May 19th, 2014
Sport matters. So do the individuals or teams of high character and winning ways whose exploits may move multitudes to raise them to the level of heroes, and in the process stand a bit taller themselves. But in the cult of celebrity that grips us now, the routine activities of ordinary men are more amply analyzed than the greatest feats in all the world’s history of sport.
The big four American team sports, plus tennis, golf, NASCAR, and other individual pursuits, have not always been the focus of this nation’s ardor, let alone the world’s. (We will set to one side for this column British cigarette cards celebrating stars of cricket, soccer, tennis, etc.) Only a century ago, when trading cards were given away with cigarettes rather than with candy or bubble gum — and never sold by themselves — football, hockey, golf, and tennis were barely represented and basketball not at all. Baseball was dominant, but card sets to then had featured champions of billiards, boxing, sharpshooting, pedestrianism, sculling, bowling, and horseracing.
Before the turn of the century, champion walker Edward Weston or sharpshooter Annie Oakley, jockey Isaac Murphy or oarsman Ned Hanlan were culture heroes of a greater magnitude than any baseball or football player. And boxer John L. Sullivan was the most famous man in North America in any field of endeavor. Collegiate football was becoming a national obsession by the late 1880s, but aside from an 1894 set of 36 players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the only football player depicted in a card set was Captain Henry Beecher of Yale in the 1888 Goodwin Champions, a 50-card set containing only eight baseball players.
Forty-five years later the Goudey Gum Company issued a 48-card “Sport Kings” set that spoke to the country’s changed tastes while honoring stars of the past, too. The checklist includes the first basketball cards ever (Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joe Lapchick, Eddie Burke); the first pro football cards (Red Grange and Jim Thorpe, although both were honored more for their amateur accomplishments); the first U.S. issued hockey cards (Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Ace Bailey, Ching Johnson); swimmers Helene Madison, Johnny Weissmuller, and Duke Kahanamoku; skater Irving Jaffee and hurdler Babe Didrickson. There were tennis players, aviators, jockeys, cyclists, wrestlers, golfers, billiardists, skiers, even a speedboat racer and a dogsled champion.
If the world of bygone sports has a compact model, this card set is it. Today’s arena of sport stars seems impoverished by comparison. Think of how one might compose a 48-card set of today’s North American “sport kings” and queens … and then there are the sports the rest of the world plays! Here’s a quick test of your world-sports acumen. Match the athlete with his or her sport and nation. Answers will be found at the bottom of the page, upside down.
A World Sports Hall of Fame may just be what we need now. There are halls of fame for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and almost any other sport you can name … but until now none for the world of sport. Why, one might ask, do we need another? This quiz may provide an answer: the guess here is that you will have fallen far short of a perfect score.