When I was a kid, I used to pore over an illustrated history of American sports that I had received as a birthday gift. The oversized, hardcover book featured some of the iconic images of 20th-century sports: Lou Gehrig standing humbly at home plate on his day of tribute, teammates present and past encircling him, the packed bleachers and Bronx cityscape in the background; an exhausted and bloodied Y.A. Tittle kneeling on the gridiron grass on an afternoon of defeat; young Wilt Chamberlain, still in his uniform after the game, displaying a sheet of paper scrawled with “100”; Jesse Owens exploding into a sprint at the Berlin Games. But the image in the book that most captivated me was not a photograph. Instead, it was a painting: George Bellows’ 1924 oil of Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey through the ropes in the first round of their fight at the Polo Grounds. I remember studying the colors, the scramble in the ringside seats, the passive expression of Firpo as he follows through his punch, and the unbelievable scene of Dempsey (who would then—even more unbelievably—go on the win the fight) falling from the ring. The painting remains for me an example of how art can capture the drama, the sounds, and the power of a sporting moment.
Allen Guttmann offers many examples of the crossing of art and sport in Sports and American Art from Benjamin West to Andy Warhol (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011): pastoral scenes of hunters and fishermen in the early republic, the accomplished paintings of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins in the mid-19th century, and the pop art portraits of celebrity-athletes in the 1970s. But the book is not simply about sports in art. Instead, Allen looks at the parallel histories of these two forms of cultural expression. The similarities are surprising. As Allen points out at the start, both art and sports have no utilitarian value to society: “They serve no practical purpose.”
Allen’s work is built on decades of writing about sports history, and a career of teaching American cultural history. You get a glimpse of his expertise and insight from the interview. But you don’t get to see the pictures. For that, you have to get the book.