Cait Murphy’s ‘History of American Sports in 100 Objects’ admirably fulfills its mission

September 14, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 14, 2017

Cait Murphy’s 2016 survey, A History of American Sports in 100 Objects, is a lively tour of — well, of exactly what the title represents.

Murphy begins with a roughly 900-year-old red stone statue standing 9 inches in height, one of the few remaining relics of the Native American sport known as chunkey. The pastime, popular throughout much of North America, was founded in the community of Cahokia, which was once the continent’s largest city north of Mexico. A number of the other objects the author selects are similarly obscure, such as the “lawn bowle” — an oak bowling ball the size of a grapefruit — that once belonged to a 17th-century Puritan resident of Boston, or the riding boots of Tad Lucas, a female rodeo star who earned thousands of dollars during the Great Depression.

But many of the objects Murphy highlights are more familiar, or at least invoke recognizable names. The book’s early pages also include such items as Abraham Lincoln’s handball; one of the dumbbells that pugilist John L. Sullivan used to train before the last bare-knuckles heavyweight title fight, held in rural Richburg, Miss., in July 1889; and James Naismith’s original rules of basketball, written at a YMCA school in Springfield, Mass., and now housed at the University of Kansas, where the inventor of basketball taught physical education and (of course) founded and coached a hoops squad.

One can also find the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brickyard, which was first laid in 1909, and which is known even to someone as ignorant of motor sports as I; a .22-caliber rifle wielded by Annie Oakley, who creamed the men she competed against in target shooting and whom the author dubs the nation’s first great professional sportswoman; and the Olympic gold medals that were posthumously returned to Jim Thorpe in 1982 for his victories seven decades earlier in the pentathlon and decathlon. (Thorpe, an early National Football League star and that league’s first commissioner, was an accomplished swimmer, wrestler, boxer, shooter and dancer, among other things. In one of a number of questionable decisions made by officials who oversaw the Olympics or national team sports over the decades, Thorpe was stripped of his medals in 1913 after a newspaper revealed that he’d been a paid baseball player in North Carolina for a few months in 1909.)

As Murphy’s timeline converges with the present, the histories she recounts were increasingly known to me: A ball from the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which was punctuated by Brandy Chastain’s memorable victory celebration; one of the bicycles that Lance Armstrong rode in his 2000 Tour de France victory, the second of seven straight wins that were vacated after evidence of his extensive doping came to light; a bobblehead of Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star whose 2002 entry to the NBA presage the globalization of that league; the infamous bloody sock that Curt Schilling wore while helping lift the Boston Red Sox past the Yankees en route to their 2004 World Series championship.

But even here, Murphy supplies details that had escaped my attention or fallen from memory. The 1999 soccer ball featured images of New York, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., where Women’s World Cup games were staged. Famed American cyclist Greg LeMond “was forced to apologize [to Armstrong] and saw his business interests in cycling undermined when he questioned Armstrong’s relationship with…an Italian doctor convicted of sporting fraud” whose exploits earned him the nickname “Dr. Evil.” Ming, Murphy writes,

was literally born to be a basketball player. Chinese Community Party officials coaxed his parents — both of them tall and accomplished hipsters — to marry, with the explicit intention of raising an athlete who would make his country proud.

And although my disappointment at the Yankees’ epic 2004 playoff collapse is seared into my brain — they’d held a 3-0 series lead, which to that point in history had been indomitable — Murphy’s chapter on the encounter reminded me that Schilling had undergone experimental surgery to repair a damaged tendon in his right leg. (The procedure was so novel that team physicians tested it on a cadaver beforehand.) It also posed the question of why the Yankees never tried to bunt against the injured pitcher.

Some of Murphy’s choices, as she acknowledges in her introduction, interpret the word “object” generously; they include mass-produced items of no particular distinction such as the Ming bobblehead, paddles sold in to spectators of the Chinese national Ping-Pong team’s visit to the U.S. (in 1972, the first official delegation from that country in more than two decades), a Mary Lou Retton magnet packaged in Wheaties cereal boxes (1984), a souvenir Southern Methodist University doormat (1987, representing the time the NCAA suspended the Mustangs football team for one year, the only time the organization levied the so-called “death penalty”) and a random copy of the first edition of John Madden Football (1988).

Murphy has also chosen Camden Yards, the Baltimore baseball stadium that ushered in a wave of amenity-filled, fan-friendly and lucrative ball parks upon its opening in 1992; an Ohio park dedicated to David Berger, the American-born weightlifter who was one of nine Israeli athletes and coaches killed after Palestinian terrorists took hostages at the Munich Olympics in 1972; and a 2005 statue erected by San Jose State of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in salute to black America after medaling in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Less tangibly, the author taps a pioneering 1921 radio broadcast of Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight championship bout against Frenchman Georges Carpentier, the report that former Maine Sen. George Mitchell produced in 2007 documenting widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by Major League Baseball players, and an image of Stillman’s gym, a.k.a. the University of Eighth Avenue. (Murphy’s father, the late cartoonist John Cullen Murphy, painted this long-closed boxing mecca in 1955. The author disarms censure of her nepotistic selection by noting that the windows at Stillman’s gym, contrary to her father’s depiction, “were never cleaned.”)

I have two substantial criticisms of A History of American Sports in 100 Objects; one relates to a single chapter, the other to a more general failing. Murphy’s entry on Southern Methodist contains valid criticism of college athletics, but it ranges so far afield from the case of SMU that it feels a bit preachy. Admittedly, this is in keeping with Murphy’s persistent, perspicacious efforts to link specific sporting items or trends to larger issues in society.

A more relevant failing, perhaps, is that the book’s black-and-white photo-illustrations come off seeming rather lackluster. The book might have more impact had it featured an insert of color images, or perhaps if it had a website displaying Murphy’s 100 objects in color.

Despite this, A History of American Sports in 100 Objects is well-written and informative. It should bring new knowledge to all but the most educated of American sports enthusiasts.

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