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The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do [Hardcover]

Michael Mandelbaum
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 20 2004
One thinking fan explains to other sports fans and non-fans alike just what it is that draws us to America's most popular sports. In The Meaning of Sports , Michael Mandelbaum, a sports fan who is also one of the nation's preeminent foreign policy thinkers, examines America's century-long love affair with team sports. In keeping with his reputation for writing about big ideas in an illuminating and graceful way, he shows how sports respond to deep human needs; describes the ways in which baseball, football and basketball became national institutions and how they reached their present forms; and covers the evolution of rules, the rise and fall of the most successful teams, and the historical significance of the most famous and influential figures such as Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, and Michael Jordan.Whether he is writing about baseball as the agrarian game, football as similar to warfare , basketball as the embodiment of post-industrial society, or the moral havoc created by baseball's designated hitter rule, Mandelbaum applies the full force of his learning and wit to subjects about which so many Americans care passionately: the games they played in their youth and continue to foll

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From Publishers Weekly

Of all the sporting contests in the world, baseball, basketball and football are by far the most popular in America: millions of diehard fans dedicate countless hours to following these games on TV, in print and in person. But perhaps few fans know why they are drawn to one sport more than another, or why they feel such a strong affiliation to their favorite. In his ninth book, Mandelbaum applies the same tactical research skills that made him a leading authority on American foreign policy to chronicling the history of the big-three American sports, of the superstars who became household names and of the evolution of the rules of each game. Baseball, which experienced its great rise during America’s agrarian stage when the majority of the nation’s people lived in rural areas, plays to our longing for the pure, the outdoors, he says. When the country entered its industrial period, and many people worked in factories with extremely specialized jobs, football, a sport in which each player is assigned carefully specialized roles, began to evolve in American schools. Basketball, unlike the other more organic sports, was invented during the post-industrial age. Like the "knowledge workers" of that era-the economists, psychologists and designers-basketball required that athletes bring little equipment to the court. The author parallels each sport’s history with the history of our nation, explaining in textbook-like prose why each became popular and endured where other sports did not.
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"Not only fascinating but enormously entertaining. A knowledgeable sports fan will learn more than a thing or two. I'm one and I did. The non-sports fan will discover just why sports are woven so tightly into the fabric of American life." Wall Street Journal" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Michael Mandelbaum is not a sports writer. He's part of the Washington foreign policy establishment and a professor of International studies at Johns Hopkins University. So, while he is an academic he's neither an anthropologist nor a social historian. He is, obviously, an ardent sports fan. Knowing these facts helps to understand both why this book works and why it fails.
The book works superbly as an historical analysis. Even dedicated sports fans of the Big Three (football, baseball and basketball) will learn quite a bit about the development of their favorite sports as well as about the titans of the games that whose accomplishments fueled their growth. He also provides some interesting and unique insights as to turning points in the history of each sport and how the vortex of those turning points was so similar. For example, Ruth in baseball, Rockne in football and Hank Lusetti in basketball all provided an elevation point for their respective sports both by providing dramatic, interesting, charismatic personalities but also through feats that made the ball easy to see in dramatic fashion (Ruth with the towering home run, Rockne by popularizing the forward pass, Lusetti in inventing the jump shot).
The book is far less successful as a vehicle of social analysis. Mandelbaum uses allusion a lot as a means for evoking the social meaning of sport. I'm not aware that allusion is a key too of either social science in general or anthropology in particular. A comparative analysis that juxtaposes baseball with agrarian values, football with industrial and martial values and basketball with spectacularly ill defined "post industrial" values may have some illustrative value but fails as an analytical tool.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Superb! A great mind applied to a great subject July 15 2004
By A Customer
This is a brilliant book. I recommend it wholeheartedly to any sports fan, as well as to anyone who isn't a fan. It is a pleasure to read and you'll learn a lot about the culture of the United States, about human nature and about why people love sports. Beautifully written, as well. A great mind applied to a great topic.
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By A Customer
What a wonderful and unique addition to the world of sports publishing. Not only are there facts galore that educate even a highly knowledgeable sports fan, the insights and analysis are unparrelled. I could not put it down.
This amazing book by Professore Mandelbaum can be read on many levels (far more than I can probably grasp) and yet it appears approachable by anyone; be they sports fan, someone who questions why sports are important in our society, and even those looking for lessons on how to lead people or manage a business.
The contrasting of baseball, football and basketball provides a fascinating window on why we Americans are who we are today and how we got here. The interlacing of history with observations about how people operate in our society and within organizations is really amazing.
We love our football in Texas and Mandelbaum is right on in his analysis about football in every sense. He hits the mark on baseball and basketball as well. This book really makes you think, but gives so much in return that you come away feeling as though you just had a wonderful meal for your mind. I now enjoy watching sports more than I did before reading The Meaning of Sports.
I am going to read it again.
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