Introduction Baseball is what we used to be. Football is what we have become.

—Mary McGrory, Pulitzer Prize– winning newspaper columnist, 1975 No one knows precisely when it happened—and there were those who did not want to believe that it had happened at all. But sometime in 1965, between the moments when world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali defended his title with a “phantom punch” that crumpled Sonny Liston, and Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax hurled a shutout against the Minnesota Twins in Game Seven of the World Series, the tectonic plates underlying the American sporting landscape shifted. Any number of things could have tipped the seismic balance by early autumn: Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton’s heart-stopping, unorthodox scrambling that unnerved his coach, stymied opposing defenses, and entertained everyone else; the Bears’ slippery rookie running back, Gale Sayers, off to a record-setting season; the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line launching furious, bone-crushing assaults; the Chargers’ aerial circus, showcasing flanker Lance Alworth’s acrobatic catches; or the Jets’ wealthy, pioneering “glamourback,” Joe Namath, making passes at wide receivers and smitten women. For decades, a groundswell of enthusiasm had gathered in energetic fury each autumn, as colorful and vivid as the accompanying leaves, before receding into the depths of a long and silent off-season. By October 1965, however, nearly a century after the first intercollegiate football game, the groundswell was perceived not only in the folding seats and bleachers at the stadium, but most acutely on the couch in front of the television. That’s when the results of a semiannual national Harris Poll revealed an inevitable new truth: Professional football had become the nation’s favorite spectator sport, surpassing major league baseball in popularity. Factor in the college game’s large, loyal following, and football was clearly America’s top sport. This notable fact was confirmed in subsequent surveys, then in the Nielsen television ratings, and later in the sales of logoed apparel. For a fellow named Bowie Kuhn, this was difficult to accept. As late as 1972, he was still struggling with the uncomfortable fact that a change had occurred: “I haven’t wanted to dignify those findings,” he said. His reluctance to concede the obvious was certainly understandable. Bowie Kuhn was, after all, the commissioner of major league baseball. Yet well into the twenty-first century, the aftershocks of 1965 continue to reverberate throughout American life, far stronger than when they so upset Mr. Kuhn. Both modern baseball and football are related to games played in colonial America, and those games have medieval and ancient ancestors. Organized baseball achieved regional prominence early on in the Northeast, and the New York Mercury declared it the national pastime in 1856. Settlers took the game west, Union soldiers introduced it to Southerners during the Civil War, and in 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings became baseball’s first professional team. For generations of immigrants, mastering baseball as a player or following a team as a fan was an essential part of becoming an American. It was also proof that you were an American. Among its charms, baseball coincides neatly with the natural calendar, from spring training’s rhythms of rebirth to fall’s abundant championship harvest. That baseball—historically rooted in urban grittiness but heralded for its pastoral, Arcadian associations, its intellectual and literary bent, its democratic nature (everyone on the field has a turn at bat and a chance to score), and, perhaps

most of all, its well-tended mythology and pantheon of heroic figures—had been eclipsed as the country’s favorite professional sport was no small thing. Organized football in the United States developed more slowly, and its newfound predominance in the 1960s represented a major cultural stirring, though it clearly snuck up on some people. Perhaps that was because the change had come gradually, its rumblings muffled in an era of escalating warfare in Vietnam and the increasingly radical beat of popular culture. That American football, both brute force and crisply choreographed movement packaged together as organized violence, should eventually come to dominate the national sports conscience is well worth considering. Examples of the game’s elevated position in American life abound: It accounts for the most costly public expenditures in many a municipality; it has prompted congressional interest in playoff schemes; Super Bowl Sunday represents a nationwide, day long consumption of food second only to Thanksgiving, to which the game is also closely allied; and, in more than a few cases, football contributes to the health or dysfunction of one’s family life. How did it happen? What did this process look like, moving from universal, organic forms of play with a ball to a distinct and complex American game that is thoroughly embedded in the national culture? How did the United States become “Football Nation,” and how did the game reflect and respond to the vicissitudes of American life? As with so many things, a good place to start is at the beach. . . .

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful