Entertainment In Sports

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Increased Leisure Time

The roaring 20's represented the age of the radio and the movies. During this time common americans began to follow the lives of larger than life personalities such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. These men were highly celebrated in newspapers, magazines, and the cinemas. National awareness of prominent sports figures escalated during this time of leisure. Every sport had its superstars who were idolized by the public and represented as heroic figures. This was a drastic shift from the largely political and military heros of years past. Sportswriters gravitated toward athletes with star quality like Ruth and Jack Dempsey and mirrored their athletic accomplishments to great victories in life. During this time of great expansion in spectator sports five sports emerged as the most popular and profitable for spectators, athletes and owners. These sports were boxing, baseball, American football, golf and tennis.

Babe Ruth and Baseball

Babe Ruth established himself as a baseball legend and an American icon after he single-handedly changed the way baseball was played. He was able to bring the sport back from the dark days that followed the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Though he was an extremely accomplished individual his sky-rocketing credentials and larger than life personality were brought to the forefront by the sportswriters and advertisers who spread his legend across the country. The showboating hulk of a man was exactly what the people of the 20's were looking for following the scandal, and he represented the affluence and overconsumption of the decade.

Ruth’s all-or-nothing approach was very representative of the times. In an age where stock market speculators gambled with an inflated market to either win big or lose big, Ruth swung for the fences every time and either hit one over, or struck out. "I swing big, with everything I've got," Ruth said. "I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."

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Babe was a marketing commodity. Business was booming in the 1920s and people had more money to spend than ever. For companies there was no better way to promote their products than with a national icon who represented success and the grandeur of the times. Advertising kept Ruth on the public's mind almost as much as newspapers did. They may have even been more integral to his heroic image than the press. The single greatest advantage Ruth's publicity through advertisements had over his publicity in the press was advertising's sole focus on his triumphs. He was a champion and the king of the long ball, but never the adulterer or the gluttonous eater. The Babe Ruth of advertising was free from Babe Ruth's real life vices. Constant exposure to this image of Ruth no doubt mitigated the effect the press had when it disclosed Ruth's latest transgressions. Therefore advertising not only publicized the Babe, it helped polish his image.

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Growing economic prosperity and an increasing literacy rate fueled a boom in the newspaper industry and the press used sports to sell newspapers. They capitalized on the increasing popularity of sports to build mythic heroes. Ruth was one of the main benefactors of this trend, a trend that was intricately tied both to advertisers and the consumer culture of the 1920s.

Jack Dempsey and Boxing

Boxing in the 1920's was a tremendously popular sport, known as one of the "Big Five" Sports along with baseball, football, tennis, and golf, boxing was a favorite spectator sport across all social and economic brackets. For many years boxing had been an underground, illegal practice in the United States, rules were not set in stone and the fighting was brutal and often fatal. Boxing was a gambling sport, where men would make wagers to ring leaders (usually mobsters, or other, less than reputable characters. These bets were often small due to the fact that the matches were illegal and only those who were present could bet on the fighters. Towards the end of the 19th century rules began to be put into place that legitimized and regulated boxing in the United States. As the archaic, dangerous rules of the past were done away with and the glove rules were brought about the matches became much less gruesome and more appealing to watch for the masses. Boxing was on a steady incline before the 1920's, this growth was fueled by the increased amount of leisure time experienced during the period. Boxing greats like Jack Dempsey, Georges Carpentier, and Tom Gibbons helped sensationalize the sport and explode its popularity. Whereas bets on boxing in the past had been limited in size, in the 20's the cash being put down on matches was astronomical for the time. In 1921 Jack Dempsey fought in the first million dollar fight against Georges Carpentier, an estimated 91,000 people were in attendance.

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Notable Accomplishments and Victories in Sports

Sports gained popularity in the 1920's. School teams were formed for students and collegiate and professional teams launched into the limelight. Several sports, such as golf, that had previously been unavailable to the middle-class became open. Record-breaking athletes also attracted many new people to various physical activities.

George Herman Ruth (1895 - 1948) hit a total of 60 home runs in 1927. This record-breaker would remain a record until 1961.

On July 2, 1921, American boxer Jack "the Manassa Mauler" Dempsey (1895-1983), fought challenger Georges Carpentier, a Frenchman, in New Jersey. Dempsey was declared winner in the fourth round after knocking out Carpentier. Their one million dollar bout would be dubbed "The Battle of the Century."

William "Big Bill" Tatem Tilden II became the first American to win a Wimbledon title in 1920. He would recapture this title in 1921 and 1930 as well.

Steve Donoghue (riding Humorist) won the Derby for the third time in 1921. After his third of six Derby wins, he went on to repeat his feat again in 1922 (with Captain Cuttle), 1923 (on Papyrus), and 1925 (riding Manna).

American Johnny Weissmuller (1904 - 1984) broke the 100 m record with 58.6 seconds swimming freestyle on July 9. He went on to win three gold medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France, and two gold medals at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. In his career, he claimed 52 U.S. titles and 28 world distance records.

Ralph Samuelson of Minnesota invented waterskiing in 1922.

Helen Newington Wills of the U.S. captured her first Wimbledon title (women's singles) in 1927.

Henry Seagrave, driving his car the Golden Arrow, reaches a record speed of 231.44 mph. (1929).

Connection to Modern-day Sports and Leisure Time

The 1920's radically changed American sports, these changes and traditions established during the 20's can still be seen in almost all facets of American sports. The 20's saw the rise of the spectator sport in America, giant stadiums and hundreds of thousands of fans have become normal to most American sporting events. The time period saw the introduction of the major professional sports leagues like the MLB, NFL and the NBA, which are all currently multibillion dollar organization. While some of the more popular sports of the 1920's have faded into the background of American sports, the majority of sports that became extremely popular in the 20's are still extremely popular today. The sports rivalries created in the 1920's have grown and are just as potent, or more so, than they were when created. The most famous of these sports rivalries is of course the rivalries between the Boston Red Sox, and the despicable, sub-human New York Yankees. Sports in America in the years during and after the 1920's have been a great unifying force, bringing people of all social classes together to enjoy great sporting events. While some rivalries seem to push different cities and groups of people away from each other, the sporting traditions created in the 1920's and kept for the decades after and presently, have done an excellent job of giving Americans something to share in common and creating a more unified nation.

© Siddharth Virkud and Kevin Keane

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