'A People’s History of Sports in the United States'
Zirin's book rates amongst the best in his field
By Timothy Braun,
12:17PM, Fri. Mar. 5, 2010
In A People’s History of Sports in the United States ($26.95, The New Press), author David Zirin welcomes the reader to the proverbial adults table of American sports with a historical blow-by-blow of social engagement, race relations, gender struggles, and political upheaval that have surrounded some of our favorite pastimes.
Before Jackie Robinson, Black baseball player Moses Fleetwood Walker took the diamond. In the 1940s players in the women’s baseball league had to attend charm schools, where they learned to be “clean and wholesome in appearance." During the Vietnam War, the University of Washington football team forced their stadium announcer to read an antiwar statement during the annual alumni game. And that’s just the information on the book’s dust jacket.
The title of the book is more than a shout-out to Howard Zinn’s seminal work A People's History of the United States, where that author explores history on the trail of social movements. This book is published in the series of the same name that includes a people’s history of the American Civil War, Vietnam, the arts, and even poverty. Zirin’s book on sports moves in chronological order, and pays little attention to scores and statistics. He looks at the philosophies of Teddy Roosevelt and the ethos of “Muscular Christianity” as applied to football, the symbolism of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, the contents of the All-American Girls Baseball League Beauty Kit (which included rouge medium), and has large, copious amounts of analysis devoted to the civil rights movement. However, Zirin’s most compelling chapter is called “The 1980s: Welcome To Hell," detailing the rise and influence of cable television, the corruption of the ’84 Olympics, and the impact of the AIDS virus. He notes that by decades end players were making more money than ever and sports coverage was 24 hours a day. Yet, sports as a political tool had eroded.
Zirin assumes his audience has an above-average knowledge of American history. The reader needs a solid concept of capitalism as viewed by Adam Smith, know the ideas of Malcolm X, and a complete disdain for the 1980s. Admittedly, I have all three of those and consider this book among the best written on sports, or history, in the past 10 years, but this read isn’t for everyone. It takes the shine and romanticism off a subject some view as pristine. A People’s History of Sports in the United States isn’t for the likes of Glenn Beck or the tea partiers. Zirin didn’t write about their American pastimes. He wrote about the American pastimes and all the issues that pertain to them.
For The Score’s interview with David Zirin, click here.