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article number 333
article date 04-10-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Ruth, Grange, Cobb, [many more] and Vassar Girls? Sport in the 1920’s was Enjoyed by All Americans.
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

In sports the old order had yielded place to new. Ty Cobb led the American League in batting every year from 1907 through 1919, with the single exception of 1916!


By 1920 Babe Ruth had taken over the spotlight. In that year baseball was hit hard by scandal, when the Chicago White Sox were indicted for “throwing” the World Series of 1919. The players were acquitted, but so besmirched with suspicion had the game become that a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was invited by the major-league owners to become “czar” of organized baseball. Here is Judge Landis, snapped in a characteristic pose a great many years later—in 1939.


Babe Ruth, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, was the undisputed king of the ball parks all through the ballyhoo years. Below, he is bundled up after a workout …


… here he is putting his formidable weight behind a hit.


After the nineteen-twenties Ruth’s annual collection of home runs began to diminish. In the next picture he is talking bat in hand, with Lou Gehrig another idol of the Yankee fans who, from 1925 until he left the lineup because of a fatal illness in 1939, played 2,130 consecutive games for that one club.


In boxing, the young Jack Dempsey was emerging. Here Jack Dempsey knocks out Georges Carpentier of France on July 2, 1921, to remain world champion.


Dempsey stays champion of the ring by knocking out Luis Firpo of Argentina, September 14, 1923.


High among the heroes of sport stood Jack Dempsey, who took the world boxing championship in 1919 by defeating the lofty Jess Willard at Toledo, and held the title against all corners until 1926, when he lost to Gene Tunney by decision of the judges at Philadelphia.

The next year, 1927, the two men fought again at Chicago; and in the seventh round, Tunney fell. Because the referee delayed beginning his count, Tunney had thirteen seconds to recover—and he subsequently won. The next picture shows him going down for that famous long count.”


Tunney did not hold the championship long; after beating Tom Heeney in 1928 he announced his retirement from the ring, having acquired more intellectual ambitions—and went for a walking trip abroad with the novelist and playwright, Thornton Wilder.

Here, the two meet again in World War II: Commander Tunney, left; Commander Dempsey, right.


The first woman to swim the English Channel was Gertrude Ederle, the stalwart nineteen-year-old daughter of an Amsterdam Avenue butcher in New York. Battling against tricky tides, she made better time than her masculine predecessors—14 hours, 31 minutes.

Here you see her entering the water, in a costume permissible then only for long-distance swimmers, and well smeared with grease.


Below, she is on her way; her head is bobbing in the water alongside the accompanying tug.


It was a great feat; and characteristic of the spirit of 1926 was the fact that when Miss Ederle got back to New York, her ship was met by an official yacht, by circling planes, and by a Fire Department band; fifteen thousand people were at the Battery to greet her; she was given an official welcome with ticker tape; and Mayor Walker likened her exploit to Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea and Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.

Still another great figure in sport was William T. Tilden, 2nd, whose cannon-ball serve and all-round mastery of tennis made him champion every year from 1920 through 1925, and then—after a lapse during which the Frenchmen Lacoste and Cochet won—again in 1929. Here, you see him in his heyday on the court …


… below he is shown with the other members of the Davis Cup team of 1921—Watson M. Washburn (with glasses) and R. Norris Williams and William M. Johnston, previous champions.


Tilden later turned professional, and so well retained his skill that even after World War II he was a player well worth seeing in action.

The feminine counterpart to Bill Tilden was Helen Wills of California, who first won the women’s national tennis championship in 1923, when she was not yet seventeen, and took it again in 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, and 1931—by which time she had become Mrs. Moody.

The picture below was taken in 1924, when she was still very young—and burdened with a costume that would seem a little hampering to a contemporary tennis star.


Here is a portrait taken considerably later; again she is wearing her usual eye-shade.


What was most remarkable about the sports of the nineteen-twenties was not the prowess of the stars, though this was noteworthy, but the vast publicity that surrounded them, the adulation they received, and the hugely increased amount of money taken in at sporting events.

In the mid-twenties college football aroused such excitement that Harold E. (“Red”) Grange of the University of Illinois, affectionately known as the “Wheaton iceman,” at the close of his senior season was offered $120,000 a year by a real estate firm, took in $12,000 at his first professional game and $30,000 at a subsequent one, signed a $300,000 movie contract, and was the subject of a petition nominating him for Congress.


That any one player should have been able to dominate a game so beset with uncertainties as golf for as long a time as did Bobby Jones was extraordinary. He was five times national amateur champion, four times national open champion; and in 1930 he performed the feat of winning four major titles in a single season—the American and British amateur and open championships.

Here, he is shaking hands with Alexa Sterling after winning his first open title in 1923 …


… below, he is finishing his effortless swing.


When the depression came, Jones turned professional. Here is Captain Jones is reporting for duty in World War II.


No American track stars of the twenties—not even Charlie Paddock or Joie Ray—attracted so much attention as did Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn,” when he came to the United States early in 1925 and showed astonished crowds that it was possible to run two miles in less than nine minutes. In this picture he is carrying in his right hand the stopwatch with which he regulated his speed.


Add to the heroes of sport the great Man o’ War, whose money winnings in 1920, when he was a three-year-old, were much the biggest up to that time. Later, as racing grew more popular, his total was beaten by Zev (1923), Gallant Fox (1930), and many another; but he remained a creature of legend—and his offspring won over three million dollars. Our picture shows him in 1924.


Let us look for a moment at sports costumes. Here is Fish’s notion of a golfing scene at Palm Beach, from ‘Vanity Fair,’ February 1920.


Below is, a photograph taken at Vassar a little earlier, showing President MacCracken catching behind a bat wielded by a surprising batter.


Regard the bloomers worn by the sturdy Vassar sprinters, snapped on Field Day, 1919, and you will see why women were ready for new ideas in sports wear in the twenties. Before long, about the only victims of the bloomer were to be found at girls’ camps. (For the winner’s ankle we offer no explanation.)


Track athletics as well as basketball and field hockey, once dear to the hardier students at women’s colleges, have virtually disappeared since those days in favor of the more socially useful tennis and golf.

No bloomers for these Vassar figure skaters at the 1922 ice carnival, who represented one phase of the impulse toward art in physical exertion.


Another phase is illustrated by the picture below—still another Vassar number—showing aesthetic (at least in intention) dancers.

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