Lacrosse is older than the printing press. Golf was invented before Abraham Lincoln was born, but basketball didn’t exist until decades after his death. The first book on figure skating was published before the Declaration of Independence.
Sports are as enduring and ever-evolving as society itself. Spanning from antiquity to the 19th century, here are the fascinating origins of seven of the most popular games.
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Basketball is the only major American sport with a clearly identifiable inventor. James Naismith wrote the sport’s original 13 rules as part of a December 1891 class assignment at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born and educated in Canada, Naismith came south to pursue his interests in physical education. Naismith sought to create a game that could be played in gyms during the winter. The first-ever basketball game was played on December 21, 1891. Read more
Closely related to two ancient English sports—rugby and soccer (or association football)—American football originated at universities in North America, primarily the United States, in the late 19th century. The man most responsible for the transition from the earlier rugby-like game to the sport of football we know today was Walter Camp, a.k.a. the “Father of American Football.” As a Yale undergraduate and medical student from 1876 to 1881, Camp played halfback and served as head coach, where he pioneered many of the rules and innovations that shaped the modern-day game. Read more
References to games resembling baseball in the United States date back to the 18th century. Like football, its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games: rounders (a children’s game brought to New England by the colonists) and cricket. In September 1845, a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One of them—volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright—would codify a new set of rules that would form the basis for modern baseball, calling for, among other things, a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines and the three-strike rule. Read more
Lacrosse, America's oldest team sport, dates to 1100 A.D., when it was played by the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois people, in what now is New York and areas in Canada bordering the state. The early versions of lacrosse matches played by Native American nations included hundreds of men and used wooden sticks, sometimes with net baskets or pockets attached, and small, deer hide-wrapped balls. Lacrosse continued to evolve in Canada, where it was named the national sport in 1859. In 1867, George Beers, a Montreal dentist, wrote the sport’s first rulebook. Read more
5. Figure Skating
The earliest evidence of ice skating dates to approximately 3,000 B.C., when inhabitants of Scandinavia and Russia filed and fashioned the shin bones of large animals such as horses, deer and sheep into skates for wintertime travel on frozen lakes and waterways. The technical discipline of figure skating developed in 18th-century Britain as people gained more time for recreational activities. In 1772, Englishman Robert Jones penned figure skating’s first instructional book, A Treatise on Skating, which offered directions on how to create shapes such as circles, serpentine lines, spirals and figure eights on the ice. Read more
The origins of ice hockey date to stick-and-ball games played during the Middle Ages or even ancient Greece and Egypt. Versions of the game evolved in 18th-century Europe and soon spread to Canada and the United States. The first organized ice hockey game, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, was played on March 3, 1875, between two teams of nine men each from Montreal’s Victoria Skating Club. Read more
Versions of golf were known to have been played in Scotland at least as early as the 15th century—one was played over large pieces of property and the other in the streets of villages and towns. In 1744, the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers wrote down the first rules of the game, known as the Thirteen Articles, for their tournament at the Leith Links in Edinburgh. Over the next 100 years, those 13 rules were adopted by more than 30 clubs, helping to formalize the sport we know today. Read more