Sports have always had an enormous impact on American society and culture. People use sports at all levels, whether it’s youth, high school, college or professional, to help build an identity, connect with others and grow as individuals. Even though American is a diverse country made up of different races, nationalities and ethnicities, discrimination has been in issue throughout America’s history. Sports took on an even greater meaning for some minorities during the 20th Century, especially Europeans and blacks. They used sports as a means of vertical mobility in order to advance themselves socially in America.
The idea of social mobility was one concept that originally drew many immigrants to the country. Between 1880 and 1915, around 26 million immigrants moved to the United States, and about half came from several areas of Europe (Moore, 2011a). America offered the chance for people to better themselves and someone from any background could become successful and rise above their parents. During this time, Americans were already viewing sports as an important and democratic part of life, because it judged people on their talent and skill alone (Reiss, 1980). Competition was an opportunity to prove and show off your “manliness” and power. Sports were also seen as a way to gain vertical mobility, and for Europeans, it was a way to become more accepted into the American culture. Although they received more respect than blacks, they mostly were not considered truly “American” (Moore, 2011a). Boxing was a popular sport among young immigrants. Boxing was a sport that proved “manliness” and toughness, and turning professional meant chances to earn prize money. Most immigrants from Europe lived on the East Coast in cities that quickly became crowded and poor, and fighting was a functional skill to learn while living in the ghetto neighborhoods (Reiss, 1980). Boxing became a social ladder for ethnic groups since one group seemed to dominate until another group became better. Whoever were better boxers at the time were viewed as the tougher race. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s the Irish held most of the Heavyweight Championship titles, with boxers like John L. Sullivan, Jack Kilrain and Gene Tunney (Sowell, 1983). In the 1920’s and 30’s Jews began to have success in the ring, with 1913 being the only year in since the start of the century that there was no Jewish champion. In the two decade span they held 18 titles (Moore, 2011a). These champions were important to the Jewish in proving their worth to the country and countering the discrimination that the Nazis in Germany were trying to spread. Boxing for European ethnic minorities served as a way to prove their race’s toughness, and prizefighting was a way to leave the poor ghettos and make a decent life for themselves.
Italians were slower than other groups in their involvement with sports. Between 1899 and 1924 about 4 million immigrated to the United States and settled in the crowded East Coast cities (Reiss, 1980). The Progressive movement was gaining popularity at the time, but because of their past in Italy, many Italians mistrusted governments telling them what to do and what their children should do (Moore, 2011a). However, 2nd generation Italian-American children were given opportunities to play sports through the creation of the Public School Athletic League. In 1905 historian Camillo Cianfarra tracked the Italian youth development in sports and observed:
“In our public elementary school competitions, our children are not inferior to the children of other nationalities, in the lists of gymnastic [track and field] winners the Italian names appear quite frequently as they appear in the rosters of teams involved in inter-high school competition” (Reiss, 1980). Baseball soon became a popular sport with the Italians, and they became very successful with the sport. By the time of the Depression, Italians were...