This article, written by Susan Reyburn, writer-editor in the Publishing Office at the Library of Congress, is featured in the March-April 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.
As major league baseball prepared to celebrate what it thought was the sport’s centennial in 1939, it relied on a 1907 Mills Commission report that credited Abner Doubleday as the game’s inventor. The commission had accepted a personal account from Abner Graves that placed Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he supposedly spent the summer of 1839 creating the national pastime. Had baseball officials consulted with Library of Congress staff, they might have dug up irrefutable proof that baseball’s tangled roots in America did not originate with Doubleday on a New York farm, but instead lie deep in colonial-era soil and—yes—England.
Two items available to researchers in 1939, and now in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, would have been useful in debunking the Doubleday myth. One is the diary of John Rhea, a student at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Writing in his diary on March 22, 1786, Smith noted that it was “A fine day play baste [sic] ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.” The other is a copy of the first American edition of “A Little Pretty Pocket Book” (1787), in which a rhyme titled “Base-Ball” is accompanied by a woodcut image of three players at what appear to be short wooden posts, or bases. The work had originally appeared in London 43 years earlier.
In a country as sports-minded as the United States, the nation’s library documents that passion in myriad formats, housed in various divisions, located in three buildings on Capitol Hill and several preservation facilities in Maryland and Virginia.
“The Library of Congress has the most extensive sports holdings in the country—much of which has been acquired through copyright deposit,” says reference librarian Darren Jones, the Library’s recommending officer for sports and recreation. “It allows us to get things other people don’t have.”
Thus, scholars researching any sport—and especially its presence in American culture—should consider paying a visit to the Library of Congress.
Here one finds scholarly treatises on ancient athletics, early rule books and commentary on the “new” field of “physical culture,” comprehensive 19th-century baseball-card collections, oral histories, memoirs, and municipal and private athletic-club directories.
Game films, photographs, and radio and television broadcasts—including the first televised NFL game, played in 1939 between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers—chronicle the growth of both American athletic competition and sports media. Sports in the arts can be found in conference and league maps, posters, juvenile literature (starring Jack Standfast and Frank Merriwell), pulp fiction, comic books, original newspaper sports-page artwork and cartoons, and sheet music for fight songs and team anthems.
The Library also holds official International Olympic Committee reports and an unmatched selection of sports periodicals, such as “Spirit of the Times,” which debuted in 1831 and favored horseracing.
And there are books from A to Z—”Aborigines in Sport” (1987) to “Zinger: A Champion’s Story of Determination, Courage, and Charging Back” (1995), the autobiography of golfer Paul Azinger. In between are such items as “The Art of Swimming” third edition (1789), “The Game of Croquet: Its Appointments and Laws” (1865), “Hold ‘Em Girls! An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Men and Football” (1936) and “Roaring Game: A Sweeping Saga of Curling” (2008).
Notable sports holdings in the Library’s Manuscript Division include the Branch Rickey Papers and the Jack Kemp Papers. Rickey made history in 1945 when he broke the Major League Baseball color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. His papers include his scouting reports of Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays as well as a large collection of Robinson material. Kemp, star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills before he became a New York congressman, cabinet member and vice-presidential candidate, held onto his high school game programs and professional football contracts. Harry Blackmun’s papers include his college diary, in which the future U.S. Supreme Court associate justice chronicled his adventures during Prohibition as an usher and ticket-taker at Harvard football games, where, as he observed, “the liquor flew muchly.”
Several recently acquired sports broadcasting collections, featuring sportscasts from the 1920s to the early 21st century, continue to enhance the depth and variety of the Library’s holdings.
And there’s more for sports enthusiasts to cheer about. The Library is currently selecting and digitizing approximately 600 sports books published before 1923 that will soon be available to researchers online.