May 29, 2011

Calvinball

The history of most sports is quite woozy before the 19th Century. It's obvious, such as from 17th Century Dutch paintings of daily life, that males played a lot of sports, but most of the rules we are familiar with go back to English-speakers of the 19th Century, or a little earlier. (The oldest evidence of the rules of golf being written down, for example, are from Edinburgh in 1744.)

What were sports like before the Victorian institutionalization? 

My guess from watching little boys play, is that they had traditional rules that varied across time and place, with lots of Calvinball improvisations, followed by lots of arguments over whether that was fair or not. For example, legend has it that in 1823 at Rugby School, schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran toward the goal, breaking traditional rules and inventing rugby.

Maybe that story is not exactly true, but it's likely that countless incidents like that have happened over the thousands of years -- somebody would do something new, then everybody would argue over it, and it would either become precedent or disallowed. But, then after awhile, something else would happen, and the rules would change some more, endlessly.

But there was a new spirit abroad in the English-speaking world over the last couple of hundred years or so that said rules should be standardized.

The coming of the railroad encouraged sportsmen to compete more around the country, which led to conflicts between local traditions. The railway also allowed older sportsmen to get together and standardize rules. The history of the evolution of American football in the 19th Century, for example, is largely a history of guys getting together in hotels next to train stations during the off season to argue about rules changes.

In contrast, little girls tend to change the rules to make people feel less bad.

How many sports have women invented? I looked up rhythmic gymnastics, and most of the names cited in the history section were men, but the first person cited in America was Catharine Beecher (of the exhaustingly energetic Beechers -- Harriet Beecher Stowe was her sister). 

The institutionalization of sports is a major human accomplishment. But are standardized rules for sports good in the long run, or is it better for young males to get more experience making up, debating, and agreeing upon their own rules ad hoc?

37 comments:

agnostic said...

Did girls invent jumping rope (not solo)? Or hopscotch? Boys never play those.

Standardizing the rules, as you point out, stops the mutation process that gives the raw material for evolution. It seems like you shouldn't standardize too early, then -- wait until everyone agrees that it's a pretty cool sport to play and watch.

For example, apparently in the '90s or 2000s they decided to standardize Four Square and make it an Official Sport with referees, etc. Of course what do you expect in the age of helicopter parents but a complete removal of everything that made it fun and unpredictable, requiring players to think on their feet?

The description did not sound anything like what us 5th graders were playing in 1991 and '92. E.g., "The ball must be struck once and for a single instant only. Carrying, catching, or holding the ball during play is not allowed. Prolonged contact with the ball can give players unfair control over the play."

Waaah, unfair! Even the 10 year-old girls who I used to play with had no problem with holding or catching the ball. The only thing we didn't ever allow were "hot tamales," where you role it into another person's square like a bowling ball -- impossible to defend against, plus it would take them a minute or so to go retrieve it.

Other places on the internet have collections of Four Square slang / moves from people who played the real thing.

It was not hard to adapt to a different set of rules -- just something to bear in mind during this round of play. It just meant you needed a broader set of skills, just in case this or that one would be needed during a given round.

Anonymous said...

Netball is a girl's sport played in the old English realm. It is kind of like basketball but without the attitude, trash talk and in yo face uber-athleticism. It is quite the nicest thing imaginable.

Every Winter Saturday dozens of great netball complexes dotted around the capitals of Australia stage another routine triumph of middlebrow organisation, energy, teamwork and skill; as ten major metropolitan clubs contest hundreds of matches across 40 courts, in 5 age groups with up to 10 grades per age group. Each match involves 2 teams of 7 girls plus 2 subs, 2 paid umpires (often teenage girls) and volunteer (that's us) timekeepers and scorers.

Tween and teenage girls who can be, um, er, let's just say, complicated in real life, are truly transformed on the court. And the benefits of Western civilisation are amply demonstrated in such a prosaic, commonplace activity.
Gilbert Pinfold.

agnostic said...

Another game that we invented that I only half-recognize barely 20 years later is Butts Up. The Wikipedia and YouTube entries show a heavy influence of getting "out" as in baseball; 3 outs and you leave the game.

When we started it, there were no outs. If you were bad, you kept on having to lean against the wall while someone chucked the ball at your ass. But after that, you rejoined the game. Thus the number of players stayed the same.

Adapting it toward baseball rules does make it easier to separate better from worse players, which everyone is interested in. However, it removes the free-for-all mob atmosphere that you get when there's always 10 to 20 kids in play.

I guess we could have kept score on how many times you had to get up against the wall, how many times you were the one chucking the ball at someone else, etc., and that would give nice stats about who was better than who else.

But Jesus, sometimes you just want to get rowdy and not give a damn about statistics. Everyone can see for themselves anyway who keeps fumbling and who has good aim and a strong arm.

Anthony said...

Kids will still adapt - try playing football in the street with 5 of your friends according to the NFL rules, or even high-school or Pop Warner rules. It doesn't work, so you have to figure out what rules to change, and how.

So, no, I'm not worried that boys and young men won't get to figure out rules on their own. Or how to get around the existing rules and try something that's not covered by the rules, possibly requiring a new rule.

Glossy said...

Well, I'm sure that the events comprising the ancient Olympics had standardized rules. Sure, these events were simple - running, boxing, chariot racing, javelin throw - but even that would have required some rules. And those were in effect for the entire Greek-speaking world.

For a while I thought that the modern sporting event with the longest uninterrupted history was the St. Leger Stakes, an English horse race that's been run every year since 1776.

But recently, while reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels, I came up on a mention of Dogget's Coat and Badge, a rowing race on the Thames that's been held every year since 1715.

jody said...

"How many sports have women invented?"

minus those always boring european men, how many international sports have all humans combined developed? very few. so, even participating in most sports is, technically, "acting white". though we don't think about it that way, nor do we need to. many other groups developed their own sports, but almost of them remained local sports. there are a few sports played internationally that were not developed by europeans, but it's not many.

like television as a form entertainment, international sports is another case of european cultural ultra dominance, that thing where everybody copies the europeans and their culture becomes default global culture. in this case, their sports became everybody else's sports too.

"The institutionalization of sports is a major human accomplishment.

sort of. kind of like exploring outer space, it's a "human" accomplishment accomplished by one group.

africans were kicking around for 30000 years, never once in that time period developing a single sport formed into a league and played for money, let alone a dozen such sports. sometimes i wonder if europeans had not developed so many sports that you could get paid a living wage to play, if africans would just sit around forever, waiting for white guys to develop a sport they were "interested" in.

Terren said...

It wasn't really until the 20th century, Pop Warner, and Teddy Roosevelt's intervention that American football got universally agreed rules - before then rules were negotiated on a contest by contest basis by the college teams involved, generally seeking a balance between each school's "house rules".

Some of these rules (or alternately, "nowhere does the rulebook say we can't..." plays) later became parts of the "official" game, like the forward pass, the touchback, and the notion of downs. Others, like forming human pyramids for punt blocks, didn't.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, the earliest known written rules for cricket also date to 1744, like golf. But cricket for some time before that date had already become a gambling sport supported by the aristocracy with gentleman "amateurs" and working class "professional" players, with some good deal of travel (limited by 17th and 18th century conditions), so there had to have been some kind of agreed upon rules prior to 1744, even though they haven't survived in writing.

By the 1690s cricket was already a sport attracting large numbers of spectators and gambling. People wagering money would have insisted on agreed upon rules, most likely written down - we just don't happen to have them. This wasn't the sort of historical record likely to be preserved.

It's a shame we Americans so completely forgot cricket; it was the most popular ball sport in the colonies and in early USA until baseball became popular; the first international cricket match was between the USA and Canada in 1844. We never had the chance the Australians had of humiliating the mother country.

Anyway the evolution of cricket shows that in some ways institutionalization of rules doesn't stop evolution; early cricket bowling was underarm and the bats were shaped like hockey sticks. Then came roundarm bowling. Then finally overarm bowling. Each change was highly controversial and resisted for a while by the old guard. There was a single wicket form of the game which did not survive into modern times. In more recent times, the one day version of the game, and the shorter 20-20 version have been introduced to cater to modern tastes. Few people have the time to watch a four or five day match. Cricket like golf was for people with a lot of spare time on their hands.

Rafek said...

I wonder if games tend to fall into stable optimization nodes. I grew up in the hippie community and didn't do a lot of organized sports instead we played our own games. Our favorite was sword fighting we figured out we could wrap pipe insulation around wooden dowels and so have swords which we could really swing at each other without causing to much damage. For rules we said no intentional targeting of the hands, groin or head, any contact with a limb and that limb was rendered useless any contact of the torso and you lost that round. The interesting part of this story is that I have since meet at least 4 other people who invented the same rules for sword fighting and same implements with their friends with the exception that most of them used PVC piping. We did play soccer and basketball as well and would occasional change the rules but we always seemed to revert to more standard rules as they tended to seem to work better and result in fewer arguments.

Anonymous said...

Pure anal-retentive British Victorianism - institutionalizing the most natural, free and pure thing in the world ie child's play and forcing adult defined rules on it, rather horible in fact.
Anyway, the reason was to keep adolescent boys in British Public (ie private) schools from beating the shit out of each other or to tire them out so much so that they refrain from that other well known vice and obsession of adolescent boys.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, until relatively recently continental Europeans (central and northern Europeans at least), had very little interest in 'sports and games', other than those necessary for military training,They were seen as a peculiarly English eccentricity, and no worthy central European would ever waste a Saturday afternoon kicking a ball around a field when he could be doing something useful instead such as cultivating his garden or building his house.Along with the other English obsessions such as horse-racing, cricket etc, 'sports' were seen as inconsequential childish nonsense and a mark of English eccentricity if not degeneracy.

FF said...

There is always..

Kabbadi, Wushu and Sepaktakraw

http://www.gz2010.cn/special/0078007D/sports10.html

Lucy said...

Girls have bizarre incredibly ritualistic kinds of games that aren't sports but aren't boardgames either. I have no idea what the chanting and patterned hand clapping games are called but they are rather elaborate extensions of patty cake. The next phase are those weird origami type fortunetelling rituals.

So, girls invent games but not sports. In these games there are neither winners nor losers just those who know the ritual/routine that can be shared for amusement.

Anonymous said...

Consider the evolution of bowling in cricket:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underarm_bowling

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roundarm_bowling

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overarm_bowling

A rare modern roundarm bowler:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSv-QKs9I2Q

Anonymous said...

It is kind of like basketball but without the attitude, trash talk and in yo face uber-athleticism. It is quite the nicest thing imaginable.

...and it sounds tremendously boring.

agnostic said...

"Girls have bizarre incredibly ritualistic kinds of games that aren't sports but aren't boardgames either."

In his diary, Samuel Pepys says he saw a group of young girls playing "light as a feather, stiff as a board" when he was in France (mid-17th C). The words were an almost or exact translation of the English chant.

MQ said...

minus those always boring european men, how many international sports have all humans combined developed? very few....many other groups developed their own sports, but almost of them remained local sports. there are a few sports played internationally that were not developed by europeans, but it's not many.

But this has nothing to do with sports or games, innumerable cultures have invented them. It's about global dominance and bureaucratic standardization, which are then applied to sports just like they are to so many other areas of human life.

rockin' robin said...

I've often wondered why Sailer has so few white friends considering how he's the champion of whiteness and all.

barbra's black hoodie said...

I guess the faggy Queerstein took over the blog. Can't see it's gonna get much readership with the stilted language or the pretentious personality.

jtg said...

I find the business of sports and niche sports fascinating. One aspect is the physical infrastructure and how that steers sports development.

For example, cricket and Australian Rules Football have a huge problem gaining traction in America because they both require a field much larger than a typical American football field. Similarly, "Russian hockey" is a cool game, but is played on an ice rink the size of a soccer field, on such super-sized rinks don't exist here.

If you look at American sports infrastructure we have tons of multi-purpose stadiums and arenas. And sport entrepreneurs are constantly trying to invent new sports to fill those empty seats during the off-season.

Most of our stadiums are built to football specs, but there are a growing # of stadiums designed for soccer. The indoor arenas are designed for a hockey rink.

Baseball fields tend to be single purpose. Same with golf courses, but golf courses are typically used year round by club members. NASCAR tracks are single purpose and only have a couple big events per year. (Same with F1 tracks in the rest of the world.)

Lacrosse is piggy-backing on the soccer stadiums of America. And rugby can (barely) on a football field if you include the out-of-bounds area.

I dig all the struggling/failed arena sports. So tempting for the sports entrepreneur since all the infrastructure, parking, concessions are already there.

Indoor socccer, arena football, indoor lacrosse, WNBA.

Only the NBA and NHL have really succeeded as arena sports. But that won't stop new sports and leagues from trying. And the arena owners would love to find a summer/fall sport that can fill their empty arenas.

Remarkably few permanent tennis stadiums with decent seating in America (or the world, really). Lots of community courts. But very few with permanent seating for even a few thousand spectators.

James Kabala said...

Anonymous: Does hunting (for pleasure) count as a sport? that was certainly popular on the Continent.

ATBOTL said...

"The institutionalization of sports is a major human accomplishment."

No, it's a major Anglo-Saxon accomplishment, like so much else of the most important stuff. How come some groups get credit for things they have done and others have the credit given to "humanity?" I expect better of you, Steve.

Olave d'Estienne said...

I guess the whatty hoostein took over the blog?

Will someone explain what these comments mean please?

Anonymous said...

fun fact in rugby you still have to 'touch down' the ball past the try line.

American football would be far more interesting by adapting some rugby rules:


extra point taken from the perpendicular line where you crossed the try line (so if you scored in the corner you would have to take a kick from there, not on pre defined hash marks.


limit subs and have a continuous clock - would mean less coaching and probably more white backs (requires more endurance)

of course that would mean less commerical time so don't expect it to happen

Anonymous said...

What is more interesting, IMOP is that we have moved from Greece's ideal of athletics - as virtue - to Rome's idea - entertainment to distract the masses.

Republics don't have huge stadiums of fans moronically cheering and numbing their brains.

Anonymous said...

"For example, cricket and Australian Rules Football have a huge problem gaining traction in America because they both require a field much larger than a typical American football field. Similarly, "Russian hockey" is a cool game, but is played on an ice rink the size of a soccer field, on such super-sized rinks don't exist here."

By "Russian hockey" you mean bandy, and yes finding an ice rink the size of a soccer field is difficult in North America, where ice hockey originated and dominates. Currently there is a small bandy community growing the sport in very cold climates where you can have outdoor rinks, like Minnesota, see American Bandy Association. Bandy is actually older than ice hockey, first codified in England and rapidly taken up in places like Russia and Sweden where similar games already existed in uncodified form; ice hockey then pretty much displaced bandy in Europe in the 20th century since it was easier to build small indoor ice rinks.

The USA used to have lots of cricket fields in the 19th century. Many early baseball games were played in cricket fields, and many early baseball players started out as cricket players; a lot of the first professional baseball players were originally professional cricketers. The most famous American cricketer Bart King got his start in baseball before switching to cricket, a late and unusual reversal. But by the early 20th century cricket in the USA was dying and after WWI it was dead; most of the cricket fields had disappeared. So no infrastructure (a rare first class cricket stadium has recently been built in south Florida). One thing about cricket stadiums is that they can be used for lots of things besides cricket and aussie rules: Olympic track and field fits right in (Melbourne Cricket Ground - 100,000 seats, 1956 Melbourne Olympics) and soccer and rugby does too (though the fans are rather far away from the touch lines).

Another odd man out are Gaelic games (GAA - Gaelic football, hurling) as their field is rectangular, but much bigger than a soccer or rugby field. The huge field alone helps keep those sports pretty much limited to Ireland and a few outposts in NYC and elsewhere.

The huge end zones of Canadian football also probably help keep that game from colonizing the USA successfully. There's been a huge expansion of soccer fields in the USA and Canada over the past forty years (most new NFL stadia are also built for soccer in mind so as to be potential World Cup or international friendly sites) but although soccer prefers an even wider field than rugby does, it doesn't prefer as long a field so rugby played in a soccer stadium usually has abbreviated try zones (end zones). The large number of Soccer Specific Stadia (SSS) built in the past 10-15 years for MLS and lower division soccer leagues has created a lot of small-sized outdoor stadia that other sports like rugby and lacrosse could take advantage of; no good for aussie rules though.

The sport with the most ridiculously large fields is polo; there used to be a lot of polo fields in the USA (one right in New York City near central park) but that valuable land doesn't tend to stay a polo field in urban areas. It either gets built on, or if preserved as a park, tends to be used by other sports. Existing polo fields tend to be very rural, for the horsey set. I did see on ESPN360 polo from Buenos Aires, recently, where they do have an actual urban polo field, with stadium seating. Polo is a much bigger deal in Argentina than it is in the USA, though.

Anonymous said...

what about jousting and other late medieval martial sport?

that had pretty formalized rules.


But the advent of adults playing games (rather than martial sports) reflects and infantilization of society.

Remember when Rugby was invented at rugby the players were 14 or 15.. the question is, when did adults start become interesting in playing like children?

Anonymous said...

"fun fact in rugby you still have to 'touch down' the ball past the try line."

I have to be pedantic here. The game of rugby is played WITHIN the lines. Therefore you don't need to touch the ball down PAST the line. On the line is a try.

Gilbert Pinfold.

Anonymous said...

codification of sports just followed other codification- nature, animals, spelling (remember it wasn't standardized before the 18th century, at least in English)

Anonymous said...

"what about jousting and other late medieval martial sport?

that had pretty formalized rules."


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_for_Creative_Anachronism

"But the advent of adults playing games (rather than martial sports) reflects and infantilization of society.

Remember when Rugby was invented at rugby the players were 14 or 15.. the question is, when did adults start become interesting in playing like children?"


That's a rather silly opinion, and factually wrong, too. Grown men were playing these sorts of games since time immemorial, too, they just weren't codified and institutionalized. In ancient times and in medieval times all sorts of non-martial sports were engaged in for past times; there are innumerable ancient and medieval variants of bowls, bowling, football, soccer and rugby "type" games (harpastum, etc), baseball and cricket "type" games (stoolball, trapball), golf type games, etc., from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China...you name it, there was an ancient game equivalent to modern sports.

Grown men were being paid to play cricket in England by the late 1600s; professional sports is nothing new even in the early modern context. Ancient Greece had professional athletes, most of whom were not engaged in martial sports. The ancient Olympics were not for amateurs. By the 19th century, young men were gaining more and more free time, and that was when the Old Boys from English "public" schools first started to codify the sports they had played as youths. The British Empire did the rest to spread and institutionalize those codified sports. No one at the time thought there was anything childish about this: Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and all that. In fact it was the people who resisted these "children's games" who ended up looking stiff, foolish, and unathletic in comparison. The idea that only martial sports builds up martial valor and martial team building was clearly shown to be false.

Anonymous said...

Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and all that. In fact it was the people who resisted these "children's games" who ended up looking stiff, foolish, and unathletic in comparison.
That was not the opinion of Wellington or Theodore Roosevelt, who felt the british lost their edge when they started to concentrate too much on sports... as for wellington "The famous quote attributed to Wellington "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" was probably apocryphal.[9] Unlike his older brother, Wellington was not an academic success at Eton; on one of his rare visits back there, the only athletic activities he could remember were skipping across a brook, and fisticuffs with a fellow student. "

Anonymous said...

. In ancient times and in medieval times all sorts of non-martial sports were engaged in for past times; there are innumerable ancient and medieval variants of bowls, bowling, football, soccer and rugby "type"
With stadiums of moronic fans cheering mindlessly?
or taking up adults personal time to distraction?

Anonymous said...

"With stadiums of moronic fans cheering mindlessly?
or taking up adults personal time to distraction?"


YES.

Learn some history, please. You're as bad as Whiskey, whoever you are.

Anonymous said...

"Theodore Roosevelt, who felt the british lost their edge when they started to concentrate too much on sports"

One off-hand remark he made after the British suffered some early surprise losses at the hands of the Boers, stupidly blaming it on their fondness for sports, rather than on their Imperial over-reach and sheer hubris, none of which had anything at all to do with their love of sports.

Compare that one off-hand remark to TR's lifelong advocacy of the healthy benefits of sports, and your comment amounts to nothing at all. You are simply cherry-picking, sir.

James Kabala said...

Don't forget also the immense popularity of card games and gambling among nobility in both England and Continental countries. Card games ruined aristocratic fortunes and allegedly led to the invention of the sandwich. The recent popularity of poker on TV is a comeback for this once dominant pastime (albeit with a now lower-class profile).

Anonymous said...

to tire them out so much so that they refrain from that other well known vice and obsession of adolescent boys.

Dungeons & Dragons?

Anonymous said...

Compare that one off-hand remark to TR's lifelong advocacy of the healthy benefits of sports, and your comment amounts to nothing at all. You are simply cherry-picking, sir.
it wasn't an off hand comment, it was specifically stating that over concentration on sports let to a lack of martial preparedness.

and, yes, darling, if they spend their time playing polo and cricket, they are less likely to be prepared, just like fat stupid americans numbing their asses watching the Negro felon league who don't even know who AIPAC is. At least those british PLAYED rather than sat on the fat american asses watching.


Learn some history, please. You're as bad as Whiskey, whoever you are.

ok sweetheart, please show me examples of 'arena' or stadium sports prior to the 19th century and after the fall of rome.
The only instances i can think of are martial sports, but even they were not played out in stadiums or arenas.

Come on sweetheart, in the age of nelson and captain cochrane, do your really think people made 'stars' out of people who played children's games, sunshine?