- Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports They Changed by Thomas H. Pauly
Thomas Pauly sets out to tell the story of five hitherto overlooked figures that changed the “faces” of their respective sports at the turn of the twentieth century: Tom Stevens in bicycling, Fanny Bullock Workman in mountaineering, Bill Reid in football, May Sutton in tennis, and Barney Oldfield in automobile racing. These biographies, Pauly notes, “collectively offer an illuminating portrait of how sport evolved during this period from recreational diversion into strenuous, regulated competition” (p. xix). Sport historians will appreciate the lively sketches, some of which rescue fascinating characters from obscurity, but they will also be right to critique some of Pauly’s choices and to demand more profound conclusions than he delivers.
The greatest strength of this work of American Studies is the storytelling: Stevens biked across America and then around the world; Workman battled cold weather and restrictive social mores to become one of the world’s premier mountain climbers; Sutton pioneered female athleticism in women’s tennis, a sport then known for gentility and decorum rather than strenuous competition. Readers are also treated to discussions of fellow competitors like Annie Peck, Paul Dashiell, Hazel Hotchkiss, and Ralph DePalma. Pauly has done a tremendous service by writing about sports that historians usually ignore. For example, early automobile racing is a woefully understudied subject that can tell us much about social, cultural, and urban history. We get a glimpse of this significance in the Oldfield chapter.
These biographical studies illuminate many significant themes. Pauly notes that by the early 1900s, sports relied more heavily upon standardized rules, paid spectatorship, consumer goods, technology, precision, and media dissemination. Although four of the sports were not explicitly “professional” at this time (auto racing is the exception), we clearly see the transformation occurring. Stevens, for instance, navigated a fine line between amateur sportsman and paid writer so that bicycle manufacturer and Outing publisher Albert Pope would subsidize his treks. Nevertheless, scholars will be disappointed by the themes that remain undeveloped. First, gender is clearly crucial to these stories, especially those of Sutton and Workman, yet they are not unpacked in relation to gender theory or women’s historiography. Second, discussions of nerves, nervous injuries, or anxiety appear in the quoted source material (for example, pp. 21, 61, 100, 163), but Pauly fails to direct our attention to this historically significant fin de siècle issue. Third, and perhaps most glaringly, four chapters delve into themes of globalization, yet this subject is never mentioned explicitly. Readers must make such connections for themselves.
Even though it touches on many important themes, Game Faces does not make a particularly original overall argument. Pauly knocks down a historiographical straw man by contending that the shift to commercialized, media-driven sports occurred well before the 1920s (pp. 1–2). General readers might benefit from this thesis, but scholars will find [End Page 558] little new here. Historians such as Warren Goldstein, Michael Isenberg, and Michael Oriard long ago established that American sports were heading in this direction by the late-1800s Gilded Age.
The middle chapter of Game Faces is a well-researched account of Harvard coach Bill Reid and his contributions to college football’s 1905–1906 reforms. Conceptually, though, it does not fit well with Pauly’s other case studies. Football, unlike the other sports analyzed in this book, is a team sport that was almost exclusively played in educational contexts before 1920, and Reid was known mostly for his coaching, not his own athletic accomplishments. Reid’s story, moreover, has been relatively well known since his diary was edited by Ronald A. Smith and published with a biographical sketch as Big-Time Football at Harvard, 1905 (1994). Reid’s inclusion may help Game Faces appeal to a wider audience, but it does not necessarily strengthen the book’s contributions. Even if we were to concede that intercollegiate football deserves inclusion in a volume otherwise...