Putting on a Sporting Event in the 19th Century Was Really, Really Hard

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You had to bribe the police to set up an event

Bare-knuckle boxing was one of the first spectator sports in the world, with professional fights staged much earlier than the 19th century. But increased urbanization meant that a bigger pool of fighters was available in the 1800s, as well as a bigger pool of fight fans. This in turn led to anti-boxing laws meant to curb illegal gambling, as well as a black market fighting culture that continued until the Marquis of Queensbury Rules -- crazy stuff like gloves and round limits to keep people from getting their heads quite literally bashed in -- brought a semblance of respect to the sport. Before that, championship bouts like one in February 1882 in which John L. Sullivan knocked out a fighter named Paddy Ryan at a location that had been moved at the last minute to evade the cops, were common. Ironically, it would be police-sponsored boxing leagues -- and not police evaders like Sullivan, who would later become famous for refusing to fight Jack Johnson on the grounds of Johnson's skin color -- that went on to save the sport from corruption in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, it was the Police Gazette that was eventually chosen as the periodical to officially list the world heavyweight champion.


If you wanted to gamble, you needed a bookie

In 1889, Kentucky Derby bookies insisted that the new parimutuel gambling machines installed at Churchill Downs would cut into their business and insisted that they be removed. In addition to taking away the possibility for homogeneity among odds and payouts, the bookies’ outspoken complaints (read: threats) made certain that if any bespoke-hatted and mint-juleped aristocrats wanted to bet on their Uncle Cornelius’s thoroughbreds, they had to debase themselves by engaging in commerce with the vulgar classes. Not only did this mean that different horses would have different odds at different bookmakers, it also meant you had to rely on a possibly untrustworthy character for your payouts. As a general rule, people with beady eyes named Knuckles should not be trusted with your folding cash.

The rowdies ruled the stands

Nostalgia-minded 21st century softies might think that the 19th century was a quaint and curious time to enjoy a sunny afternoon and a glass of lemonade at a ballpark or prizefight, but in reality the sporting scene of the 1800s was considerably more dangerous. When Yale students piled into an auditorium to see Billy Russell and Charles Moore contest an anticipated lightweight bout in 1892, the pair punished each other for 39 rounds before the referee ended the bout -- after asking the audience if it was okay. One shudders at the thought of what modern sports fans -- Raiders fans and the denizens of Philadelphia, who famously booed Santa Claus, come specifically to mind -- would have done in the same situation. 

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Away fans didn't exist yet

When the first baseball game was broadcast over the radio on August 5, 1921, it was a revelation for fans of the Philadelphia Phillies, who were able to listen to the game in real-time despite the fact that it was across the state in Pittsburgh. Before then, fans either had to wait for the next day’s paper to come out or huddle around a telegraph machine in one of the earliest sports bars like Massey’s Billiard Hall in St. Louis, which historians credit as having been the first to cater to baseball fans (then known as “cranks”) with such Western Union-based updates. It wouldn’t be until the advent of affordable air travel that away fans would actually be able to make their way to other cities with their favorite teams. The bleachers were never the same again after that first flight touched down, as anyone who learned all their swear words at a baseball game can tell you.

Not even sports were immune from religious zealots

When the American Association was founded in 1882, it was for a simple reason. The National League, bowing to pressure from religious and prohibitionist groups, banned baseball on Sundays and stopped serving alcohol at games. The American Association, which offered both beer and whiskey, as well as baseball on the lord’s day, quickly gained popularity among working people who enjoyed both a drink and making use of the weekend. It's odd to imagine a Mets, Phillies or Dodgers game without suds, but prohibitionism was strong in the 19th century, when the entire country lived in crippling fear of Carrie Nation's hatchet. Modern baseball might be a little slower, but at least the religious nuts who love baseball for its supposed purity and the normal baseball fans who like to have fun -- and perhaps an adult beverage -- have learned to co-exist.

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Athletes were pretty much enslaved

When John Montgomery Ward founded a baseball players’ union in 1885 and began his lifelong crusade for the rights of ballplayers, it was nothing short of a treasonous act as far as the national league was concerned. Ward’s biggest crime to the owners of the NL was that he dared to challenge the reserve clause, which forced a player to agree to an addendum to his contract that made him “reserve” his services to the same team for the following season. Since a new contract was signed every year, this effectively meant that no matter how badly players were treated by their team, they couldn’t offer their services to another ball club. This practice famously led to members of the 1919 White Sox to get mad as hell, proceed to not take it anymore, and throw the World Series to spite their slumlord of a boss, Charles Comiskey. It wouldn’t be until the late 20th century that Ward’s dream of “free agency” would be realized.

Game rules weren’t always written yet

Whether it was the fact that boxing’s round structure was nebulous at best, that the pitcher’s mound in baseball wasn’t set at a mandatory 60 feet, six inches until the 1890s, or that detecting doped horses was impossible until very recently, the 1800s had a far less uniform sporting culture than we do. The rules of baseball differed from town to town more than the rules of beer pong from house to house along frat row in Tuscaloosa. And artificially stimulated horses meant that betting on an animal often meant you had inside information on it. Sometimes, you had to watch a fighter die in front of you, beaten to a pulp for your entertainment. As Archie Bunker so misguidedly said, “Those were the days.”