|Copyright American Sociological Association Mar
Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of
the Superstar, by E. Digby Baltzell. New York: The Free Press, 1995. 420
pp. $30.00 cloth. ISBN: 0-02-901315-1.
History of Colored Base Ball, By Sol White. Compiled and introduced by
Jerry Malloy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. 187 pp. $25.00
cloth. ISBN: 0-8032-4771-0.
Fleet Walker's Divided Heart, by David W. Zang. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1995. 157 pp. $21.50 cloth. ISBN: 0-8032-4913-6.
We can learn a great deal about a society and its history by the study
of its sports. Political and economic systems, social stratification,
social and cultural change, racial and ethnic relations, values, and the
uses of leisure are among the topics that are clarified by seeing them
through the lens of sports. Almost daily while I have been reading these
books, items relevant for the sociology of sports have been reported in
the press, as these headlines from the New York Times, the Washington
Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer indicate: "South Africa Uplifted by
Rugby Cup"; "Violence Far From the Court"; "Winning the Ad Revenue Race";
"Indians Represent the Heart of the City"; "Wide World of Sports? That's
The books under review are mainly historical, not sociological. (For
the latter one can turn to such studies as Stanley Eitzen, Sport in
Contemporary Society, or John Wilson, Playing by the Rules.) They are,
however, valuable sources of commentary and information. They can help us
to ask questions in the sociology of sport more sharply.
In writing his biography of Moses Fleetwood (Fleet) Walker, David Zang
has skillfully used various archives, interviews, early issues of African
American newspapers, Walker's own writings, and a wide selection of works
about him and, more generally, about American race relations.
Fleet Walker's father, trained in a series of apprenticeships, was one
of the first black physicians in Ohio. Steubenville, like other northern
Ohio towns, was quite integrated racially during that brief period of
tolerance after the Civil War. Shifting from medicine to the ministry, the
senior Walker became active in the search for full civil rights. His brief
pastorate in Oberlin led his sons to the college there. Both town and
college had been strongholds of abolitionism and links in the Underground
Railroad before the Civil War. They remained active centers of equality
and integration thereafter.
After three years at Oberlin, Walker and another black student were
lured to the University of Michigan to play baseball and study law after
Oberlin had defeated the Michigan team, 9-2, with Walker as catcher. These
were early days in intercollegiate sports, which the Oberlin faculty, as
faculties elsewhere, reluctantly allowed in an effort to tame the
"riotous" interclass sports. As Zang puts it: "Thus began a conscious
recasting of athletic philosophy that combined elements from the British
doctrine of amateurism, the belief in manly prowess, the need for healthy
activity, and the growing quest for order to produce a rationale for sport
as a character-building endeavor. College faculties and administrators
increasingly believed that, controlled and pointed in proper directions,
college athletes could become equal measures of Lancelot and Lincoln" (p.
Although it is somewhat difficult to imagine now, when it is widely
believed that Oberlin athletes are prone to tripping on their Phi Beta
Kappa key chains, Oberlin was a leader in this shift in athletic
philosophy. Walker carried it with him to Michigan.
At the same time, however, professional baseball leagues were springing
up across the eastern and middle-western states. Good incomes could be
made -- up to $1000 a month -- by the best athletes. Fleet Walker left
Michigan before finishing his legal studies to seize this opportunity.
There were racial incidents during the early years of his professional
baseball career, 1882-1889, as he moved around among several minor and, by
1884, major league teams. During this period the incidents became harsher
and Walker became more aggressive in his responses. His "good-natured
public demeanor was fraying," coincident with the pressures to exclude him
and other black players from the major leagues. By 1889 a majority of the
teams' directors voted for total exclusion. Walker was the last to play,
not to be replaced by another black player until Jackie Robinson joined
the Brooklyn Dodgers 58 years later.
Barred from "white" baseball, Walker moved in and out of several
occupations and activities: inventor, railway postal clerk, author, and
campaigner for emigration of black Americans to Africa. His biography
tells us something about the growth of intercollegiate sports, about the
personal successes and traumas of "double consciousness," in Du Bois's
term, but especially about the closing of the window of racial tolerance
that had been partially open for a few years after 1865.
Baseball, of course, was a small part of the larger process of
exclusion that began, let us say, in 1876. The process drew in other
sports, labor unions, residences, schools, politics, and most other
aspects of American life. Only the smallest steps were taken to reverse
these trends before 1945. Now, half a century later, sports are among the
most inclusive elements of American society. Zang calls Walker's short
book, Our Home Colony: The Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in
America, "certainly the most learned book a professional athlete ever
wrote." This judgment might be difficult to defend (one thinks of Arthur
Ashe's A Hard Road to Glory, for example). It is easier to agree, however,
with Zang's assessment that Our Home Colony "was a storehouse of race
theory ... readable, coherent, articulate, organized. ... Deconstructed,
it is the agonized outline of an autobiography, a prima facie case for a
bitterly divided heart" (p. 97).
I need to correct one error in Zang's account. Although it refers to
Oberlin, it could also apply to many other colleges and universities.
Oberlin College, he writes, continues to fight dehumanization, but, sadly,
like the rest of society, has to struggle to stay ahead. "Many of its
black students reside in a segregated African heritage dormitory" (p.
130). In fact, about 40 of over 200 black students have chosen that
dormitory. It may be unfortunate that on many campuses racial and ethnic
groups have sought, and have been granted, such centers. But to call
self-selected and optional housing arrangements "segregated" is a serious
distortion. In my judgment, it leads one to focus attention on the wrong
issue: the tendency among some students toward balkanization that draws
strong separating boundaries between racial groups, severing even "weak
In History of Colored Base Ball, Jerry Malloy skillfully introduced and
edited Sol White's Official Base Ball Guide, first published in 1907. In
his lengthy introduction, Malloy traces the early years of colored
baseball and describes the career of Sol White as a player, manager, and
writer, placing it in the context of the increasingly harsh American race
relations after 1885. He compares White's optimism, or perhaps one should
say hopefulness, with Fleet Walker's despondent views, as expressed in Our
White's History begins with the organization in 1885 of the first
professional colored baseball team, discusses the brusque removal of all
black players from predominantly white teams during the next four years,
and then traces the growing strength of "colored base ball" into the early
years of the twentieth century. This short book-within-a-book is history,
but it can also be described as an almanac, a scorecard, an archive, a
who's who of colored baseball up to 1907. Take off your thinking cap and
put on your baseball cap, if you have one, to enjoy the dozens of
photographs of players and teams reproduced from the 1907 edition.
The book concludes with a series of newspaper stories, from 1887 until
1936, commenting on Sol White, black teams and players, discrimination,
and the baseball scene of the moment. Neither these stories nor the book
as a whole is sociological. Sociologists of sports, however, will find raw
material and valuable commentary on which to draw.
The third book under review, E. Digby Baltzell's Sporting Gentlemen:
Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar, shares
with the other two a focus on sports. One might add that they also share
an interest in social stratification, but that theme plays a very
different part in Sporting Gentlemen than in the other two.
In most ways, Baltzell's book is quite different. The noted author of
The Protestant Establishment, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, and
Philadelphia Gentlemen, historian as well as sociologist, is uttering here
a cri de coeur. What was once a gentlemen's game, setting a standard of
civility and good sportsmanship, has been corrupted, in his view, by
commercialism, by undivided emphasis on victory, and by consequent
mean-spirited behavior, even by some with enormous talent.
One must remember that Baltzell is discussing only, or mainly, men's
tennis, and only high-level, or at least highly visible tennis at "the
best" clubs. Has he in his illustrations, I am wondering, generalized too
far by leaving out the hundreds of thousands of players like me who
learned the game mainly on the cracked concrete public courts with their
terrible wire nets? Having been bien eleve as a mainly WASPish fellow (in
his sense of the term), I too lament what seems to be a rise in boorish
behavior -- and not only in the world of sports. (Actually, because I am
not entirely English, I am a WAIF -- a White American International
Fellow.) I cannot, however, share his wistful desire for the return to a
trendsetting aristocracy with the power to "level up" the standards of the
nonelite. Even if that were possible, the political and economic side
effects would be, in my judgment, very costly.
Baltzell makes his view clear by citing John P. Marquand, "who knew
that it was only with the traditional establishment of upper-class
authority and the hegemony of its mores throughout society that a
civilization would ever be able to defend itself against total domination
by money-power, on the one hand, or some form of democratic despotism, on
the other" (p. 218). Students of comparative civilizations, please check
this out as if it were a hypothesis.
Sweeping generalizations have been fun to read, but they have agitated
my analytic tendencies:
Henri Cochet, the great French champion, was blessed with God-given
athletic ability (p. 190), but this was reinforced by the luck of the
Devil (p. 189). No wonder he was a champion.
Tilden ("the greatest player who ever lived") and Perry, the two men he
writes most about, did not fit very well the gentlemanly model Baltzell
holds up as dominant in the years before open tournaments, weakening his
interpretation. Give me Laver and Ashe. But they weaken the interpretation
from the opposite direction.
In the book there are dozens of well-written descriptions of tennis
matches that will hold the interest even of readers who are not tennis
bums. The most detailed is a 10-page quotation from Don Budge's
autobiography that spells out, shot for shot, his five-set Davis Cup
victory over Baron Gottfried von Cramm. Hitler called Cramm, minutes
before the match was to begin, to wish him luck. Cramm lost in a grueling
contest. A few months later he was in a Nazi jail. If not "the greatest
classic in tennis history," as Baltzell calls it (how can that be
measured?), this description is certainly classic.
There is a lot of autobiography in Sporting Gentlemen, with changes in
the world of tennis serving as a metaphor for larger changes in the world
that are hinted at, if not fully discussed.
I kept wishing for a chapter on the effects of professionalization (of
many sports), reinforced by the enormous money-machine called TV. Here we
read about the decline of the standard-setting elites and their
displacement by more raucous populace standards. We would also profit by
discussions of the effects on universities, on race relations, on cities,
and other topics of sociological interest.
But a heartfelt cry is also valuable, exposing -- if in a somewhat
biased way -- the costs, the injuries that can occur as a result of
turning yet another activity, a sport, over to the