Sports have been a part of Americana for over a century. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without a game on TV, or the feelings of jubilation or dismay people get from watching their favorite teams. The history of American sports and how it all started involves three sports that changed this country forever.
The first sport that swept the nation was baseball, hence the declaration of it as America’s pastime. Baseball’s American roots date back to the 1840s and the Civil War, although the earliest mention of a variation of the game goes back to the mid-1740s.
Baseball evolved from cricket, the sport of choice for many people worldwide after the US battled Canada in the first international cricket match in 1844. Cooperstown, New York, is the unofficial birthplace of the game, with Civil War hero, Abner Doubleday, receiving credit as its founder. Though many have gotten into a spirited debate about when baseball came to be, its Hall of Fame resides in Cooperstown, NY, to this day.
In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professionally recognized baseball team. Seven years later, in 1876, William Hulbert founded the National League. The eight original teams of the NL included the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Philadelphia Athletics, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, the Louisville Grays, the Boston Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings, the Hartford Dark Blues, and the New York Mutuals.
It wasn’t until 1903 that the American League came about, creating the World Series as we know it today. The Boston Americans of the AL defeated the NL’s Pittsburgh Pirates in a now-defunct best-of-nine series. With a solid understanding of the history of baseball, let’s briefly touch on its most significant events:
- 1919 – The Chicago White Sox become the Black Sox
- 1920 – The Boston Red Sox sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees
- 1947 – Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier
- 1958 – The Dodgers and Giants leave New York and head west
- 1961 – In baseball’s first expansion year, Roger Maris hits 61 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60
- 1976 – Free agency gives the players a whole new world
- 1989 – Pete Rose is banished for betting on the game
- 1994 – Labor disputes cancel the World Series
- 1998 – Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivate the nation as they chase down Maris, reinvigorating the people’s interest after the 1994 strike
- 2002 – The steroids truth bomb
- 2019 – Mike Trout signs the largest contract ($426.5M) in professional sports history
Nothing But Peach Baskets
Though baseball had a firm grip on American culture, there was still room for a new sport to find its footing. Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith’s motivation was to create a game that you could play indoors. The former physical education teacher put on his thinking cap and created the game’s original version. Basketball gets its name because the original goals were actual peach baskets. Players would throw a soccer ball through the peach baskets to score. After every basket, someone would have to retrieve the ball from the peach basket since they weren’t open at the bottom. Naismith’s version had 13 basic rules, most of which remain in some fashion today.
In a post-WWII world where star baseball players were starting to return to the playing field after fighting on the battlefields, college basketball started to take shape. Even with the founding of the NBA in the 1940s, college basketball reigned supreme until the early 1980s, when the NBA became a beloved professional sports league. Thanks to the addition of the three-point line in 1979, the game started to gain traction; having Magic Johnson and Larry Bird join the league also helped. Let’s look at other significant happenings for basketball:
- 1936 – Basketball is introduced to the Olympic games
- 1940 – The first game on TV takes place between Pittsburgh and Fordham University
- 1959 – Basketball adds dribbling
- 1960 – Minneapolis Lakers move to LA
- 1976 – The ABA-NBA becomes one league
- 1984 – Michael Jordan goes to the Bulls
- 1986 – NBA stops tape-delaying the Finals
- 1990 – Jordan’s Bulls take control
- 1992 – The Dream Team hits the scene
- 1996 – Shaq heads west to team up with a young Kobe Bryant
- 2003 – The kid from Akron, LeBron James, goes to the Cavaliers
Like basketball, the admiration for football started at the collegiate level. Midwest powerhouses like Notre Dame and Michigan began their storied rivalry in the late 1880s, while Ivy League squads at Yale and Harvard enthralled those on the east coast. There wasn’t any passing in its infancy, and the scoring was different. But as time progressed, the sport became more interesting to the general public, leading to the National Football League in 1920.
The NFL carried on through World War II, playing third fiddle behind baseball and basketball, but that started to shift in 1958 when the NFL televised its first championship game. Within a decade, the first Super Bowl that saw the Green Bay Packers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs was on the airways across multiple networks. As years went by, the Super Bowl became a mainstay of American culture, a holiday of sorts. But what helped the NFL push past baseball as the primary sport of Americans was fantasy football.
In 1997, fantasy football became mainstream, letting players throughout the country put on their GM hats and construct their own teams. Pairing that with the Madden football franchise gave fans an extra incentive to immerse themselves in the game. Furthermore, football is the ultimate betting sport. People wanted premium sports betting tips weekly to get some skin in the game. Otherwise, how else would they enjoy an early afternoon kickoff between NFC North teams?
- 1935 – The first NFL Draft takes place
- 1939 – The first championship game between Green Bay and New York takes place
- 1958 – Colts beat Giants in “The Game of the Century”
- 1966 – The AFL-NFL merger takes effect
- 1983 – A player strike shortens the season
- 1994 – DirectTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket begins
- 1998 – A record-setting media rights deal goes into effect
Baseball, basketball, and football are the main cogs of the American sports landscape, with football sitting indisputably atop the pyramid. However, other sports still have their fingerprints on the US. Although it’s the national sport in Canada and usually grouped with the other three as “The Big Four” sports, hockey has a large following of diehard supporters in the US.
Soccer remains on the cusp of popularity in the States, though most fans prefer the European teams to those in the MLS. The only time the country bands together is when the World Cup rolls around.
There are sprinklings of other sports that interest some folks, but baseball, basketball, and football are where athletics begin in the US and where it will likely end.
Pregame wants to help you become a winner in these sports with the help of our expert advice. Take football weekends by storm by following our key news and notes heading into each slate of games. Take advantage of our discounted rates for our premium analysis from the best handicappers in the world!