Popular Sports In The 1920s: From Baseball To Boxing

Last Updated: October 24th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

What would the world be without sports?

I remember a line from a movie (although I don’t remember the movie itself!) that went, “When I was a teenager, my father and I couldn’t seem to agree on anything, but we could always talk about sports.”

baseball batter in position as the catcher crouches behind him playing baseball

Whether you enjoy watching (and talking about) The New York Yankees baseball team, boxing matches, following the National Football League, or whatever major sports team you are into, you’ll easily see how sports is as American as apple pie.

Have you wondered which sports were popular in the 1920s? That’s when baseball games were invented, right? (NO). Who was the most famous athlete of that decade? Was professional football a thing?

There were no televisions just yet (it wasn’t even invented until 1928), so how did people hear about sports games in the Roaring Twenties?

Let’s talk about the increasing interest people had in sports in the 1920s and which sport drew the largest crowds.

Which Sports Were Played in the 1920s?

Vintage image of college basketball team tossing a ball

The 1920s witnessed a dynamic array of sports that captured the spirit of the era. Baseball emerged as a national pastime, with legendary figures like Babe Ruth redefining the game (see Babe Ruth costumes ).

American football gained in popularity with the formation of the National Football League in 1920.

Basketball, which was a relatively young sport at the time, began to take shape during this era.

Tennis was also popular, with icons such as Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen enthralling fans with their remarkable skills and rivalries.

Boxing was another sport that reached new heights of excitement, with boxers like Jack Dempsey becoming household names.

Golf was a sport that was previously viewed as something only the rich indulged in ( read more on Golf in the 1920s ). However, it was in this decade that the middle class began to see golf as something they could also enjoy since they now had more money and leisure time than ever before.

Auto racing and horse racing also drew massive crowds.

Vintage image of hockey players - American sports team

The 1920s also marked the advent of the Winter Olympic Games and the creation of the National Hockey League, which started off in 1920 with three teams and ended this era with 10 teams.

College games were not that popular during this decade unless you were in college or you had children in college. However, massive stadiums were being constructed that would change all this shortly.

What Major Sports Events Happened in the 1920s?

The 1920s were a pivotal decade for sports, hosting a slew of iconic events.

Football players practicing on field 1920

In 1920, the National Football League (NFL) was established, laying the groundwork for American football’s future dominance. The decade saw seven editions of the World Series in baseball, highlighted by the infamous “Black Sox” scandal in 1920 and Babe Ruth’s awe-inspiring performances.

The 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris epitomized the spirit of competition. Richard Williams, a survivor of the Titanic tragedy, won a gold medal in Tennis doubles. Holding the games in Paris signaled to the world that the Olympics, which was attended by more than 1,000 journalists, was a major sporting event.

The Winter Olympics debuted in 1924, introducing a platform for winter sports excellence.

High angle view of a boxing match

In 1927, the “Fight of the Century” between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney captivated the world and redefined boxing as we know it.

Meanwhile, the roaring popularity of golf was exemplified by Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam feat in 1930, capping off the decade.

Notably, the 1920s laid the foundation for the sports landscape we recognize today, with the inception of major leagues, groundbreaking performances, and the birth of enduring sports traditions.

What Was the Black Sox Scandal?

The Black Sox Scandal of 1919 rocked the world of baseball, tarnishing the sport’s integrity.

Eight Members of the Chicago White Sox, including star players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, conspired with a group of professional gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

The eight "Chicago Black Sox" involved in the Black Sox Scandal
The eight “Chicago Black Sox” involved in the Black Sox Scandal by Underwood & Underwood

This shocking betrayal of fans’ trust exposed the darker side of professional sports. The scandal revealed a web of corruption and shocking greed that compromised the purity and sportsmanship of the game.

This scandal was so well known at the time, and F. Scott Fitzgerald even mentioned it in his novel The Great Gatsby via the character of Meyer Wolfsheim.

There was a trial for the involved players, and they would be forever banned from playing professional baseball, but this outcome cast a shadow over the sport’s reputation.

The term Black Sox refers to the dark and dirty nature of the game as well as being a play of words on the name of the team involved, the White Sox.

The Black Sox scandal stands as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of maintaining the integrity of sports and the need for stringent measures to prevent such unethical actions from occurring again.

Why Was the 1920s Called the Golden Age of Sports?

Vintage image of college football players in action on the field

The 1920s is often hailed as the golden age of sports due to an unprecedented convergence of factors that elevated athletic competition to new heights.

In the aftermath of World War I, there was a renewed sense of vitality and freedom reflected in the exuberant atmosphere of the era.

Technological advancements, such as the radio, enabled widespread broadcasting of sporting events that had previously only been available via newspapers.

Iconic figures emerged during this era, such as Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, and Bill Tilden in tennis, captivating the public’s imagination.

How Sports Impacted the 1920s

The 1920s also witnessed the formation of major professional leagues, like the NFL and the NBA, creating official sets of rules and setting the stage for today’s modern sports.

This decade marked the inception of the Winter Olympics, which were never held before, expanding the scope of athletic games. The winter games introduced sports, such as downhill skiing, that previously had only been considered fun pastimes.

Last, but certainly not least, societal changes – increased leisure time, the change of clothing styles, and urbanization – fostered a growing interest in sports, including spectator sports.

Vintage image of two women playing baseball

Before this decade, it was considered unladylike for women to show an interest or play in sporting events. Besides, their corsets and other restrictive clothing made it virtually impossible to engage in any form of sports.

With shorter hemlines and the loss of the corset, women felt more freedom to enjoy sports and show off their skills.

The 1920s spirit of rebellion and cultural transformation found expression in the sports arena, epitomized by the emergence of women’s sports and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Who Were the Important People in 1920s Sports?

black and white photo of Babe Ruth pitching for Boston
Babe Ruth pitching for Boston by Frances P. Burke

The 1920s introduced an illustrious cast of sports figures who left an indelible mark on their respective games.

In baseball, the one and only legendary Babe Ruth emerged as an iconic figure, revolutionizing the game with his prodigious home runs and charismatic personality.

Football saw the rise of Red Grange, known as the “Galloping Ghost,” whose electrifying performances helped legitimize the NFL and elevate football’s popularity.

Tennis fans idolized Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden, both instrumental in popularizing the sport globally.

In boxing, no one could top Jack Dempsey, who became a household name with his fierce style and compelling matches.

The Fairway Flapper Edith Cummings playing golf

Renowned golfer Bobby Jones achieved a Grand Slam in 1930, capping his illustrious career, and Edith Cummings career inspired the character Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby.

Who could forget how pioneering aviator and athlete Amelia Earhart captured imaginations with her aviation feats?

These names are still well-known 100 years later and will live on in history.

In Conclusion

The names of famous sports figures will live on forever, but let’s not forget that it was the humble radio that would cement those names in the minds of those living in this era.

Professional boxing, for example, was all but dead until 1921, when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had a live broadcast of a boxing match in Madison Square Garden between Jack Dempsey and George Carpentier.

Sports reporting and live radio broadcasts would catapult sports as the #1 American pastime in the 20th century.

Popular Sports In The 1920s: From Baseball To Boxing
Popular Sports In The 1920s: From Baseball To Boxing
Step into the roaring 20s with a dive into this decade's beloved 1920s sports era. Explore the frenzy of athleticism and culture that defined a generation.
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