July 4 is America’s birthday, and that means taking stock of all the amazing things American history has given us, including sports.
It’s important to remember the inherent cultural exchange that goes on with many of what many consider “American” pastimes.
These five sports weren’t really invented in America, they simply formed in American territory as an offshoot of a European iteration that bares a different name and structure.
We’re all interconnected these days, but athletic competitions spawned many evolutions and assimilated some aspects more than others.
Not all of the major league sports formed on American shores, but three of them could—arguably—be considered American.
Here are five sports born in America.
The origins of racing cars can be traced beyond our borders, where France and Belgium set some of the earliest automotive land speed records at the turn of the 20th century.
In the 20s and 30s, the temperate climes of Daytona Beach, Florida became the land speed hotspot with 8 new speed records set between 1927 and 1935.
But traditional racing doesn’t mean against time, it’s against another automobile. The earliest vestiges of the souped up cars that first initiated the stock car racing that came to dominate our country today, can be traced back to 1920s Appalachia, prohibition’s moonshiners, and eventually led to the birth of Nascar in February of 1948.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1920, prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol; moonshine running was born. The practice of home breweries, particularly in Appalachia, eventually led to advances in car speed technology, as a way of avoiding the police.
Once alcohol was outlawed, moonshiners had to transport the booze to other states after cooking it up in their backyards. Faster cars were the coup de grace for the police chasing these illicit alcoholic forays.
But once the 21st Amendment overturned the 18th Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol in the United States, the fastest cars became the earliest incarnation of stock cars. American car racing began in earnest.
There’s some controversy about the origins of baseball. A sport with a bat, balls and bases, could be linked to English folk games, as well as contemporary cricket and “rounders.” But many credit Abner Doubleday as the inventor of “America’s Game” in 1839 while living in Cooperstown, New York.
But Doubleday never claimed credit for the game, and despite an essay by baseball historian Henry Chadwick in “Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide” in 1903, which claimed baseball was the natural evolution from England’s rounders, or “stoolball,” Doubleday was given the distinction, through nepotism, more than anything.
A report commissioned by former star pitcher Albert Spalding and shepherded to completion in 1907 by Abraham G. Mills claimed credit for Doubleday. Mills, the former National League President, concluded that Doubleday had invented the game’s rules, bases, diamond formation and the actual name “baseball.” Except, Mills was friends with Doubleday (he died in 1893), and even his New York Times obituary failed to mention baseball even once.
Despite the field that bares his name just a few blocks from the Baseball Hall of Fame in his own Cooperstown, New York, Doubleday was never inducted and there is a wealth of other concrete evidence that other men—who pre-dated the purported claims by a little-known Cooperstown resident about Doubleday’s discovery, and weren’t friends with Abraham G. Mills—actually invented the game and the rules.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the most popular and iconic of American sports, at least during the infancy of sports as big entertainment during the Twentieth century, should be shrouded in so much myth-making with a lack of supporting evidence. We are a country of legends.
But Arthur Cartwright, “the father of baseball” is credited as the first person to actually write the rules of baseball down, and organize matches. His New York City Knickerbockers baseball club in 1845 is considered the first such recorded evidence of the game’s beginnings.
The 13th rule Cartwright wrote stipulated that a player need not be physically hit to be recorded out. This rule actually led to the progression in the game, with it featuring a harder ball, and which led to the contemporary game kids know today.
In June of 1953, Congress officially declared Cartwright the inventor of “America’s pastime” and he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Rugby Football and Association Football can be traced to mid-19th century England. But little remains of the comparisons except the use of a ball to kick or run over a goal line.
Walter Camp is usually credited as the inventor of American Football, but even his football game bares little resemblance to what Americans watch every fall and winter during the weekend, and which has become—at least in monetary standards—the most popular American sport today.
Among the important changes that Camp brought to football were the rules about the line of scrimmage, downs and distance. The line of scrimmage and the snap from the center to the quarterback were officially recognized as rules changes way back in 1880.
But the sports beginnings might be traced to the “mob style” games played on Ivy league campuses as far back as the 1830s. Generally, these games held no rules save violence to prevent the progression of someone carrying the ball. It wasn’t until Camp’s tinkering in the latter portion of the 20th century, the did game come to resemble its contemporary form.
The game, like the earlier mobs gained its foothold on college campuses during the last two decades of the 20th century. From 1880, when there were only 8 football teams in the country, to 1900, when there were 43 such teams.
Violence in the game persuaded still more changes, despite Camp’s attempts to open the game up. During the 1905 college football season, 19 college students were killed playing football, and President Theodore Roosevelt even threatened to outlaw the game if rule changes were not instituted.
Mass formation plays (where people piled on top of one another) were outlawed and the forward pass was born. Interlocking arms was forbidden and seven players had to be lined up on the line of scrimmage before a snap. There was also to be no pushing before the ball was snapped.
College coaches like Amos Alonzo (inventor of the huddle), Knute Rockne and Pop Warner used these rules changes to produce plays and formations that are still used today.
The game continued to be played on college campuses around the country—most notably in the Ivy Leagues—but it didn’t become a professional sport on a national scale until 1920 with the birth of the American Professional Football Association, with it’s first commissioner perhaps the most famous early football player of all time: gold medalist in the decathlon and pentathlon, Jim Thorpe.
Lacrosse might be the only sport so far on this list that was actually invented in America, or at least the North American continent by Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribes and some plains Native-Americans.
The modern game of lacrosse started as the Native-American “stickball,” and it might have even originated north of the American-Canadian border (we’ll dismiss that hockey issue mentioned in the opening).
Hundreds and sometimes thousands of men from opposing tribes would meet on the plains separating two villages, with goals often 500 yards or multiple miles apart. Native-Americans usually decided on the rules the night before, but there was usually no out-of-bounds, but players could not touch the ball with their hands and goals were marked by a tree or set of rocks. Tribesman and warriors would play from sun up to sun down.
Medicine men served as early officials for the games, and the women of the tribe would bring refreshments. It was frowned upon to avoid contact, and there was very little passing as most games involved a mob mentality moving the ball slowly from the ground (sorta similar to early football, truth be told).
Games were usually played to settle disputes among the six nations of the Iroquois, or as an attempt to toughen up younger warriors who had shunned physical demands. Rituals often happened both before and after the contests, and they came to resemble the war rituals with the men decorating their bodies with paint and feathers.
The actual balls were composed of wood or deer skin filled with hair, but the sticks themselves were even more anachronistic. Most describe them as giant wooden spoons with no net, but the later, more advanced versions bent at the end into a 4-5 inch circle with deer sinew as netting.
The sticks themselves usually had elaborate designs in them in order to help during the matches. Some players so treasured their sticks, they were buried with them.
A French Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brebeuf, discovered indigenous cultures playing stickball in the St. Lawrence River Valley and gave the game its European moniker of Lacrosse. Betting on games was common, but it was frowned on by many Europeans because of the violence.
In 1856 William George Beers, a Canadian dentist, founded the Montreal Lacrosse club and implemented changes to the sticks, limited the number of players and introduced the heavy rubber ball still used today. In 1878 Queen Victoria extolled the beauty of the game, and it was implemented into English girls’ schools in the 1890s.
The Mohawk Lacrosse club in Troy, New York became the first organized club in the United States, since it was largely a Canadian pastime up until that point, but the Choctaw Indians in 1900, attached rocks to their Lacrosse sticks and the violence of the sport quickly earned it a negative designation.
In the summer of 2001, the Major Lacrosse League (MLL) was formed, as the first American outdoor professional Lacrosse league in the United States. So even if Native-Americans were the first to play what we now call Lacrosse, the French Canadians and Queen Victoria really popularized it with Europeans.
Americans still don’t watch much lacrosse on television and the MLL is still operating despite little interest outside of the hardcore fans. Northeast University’s like Johns Hopkins and Syracuse are the largest benefactors of contemporary lacrosse talent, and it’s usually limited in popularity to these upper-class schools, with little chance of gaining a foothold on the national stage.
Perhaps the only team sport to actually be invented in America, after recognizing that French Indigenous tribes may have invented lacrosse, is basketball.
Basketball is unique to our country, and judging from the performance of our professional teams, it makes sense that an American citizen would actually be the one who invented the sport. It’s wholly American, at its core, but it’s not as old as any of the other sports mentioned, either.
Dr. James Naismith published 13 rules for the game in 1891, and the next year the first basketball game was played on a court in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The first professional organizing body soon followed in 1898 with the National Basketball League, won by the Trenton Nationals and then the New York Wanderers. The league disintegrated in 1904, and the sport remained on the periphery of the public consciousness until the 1940s.
Unfortunately, the game did not catch on nationally and remained at the playground and YMCA amateur level until much later. But the Eastern Basket Ball League, the Metropolitan Basketball League and American Basketball league existed in those ensuing years, but to little acclaim.
Like American Football, basketball thrived at colleges and universities long before its professional league took off. But in June of 1946, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was founded and re-named to the pro-league we know and love today.
The game has come a long way since Dr. James Naismith formed two squads of 9 players a team to shoot a soccer ball on fruit baskets affixed to the bottom of the balcony on opposites ends of a court.