  Still, Gitlin’s work reflects a troublesome aspect of many, certainly not all, who write about American sports history (particularly outside of academia): a focus mostly on the black/white dichotomy. 

Of the twenty essays, eight are specifically about African Americans (all males), three are about white women, eight are about whites, and one is about an animal (Secretariat).  This argument is not presented to condemn the work, or Gitlin’s analysis, but is provided merely to indicate that American sports features other groups as well.  What about African American women?  What about Native Americans, in baseball and other sports?  What about the topic on which this reviewer works: the role of Latinos/as in American sport (at all levels)?  What about Asian Americans (for example, Pacific Islanders in football)?  Items such as these are not included.  If part of the argument for this work is that the events covered “altered the American psyche” in some way, then it is necessary to broaden the coverage of the participants of the national sporting endeavor.

Here are some topics that might be worthwhile considering for a follow up work: the Carlisle Indian School and their football program; the Wyoming 14 and their protest against BYU; Jim Plunkett and Tom Flores (both Mexican Americans) combining to win two Super Bowls; the rise of Latinas in the sport of collegiate softball; the importance of the internationalization of the NBA, particularly focusing on the San Antonio Spurs and their multinational/ethnic teams; the death and importance of Roberto Clemente as a player and humanitarian; the role of African American women in U.S. Olympic sports, particularly in track and field; and most significantly, the day in 1971 when the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-non-white starting line up in Major League history. Again, this is not done to condemn Gitlin’s goals for this book or his writing; it is merely done to remind writers and readers that an examination of race and gender in American sport is much more complicated than just the black/white dichotomy. Certainly, it is imperative to write about the issue of race relations on the baseball diamond and elsewhere, but given the demographic changes that have taken place in the United States over the past half-century, it is also necessary to expand our focus to include a larger slice of the populace.

Overall, Gitlin is to be commended for this effort. He had taken critical moments in sport and documented how they impacted, sometimes quite radically, the society that surround the games and players.  It is time for writers to continue to forge ahead and seek to document, discuss, and contextualize the “other” stories that have taken place in American sport.

Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.

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