In The Godfather, Part II, dying mob boss Hyman Roth wheezes the obscene truth to young Don Michael Corleone. “Michael,” he whispers, “We’re bigger than US Steel.” This scene updated for 2004 could have Yankees kingpin George Steinbrenner booming at pubescent Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, “Screw US Steel. We’re bigger than the damn mafia.” Just like Hyman Roth, “Big Stein” would be telling no lies. Professional sports are now the tenth largest industry in the United States, generating $220 billion in revenue every year. And just like Roth’s rackets, it’s a business that stinks to high heaven.
If, in 1900, a forward thinking person had predicted that sports would some day stand as one of the great pillars of American industry, that person would have been proclaimed mad and then subjected to some combination of leeching and lobotomy. The Victorian idea that sports undermined character and promoted a slothful work ethic dominated most people’s perceptions of organized play. Their attitude, however, is easy to understand when you consider class. Competitive sports were a working class pastime that reflected the brutality of early industrial life. Popular sports of the day included bare-knuckled boxing, “stick-battling,” cock fighting, and animal baiting, which involved setting starved dogs against a bull or bear.
But at the turn of the last century, an upstart generation of wealthy industrialists was forging a new idea about these innocuous games. Industrialist J. P. Morgan and former President Teddy Roosevelt argued that organized athletics could be the means for instilling the character and values deemed necessary to make America a global power in the century to come. Sports could breed a sense of hard work, self-discipline, and the win-at-all-cost ethic of competition. Roosevelt once said, presumably while swinging a big stick, “We need to produce young men who are sporting chaps filled with vim, and schooled in the competitive spirit.” Teddy and his ilk backed their words with bucks. Business scions funded organizations like the YMCA to teach sports.
As the popularity of sports rose among working people, factory owners began to see the benefit of establishing plant teams as a form of labor management. This synthesis bore team factory names that remain today like the Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Brewers. The Chicago Bears, who trace their roots to Decatur, Illinois, were known as the Decatur Staleys, named after the A. E. Staley Company. Their first coach, George “Papa Bear” Halas, was a Staley manager. Organized athletics gradually became less a place to toughen up Teddy Roosevelt’s gentlemen of leisure than a narrow window of opportunity for immigrants, white urban youth, and people right off the farm to claw their way out of poverty. Players who captured the country’s imagination included a Baltimore orphan named “Babe” Ruth, Native American Olympic star Jim Thorpe, and the first renowned female athlete, a daughter of immigrants named Mildred “Babe” Didrikson. In the words of another first generation American, Joe DiMaggio: “A ball player’s got to be kept hungry to become a big-leaguer. That’s why no boy from a rich family ever made the big leagues.”
As the US urbanized, it was evident that people would pay to see sports played at their highest level. The 1920s and 1950s, two decades with very similar economic landscapes, saw this idea take root. Both were periods of expansion and urbanization. Both eras saw an expansion of technology–radio in the 1920s and then TV in the 1950s–that could deliver sports into people’s homes. But, most critically, both were times after brutal world wars that saw a population in the United States looking for relief, escape, and leisure.