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Reviewed by:
  • They Will Have Their Game by Kenneth Cohen
  • Frank Zarnowski
Cohen, Kenneth. They Will Have Their Game. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017. Pp. xi+256. Notes, index, and illustrations. $55.00, hb.

Readers who pick up They Will Have Their Game, by Kenneth Cohen, expecting a discourse on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American sporting activity will be disappointed. There are no descriptions, accounts, or scores of “sporting contests” as we commonly understand the term. There is nothing here that would be found on today’s sports pages or broadcast on ESPN. This is not a book about “sport” the noun. For Cohen’s homily “sport” becomes a verb.

For the time frame 1750 to 1860, the narrative is broken down into three overlapping chronological units of two chapters apiece: Colonial; Early Republic; and Antebellum. The “sporting” activities of white Anglo-American males who promoted masculinity and [End Page 362] status are Cohen’s “sporting culture.” Although the author claims to focus on a constellation of pursuits linked under this banner, he restricts the discussion to only the tavern/billiards parlors, racetracks, and “the theater.” Cohen even discusses corollary activity like prostitution (one might suggest a cooperative rather than competitive activity) and sexual behavior. But more common sporting events in this time frame—for example, boxing, pedestrianism and early track and field, folk games and occupational sport, animal sports, harness racing, early baseball, ethnic sport, the Turners—are all ignored.

For Cohen, a “sporting culture” included any basic opportunity to project a manly status. His claim that it may have been an escape from Victorian respectability is uncontested. His expanded claims, using his isolated examples of racetracks, tavern life with its accompanying prostitution, and the theater, that public sporting activities helped establish modes of capitalism that became cornerstones of mainstream American life is less convincing. For example, the use of sporting metaphors, a claim used too frequently by Cohen, in political, social, religious, or economic situations is as old as literature itself (read: Bible, Homer) and not proof that sporting activity, however defined, either supports or spoils those structures. They are only idioms.

The geographic region of Boston to Charleston dominates, and it is a pleasure to read a book on early American sporting history without continually referring to examples from the New York metropolitan region. The primary use of diaries and financial records gives Cohen’s story kick. His focus is in the stands and the owner’s box instead of on the field, on the patrons and not the participants, on management, not labor. In his 256 well-documented pages, Cohen mentions only, and then barely, two athletes, a billiards player and a jockey.

This book is about entrepreneurship within a limited scope of sporting activity. In the horse-racing industry during the antebellum period, for example, the author explains that “turfmen” promoted parimutual betting and the growth of race-day transportation deals. In fact, the latter concept should be attributed to the peds and dates to the early 1820s with the Union Ferry Line of Hoboken. He does an excellent job, for example, in explaining why Jockey Clubs widened their activity from simply improving the breed to promoting races. Yet, while describing investor and managerial motivation, Cohen makes no distinction between economic and “normal” profit, a cornerstone of the emerging system of capitalism (he avoids using the term). There is no description of this “new economic system,” only that the emerging sporting culture fit. Using minimal examples, the author claims that, by 1860, investors and managers had reorganized the chaotic sporting culture of the early national period into an early version of mass entertainment and more centralized control over the industry.

Cohen’s financial research is especially detailed, and he offers excellent descriptions of tavern life, the theater, and the gambler’s code. He is also very strong on early U.S. political history. But a few minor errors turn up. Some historical inflation rates are misrepresented. And, for goodness’ sake, in racing parlance, a furlong is not 240 yards in length.

The strengths and weaknesses of the book are the same. For example, excellent and detailed biographies abound for many of the period’s...


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pp. 362-364
Launched on MUSE
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