Thomas Pauly

Athletes to remember

Book explores stories of five champions who transformed sports

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12:11 p.m., May 2, 2012--Thomas H. Pauly's new book, Game Faces: Five Early American Champions and the Sports They Changed, discusses a handful of athletes from before World War I who were famous in their day but now have been largely forgotten.

After completing a 2005 book about Zane Grey, the University of Delaware professor emeritus of English planned to write another biography, this time about a major athlete. When his early research turned up several promising possibilities, he decided to make his book a collection of mini-biographies instead.

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Game Faces, published in April by the University of Nebraska Press, reconstructs the careers of bicyclist Tom Stevens, mountain climber Fanny Bullock Workman, Harvard football coach Bill Reid, tennis champion May Sutton and race car driver Barney Oldfield.

Over the course of writing these chapters, Pauly said, he realized that the remarkable accomplishments of the five athletes also constituted prime examples of a major transformation that sport was undergoing at the time.

"I thought that all five of these athletes deserved to be better known, and as I researched them, I discovered that their careers were linked by a common theme," he said. "During the era of their fame, from the 1880s until 1914, sport was rapidly evolving away from leisurely recreation -- play -- and toward strenuous, commercialized competition."

Pauly also was intrigued by the way in which these athletes' sports were already approximating those of today. "People today often complain that money has corrupted sport," Pauly said. "Well, during this period money was already integral to sport. People were realizing that money could be made from athletic competitions -- from ticket sales to news coverage. That's something we take for granted today, but it was a new development at the time."

Although the athletes featured in Game Faces competed in different sports, Pauly explained that each was a major contributor to this unfolding change. Stevens, in the late 1800s, became the first person to ride a high-wheeled bicycle around the world; Workman made seven expeditions into the Himalayas, setting altitude records for women climbers; Reid, as football coach at Harvard, was instrumental in saving the sport from a national movement to abolish it in 1905; Sutton held numerous tennis championships and was the first American woman to win at Wimbledon; and Oldfield's aggressive driving style made motor car racing both popular and endangered.

"I undertook this book because I believe that sports history is becoming an important field," Pauly said. "I think interest in the subject will grow, especially in the early years which have been overlooked and little discussed. I was very pleased when Harvard Magazine accepted an abbreviated version of one of my chapters for its April issue."

Before retiring last year, Pauly taught American literature at UD, specializing in the period from the Civil War to the 1960s, and directed the American Studies Program for 10 years. He is the author of Zane Grey, His Life, His Adventures, His Women; Maurine Watkins's Chicago and her Chicago Tribune Articles that Inspired the Musical; and An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture.

Article by Ann Manser

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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