Depression Era and Sports

Depression Era and Sports

In the autumn of 1929 came the catastrophe which so few had anticipated but which in retrospect seems inevitable–prices broke on the New York Stock Exchange, dragging down with them in their fall, first the economy of the United States itself, subsequently that of Europe and the rest of the world. Financial losses of such magnitude had never before been known in the history of capitalist society, and the ensuing depression was also unprecedented in scope.

There had always been business crises; economists had come to take them as normal and even to chart a certain regularity in their occurrence. But this one dwarfed all its predecessors: no previous depression had remotely approached it in length, in depth, and in the universality of impact. Small wonder that countless people were led to speculate whether the final collapse of capitalism itself, so long predicted by the Marxists, was not at last in sight.

The Depression left an uneven pattern of poverty and prosperity. Like the rest of the service sector and the mass entertainment industry, spectator sports expanded during the Depression, as those who could afford it grasped the alternative vision of fun and the “good life” that sport provided. In Britain it was the “golden age” of soccer and cricket attendances, and in the United States baseball, football and basketball were flourishing businesses.

Professional football was still organized for the working class rather than by them. Like baseball and other sports, soccer (Association football) provided working-class men and boys with the fantasy of escape from hardship and poverty. By the 1930s it was played almost exclusively by men with working-class origins. Soccer was also used by entrepreneurs to cultivate legalized gambling, institutionalized in the football pools.

By the mid-1930s more than sixteen times as many people gambled on football in Britain as watched it, attracted by the potential jackpot win. As early as 1931 there was one pools win of £345,000. By 1938 the annual turnover was close to £40 million.

Football aroused spectator interest from the start, and the Big Three of the eastern colleges — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — at first completely overshadowed all other teams. It was long before comparable elevens were in the field. The Thanksgiving Day games of these universities were consequently the great events of the fall season. Some four thousand spectators turned out for the first Princeton-Yale game in 1878; little more than a decade later, attendance was almost forty thousand.

Few adults found themselves able or willing to play football. Although teams made up of former college players were for a time quite active, the game was primarily for boys. But many were glad to watch so exciting a sport. Its dependence upon brute force satisfied atavistic instincts as could no other modern spectacle except the prize-fight. Baseball had become the national game because so many people played it as well as watched it.

Football was destined from the first to be primarily a spectator sport. The football pools’ jackpot was one of the dreamlike scenarios sport provided for working-class people in the 1930s. The poverty of the Depression induced people to look to sport to transport them from the ghetto: poor people under capitalism believed that sport, like other forms of popular culture, might change their rags to riches.

In the United States boxing became a route out of poverty for some blacks. Inspired by the supremacy of Joe Louis, world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, blacks began to dominate professional boxing, though prizewinners’ purses remained relatively small until after 1945.

The lawn tennis as played in the United States did not involve hard, overhand serves, back-court drives, or smashes at the net. Women players suffered only the slightest handicap in having to hold up the trains of their long, dragging skirts; they were not expected actually to run for the ball. It was patted gently back and forth over a high net stretched across any level space of lawn. Competition gradually led to changed methods of play, and with the organization of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (there were forty member clubs in 1883) and the institution of annual tournaments at Newport, men began to take the game more seriously. The active features of play that now characterize it were developed. A group of players whose names are still remembered emerged from the ranks — R. D. Sears, James Dwight, Robert D. Wrenn, William A. Larned, Dwight F. Davis… Finally in 1900 the establishment of the International Davis Cup matches definitely marked the transformation of tennis from a pastime to a sport.

Throughout Europe and in North America participation sports remained rigidly class-specific: skiing, climbing, tennis, sailing, yachting and motor-racing remained middle and upper-class sports. New working-class hobbies and recreations developed as a direct result of unemployment and enforced leisure. An open-air and fitness movement developed, symptomatic attempts to escape from the industrial environment. Working-class people took to cycling, camping, hiking and rambling.

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. And a post-war atmosphere, in which the instinct for pleasure is naturally intensified, provided fertile ground for the growth of these new forms of recreation. It is perhaps not so surprising after all that within a short quarter-century of the day when one English visitor declared that “to roll balls in a ten pin alley by gas-light or to drive a fast trotting horse in a light wagon along a very bad and dusty road, seems the Alpha and Omega of sport in the United States,” almost every one of our modern games was being played by a rapidly growing army of enthusiasts.

The expansion of women’s sport was still slow, but there was some relaxation of attitudes about women’s physical abilities and an increasing interest in, and demand for, opportunities to participate. Girls were playing sports in schools, thanks to the development of the women’s physical education professions in Europe and North America. In 1930 the Women’s League of Health and Beauty was founded in London with 16 members – by 1939 there were 166,000 members, centers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and representatives in Hong Kong, Denmark and the United States.

Next Page: Alternatives to Conventional Sports