What Is a Sports Historian?

A lawyer friend told me that, on his first day in Boston College Law School, the dean told a convocation of first-year students, "We can teach you only two percent of the law in your three years here. But we will teach you how to look up the other 98 percent."

That's the secret to being an "expert" of almost any kind: Knowing how and where to look something up.

When someone finds out I'm a sports historian, they almost always ask something like, "What was Ted Williams' batting average in 1941?" or "Who was the MVP of Super Bowl 23?"

Now, I'm fairly good at sports trivia and trivia in general, but that's a product of a lot of reading on a wide variety of subjects and a fairly retentive memory. It has nothing to do with my role as a sports historian.

If I need to know who won Super Bowl XXIII (as the National Football League insists on calling it)—or which team won any Super Bowl, or any game in any season, for that matte—r-I know exactly where to find it.

But, as a sports historian, I'm not particularly interested in who won a Super Bowl. I'm much more interested in the events that led to the creation of the Super Bowl in the first place and in the historical, social, and technological factors that have made it a national extravaganza.


Yes, technological. Technology has often had a big impact on sports, and not just by producing better materials for equipment, such as the replacement of the gutta percha golf ball with the rubber core ball.

To cite one major example, baseball became the first important professional sport starting in the 1870s because of several technological developments:

  • Railroads made intercity travel much easier for teams and sportswriters.
  • The rotary printing press made the mass-circulation newspaper possible, so people could read about their teams.
  • The telegraph system allowed sportswriters to wire their stories about away games back to the team's city so fans could read them the very day.

That's very vague because that's all I know off the top of my head. But, because I am a sports historian, I know exactly where I'd go in my personal library if I needed to find specific information: Harold Seymour's Baseball: The Early Years, David Quentin Voigt's American Baseball. Vol. 1: From Gentleman's Sport to the Commissioner System and John R. Betts' America's Sporting Heritage, 1850—1950.

See what I mean? I know how to look it up.