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Baseball originated before the American Civil War (1861–1865). First played on sandlots in particular, scoring and record-keeping gave baseball gravity. "Today," notes John Thorn in The Baseball Encyclopedia, "baseball without records is inconceivable."
In 1871, the first professional baseball league was created. By the beginning of the 20th century, most large cities in the eastern United States had a professional baseball team. After several leagues came and went in the 19th century, the National League (founded in 1876) and American League (recognized as a major league in 1903) were established as the dominant leagues by the early 20th century. The most victorious team in each league was said to have won the "pennant;" the two pennant winners met after the end of the regular season in the World Series. The winner of at least four games (out of a possible seven) was the champion for that year. This arrangement still holds today, although the leagues are now subdivided and pennants are decided in post-season playoff series between the winners of each division.
Baseball became popular in the 1920s, when Babe Ruth led the New York Yankees to several World Series titles and became a national hero on the strength of his home runs (balls that cannot be played because they have been hit out of the field). One of the most noteworthy players was the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson, who became the first African-American player in the major leagues in 1947. Prior to Robinson, black players had been restricted to the Negro Leagues.
Starting in the 1950s, major league baseball expanded its geographical range. Western cities got teams, either by luring them to move from eastern cities or by forming expansion teams with players made available by established teams. Until the 1970s, because of strict contracts, the owners of baseball teams also virtually owned the players; since then, the rules have changed so that players can become free agents, within certain limits, to sell their services to any team. The resulting bidding wars led to increasingly wealthy players. Disputes between the players' union and the owners have at times halted baseball for months at a time.
Japan has also seen a prominent professional baseball circuit develop known as Nippon Professional Baseball. Founded in 1934, the league emerged as an international force after World War II. NPB is considered to be the highest caliber of baseball outside the U.S. major leagues, and the best Japanese talent often emigrate to the U.S. by way of the posting system. Other prominent countries to play the game include South Korea (where their league has its own posting system with Major League Baseball), Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean states.
Football (commonly known as American football in Europe and Australia) was professionalized in the 1890s as a slow, and initially covert, process; William Heffelfinger and Ben "Sport" Donnelly were the first to secretly accept payment for playing the game in 1892. Regional leagues in Chicago, , Ohio and had coalesced in the 1900s and 1910s, most of which gave way to the in 1920. By 1920, pro football remained overshadowed by the college game. The first game involving an APFA team took place on September 26, 1920, at Douglas Park in Rock Island, Illinois, as the hometown Independents flattened the St. Paul Ideals 48-0. The first head-to-head battles in the league occurred one week later as Dayton topped Columbus 14-0 and Rock Island pasted Muncie 45-0.
Forward passes were rare, coaching from the sidelines was prohibited and players competed on both offense and defense. Money was so tight that George Halas carried equipment, wrote press releases, sold tickets, taped ankles, played and coached for the Decatur club. As opposed to today's standard 16-game schedule, clubs in 1920 scheduled their own opponents and could play non league and even college squads that counted toward their records. With no established guidelines, the number of games played—and the quality of opponents scheduled—by APFA teams varied, and the league did not maintain official standings.
The inaugural season was a struggle. Games received little attention from the fans—and even less from the press. According to Robert W. Peterson's book "Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football," APFA games averaged crowds of 4,241. The association bylaws called for teams to pay a $100 entry fee, but no one ever did. The season concluded on December 19. At the conclusion of the season there were no playoffs (that innovation, although New York's regional league had used it, would not arrive until 1933) and it took more than four months before the league even bothered to crown a champion. Much as college football did for decades, the APFA determined its victor by ballot. On April 30, 1921, team representatives voted the Akron Pros, who completed the season undefeated with eight wins and three ties while yielding only a total of seven points, the champion in spite of protests by the one-loss teams in Decatur and Buffalo, who each had tied Akron and had more wins, thanks in part to Akron's owner presiding over the meeting. The victors received a silver loving cup donated by sporting goods company Brunswick-Balke-Collender. While players were not given diamond-encrusted rings, they did receive golden fobs in the shape of a football inscribed with the words "World Champions." The whereabouts of the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, only given out that one time, are unknown.
The legacy of two APFA franchises continues on, however. The Racine Cardinals now play in Arizona, and the Decatur Staleys moved to Chicago in 1921 and changed their name to the Bears the following year. Ten APFA players along with Carr are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened its doors in 1963 not far from the Canton automobile dealership that gave birth to the NFL in 1920.
The APFA, by 1922 known as the , has remained the predominant professional football league in the United States, and, effectively, the entire world. The evolution from a haphazard collection of teams in big and small cities to the much more rigid structure it is in the present was gradual. With most of the small-market teams except the Green Bay Packers squeezed out of the NFL by the time of the Great Depression, multiple attempts at teams in the major cities of Washington, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia failed before, eventually, their current representatives took root (though Boston proved particularly problematic until the New England Patriots were accepted into the NFL in 1970); the NFL expanded coast-to-coast, the first of the four major leagues to do so, in 1946 with the Los Angeles Rams and admitted the San Francisco 49ers four years later; the NFL did not enter the Southern United States until admitting the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in the 1960s. A championship game was established in 1933, a draft was established in 1936, and schedules were standardized in the 1930s. A competing league has historically arisen to attempt to challenge the NFL's dominance every 10 to 15 years, but none managed to maintain long-term operations independent of the NFL and only two—the of the late 1940s and the of the 1960s—were strong enough to successfully compete against the league before the NFL subsumed their operations. Minor league football, although their leagues' memberships were unstable, began to arise in the late 1930s and remained viable as a business model up into the 1970s.
A major factor in the NFL's rise to dominance was its early in the sport's history. As college football heavily restricted the rights of its teams to broadcast games (a policy eventually ruled to be illegal in 1984), the NFL instead allowed games to be televised nationwide, ; the restriction was softened in the early 1970s, by which point the NFL had secured broadcast deals with all of the major television networks, another major factor in the inability of any competing league to gain traction since then.
The related sport of was eventually professionalized by the 1950s, which saw the evolution of the . The CFL, despite losing all games in a series of contests against the NFL, was considered to be at least comparable in talent to the American leagues of the 1960s (its lone game against an AFL squad was a victory). Because Canada has a tenth of the population of the United States, the ability to make money from television was much lower, and although some of the cities of Canada were comparable to the major markets of the U.S., teams in places such as Saskatchewan and Hamilton were in markets quite small compared to even the small markets of the NFL, thus the CFL now pays noticeably less than other major professional leagues, but still more than enough to be considered fully professional.
The rise of beginning in the late 1980s has allowed for smaller-scale professional football to be viable.
Ice hockey was first professionalized in Pittsburgh in the early 1900s (decade). As Canadians made up the vast majority of hockey players, early American professional leagues imported almost all of their talent before Canadian leagues began to form in the wake of a mining boom, depriving the U.S. leagues and teams of talent. Two distinct circuits formed: the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in western Canada and the northwestern U.S., and the National Hockey Association of central Canada, both of which competed for the then-independent Stanley Cup. The NHA's teams reorganized as the National Hockey League in 1917, and the West Coast circuit died out by the mid-1920s.
By 1926, the NHL expanded to 10 teams in Canada, and in the northeastern and midwestern United States. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1930s, combined with Canada's entry into World War II (which greatly reduced the league's player pool), led to the league's retrenchment to six markets: Boston, New York City, Chicago and Detroit in the U.S., and Toronto and Montreal in Canada. These Original Six cities would be the only cities with NHL franchises from 1935 to 1967. During this time, the NHL was both stagnant and restrictive in its policies, giving teams territorial advantages, having teams with multiple owners in the same family (thus allowing the best players to be stacked onto certain teams), and restricting its players' salaries through reserve clauses. This stagnation allowed other leagues to arise: the Western Hockey League soon became the de facto major league of the western states and provinces, and the second-tier American Hockey League emerged in a number of midwestern markets the NHL had neglected, in addition to a handful of small towns.
Amid pressure from television networks that were threatening to offer the WHL a contract, the NHL doubled in size in 1967, beginning a period of expansion that lasted through much of the 1970s. The last major challenger to the NHL's dominance was the World Hockey Association, which successfully broke the NHL's reserve clause in court, drove up professional hockey salaries, and continued to pressure the older league into expansion. The WHA merged four of its remaining teams into the NHL in 1979, but had to give up most of its players, as they were still under NHL contract and had to return to their original teams. The NHL made its last pronounced realignment in the 1990s, moving most of the WHA teams out of their markets and establishing a number of new teams in the southern United States.
In Europe, the introduction of professionalism varied widely, and the highest-caliber league on the continent, the Soviet Championship League (proven to be at least equal to or better than the NHL in the 1970s), was officially composed of semi-professional works teams paid for their association with industries or government agencies (the Red Army squad employed members of the armed forces, and the Soviet Union often drafted the best hockey players in the country to serve on the squad). The modern-day descendant of the Soviet league, the Kontinental Hockey League, is fully professional and has a number of teams outside Russia, to the point where it has the resources to sign NHL veterans. Other European countries such as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, and Austria also have prominent professional leagues.
Basketball was invented in 1891 and the first professional leagues emerged in the 1920s. The Basketball Association of America was established in 1946 and three years later became the modern National Basketball Association. The NBA was slower to establish dominance of the sport than other sports in the United States, as it would not do so until 1976, when it absorbed four teams from the American Basketball Association.
Professional basketball has the advantages of much smaller rosters than other professional sports, allowing the sport to be viable in smaller cities than other sports. Professional basketball leagues of varying caliber can be found around the world, especially in Europe and South America.
Resistance to professionalism
Professional athleticism has been a traditional object of criticism by proponents of the amateurist philosophy of sport, according to which the central ethos of sport is competition performed for its own sake and pure enjoyment rather than as a means of earning a living. Examples of amateurist philosophy include the muscular Christianity movement that informed the promotion of sports in the English public school system, and the Olympism advocated by Pierre de Coubertin, a force behind the revival of the modern Olympic Games. The tension between the two sporting practices and ideals dates from the inception of modern organized sports in the 19th century. The high political and financial stakes involved in sport have ensured that this tension has remained strong. Professional sporting organizations have often developed as "rebel" organizations in relation to established national and international federation, for example the schism which created the code of rugby league.
Arguments against amateurism often appeal to the argument that amateurism in sport favors the classes who can afford not to be paid to play, and is thus a covert form of prejudice against lower classes. Another argument is that amateur players are often de facto professionals who retain their amateur status by earning allowances instead of salaries. For example, all Eastern bloc countries were populated with amateur players who were actually full-time athletes hired as regular workers of a company (aircraft industry, food workers, tractor industry) or organization (KGB, Red Army, Soviet Air Force) that sponsored what would be presented as an after-hours social sports society team for their workers.