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  • The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880–1930 by Pruter, Robert
  • Brian M. Ingrassia
Pruter, Robert. The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880–1930. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2013. Pp. xx+417. Notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95 hb.

In 1896, the Wisconsin State Teachers’ Association created a committee to devise rules for high school athletics; the following year the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association was formed. Soon neighboring states such as Illinois (1900), Indiana (1903), and Ohio (1907) followed suit. In The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880–1930, Robert Pruter explores the origins of interscholastic athletics. Initially, high schools emulated collegiate athletics and embraced intersectional competition—but then Progressive educators asserted control by stressing state and local competition. Historians will welcome this thoughtful and extensive study, the first monographic treatment of public high school sports.

The book is divided into three parts: “Student Initiative and Adult Alliances, 1880–1900”; “Establishment of Institutional Control, 1900–1920”; and “Triumph of National Governance, 1920–1930.” Although antebellum private schools pioneered sport, the 1890s public high school boom led to a flowering of competition in baseball and football. High schools built gymnasia and the new indoor game of basketball gained popularity. Colleges even had a hand in promoting interscholastic sport: for example, the University of Illinois held the first high school track meet in 1893. But by the early 1900s, educators started imposing order. Prompted by Luther Gulick, in 1903 New York City formed its Public School Athletic League (PSAL), which “reflected the Progressive Era ethos of the need to ameliorate urban ills and to Americanize and uplift the impoverished and largely immigrant populations of the big cities” (p. 68). By 1917, about seventeen other cities had [End Page 528] formed similar leagues and reduced student control of athletics. In the 1920s—the “Golden Age of Sports”—many high schools participated in intersectional contests, often sponsored by higher education institutions like Chicago, Northwestern, or Penn. Pruter writes that “commercialization increased as [these universities] built up these competitions into first sectional championships and then national championships” (p. 189). But state associations pushed back. The National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations was a major player in the campaign to get colleges out of high school athletics. Many university-sponsored meets or tournaments were shut down after 1930, and subsequent competition shifted to the state level.

Although the book proceeds chronologically, with a brief epilogue that takes readers to the present day, Pruter also includes thematic chapters on winter and military sports, as well as the “separate and unequal world” of African-American athletics and the “parallel world” of Catholic schools. Two additional chapters explain the rise and fall of girls’ athletics. Although basketball (and its variations) gained popularity among high school girls by 1907, educators used “separate spheres” doctrine to limit female athletic competition. There was another girls’ sports boom in the 1920s, but it was soon quashed by traditionalists, including the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation.

Pruter’s writing is lithe and fluid enough that the book is a pleasure to read, despite its comprehensive scope and the occasional choppiness that results from the stories of various sports (tennis, swimming, archery, ice skating) that waxed or waned in popularity. The author focuses on Chicago and Illinois—both pioneers in physical education and high school athletics—and augments his narrative with references to cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Major primary sources are city newspapers, high school or college publications, and government documents. Archival research is weighted toward Chicago-area repositories.

This is a thorough book, and a brief review cannot do it proper justice. Pruter’s coverage of early high school athletics is extensive, and his mastery of the secondary literature on sport history is impressive. The book complements previous studies, such as Axel Bundgaard’s Muscles and Manliness: The Rise of Sport in American Boarding Schools (2005). Scholarly readers, though, will find less explicit attention to broader historiographical issues. For instance, although Midwestern Progressivism is clearly a central element of the story, explicit...


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