How were baseball and football at the center of new leisure and mass culture in the late 1800s?

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During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States, particularly along the east coast and in the Midwest, witnessed an urban explosion. Both the number and size of cities began to skyrocket up through the 1900’s, providing a growing urban populace the opportunity to engage in a culture of mass spectacle theretofore unheard of in American culture. College football and professional baseball became two of the most popular spectator sports of the city. Some of the reasons for this were practical. In the city, it was easy for large groups of people to aggregate in one place to enjoy a collective sporting event. Furthermore, municipal newspapers and saloon-room gossip made it easy to quickly spread news of an upcoming game. As various new teams began to develop inter-city rivalries, organized sports like football and baseball became something the average, working-class citizen could become quite passionate about.

Football and baseball were especially popular to American audiences because they represented a unique expression of American creativity and athleticism. Football was America’s analogue to European soccer and rugby. When the College of New Jersey and Rutgers played their first game in 1869, football established itself as the quintessential American display of strength and masculinity.

Baseball emerged around midcentury. Alexander Cartwright, a clerk from New York, is recognized as the father of modern American baseball. The sport quickly became recognized as America’s “national pastime” for a number of reasons. On the one hand, baseball was open to people of any class, and thus represented the egalitarianism and opportunity that many Americans believed their particular form of democracy was built upon. On the other hand, baseball was an authentic American creation that did not have any direct roots in European forms of athletic contest. For these reasons, it came to be seen as a uniquely American sport, allowing many people to take pride in the accomplishments of their teams and the innovativeness of their country.

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One of the underlying benefits of the Industrial Revolution was the leisure time it afforded the middle class. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people who lived in agrarian societies did not have free time because they received no salary and there was always work to be done.

As factories allowed products to come to market in a quick, cheap, and efficient way, those products relied less on humans as artisans and more on machinery to handle the larger of work. These jobs granted salaries and disposable income. These jobs also created cities which began to take on distinct cultures. For example, during this time, Chicago became known for its expansive pork production. As people traveled to these cities and became ingratiated in the different cultures, they found sports like baseball and football to play an increasingly larger role in their cultural identity.

Baseball and football took advantage of ideas of power and masculinity, qualities which captivated ancient Romans. However, the various rules and strategies added an element of knowledge which provided a mental stimulus to patrons as well.

Marketing departments of different companies become involved in these sports, not only by making stadiums more impressive and engaging, but also by marketing professional players as cultural celebrities.

Increasing efficiency of media allowed fans to follow their teams easily, and reading box scores in newspapers became just as much a part of the mass culture as reading about the latest political developments.

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Around this time, more people were able to join middle management at factories. This gave the United States a new leisure class who had disposable income to go to baseball and football games. The modern game of baseball has been around since the time of the Civil War. Teams started to play regularly and employ professional players, though the profession was not as well-paid and respected as it is today. Advertisers used magazines, baseball cards, and billboards at stadiums to promote teams and their products. Many of the first baseball cards came in packs of cigarettes. It was not expensive to go to a baseball game, and the rules were quite lax at the stadium, with some stadiums being so small that extra seating was available on the outfield grass.

While professional football would not become important until the 1920s, college football became important in the late nineteenth century. People enjoyed the constant action of the sport and the element of danger it carried; with the rudimentary equipment of the day, serious injuries and even deaths were not uncommon. The rise of the sport coincided with a slight uptick in the number of people going to college, though many people who could never afford college became some of the sport's most avid supporters. Many of the early college football powers were Ivy League schools in the East who relied on close proximity to each other to make travel easier.

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