The Beginnings of American Sports Coverage

Committee member John Thorn has shared this fascinating account about the inception of sports journalism in America.  This article, written by William Henry Nugent, first appeared in the periodical The American Mercury in March, 1929.

Although much of the article contemplates sporting activities beyond the baseball field, it provides tremendous insight into the very beginnings of sportswriting in America in general.  As importantly, we  also learn from this article the role of the media not only in establishing a ubiquitous sports culture in the United States, but in actually spurring and guiding the development of many of the sports themselves.

I hope you especially enjoy, as I did, the wonderful period language Nugent employs in the piece.


The Sports Section
by William Henry Nugent, 1929

The newspapers reflected and at the same time nourished the mania for sports in the Twenties. In even the most dignified papers, principles of accurate reporting were ignored, promotion and sports news became confused, and the amount of newspaper space devoted to sports increased. William Nugent traced the evolution of the sports column and its specialized jargon in an article published in March 1929, from which the following selection is taken.

The cover of the American Mercury, March 1929The United States learned its first lessons in sports journalism and sports slang from the British Isles, where flowered the first public prints dedicated to horse racing, the hunt, the chase, cockfighting, prizefighting, and other such pursuits and spectacles. The writers for these periodicals invented a special style and vocabulary that are still used by our modern sports-page literati. …

It will not seem strange that we inherited sports journalism from the British Isles if it is further recalled that we also imported the organization of sport, the solemnities, the ceremonies, the rules, the first prizefight manager, the promoter, and the feudal distinction between amateur and professional. Again, despite those who applaud the English sporting spirit and blame everything wicked on Americans, the British initiated us into the mysteries of commercialism, faking, and publicity. But they gave us the good with the bad. The English, Irish, and Scotch immigrants in the last century helped to break down the wall of puritanical prejudice against organized play. They acted as teachers. Think of all the English and the Irish pugilists, the Scotch golf professionals! In time, the pupils learned to play as well as their instructors, and even better, and competed against them in international contests.

Anyone, then, who would trace the evolution of the present-day American sports section and its slang should examine certain early periodicals in England and their imitators in the United States. …

The first important sporting weekly in the United States appeared in New York on Dec. 10, 1831. It was the Spirit of the Times: the American Gentlemen’s Newspaper. This pioneer lived until 1901, when it merged with the Horseman of Chicago. Horace Greeley, as a young printer, set type on it in 1832. Its editor and owner, William Trotter Porter, who came of horse-loving Vermont stock, attended Dartmouth, learned the printer’s trade at a Bible House at Andover, Mass., and at twenty-one descended upon New York City with the notion that a national sporting paper devoted principally to horseracing would be a profitable venture. …

He advocated and ballyhooed the same sports played up in the papers across the Atlantic. It pleased him when his overseas contemporaries called the Spirit the Bell’s Life of the Western world. He sprinkled his columns with hunting stories about the buffalo, the wildcat, the turkey, the panther, and the ‘possum. He had articles on old sledge, the brag steamboats on the Mississippi, an Answers to Queries column, a few woodcuts, dramatic reviews, jokes, and an occasional serial novel. He popularized poker and “peaknuckle” by printing their rules and answering questions on their problems. …

The Spirit, as masculine as Godey’s Ladies’ Book was feminine, was read by horsemen, breeders, farmers, college students, Army officers, congressmen, gamblers, pugilists, ball players, bartenders, all the knowing ones. Daniel Webster, a friend of Porter’s, took it at Washington while the Senate was in session and at Boston when he returned home. The success of the Spiritgave birth to seven other papers bearing the same title. At the outbreak of the Civil War it had, according to sworn testimony in a libel suit, a circulation of 100,000. Only one weekly in America, aside from the religious press, had more, Bonner’s New York Ledger. Thousands of subscribers seceded with the South in 1861 and never came back.

By encouraging cricket in the ’40s and ’50s, just as he had sponsored other hyphenated pastimes here, Porter nearly made it the national game and indirectly helped to establish baseball. Up to a few years before the Civil War, indeed, cricket had more advocates in the nation than baseball. Elevens sprang up, not only in New York and in Philadelphia but even in Detroit and Naugatuck, Conn. The All-United States beat All-Canada in an international match and the victors considered challenging the parent Marylebone Club of London, which is to cricket what St. Andrew’s is to golf.

The St. George Cricket Club, instituted by British residents in New York, built a clubhouse on Bloomingdale Road, and its members bowled and batted and drank tea just as they had done in the Old Country. They ignored the jibes directed at them by ribald passersby. How unlike the attitude of the sensitive Philadelphians in 1828, who abandoned their wickets in a field at Camden, N.J., when onlookers and newspapers laughed at them for wasting time at a boy’s pastime!

In 1844 the activities of the English gentlemen encouraged a group of young men who had offices in Wall Street to consider exercising after office hours, but instead of playing cricket they voted for the town-ball of their boyhood. They rented a field near Madison Square, but later moved to the Elysian Fields, Hoboken. They gathered twice a week and imitated the St. Georgians by building a clubhouse, keeping a scorebook, and fixing a system of fines for nonattendance. This Knickerbocker Ball Club wrote out regulations in 1845 for a new game that it called baseball. It caught on. Just as the small-town Babbitts of today in plus fours play golf because it is the recreation of the Rockefellers, so did the young men of Brooklyn and in New York in the ’50s organize baseball clubs in imitation of high-toned Wall Street. The game took because Porter gave it publicity.

He printed the first rules, the first scores, the first picture of a match in progress, the first box score, the first allusion to it as the national game, and the first dope stories, and gave wide space to the first convention in 1858, when the players voted to make nine innings a game instead of calling it when the first side had tallied twenty-one aces. Cricketers, native and foreign-born, switched to baseball and carried over many terms to the newer game, among them,lucky breaks, fielding average, batting average, batter (instead of the old fashioned striker), fly(ing) ball, innings (instead of hands in).

Henry Chadwick, an Englishman who wrote on cricket for the Spirit of the Times, first edited Spalding’s Baseball Guide and won a press agent’s title of the Father of Baseball. Harry Wright, another Englishman who played cricket with the St. George Club and baseball with the Knickerbocker Club, organized the first salaried nine, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1868, and later managed teams in the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs which he helped to launch.

The Spirit also boomed prizefighting in America, introducing the London prizering code and the Marquis of Queensberry rules. For a considerable period the American ring, long a bootleg institution, was really only a branch of the English ring. It was under the control of Englishmen and Irishmen; they did the fighting, the managing, the training, the faking, the promoting, and the collecting. …

The Spirit of the Times, in the ’70s, imitated its two transatlantic contemporaries and introduced amateur boxing, football, rowing, and track and field competitions into America. Curtis, whom Wilkes had engaged as his editor in the ’70s, was the Chambers of the United States, forming the New York Athletic Club, defining an amateur athlete (a rewrite of the English definition), and aiding in establishing the present Amateur Athletic Union. For good and for evil, the old Spirit for half a century was the chief propagandist of British professional and amateur sports, their slang and their journalism, in the republic.

The second important sports weekly was born in New York in 1845 and still lives. It is the National Police Gazette. It circulated early among police officers, criminals, the Fancy, barbers, and saloonkeepers. It picked up stories of British criminals until the American underworld had developed its own heroes. Each week is summarized the nation’s rapes, burglaries, murders, and hangings. But it remained for a rival, the Illustrated Police News of Boston, to set a different alliterative headline each week over the countrywide harvest of executions, e.g., “Spine Stretching,” “Legally Lassoed” and “Justly Jerked.”

The Police Gazette later added news about boxing, cockfighting, and other pastimes. Wilkes, before going to the Spirit of the Times, had edited it, but it never had the Spirit’s literary tone or class of readers. …

The New York Clipper cruised the journalistic seas from 1853 to 1924, carrying boxing, baseball, and theatrical news, and, from 1897 onward, stage news only. It docked for the last time four years ago in the office of Sime Silverman’s Variety. The Clipper not only helped to spread underworld and sporting argot from abroad but also contributed idioms from the English-speaking stage and circus lot. Other weeklies containing sports news blossomed between 1830 and 1890. To note a few, there were the Whip, the Rake, the Flash, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Mercury, and the New York SportsmanLeslie’s Weekly and Harper’s Weekly pictured important athletic events. Thomas Nast drew sketches of the Heenan and Sayers fight for the New York Illustrated News. But the Spirit of the Times, the Police Gazette, and the Clipper were the big three in sports journalism in the last century.

Even before the Civil War some newspaper editors, though they looked on athletics as the province of the weeklies, printed news of any event that aroused public interest. The New YorkHerald, from its establishment in 1835 until 1885, assigned Uncle Joe Elliott, superintendent of its delivery room, to double as a reporter of prizefights and horse races. Seated at the ringside, he dictated a story to a stenographer, who later transcribed the notes for a copyreader to cut down and polish. Herald pony-express riders, in May 1847, carrying Elliott’s story of how Yankee Sullivan vanquished Caunt the Englishman early in the morning on a dew-covered battleground at Harper’s Ferry, galloped from the ringside to New York in time for the Herald to print the yarn only two days after the mill.

Less than two years later, Elliott, in relating how Tom Hyer had won the championship of America by flaxing out Yankee Sullivan in eighteen minutes at Rock Creek, Md., dispatched from Baltimore to New York the first prize-fight message ever sent over Morse’s five-year-old magnetic telegraph. This epochal dispatch, plus other pugilistic intelligence, filled the entire front page next day. In April 1860, the Herald‘s presses rumbled day and night for four days to provide an eager public with accounts of the “great international match” between the Benecia Boy, an American blacksmith’s helper, and Tom Sayers, an English brick-layer’s laborer, a landmark in ring history. Bennett did not send a representative from the home office but economically clipped his report from English and American exchanges. The Herald also reported horse races, especially the matches between Northern and Southern thoroughbreds, yacht races, and the early baseball games.

James Gordon Bennett, the younger, himself a long-distance pedestrian and polo player, offered cups in the ’70s to winners in college rowing races and track and field events. Out of this developed the present Poughkeepsie Regatta and the annual intercollegiate meets. In the ’80s he introduced polo to Newport and found space in his paper for news about it, as well as about golf and tennis, old pastimes still indifferent to newspaper publicity. His Evening Telegram, established in 1867, had a clientele among boxing and baseball zealots. When Elliott was superannuated in the late ’80s, the Herald engaged Billy Edwards, champion emeritus of the lightweights and bouncer at the Hoffman House, to dictate a blow-by-blow account of boxing bouts to a shorthand reporter. Thus he was the founder of a long hokum dynasty of prizefighters who “expert” for the newspapers at higher salaries than are paid to city editors.

Toppy Maguire, a contemporary of Elliott, served the New York Sun as a boxing and racing authority for thirty years. Sometimes Charles A. Dana accompanied him to a fight. Arthur Brisbane, while London correspondent of the New York Sun, cabled stories about Sullivan’s visit to the Prince of Wales, and at other times wrote about the bare-knuckle fights between Smith and Kilrain, Mitchell and Sullivan. The puritanical New York Tribune preached against prize-fights and horse races, but its reporters were assigned to them and turned in excellent yarns.

These early American sports writers, through oral and printed tradition, inherited a ready-made vocabulary. For a while the editors of conservative newspapers with traditions of good writing toned down their excessive slang, but today all editors allow their sports writers greater liberties than those granted to reporters in the other departments of the paper. Many terms and wisecracks borrowed from the past still survive, some without change and some with slight changes due to the wear and tear of colloquial speech. American sports writers yet use a lot of this standing-metal slang, but they likewise create their share of new phrases, idioms, and nicknames. Baseball experts, adapting boxing diction to baseball, introduced initial sack, hot corner, and so on.

William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal in 1895. Before turning his talents three years later to his war with Spain, he had worked out the modern newspaper sports section. Finding his rivals running from three to seven columns of sport news daily, he doubled, trebled, and quadrupled the space, and on occasional Sundays issued a bicycle or a horse supplement of twelve pages. …

Hearst not only invented the present-day sports page make-up; he whooped things up all along the line, putting the final crusher on the weekly as an authority in athletics. Before he breezed in with his open purse, other papers had appended the names of the writers at the ends of sports stories. The New York World, for instance, had baseball chatter signed by De Wolfe Hopper, the actor, who had already discovered the poem “Casey At the Bat,” and Dominick McCaffery, the heavyweight contender of 1889, explained over his own name that John L. Sullivan beat down Jake Kilrain, not by face hits but by blows to the heart.

The New York Illustrated News, in 1889, appointed John L. Sullivan sports editor, with the understanding that he would sit two hours a day at his desk. John L. collected his salary for eight months, but did no work. He blustered in once, bought the staff a drink, and then refused to come again. The publishers, after frequent telegrams to Boston, ultimately cut him off the payroll.

Hearst placed the new by-line rig on a better basis. He signed his champions to a contract and, instead of giving them an impecunious $50 a week, paid out real money. He paid James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, successors to Sullivan, $5,000 a year each for the right to put their signatures in facsimile over articles. Furthermore, he did not ask them to associate with the staff, but gave them a ghost writer, Robert H. Davis, to do the work of composition. He hired other champions, Hobart on tennis, Bald on bicycling, Batchelder on wheeling, and Heffelfinger, the Yale hero, on football. Amos Rusie, the Giant’s pitcher, told how he threw puzzling curves; Arthur Irwin, manager of the Giants, charted the science of the hit-and-run; and under the shaky facsimile signatures of two dinge jockeys, A. Hamilton and Willie Sims, appeared the story, “How A Horse Race Is Ridden.” Hearst, in 1896 and 1897, had signed up nearly every sports champion. Of late the price of by-lines has gone up. Dempsey was paid $45,000 a year for his name, and Tunney is said to have received a still higher sum.

Hearst built up a staff of experts, including Ralph Paine of Yale on rowing, Charles Dryden on baseball, and Paul Armstrong on boxing. The World, in 1889, had boasted that Nellie Bly, in interviewing John L. Sullivan and his trainer, William Muldoon, to the extent of three columns both before and after the Kilrain fight, had been the first woman to achieve such a feat. The Journalassigned Winifred Black to visit New Haven, and in the fall of 1895 appeared a five-and-a-half column story and three sketches headed: “At Old Yale. The Journal’s Woman Reporter Trains With the Little Boys in Blue. Once Around the Clock With the Lads Who Will Uphold Yale’s Prestige. The First Time a Woman Was Invited to Dinner by a College Football Team.”

The Sun, the Herald, and the World spread out on college football reports, running seven and more columns with sketches. Hearst ran wild in covering the Yale-Princeton game in 1895. He printed two-and-a-half pages, with five sketches, one seven columns wide, and two diagrams showing “How the Ball Moved.” Richard Harding Davis filled a whole page, aside from pictures, plus a breakover. Heffelfinger presented a technical description, and Jim Corbett in a signed story approved of football by saying: “It has a tendency to make a man a strong, healthy animal and it is all right. I consider football as played today rough sport, but not brutal.” Both the team captains signed statements. On Monday Captain Thorne of Yale told his own story of how he made that great run. Not only did Hearst splurge on football but he gave space to other pastimes and a big prizefight called for five pages. All this before 1898.

Other publishers in 1896, and for a long time thereafter, shrilled that he was prostituting journalism by his yellow methods. Today the innovations of 1896 have become commonplace. All publishers have adopted those identical methods, with the eight- and the ten-page sports section, the banner headlines, the cartoons, the pictures. Even the New York Times and the Associated Press, within the last few years, have allowed their sports writers to sign their names to stories. Others have gone into the market and bid away champions from Hearst. As a result of adopting his devices and newer ones, such as the double-measure sports column popularized by Grantland Rice of the Nashville Banner, the New York Mail and the New York Herald Tribune, a feature that has a thousand imitators, other papers have overhauled and passed him.

Since the World War the sporting section has grown tremendously. The Editor and Publisher has computed that the New York World devotes 40 percent of its local news on weekdays to sports and that the Herald Tribune gives over no less than 60 percent. All large city newspapers now surrender four or five pages to sports news on weekdays and eight and even ten pages on Sunday. …

To supply this demand, the Associated Press has lately organized a segregated sports department with twelve men on its staff. The International News, out of a total of 45,000 words in a full thirteen-hour report, carried 5,000 words on sports. The United Press is sending out three times the amount it transmitted a year ago. Publishers agree that circulation, prestige, and reader interest are created by sports news. …

Today, America leads the universe in sports journalism. Our syndicated specialists sell baseball stories and box scores to Japan and Mexico, prizefight and polo yarns to the press of the world. Readers in the British Isles know the cartoons of Bud Fisher, Tad, and Edgren. Slang from our sports sections has found its way to England, often in movie captions, until nervous Bloomsbury critics write letters to the London Times that we are corrupting, that is, americanizing, the mother tongue. Few seem to know that many of these words are making a return trip to their place of origin. For it was the British who taught them to us when they gave us our first lessons in sporting journalism.

American Mercury, March 1929.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *