A comprehensive, polished account of just what the title says--and thus of considerable utility and interest. Baker, a University of Maine historian, is serious about sports without being ponderous. He straightforwardly explains, for instance, the shift from the Greek ""association of body and mind"" to the Roman penchant for spectacles; the Renaissance extension of the medieval ideal of the knight-in-arms; the rationale for Puritan prohibitions--and the resilience of public pastimes; the succeeding ""quest for order"" (which gave us boxing rules, and the 18-hole round of golf); the advent, with the Industrial Revolution and mass leisure, of new forms of recreation--at first as badges of ethnic identity or localized phenomena; later, in the form of team sports, as mass enthusiasm. More than half the book is then devoted to the history of British rugby and soccer, and American football; the growth of American baseball into a national mania and big-business; the European skiing rage, the start of figure-skating, the spread of ice hockey, the invention of basketball (all under the rubric, ""The Boys of Winter""). Also, in the 20th century: ""Sports in the Age of Conflict""--where politics and technology intervene, and Baker traces developments from Olympic discords to ""Dempsey's problems"" to the revolt of black (and women) athletes to the end of the amateur. On sticky matters, he doesn't equivocate (Jackie Robinson enjoyed ""his best year at the plate"" when Branch Rickey unmuzzled him). But he also writes with intelligence and wit on obscure topics like the 17th-century English passion for bowls and the first, amateurish modern Olympics (a versatile Frenchman, explaining how he trained: ""First I run a leetle way, vairy quick. Ze next day, I run a long way, vairy slow""). Altogether: an education and a pleasure.