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The history of modern sports: Four of the most popular games today, that looked totally different in the past

All of the sports you enjoy today have looked a lot differently in the times  they were invented. You will be surprised how much things have changed in some of your favorite sports. People used to wear different uniforms (or didn’t wear one at all), the balls were different as well as the rules and regulations.

Let’s take a look at 5 of the most popular sports today and see how they have changed and transformed in the shape that is known to us today.

1. Baseball

For those who are not familiar with it, Baseball is basically a bat-and-ball game played between two teams of nine players each, who take turns batting and fielding. The batting team attempts to score runs by hitting a ball that is thrown by the pitcher with a bat swung by the batter, then running counter-clockwise around a series of four bases: first, second, third, and home plate. A run is scored when a player advances around the bases and returns to home plate.

The origin of the Baseball can be traced back to some European games that were similar to the modern game. The game was and still is mostly popular in the USA.  According to some historical records, the first known American reference to baseball appeared in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791. It was mentioned in a town law that prohibited Baseball being played around the town meeting house. A lot of windows were probably broken around the town hall.

It is officially agreed that the beginnings of the modern game of baseball are back in 1845 when Alexander Cartwright – a member of the New York Knickerbockers club – introduced the modern set of rules for the game. Modern baseball rules were made according to the rule playbook of the “New York Knickerbockers”. This rulebook established game-play and also banned some of the common allowances in the game, like “soaking” and “plugging” rules that let outfielders “out” runners by pelting them with the ball. That must have hurt! The first officially recorded game played by the new rules happened the next year, in 1846.

Alexander Cartwright, the father of modern baseball / photo credit: Wikimedia commons
Alexander Cartwright, the father of modern baseball / photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Baseball became most popular in the 1860’s – mostly during the civil war – and even then reporters called it “America’s pastime activity”

2. American Football

American football (often referred to as football in the United States and Canada) is a sport played by two teams of eleven players on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end. The offense, the team with control of the prolate spheroid-shaped football, attempts to advance down the field by running with or passing the ball, while the team without control of the ball, the defense, aims to stop their advance and take control of the ball for themselves. The offense must advance at least ten yards in four downs or plays, or else they turn over. the football to the opposing team; if they succeed, they are given a new set of four downs. Points are primarily scored by advancing the ball into the opposing team’s end zone for a touchdown or kicking the ball through the opponent’s goalposts for a field goal. The team with the most points at the end of a game wins.

An unknown early American football team

American football was primarily played in the American colleges and universities during the 19th century as a variation of soccer football and rugby. According to the official NFL website, the first American football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton college teams, on November 6, 1869. For this game, they used modified London Football Association rules. In the next 7 years, after gaining more popularity in the big eastern schools, rugby was chosen as the model for the development of modern American football. This allowed the players to carry the ball.

Walter Camp, the father of modern American football / Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

In 1876, during the Massasoit convention the first official rules for American football were determined. This is when Walter Camp, who is considered as the father of American football, started playing the game. In the 1880s and 1890s, he established the snap, eleven-player teams, and the concept of downs which all together formed the modern American football.

3. Soccer (association football)

More commonly known as football, soccer is a sport played between two teams of eleven players with a spherical ball. Today, soccer is being played by 250 million players in over 150 countries, making it the world’s most popular sport. The game is played on a rectangular field with a goal at each end. The object of the game is to score by getting the ball into the opposing goal.

The goalkeepers are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands or arms while it is in play and only in their penalty area. Outfield players mostly use their feet to strike or pass the ball, but may also use their head or torso to do so instead. The team that scores the most goals by the end of the match wins. If the score is level at the end of the game, either a draw is declared or the game goes into extra time and/or a penalty shootout depending on the format of the competition.

Children playing a game of cuju

Soccer has a long history. The oldest known evidence of a similar game like this comes from China. According to FIFA, a game called cuju (蹴鞠, literally meaning “kick ball”) is the earliest form of football (soccer) game that is recorded in history. Cuju players could use any part of the body, except their hands, to pass or kick the ball through an opening in a net. This game was very similar to modern football, although it also reminded of rugby. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), cuju games were standardized and rules were invented for it. This Han Dynasty ancestor of football was called, “Tsu’ Chu” and it consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm wide, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes.

There were also two ancient Greek ballgames similar to football (Phaininda and Episkyros) and Romans too played a similar game called Harpastum. All of this games involved playing with hands and also they were pretty violent. They have more resemblance with rugby, wrestling, and volleyball.

An early soccer team / Photo credit: FIFA

Modern soccer beginnings can be traced in England at the moment when the rugby association and football association split off in a different direction. The Football Association of England was formed in 1863 and it automatically became the first official institution of the sport. The rules of football today are based on the 19th-century rules that were made to unify all of the different game styles played in English schools at that time.  The Cambridge Rules, that were established at Cambridge University in 1848, were very influential in the development of the modern game, including association football.

Early rules were of course  very different from today. For example the rules about offside. Today, no more than three offensive players can advance ahead of the ball. Back the beginning, none could!


4. Basketball

Basketball is a sport played by two teams of five players on a rectangular court. The objective is to shoot a ball through a hoop 18 inches (46 cm) in diameter and 10 feet (3.048 m) high mounted to a backboard at each end. A team can score a field goal by shooting the ball through the basket during regular play. A field goal scores three points for the shooting team if the player shoots from behind the three-point line, and two points if shot from in front of the line. A team can also score via free throws, which are worth one point after the other team was assessed with certain fouls. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.


James Naismith, the father of basketball, holding a peach basket and a soccer ball Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a physical education professor and instructor at the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School (YMCA), developed an early form of basketball with a soccer-like ball and peach baskets. He invented this in order to help athletes condition themselves and stay in shape during the winter months when training was not possible outside. The peach baskets were used until 1906 when they were finally replaced by metal hoops with backboards.

The first official basketball game was played in the YMCA gymnasium in Albany, New York, on January 20, 1892. There were nine players on the field. In 1897–1898 the standard of the game became a team of five. The game started to draw attention and soon Springfield College accepted it and built the first basketball court.

The first basketball court at Springfield College / Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Basketball started to spread around the country, through YMCA colleges, and in 1989 the first league was formed, with six teams in it. This league lasted for only six years, but very soon new college leagues were formed and the sport started developing and gain more popularity. Eventually, basketball became professional, and in 1949 NBA was created.

The Yale basketball team in 1896

Source: 1, 2, 3

Boban Docevski

Boban Docevski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News