Article Review: Soccer and Sport in a Company Town

 In Article Review, History, Soccer Scholar

Pesavento, Wilma J., and Lisa C. Raymond. “Men Must Play; Men Will Play:’ Occupations of Pullman Athletes, 1880 to 1900.” Journal of Sport History 12, no. 3 (1985): 233-51.

Initially, I envisioned these dives into the soccer archive as formal book and article reviews. As time passes and I’m finding myself with more time to write and read on soccer, I think something between the rigidity of an academic review and the informality of a blog post may suffice here. The casual tone of a reader encountering a wave of interrelated topics including sport, culture, politics, and regional histories is perhaps a bit more of an honest take.
That said, Wilma J. Pesavento and Lisa C. Raymond’s “’Men Must Play; Men Will Play:’ Occupations of Pullman Athletes 1880 to 1900” is a thought-provoking intersectional look at sport in the Gilded Age company town of Pullman, Illinois. Located on the South Side of Chicago, the town was organized for workers building railroad cars for the Pullman Palace Car Company.
Pesavento and Raymond’s article examines workers engagement in a variety of sports through the Pullman Athletic Club or the PAC. Workers participated in a vast array of athletics, including baseball, cricket, football, track and field, cycling, rowing, shooting, and soccer. The presentation of a landscape of athletic opportunities for men has been unique in my reading so far since there is a tendency to craft a mono-sport argument in one’s research. By looking at soccer as one of many options to Pullman workers this article has provided a unique insight into how soccer fit into the mindset of this community.
The most significant sports for Pullman athletes were cricket and track and field. Of the 530 Pullman athletes the researchers studied, over 150 played engaged in one or both of these sports. According to their research, baseball, cycling, football, rowing, shooting, and soccer had lower participation with between 15 and 54 participants (236). Pullman’s athletes utilized a twelve-acre field with abundant space for cricket, baseball, football, and soccer.
Drawing out the scholarly conclusions about soccer from the larger narrative of worker’s athletic engagement provides valuable insights into the sport’s early history in the Chicago-area and United States in general. The PAC did not field a team until 1891; while taking 1894 through 1897 off (238). The authors don’t provide explanations as to why teams begin and end play randomly. The research suggests that the recruitment of an unnamed but “noted” player from Toronto wasn’t enough to keep the team going. By 1897, the Pullman soccer team was a member of the Chicago Football Association and challenging for multiple local competitions, including the Jackson Challenge Cup.
My own research shows that Pullman FC ended up being a successful neighborhood club in the Chicago area after the period, 1890-1900, that Pesavento and Raymond studied. For more information about Chicago soccer and Pullman FC this Encyclopedia of Chicago has entry worth your time.
Back to the data provide by Pesavento and Raymond; Pullman athletes were drawn from every level of worker in the community. Fifty-eight percent were blue collar, twenty-four percent were clerks, while 7 percent were managers. Ten percent of the PAC athletes came from town businesses and workers not employed by the Pullman Palace Car Company (240). As Pesavento and Raymond note, “the great majority of blue-collar Pullman athletes, 75 percent, were skilled mechanics.” This translates to this subset being the most active in the sports of soccer along with baseball and cricket and least active in American football. The research also dives into the length of participation in sports, with soccer players playing no more than nine years. Of the 329 athletes, 22 played for only one year, 15 played from two to four years, while only 2 played beyond five years. Only cricket held players for longer tenures. As the authors explain “Soccer also experienced a relatively low turnover rate… Perhaps playing on the successful cricket and soccer teams kept these worker athletes in town working for the company” (247).
It is within this comment that the strength and weakness of Pesavento and Raymond’s study can be best understood. As researchers in the physical education field, this article is statistically dense and thorough. As non-historians looking into a historic period, it lacks a completeness, hinted at by their suggestion that perhaps successful sports clubs had kept players in town. The work here could, and should, be augmented with a developed understanding of the players, town, geography, and period. Simply providing data removes any hint of intention, coercion, or interest and leaves the reader wondering about the agency of each athlete.
Additionally, there is a complete absence of any mention of the 1884 Pullman Strike. The summer-long strike began in Pullman, Chicago is a critical turning point in labor law in the United States. The strike centered on issues central to life within the company town, as wages had been cut but rents and other costs had not. At its peak, it was a national strike that saw nearly 250,000 workers in 27 states, including 30 who died at the hands of railroad agents and their allies. This labor action would have had to severely effect athletics and community in 1894, a date in the middle of Pesavento and Raymond’s research.
These flaws could very well be hung on the nature and scope of Pesavento and Raymond’s research. As professors of physical education in 1985, the authors undoubtedly did the research they set out to do. This research, despite its shortcomings, provides a unique view into the turn of the century athletics at a time when men were transitioning from rural to urban life and sports were navigating a new path of masculinity in American society.

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