An examination of how track, baseball, and basketball slipped away from their grass roots--with only fleeting mention of how...


MUDVILLE'S REVENGE: The Rise and Fall of American Sport

An examination of how track, baseball, and basketball slipped away from their grass roots--with only fleeting mention of how (per the title) the nation's Mudvilles might revitalize local sports and thus take their ""revenge."" (The original Mudville, of course, is where the mighty Casey struck out.) For openers, Vincent offers an absorbing account of how organized track meets, under the banner of ""pedestrianism,"" achieved widespread popularity among working-class fans during the post-Civil War era. Urban gamblers, along with amusement park owners and other commercial interests, sponsored alfresco match and handicap races with generous purses, while six-day walking marathons helped establish the original Madison Square Garden as a hub for indoor competition. Thanks in part to the muscularly Christian efforts of the AAU, track eventually became ""an activity identified with young gentlemen, or at least athletes of any class who had the manners and decorum of gentlemen."" Next, we're directed to baseball--which quickly attracted rogues like William Marcy Tweed, who in 1857 backed the New York Mutuals: ""Funding the home team could mean votes, and for some it was an adventurous way to launder the profits of political graft."" Saloon keepers and brewers--like the Busch family in St. Louis--were eager diamond patrons as well. But in 1876, Vincent reports, the countinghouse crowd took control, handing out territorial monopolies in the form of franchises and indenturing talent for life with the infamous reserve clause. Though the players challenged the cartel with their own cooperative association, they squandered the prospective support of trade unions by declining to join the AFL and, more important, by refusing to schedule Sunday games. By the 1892 season, the national pastime was the private preserve of a monied, urban few. Basketball, the third of Vincent's set pieces, remained a ""second-class sport"" for many years after its 1891 invention for lack of a country club connection and national pro link. But the non-college game prospered in the hands of ethnic groups (e.g., the South Philadelphia Hebrew All Stars), barnstormers (the Harlem Globetrotters), and backwater entrepreneurs (the Phillips 66ers of Bartlesville, Oklahoma), in large measure because the New Deal's WPA programs provided Mudvilles with a wealth of playgrounds. By the late 1940s, arena owners in major metropolitan areas decided there was a mass market for pro basketball; among other things, they changed the rules to encourage higher scores, and, in comparatively short order, another sport had been ""Romanized."" Vincent serves up his yarns vividly and engagingly. Unfortunately, his stories stop without endings--circa 1891 in the case of baseball--and he never quite gets around to discussing What It All Means. But as a lighter-weight complement to John Dizikes' recent Sportsmen and Gamesmen, it offers high color with a socio-economic tinge.

Pub Date: April 15, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Seaview--dist. by Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981