Sports Pioneers

The Men and Women who Built American Sports in the 19th Century

John L. Sullivan
John L. Sullivan

John L. Sullivan – America’s first sports superstar was the essential link between brutal bare-knuckle brawling and the modern sweet science of boxing with padded gloves, 3-minute rounds, and Marquis of Queensberry rules.

Walter Camp
Walter Camp

Walter Camp – The influential father of American football and founder of the All-American team was a standout player at Yale. He wrote the rule book, invented the scrimmage line, established the number of players and their positions, and set up the system of downs for a team to retain the ball.

James Naismith
James Naismith

James Naismith – The inventor of basketball was an athletic 30 year-old YMCA instructor looking for an indoor team game for his rowdy students during the winter. Playing duck-on-a-rock as a youth inspired him to invent a game where shots are lobbed up to a horizontal goal rather than hurled at a vertical goal.

Senda Berenson
Senda Berenson

Senda Berenson – The 25 year-old instructor of physical education at Smith College adapted special basketball rules for women soon after James Naismith invented the game. Basketball quickly became the most popular women’s sport. Senda’s restrictive rules were adhered to in many parts of the country until the 1970s.

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson – A worthy challenger of John L. Sullivan but the champ refused to fight against black boxers despite public interest in the bout. Jackson won the British and Australian heavyweight titles. Frederick Douglass had a photograph of Jackson on the wall of his office.

Alexander Joy Cartwright baseball
Alexander Joy Cartwright

Alexander Joy Cartwright – The man who made baseball a distinctly American game, setting the distance between bases, shaping the diamond, and establishing fielding positions, was replaced in baseball lore by the Abner Doubleday myth.

Jackson Haines
Jackson Haines

Jackson Haines – The flamboyant “American Ice Master” invented freestyle figure skating to music with spins and dance movements. First rejected by audiences in the United States, his dazzling European tour introduced pairs skating and ice dancing and inspired The Skaters’ Waltz. The top men’s award on today’s professional ice skating tour is The Jackson Haines Trophy. He also became an accomplished roller skater.

Catharine Beecher
Catharine Beecher

Catharine Beecher – The older sister of famed writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine founded two women’s colleges and wrote the first calisthenics and physical education manuals for women. The simple exercises were performed to music, a precursor of gymnastics floor exercises and modern workout videos.

Lewis "Deerfoot" Bennett
Lewis “Deerfoot” Bennett

Lewis “Deerfoot” Bennett – The great Seneca Indian long-distance runner excelled in street racing in the U.S. and England in the 1850’s and 1860’s. He ran bare-chested with a feather apron around his waist and a single eagle feather in his headband, yelling war whoops as he set world records that lasted well into the 20th century. 

Tom Molineaux
Tom Molineaux

Tom Molineaux – Born a slave in Virginia, his fists earned him freedom and a heavyweight world championship bout in 1810 in England, in front of 20,000 spectators. He was the first American to compete for a world championship in any sport.

John Morissey
John Morrissey

John Morrissey – Before he became the American heavyweight champion, Morrissey led the Five Corners gang that murdered William Poole (Bill the Butcher). Morrissey later opened a gambling house and horse race track at Saratoga Springs and was twice elected to the U.S. Congress as a Tammany Hall Democrat.

John Cox Stevens
John Cox Stevens

John Cox Stevens – America’s first sports promoter sponsored the most important horse races and running races and built Elysian Fields, the site of the first official baseball game. He later became commodore of the yacht “America,” winning the first international race and a trophy that later became known as America’s Cup.

Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan

Michael Phelan – Phelan lifted the reputation of billiards from saloons to salons. He was a champion player, promoter, table manufacturer, wrote manuals, and built billiards palaces. He is responsible for the diamond-shaped target spots around the rim of the table and the angular way pockets are cut.

Albert Spalding
Albert Spalding

Albert Spalding – The first baseball player who openly wore a padded glove quit playing in his prime so he could focus on his budding sporting goods empire. He went on to influence many American sports and promoted the Abner Doubleday myth. The Spalding Company has been one of the world’s largest sporting goods manufacturers for well over a century.

Isaac Murphy
Isaac Murphy

Isaac Murphy – The legendary African-American jockey was the first 3-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. Murphy still maintains the best lifetime winning percentage of 44% (628 wins in 1,412 known races). Unlike most riders, he seldom used his whip in a race. He is buried at Churchill Downs.

John Wesley Hyatt
John Wesley Hyatt

John Wesley Hyatt – Hyatt invented celluloid (the first plastic) to win a $10,000 prize offered by Michael Phelan to anyone who found a replacement for ivory used in billiard balls, saving many thousands of elephants from slaughter. All modern plastics descend from Hyatt’s quest for that perfect billiard ball.

Tod Sloan
Tod Sloan

Tod Sloan – The short-legged jockey popularized the monkey-crouch position and became the inspiration for the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. He really did go to London just to ride the ponies, becoming personal jockey for the Prince of Wales. Sloan lived the high life, squandered his fortune, and died in obscurity.

Marshall "Major" Taylor
Marshall “Major” Taylor

Marshall “Major” Taylor – America’s sprint cycle champion in 1899, Taylor battled racial taunts and deliberate attempts to knock him off his bike as he set world racing records. He later performed exciting bike stunts on vaudeville stages with Mile-A-Minute Murphy.

Charlie "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy
“Mile-a-Minute” Murphy

Charlie “Mile-A-Minute” Murphy – His nickname says it all. In 1899, he pedaled his bicycle one mile in less than one minute as a publicity stunt (many reporters and photographers were on hand), setting a record that stood for 43 years. He later became the first New York City police officer to ride a motorcycle on duty.

Lon Myers
Lon Myers

Lon Myers – Lon Myers simultaneously held the U.S. record at every distance from 50 yards to one mile. His match races against England’s best runner drew tens of thousands of spectators and bettors, and prompted athletic organizations to differentiate between amateur and professional athletes.

William Muldoon
William Muldoon

William Muldoon – A great wrestler with a mighty reputation, the former Union soldier and New York City police officer went on to become America’s foremost boxing trainer, whipping John L. Sullivan into shape for his biggest fights.

James Plimpton
James Plimpton

James Plimpton – Plimpton invented the cushioned “rocker” roller skate, which provided a smooth ride and permitted turning by a shift of bodyweight. This ignited a national roller skating fad. He opened large rinks and charged a rental fee for his skates, rather than selling them, earning himself a fortune.

Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley – The famous sharpshooter of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows performed incredible shooting feats with rifles and pistols. The musical Annie Get Your Gun is her enduring legacy, based on stories written and published by Richard K. Fox.

Richard K. Fox
Richard K. Fox

Richard K. Fox – Influential sports promoter and publisher of The Police Gazette, the nation’s most significant sports publication, Fox began the practice of awarding title belts to boxing champions, and touted the exploits of long-distance walkers, strong-men, and women athletes.

George Dixon
George Dixon

George Dixon – The featherweight boxer was the first African-American world champion in any sport. He brutally battered his white opponent in front of a white audience at the New Orleans Carnival of Champions in 1892, putting an abrupt end to mixed-race boxing in the South for the next 60 years.

Walter Clopton Wingfield
Walter Clopton Wingfield

Walter Clopton Wingfield – Credited with inventing lawn tennis, the retired British military officer from a prominent family created quite a furor over his 1874 patent of a game that was already being widely played by many people.

Eugen Sandow
Eugen Sandow

Eugen Sandow – The first modern bodybuilder, Eugen Sandow, was a circus strongman, a promoter of the muscular masculine physique, and a body model for Thomas Edison’s movies and Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Vulcana
Vulcana

Vulcana – Many women bodybuilders also showed off their muscles in exhibitions. More than just posing, these women lifted enormous weights and some wrestled and boxed against men, which was quite risque at the time.

Sondre Norheim
Sondre Norheim

Sondre Norheim – He looks mild but Sondre was wild and fearless. He was the best of the Norwegian skiers from Telemark who revolutionized ski jumping and slalom racing. Nordic and alpine skiers were the X-games athletes of the 19th century. The torch for the Winter Olympics is traditionally ignited at Norheim’s birthplace before it is trotted around the world. He moved to North Dakota in the 1880s and remained an active skier until his death at age 73. 

Matthew Webb
Matthew Webb

Matthew Webb – The only person to swim across the English Channel in the 19th century staged many endurance swimming exhibitions. Thousands of spectators watched him attempt to swim across the rapids below Niagara Falls. He paddled into the water and disappeared. His lifeless body was recovered four miles downriver.

Lord Stanley
Lord Stanley

Lord Stanley – The British Governor of Canada and his family loved ice hockey. His daughter, Isobel, played on the national women’s team. Lord Stanley donated a Cup as a prize in the 1890s. The Stanley Cup has been a coveted championship trophy ever since.

Hiram Woodruff
Hiram Woodruff

Hiram Woodruff – The most popular sportsman in America in the 1840s and 1850s, Hiram Woodruff was the best racing jockey on horseback and the best driver in harness during an era when horses were the primary form of transportation. A respected authority on harness racing, his 1867 book became the primary source for generations of racers.

Amelia Bloomer
Amelia Bloomer

Amelia Bloomer – As much as 19th century feminists demanded the vote, they also insisted on rational dress reform. Women’s fashions at the time were restrictive and painful to wear. Named for their creator, Bloomers were worn for exercise and cycling, and also made an unmistakable feminist political statement. Women athletes wore bloomers for basketball, baseball, track and field, gymnastics, and other sports.

Old Tom & Young Tom Morris
Old Tom & Young Tom Morris

Old Tom & Young Tom Morris – Old Tom won the British Open 4 times in the 1860s and was the first big-name professional golfer. His son, Young Tom, was a golf prodigy. He won four consecutive British Opens, the first at age 17 (by 11 strokes) setting tournament records that stood until new balls were invented. He died at age 23, some say of a broken heart, on Christmas Day 1875, soon after his wife died during stillbirth.

Moses Fleetwood Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker

Moses Fleetwood Walker – “Fleet” Walker helped organize the baseball team at integrated Oberlin College and played a few seasons in the major leagues in the 1880s, but teams and players in some cities refused to play against him (including some players who are now in the Hall of Fame). The color line was drawn for the next 60 years until it was crossed by Jackie Robinson. Negro teams formed their own leagues which endured during those segregated decades.

Baron Karl Von Drais
Baron Karl von Drais

Baron Karl von Drais – The high price of oats, caused by a worldwide famine, made horses too expensive for many people to own. In 1817, German forest ranger Karl von Drais invented a 2-wheel hobby-horse to make his rounds instead of on horseback. The “draisine” evolved into the modern bicycle during the 19th century. The bicycle is still the most efficient mode of human-powered transport. Bike races were proving grounds for advancements in automobile and airplane technology.

Henry Chadwick
Henry Chadwick

Henry Chadwick – The English-born sportswriter played cricket as a youth, then fell in love with baseball and helped transform the game into America’s national pastime. Chadwick wrote an influential baseball guide, created the box score, calculated batting averages, designated the “K” for strikeout, and became the first non-player inducted into the Hall of Fame. His friendly nationalistic dispute with Albert Spalding led to the creation of the Abner Doubleday myth.

Baron Pierre de Coubtertin
Baron Pierre de Coubtertin

Baron Pierre de Coubertin – Founder and motivating force behind the Modern Olympic Games, the Baron envisioned sports as a substitute for war. He was a fine athlete and excelled in fencing, a form of combat training that was tamed into a competitive sport. 

Lottie Dodd
Lottie Dodd

Lottie Dod – British girl Lottie Dod won the first of her 5 Wimbledon titles at age 15 using a grip that was 40 years ahead of its time. An all-around athlete, she also won the British women’s golf championship, was an expert archer, a member of the national field hockey team, and passed ice skating tests that were designed for men. 

Frank Duryea
Frank Duryea

Frank Duryea – Frank Duryea and his brother Charles won the first American automobile race on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. They built the first mass produced cars in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same city where basketball and volleyball were invented.

Frederick Jahn
Frederick Jahn

Frederick Jahn – German nationalist Frederick Jahn led revolts against Napoleon. He later founded a gymnastics society (the Turners) that threatened the German government and led to his imprisonment. The vaulting horse and parallel bars are among Jahn’s enduring contributions to modern gymnastics. German immigrants brought these gymnastic events to America in the 19th century.

William G. Morgan
William G. Morgan

William G. Morgan – Morgan invented volleyball in 1895 as an alternative indoor game to basketball, which was too physically taxing for the middle-aged businessmen who attended his YMCA classes. The first ball was an inflated bladder pulled from inside a laced basketball. 

Snowshoe Thompson
Snowshoe Thompson

Snowshoe Thompson – The famed mail carrier of the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the California Gold Rush was also a notable downhill ski racer. The greatest misconception about Snowshoe Thompson is that he wore snowshoes. Downhill skiers were the fastest-moving humans on the planet. 

John Reid
John Reid

John Reid – The father of American golf, John Reid imported equipment from his native Scotland, played in the first match and built the first course. Andrew Carnegie and other wealthy men became addicted to golf and built ornate private clubhouses. Reid and his wife played in the first mixed-pair golf match.

Luther Gulick
Luther Gulick

Luther Gulick – Head of the YMCA and a proponent of physical education, Gulick inspired his directors to create the modern games of basketball and volleyball. Crucial to the spread of young men’s sports, he was initially opposed to women competing in active athletics. He and his wife later founded the Campfire Girls.

Dudley Sargent
Dudley Sargent

Dudley Sargent – The Harvard professor and physical education instructor designed modern gymnasiums and invented scientifically-tested exercise equipment. His machines and contraptions are similar to those used in today’s fitness and training centers.

Henry Ford
Henry Ford

Henry Ford – Ford’s first car in 1896 was lighter, lower, and faster than other automakers. He proved his designs in prominent racing challenges and time trials. After winning $1,000 in a race in 1901, he retired as a race car driver and invested his winnings in forming the Ford Motor Company.

John Brunswick
John Brunswick

John Brunswick – The immigrant rags-to-riches woodworker built factories to supply the demand for his fine billiard tables. By the turn of the century his company was the industry giant in two of the most popular participation sports, billiards and bowling.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison – America’s greatest inventor staged illegal boxing matches for his new motion picture camera, creating the first pay-per-view fights at a nickel per round. He and others involved were subpoenaed but all charges were dismissed. Edison also filmed baseball, football, and other sports.

Charles Goodyear
Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear – Goodyear’s accidental discovery of the vulcanization process turned rubber into a crucial product in many sports. Before Goodyear, rubber was inconsistent depending on weather. Rubber balls soon replaced ivory, wood, gutta percha, animal bladders, and other materials.

Otto Lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal

Otto Lilienthal – The aviation pioneer built and flew a hang glider over 1,000 feet and was the first person to be photographed flying in the air in 1894. After more than 2,000 successful flights, he crashed and died in 1896. He wrote classic works on the study of aviation that inspired bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright to turn their attention to flight.

James Gordon Bennett
James Gordon Bennett

James Gordon Bennett, Jr. – The New York Herald newspaper publisher who sent Stanley in search of Livingston was an erstwhile sportsman and promoter. He introduced the rich man’s sport of polo to the United States and won a much ballyhooed transatlantic boat race.

William Porter
William Porter

William Porter – As publisher of America’s first sports weekly The Spirit of the Times, Porter printed baseball box scores, horse racing results, and other sports stories. He also discovered a harness racing superstar horse named Lady Suffolk, who was later immortalized in the song The Old Gray Mare.

Frederic Remington
Frederic Remington

Frederic Remington – The great American artist drew images of football action and woodcuts of techniques (blocking, tackling, ball-carrying). As a college player, Remington would go to a slaughterhouse before a game to splatter his jersey with blood to inspire the animal ferocity that football demanded.

Edweard Muybridge
Edweard Muybridge

Edweard Muybridge – Muybridge devised the first motion picture camera to settle Leland Stanford’s bet about whether a racehorse had all four hooves off the ground simultaneously while at full gallop. His groundbreaking human film studies of men and women included athletic tasks like running, jumping, and throwing a ball.

William B. Curtis
William B. Curtis

William B. Curtis – Curtis was a great all-around athlete, known as the father of American amateur athletics. A writer, promoter, and founder of the New York Athletic Club, he patented a rowing exercise machine, was the first American runner to wear spikes on his shoes, and was a strong voice in drawing the line between amateur and professional athletes. His meticulous obsession with world records standardized events and moved races from public streets to oval tracks for consistency.

Amos Alonzo Stagg
Amos Alonzo Stagg

Amos Alonzo Stagg – Before becoming the grand old man of football, Stagg was a great young multi-sport athlete and the nation’s first college athletic director. He was a football coach for 57 years, a pioneer of new formations, shifting backfields, onside kicks, the spiral pass, the huddle, and numbers on uniforms. He played in the first public basketball game in 1892. He lived to age 102 and is in the Hall of Fame in both football and basketball.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Mark Twain – An avid billiards player, Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in his billiard room. He said “The game of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition.”

Fred Winslow Taylor
Fred Winslow Taylor

Fred Winslow Taylor – America’s first efficiency expert, Taylor’s landmark time and motion studies not only revolutionized American industry but also affected football, golf, and other sports. In 1881, Taylor won the U.S. Open Tennis doubles championship using a spoon-shaped racket he invented. A devoted golfer, he invented long-shafted clubs, two-handed putters, and landscaping methods for maintaining putting greens.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln – Honest Abe was a 4-sport man: wrestling, handball, baseball, and billiards. The wiry rail-splitter won more than 200 wrestling bouts as a youth, was playing handball in an alley when informed of his nomination for the Presidency, attended baseball games during the Civil War, and was a self-confessed billiards addict.