The Gwinnett Braves, the AAA-affiliate of the major-league Atlanta Braves, have announced that they will be changing their name for the 2018 season (although they will still be affiliated with Atlanta). You might think that this is another example of the desire to eschew Native American symbolism in sports team naming, but it is only a desire to avoid confusion with the major league team – Gwinnett being close enough to Atlanta to be considered the same market. There is a shortlist of six finalists,* and you can vote for the name you prefer; being a historian, my personal favorite is the “Gwinnett Buttons.” (Button Gwinnett, representative to the Second Continental Congress from Georgia and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, is the namesake of Gwinnett County. I had not known that he was killed in a duel in 1777 – come to think of it, the “Gwinnett Duellers” would also be a good name for the team.)

* UPDATE (12/17): The names were Buttons, Big Mouths, Gobblers, Lambchops, Hushpuppies and Sweet Teas. The name eventually chosen was “Stripers,” after the fish.


An update to the post below on the St. Louis Blues: is the fiftieth anniversary of an NHL franchise really “history” worth noticing? Isn’t there something juvenile about sports fanship, which ought to be beneath the notice of a professional academic?

Part of me thinks yes. I am aware of and actually agree with a lot of the criticisms of sports – especially professional sports, which are the purest expression of the capitalist imperative to privatize the benefits, and socialize the costs. In Europe, a soccer team is often a genuine expression of its local community, as there is a good chance that it began life as an amateur club organized by the people who lived there, and which may still be owned by community shareholders. In North America, by contrast, professional sports leagues were always cartels run by businessmen, who love to posture as valued members of a given community, but who have no problem moving their teams to a more accommodating place if they don’t get the subsidies they want – or who often have no desire to put together a winning team, as long as the money keeps rolling in. The players too are all mercenaries – only by chance do they actually come from the place they play for, and they can be traded away to another team at a moment’s notice.

(Then there are college sports, of the sort that Reinhardt sponsors at great expense and at great distraction to the academic mission of the university [or so it seems to many of us], and which seemingly injure our students with shocking frequency. I’ve often said that if any other activity produced injuries at the rate that sports do, it would be illegal. There has been talk about “rape culture” finding a home among certain teams; I don’t particularly believe this, but it is clear that at the very least teams can foster a certain cliquishness, thereby fragmenting the campus.)

On a more fundamental level, there is always the question of why? Why should anyone possibly care about the attempts of one group of five men skating around and trying to put a puck into a net while preventing another group of five men from doing the same in the space of sixty minutes? It’s not like they’re curing cancer or anything! But David Potter, author of The Victor’s Crown: A History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium (2012), has a good answer:

The crucial feature of sport is… not simply the contest, but the way it enables those outside the arena to feel linked with those within, and in so doing to feel (at least briefly) empowered by what they do. It is this aspect of sport that energizes and creates communities. It allows people to find themselves insiders in the game. And it is precisely these aspects that so infuriate many who think that the whole exercise is a massive waste of time and money, and who feel excluded from it, for whatever reason.

You don’t have to be a sports fan in order to respect the activity. Given the enormous amount of money spent on it, and attention paid to it, it clearly addresses a primal need in humans – so primal that it consistently trumps the obvious venality and fabrication – and is worth studying for that reason alone. (I say the same thing to my students about religion, with which sports fanship shares certain characteristics). And at the very least it provides a certain means of understanding the world through the vehicle of metaphor. Here is a list of baseball metaphors that I have husbanded over the years:

• “he’s out in left field” (i.e. inattentive)
• the “three strikes and you’re out” law
• doing something “right off the bat”
• he’s a southpaw (i.e., left handed – although this one isn’t all that common)
• calling a short person “short stop” (although this one is even less common)
• George H.W. Bush was “born on third base and thought he hit a triple”
• to “touch base” with someone
• a wrong answer is a “swing and a miss!”
• a surprise is a “curveball”
• an eccentric is a “screwball”
• something abstruse is a little too “inside baseball”
• the highest caliber of something is “playing in the big leagues,” while something less than that is “bush league”
• to have a high ambition is to “swing for the fences”
• to do something especially competently is to “hit one out of the ballpark”
• a bisexual is a “switch hitter,” while a homosexual “bats for the other team”
• a tough negotiator “plays hardball”
• to accept a challenge is to “step up to the plate”
• an estimate is a “ballpark figure”
• to be up against a deadline is to “be in the bottom of the ninth”

Then there is the wonderful teenaged-boy metaphor of how far you “got” with a girl, with first base being kissing, and so forth. If you didn’t get anywhere you “struck out” (perhaps because she was “out of your league”).

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” wrote Jacques Barzun in 1954 – a sentiment that remains true to this day.

St. Louis Blues

In 1967, the National Hockey League doubled its size from six to twelve teams; the St. Louis Blues were one of those teams, so the club (along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and Dallas Stars, which is the successor team to both the Minnesota North Stars and the California Golden Seals) is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. While in St. Louis this Christmas we stopped by the Central Library for an exhibit on the team’s history entitled “50 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers – A Tribute to the St. Louis Blues and their Fans.” The Blues have never won the Stanley Cup, but they are a key part of the city’s culture and have a devoted fan base, and like all sports teams have accumulated a wealth of lore over the course of their existence. Some photos:


The prototype Blues sweater, not ever used.


The original squad, and their original bench.


In the olden days, even goalies didn’t wear helmets.


This is Wayne Gretzky, widely regarded as the best player ever to play the game. He played for St. Louis for 31 games in 1996.

I was also fortunate to attend the Alumni Game of the Winter Classic on December 31. For the past few years the NHL has sponsored an outdoor game as a marquee event on New Year’s day, featuring teams playing on a specially built rink in a football or a baseball stadium – this year it was the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium, normally home to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. As a bonus, an “alumni game,” featuring retired players, also takes place the day before. It was nice of Gretzky to come out for this.


The game was not really competitive, but it was fun all the same.


An amusing observation from Pliny the Younger, as quoted in David Potter’s book The Victor’s Crown: A History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium (2012). Some things don’t change much!

I am not in the least bit interested in that sort of entertainment [chariot racing]. There is nothing new, nothing different, nothing that it does not suffice to have seen but once. For this reason I am all the more astonished that so many thousands of people desire so childishly to watch horses run, and see men ride chariots again and again. If they were drawn by the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers, that would be one thing; now, however, they cheer for a piece of cloth, the love a piece of cloth, and if, in the middle of a race this colour would be transferred to that man, and that colour to this one, the partisanship and favour would change with it, and suddenly they would leave those charioteers and those horses, that they recognize at a distance and whose names they shout.

Jousting at the Olympics

From the Guardian:

English Heritage ‘deadly serious’ about bid to get jousting into Olympics

Organisation lobbies International Olympic Committee and starts petition to get sport played by Henry VIII into games by 2020

There is far more to it than two armoured horse riders hurtling towards each other with 12ft lances. Jousting demands levels of athleticism, agility and equestrianism that make it an ideal candidate for the Olympics, English Heritage argues.

The organisation has launched a campaign to get jousting recognised as an Olympic sport in time for Tokyo 2020.

“We are being deadly serious,” said Lucy Hutchings, English Heritage’s head of projects. “It is an incredible spectator sport, a really fascinating thing to watch. The skill of the knight and the horses make it a great thing to witness … we absolutely believe it deserves its place at the Olympic table.”

English Heritage has held preliminary talks with the International Olympic Committee and the Fédération Equestre Internationale, and on Thursday it launches an online petition.

Hutchings said the IOC was in the process of making the Olympic programme more flexible and bringing in a rule that allowed the host nation to make its own proposals for additional events.

More at the link.



I have just discovered that the sports teams of the University of Idaho (Moscow, Idaho) are known as the Vandals. I like it! Everyone knows about the Michigan State Spartans and the USC Trojans. Around here we have the Berry College Vikings. In the world of rugby there exist the Barbarians, the Saracens, and the Huns (from Austin, Tex.). Queen’s University of Kingston, Ont. are the Golden Gaels. I think there should be more ancient and medieval European warrior people resurrected as team names, now that Indian tribes are off-limits. How about the:

Saxons (actually the name of England’s second-string rugby team)
Stormin’ Normans

Irish Sports

Members of HIS 323 heard an interesting presentation this week on Irish sports. As you may be aware, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 as part of what has been termed the Gaelic Revival – the renewed interest in the Irish language and related aspects of indigenous Irish culture. The GAA’s task was to codify and promote the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football; it also governs camogie, handball, and rounders. Of these sports, hurling has the longest pedigree: it is played by Cú Chulainn in the Ulster Cycle, and was banned in 1367 by the Statutes of Kilkenny. One thing that did not come up: the distinctive Irish style of horseback riding, also mentioned in the Statues of Kilkenny and in Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland (twelfth century). Horse racing is very popular in Ireland, but it seems that the GAA was uninterested in reviving the Irish riding style; Irish horses and jockeys compete in Britain and on the continent in the same manner as that of their opponents.

The Gaelic Revival was an expression of a quite insular nationalism. Both the language and the sports were Our Thing, practiced in Ireland and maybe among the Irish diaspora, and nowhere else. That’s fine, but surely there are times when you want to compete on equal terms with other countries, thereby publicizing yourself, gaining the respect of others and even demonstrating your superiority? The GAA, however, had strict rules against its members playing cricket or soccer, the effete, non-contact sports of the enemy, rules which were only repealed in 1971! This seems counterproductive – what you want to do is be competitive in a sport that other people also play, like Brazil in soccer, New Zealand in rugby, Canada in hockey – or Ireland in horse racing!

To this end the GAA should try proselytizing its sports more (or should have tried – it’s probably too late now). They certainly look like fun.

Canadian Football

For historical reasons Canada has a different code for gridiron football than does America. There is a Wikipedia article comparing the two (in brief: Canadian football has a longer and wider field, goalposts on the goal line, three downs, twelve men a side, and unlimited motion in the backfield on offense). I don’t know what code is “better”, but I’m glad that Canadian football is its own game and not simply “football played in Canada.” This way, Canada is guaranteed its own league! This situation contrasts with the other three major North American professional sports – baseball, basketball, and ice hockey – which have universal codes and for which the border doesn’t exist, at least as far as the major leagues are concerned. But because Canada is poorer than the US, and is often shafted by the exchange rate, very few Canadian cities can afford to sponsor teams in the NBA or MLB (currently there is only one city, Toronto, since the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, and the Expos moved to Washington DC). Hockey is a little more equitable: 7 of the 30 NHL teams are hosted by Canadian cities, although they don’t tend to make the playoffs much, and the last time one of them won the Stanley Cup was in 1993.

(Now, there is nothing preventing Canadians setting up their own professional leagues, and I think that it would be great for Canada to stop beating its head against the wall, to withdraw from the North American major leagues and to set up the Canadian Basketball Association, the Canadian Baseball Association, and the Canadian Hockey League, as parallel organizations to the Canadian Football League. Sure, the overall quality would likely be lower than the American leagues, but the leagues would be Canadian, and hopefully even cities in the Maritimes could then have their own teams.)

All this is by means of introducing Engraved on a Nation, a TSN documentary series on the Grey Cup, the CFL’s championship trophy, originally filmed for the 100th Grey Cup game, which was played in 2012. Eight episodes explore various aspects of the Cup and its place in Canadian history – I only wish that they had done one on the life and times of the 4th Earl Grey himself, Governor-General of Canada (1904-11) and its namesake.* My favorite so far: “Playing a Dangerous Game,” about the 1969 Grey Cup game, played in Montreal as “outreach” to Quebec, but a potential target for FLQ terrorists.† What a time that was…

* The Stanley Cup is also named after a Canadian GG, in this case Lord Stanley of Preston, who held office 1888-93. Of course, any potential Canadian Hockey League would get to award the Stanley Cup, in accord with the Cup’s original mandate. And say what you will about how the CFL is outshone by the NFL, at least its championship trophy is older and classier.

† You will note that the game is being played between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Ottawa Rough Riders. Yes, only a space separates the names of these two teams. They were originally in separate leagues, and when the CFL was formed in 1958, it was left with this curious situation. Alas, the Ottawa Rough Riders folded in 1996, and Saskatchewan has forbidden subsequent CFL teams in that city to take the name Rough Riders. For shame! This was one of the delightful features of the CFL, and no worse than the SEC teams LSU, Mizzou and Auburn all bearing the nickname “Tigers.”

Marathon claims that you need to stop believing the myth that marathons are 26 miles long “because of the ancient Greeks”:

One common myth is that marathon is 26 miles because that is the length that the Greek messenger ran from Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory.

In actuality, today’s race length dates back to the 1908 London Olympics.

Runners were set to race about 26 miles, but an extra 385 yards was tacked on so that the royal family could good view of the race, according to the NY Times.

Google Maps claims that the shortest route on drivable roads between Marathonas and Athens is 42.7 km, which translates to 26.5 miles, so it doesn’t sound like too much of a myth. Wikipedia says that:

The International Olympic Committee agreed in 1907 that the distance for the 1908 London Olympic marathon would be about 25 miles or 40 kilometres. The organisers decided on a course of 26 miles from the start at Windsor Castle to the royal entrance to the White City Stadium, followed by a lap (586 yards, 2 feet; 536 m) of the track, finishing in front of the Royal Box. The course was later altered to use a different entrance to the stadium, followed by a partial lap of 385 yards to the same finish.

The modern 42.195 km standard distance for the marathon was set by theInternational Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in May 1921 directly from the length used at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.

In other words, prior to the 1920s, there was no standard length for a marathon (just as there is no standard size and shape for a baseball field even today). They then settled on one based on the 1908 Olympics, which only tangentially had to do with the royal family.

A better myth that you need to stop believing would be that Pheidippides ever made the run in the first place, following the Athenian victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Herodotus, our main source for the Persian wars, mentions a runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for help, but the first mention that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce “Victory!” right before falling down dead was Lucian of Samosta, who lived and wrote in the second century AD. In other words, like Archimedes shouting “Eureka” and running down the street naked, or like Newton getting hit on the head by an apple, it’s one of those delightful stories that add spice to a lecture, but which must then be disavowed. (Stephanie Trigg would call it “mythic capital.”)