A Brief History of Americans at Play

Early Americans At PlayWillliam-Bradford-150×150 A religious separatists like other Pilgrims, William Bradford served as Plymouth governor four different times, for a total of 30 years, and kept a record of the colony’s goings-on that has been handed down as Of Plymouth Plantation.

Early Americans at Play
It is a little-known fact that the early colonists at Jamestown imported a small group of Polish workers to the settlement to assist with such specialty tasks as glassmaking and the production of pitch and tar. The Polish, who sought to balance their hard work with well-deserved recreation, brought with them a popular Silesian folk game called palant or pilka palantowa, meaning “bat ball.”
A journal entry by Jamestown resident Zbigniew Stefanski of Wroclaw, published in 1625, says that in 1609: “Soon after the new year, I, Sadowski, Mata, Mientus, Stoika, and Zrenica initiated a ball game played with a bat….Most often we played this game on Sundays. We rolled rags to make balls…. Our game even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”
William Bradford’s, Of Plimouth Plantation, contains the governor’s response to the Christmas revelry of 1621. “But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.”
Nearly a century later, Judge Samuel Sewall commented in his diary that he had ventured out on a Monday evening to interrupt the unregenerate at play on what is now known as Mount Vernon: “Dissipated the players at Nine-Pins at Mount-Whoredome…Reproved Thomas Messenger for entertaining them.”
pop_02 Abroad, horse and foot races were sports of choice for improving a person’s leisure hours. Indoors, a game of cards or billiards, seen here in an eighteenth-century English print by Henry Bunbury, prompted friendly competition at the local tavern.

Backgammon boards and billiard tables were popular among the wealthy by the 1770s, and the lower sorts, at least the men, could indulge in such recreations at the ubiquitous public taverns and coffeehouses. Writing of his New England in 1761, John Adams said, “In most country towns you will find almost every other house with a sign of entertainment before it.” As early as 1722, a Charlestown, Massachusetts, tavern owner advertised tables for all who “had a Mind to Recreate themselves with a Game of Billiards.” Then, as now, popular recreations attracted critics. One writer singled out what he considered the distasteful and vile practice of New York’s tavern life: “I mean that of playing backgammon (a noise I detest) which is going forward in the public coffee-houses from morning till night, frequently ten or a dozen tables at a time.”
Although many children’s toys were still homemade and more closely tied to folk than to popular culture, by the 1770s there was a respectable variety available for purchase from colonial merchants. Advertisements in Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette offered tops, marbles, dressed babies, dolls with glass eyes, toy fiddles, toy watches, puzzles—often instructional in that they related English history or moral lessons when completed—balls, and toy soldiers. Bilbo catchers, still available in restored Williamsburg, are made of a cup connected by a string to a ball. Players toss the ball into the air and try to catch it in the cup as it comes down. By the time of the Revolution, historian Jane Carson writes, second to their dolls, the “favorite toy of little girls” was the tea set, sold in Williamsburg shops. This toy offered the colonial girl an opportunity to play at the enormously popular adult pastime, the tea ceremony, which had captivated Americans from the wealthiest to the lower classes. So popular had tea services and daily rituals surrounding the consumption of the beverage become that a survey of estate inventories in New York from 1742 through 1768 shows that wealthy and lowly estates in cities as well as in rural areas included the essentials: teapots, cups, saucers, and teaspoons. The boycott of tea called in response to the Townshend Act of 1767 did not alter the behavior of many colonials, and even those who gave up tea continued their tea ceremonies by substituting chocolate or coffee.
American Sporting Culture in the 19th Century
pugilist Spectator sports most admired by the male urban unskilled working counterculture in the antebellum period (1820-1860) were pugilism (bare knuckle boxing), a violent and bloody sport that demanded great courage, physical strength, and athletic prowess. Half of the Pugilists in New York were Irish-born.

The development of sport as an urban institution was heavily influenced by the urban revolution of the period 1820 – 1870; during that time the percentage of the population living in cities quadrupled. 1820 – 9 cities exceeded 100,000 people. 1860 – 101 cities exceeded 100,000 people. American cities did not have much of a sporting culture in 1820 — 5% of the national population lived in cities — Main Sports then were traditional field and stream sports, blood sports, and contests of strength and skill; horse races were rare, team sports were virtually unknown, and many modern sports had not even been invented. By 1870, sport became one of the most popular entertainments for residents of cities. Working-class men compromised a majority of the sporting fraternity.
Turnverein or gymnastic society, a vital part of the cultural baggage brought by German immigrants, flourished in German neighborhoods in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, St. Louis, and even in our beloved Houston.
Horse Racing and Political Tensions
There was a time—before football, basketball, or baseball—when horse racing was perhaps America’s most popular sport. This 19th-century print conveys the same carnival-like atmosphere that is always a feature of the “Run for the Roses.” Then, as now, crowds of spectators from every walk of life cheer and bet on their favorites. The typical race in the 19th century, for instance, was four miles, not the mile and a half that is run at the Derby. While fierce competition between jockeys, trainers, and breeders is a timeless feature of the sport, in the antebellum period, races were fueled by political tensions—characterized by heated rhetoric between North and South over who was superior in equine breeding and training. The rivalry extended back to 1823 when Henry, a Southern favorite, was defeated by the Northern champion Eclipse in a well-publicized race. By 1845, press and politicians encouraged a series of North/South match races that would capture passions from Maine to Florida. A challenge was issued in the popular weekly sporting journal, Spirit of the Times, that resulted in a May 10, 1842, match race. Fashion, a New Jersey-bred equine superstar nicknamed “Queen of the Turf,” defeated the Richmond-bred stallion, Boston, dubbed “Pride of the South.” Fashion won by 35 lengths, setting a world record. Inflammatory headlines such as “Northern Champion Defeats the great Southern Stallion” had Southerners demanding a rematch.
Peytona_and_Fashion_in_their_great_match_for_$20,000,_1845
Sensationalized as a “sectional clash,” promoters arranged a new match on Union Course in Long Island, New York. This was the same track as the Fashion/Boston race. Southern champion Peytona, an Alabama-bred chestnut mare, would compete against Fashion for a $20,000 purse. Originally named Glumdalclitch, Peytona was an inexperienced racing mare, famous for setting the record for winning highest single stakes—$35,000—in Nashville during the fall of 1843. The race was run on May 13, 1845. Peytona traveled over 1,500 miles to compete against the eight-year-old Fashion. The victorious six-year-old Peytona demonstrated her famously long stride in the foreground; Fashion was trailing behind. The center of the track was crowded with people, carriages and wagons, but this scene doesn’t begin to convey the magnitude of the crowds—up to 100,000 attended—as reported in the rich news accounts and diary entries. One eyewitness lamented that views of the race could only be attained at “peril of life and limb,” and numerous accounts complain of traffic jams before and after the race. The New York Herald noted that the booths served all nature of refreshments to thousands of people of every class. Tents no doubt also housed numerous gaming and betting tables. The Herald commissioned eight reporters to cover the race, publishing an advance front-page story as well as four special editions. Though the image endured, the Southern victory was short lived. Two weeks later, during the rematch in Camden, New Jersey on Wednesday, May 28th, Fashion beat Peytona, and the Southern champion came up lame.
Except for the first Peytona/Fashion match and a few less notable contests, most pre-Civil War matches were usually won by Northern horses. After the war, it would be the farms from the bluegrasses of Kentucky to the rolling hills and hunt country of Virginia and Maryland, which would fully establish Dixie’s reputation for superior equine breeding.
America’s National Pastime – BaseballbaseballBaseball has long had a history as America’s game, or its “National Pastime.” Newspapers around the country started calling baseball America’s National Pastime game around 1856 when the New York Mercury newspaper referred to the game as the “National Pastime.” Baseball is generally believed to have developed from earlier bat-and-ball games originating in Europe such as stool ball and rounders, and possibly from base games, such as tag. At the beginning of the 19th Century there were numerous games of the same general type, such as one-o-cat. Perhaps the most important was town ball. Town ball was broadly similar to modern baseball, but was unstandardized, without a defined field size or number of players on a team. Town ball in various forms was played in several cities across the country. Variations of town ball were played in cities like New York, Boston, St. Louis, New Orleans and Houston. Town ball remained popular in New England for longer than the rest of the country, and was sometimes known as the Boston game or Massachusetts game.
Walt Whitman and Baseball
“In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing “base”, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious.” — Walt Whitman, 1846
“In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing “base”, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious.” — Walt Whitman, 1846
Whitman followed baseball offhandedly, mentioning the game in Leaves of Grass in 1855 (“upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or jigs, or a good game of base-ball”). He even reported on at least one contest for the Brooklyn Daily Times, when he was its editor, on June 18, 1858. “The game played yesterday afternoon between the Atlantic and Putnam Clubs,” the Good Gray Poet began rather prosaically, “on the grounds of the latter club, was one of the finest and most exciting games we ever witnessed.” Whitman lost interest as the professional leagues formed in the 1870s. By the next decade, however, his “certain game of ball” had become for Whitman the lone institution that could assure the great American democratic experiment.

Early Influential Players
Desegregation of baseball was an important step along the path toward equal justice and treatment for all Americans. In 1867, however, the National Association of Base Ball Players banned from membership any club with an African American player on its roster.
octavius catto
Octavius V. Catto (1839—1871), outspoken and learned advocate for African American rights and starting shortstop for the Camden, New Jersey, Pythian Baseball Club, which he also founded. Catto was murdered on election day in 1871, the first year that African Americans were allowed to vote in the United States following the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution a year earlier in 1870. With Catto’s death the highly regarded Pythians disbanded.
albert-spalding1

Albert Goodwill Spalding (left) was an American pitcher, manager and executive in the early years of professional baseball, and the co-founder of A.G. Spalding sporting goods company. He played major league baseball between 1871 and 1878. Spalding was a tireless promoter of the game writing his own book of baseball in 1911 called America’s National Game. is most responsible for the birth of the “Doubleday Myth.”
james creighton
James Creighton (right) – the young pitching phenomenon of the early 1860s was being paid professionally by the NY Excelsiors as early as 1860. He was one of the first players ever to be paid to play baseball professionally.

Al Reach – Baseball’s first paid player – Received $25 dollars in expense mal reachoney to join the Philadelphia Athletics in 1865.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.