This virtual exhibit highlights dozens of different sports, professional and amateur athletes, and monumental moments in American athletics as depicted on U.S. postage stamps.
- Introduction: Playing To Win
- Youth Sports: Where It All Begins
- America's Baseball Heroes
- Baseball's Home Run Record
- "Take Me Out To The Ball Game"
- American Football
- The Super Bowl: America's Most Popular Sports Event
- Basketball's Origins & Creator
- American Golf
- American Tennis
- American Boxing: From Dempsey To Marciano
- Thoroughbred Horse Racing
- The Olympics: All Americans On The Same Team
- 1896-1908 Olympic Games
- 1912 Olympic Games
- 1920 & 1932 Olympic Games
- 1932 Summer Olympic Games
- Jesse Owens At The 1936 Summer Olympics
- 1960 Summer Olympic Games
- 1972 Olympic Summer and Winter Games
- 1980 Olympic Summer Games
- Miracle On Ice At The 1980 Winter Olympics
- 1980, 1992, & 1994 Olympic Winter Games
- Special Olympics
- Physical Fitness
- Extreme Sports
- World Cup Soccer
Introduction: Playing To Win
The opening of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece on August 6, 1896, marked the beginning of a new era in international sports. Even though these first Olympic Games took place thousands of miles from the shores of the United States, competitive sports and athletic activities have dominated American life ever since. The continuing importance of athletic activities in American culture and daily life makes numerous facets of professional and amateur sports perfect subjects for U.S. postage stamps.
Youth Sports: Where It All Begins
Greatly outnumbering professional athletes, millions of non-professional youth athletes participate in thousands of different sports leagues and teams around the nation. The passion and dedication demonstrated by young athletes every day while practicing and playing their chosen sports illustrates the true origins of America’s fascination with professional sports. Fittingly, the first American postage stamp to depict a team oriented athletic event in action featured kids playing a sandlot game of baseball. This stamp, the 3-cent Baseball Centennial Issue, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the creation of baseball by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” ~Actor James Earl Jones, as Terrence Mann in the 1989 film Field of Dreams
America's Baseball Heroes
America’s long lasting connection to the game of baseball is demonstrated through the range and scope of United States postage stamps dedicated to this great sport. Since the first U.S. postage stamp highlighting baseball was released in 1939, forty-eight different U.S. postage stamps featuring famous players, stadiums and important moments in professional baseball have been issued.
The first four professional players to be honored with their own postage stamp are undoubtedly among the most monumental players to have ever stepped onto a baseball field. Cumulatively George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig and Roberto Clemente Walker have played on thirteen winning World Series teams, slammed 1,584 homeruns, achieved over 10,000 hits and maintained a .328 batting average. The conduct and accomplishments of these legendary players cemented baseball in the American consciousness unlike any sport before it.
The 33-cent Roberto Clemente stamp was issued July 6, 2006 as part of the Legends of Baseball issue.
Baseball's Home Run Record
One of the most coveted records in professional sports revolves around home runs in the game of baseball. New York Yankees player Babe Ruth embodied the roaring 1920’s as he lead the Yankees to six American League Pennants and three World Series Championships. During the 1927 season, Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, the most of any player during a single season to that point in professional Baseball history.
Baseball's Home Run Record
In 1961, another New York Yankee named Roger Maris eclipsed Ruth’s single season home run record by a single home run. Maris’s sixty-one home run record would remain in place longer than Ruth’s, lasting until St. Louis Cardinals player Mark McGwire hit seventy home runs during the 1998 season. The race between McGwire and Chicago Cubs player Sammy Sosa to beat Maris’s single season home run record in 1998 captured the attention of the American public. In 2001, San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds broke McGwire's record with seventy-three home runs in a single season.
"Take Me Out To The Ball Game"
"Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game."
The home stadium or arena where a particular team plays in any professional sport becomes a part of the personality, experience and history of that team. Baseball stadiums were the first large athletic structures built in the United States for continuous use by a single professional sports team.
In addition to baseball, the game of football gained popularity at all levels of competition from youth to professional leagues throughout the twentieth century. One of American football’s most famous coaches at any level, Knute Rockne, achieved greatness as the head coach of the University of Notre Dame’s football team between 1918 and 1930. Rockne’s innovation and coaching skills combined with the athleticism of his players including the legendary offensive quartet, the Four Horsemen, led Notre Dame to six national championships and five undefeated seasons.
As football gained popularity in the United States from the 1930s onward, Rockne and his team set an example of hard work, focus and desire for victory that has inspired generations of Football players and coaches ever since.
The Super Bowl: America's Most Popular Sports Event
The championship game in professional football, the Super Bowl, has in recent years become the most watched event in American sports. Since the first Super Bowl matchup in 1967 between the American Football League's Kansas City Chiefs and the National Football League's Green Bay Packers (coached by Vince Lombardi), the Super Bowl games have forever since crowned season champions, crushed teams’ final hopes and affirmed team dynasties.
Basketball's Origins & Creator
James A. Naismith, a native of Ontario, left Canada in 1890 for a position as a physical education teacher at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. While there, Naismith was asked to invent a new sport for young men that could be played in the winter off-season between the end of football and the beginning of baseball in the spring. The game that Naismith invented in 1891 was basketball.
Naismith's basketball was based on aspects of a favorite childhood game known as “Duck on a Rock,” as well as elements of soccer, lacrosse, and football. The result was a skillful, less aggressive game suitable for play indoors. In explaining the process of inventing the game, he said, “We simply recombined the factors of the old and made the new.”
Basketball soon exploded in popularity and Naismith received great acclaim for his work.
Basketball's Origins & Creator (cont.)
As the new sport rapidly spread to every YMCA in the country, the landscape of sports in America was changed forever. But Naismith continued to refine the game and to teach its play to both young men and women. In 1898, he was hired as the first basketball coach for the University of Kansas. It was here that he tutored some of the most important names in basketball lore, including Forrest “Phog” Allen. As a disciple of Naismith, Allen would pass the torch as standard-bearer for the game to legendary coaches Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, who in turn mentored coaches Pat Riley and Larry Brown, guaranteeing basketball’s place in American culture.
Naismith, after serving in the US military, became a naturalized American citizen in 1925. The Basketball Hall of Fame, which was dedicated in 1959, was named in his honor. Today, Naismith’s legacy lives on through the game of basketball, which is played in almost every country of the world.
"It took me seventeen years to get 3,000 hits. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course." ~Hank Aaron, 1971
Baseball player Hank Aaron who in the Summer of 1974 broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career homeruns, expressed frustration (illustrated in the quote above) about the game of Golf. This deceivingly difficult game has mystified many and at the same time captured the attention of millions around the world in the modern era of sports.
American audiences’ widespread fascination with Golf began in 1913, when a twenty-year old American named Francis Ouimet ably assisted by his ten-year old caddie, Eddie Lowery, won the 1913 U.S. Open Golf Championship in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ouimet’s incredible victory came after beating legendary British golfer and five-time British Open Champion Harry Vardon and British golfer Ted Ray, winner of the 1912 British Open Championship, in a three-way playoff. Francis Ouimet’s lifelong role as a great player and ambassador for the game made him one of the most important American golfers of all time.
A few years after Ouimet’s U.S. Open victory another golfer, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, proved that America's presence in the game of golf was just beginning. Bobby Jones’s most important accomplishment to that end was his Grand Slam victory by winning all four major Golf Championships in the same year, including the 1930 U.S. Open, British Open, U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur.
The game of tennis, similar to golf, has its origins in the United Kingdom. Tennis is played by millions around the world. Professional tennis has four major championships held on three continents, the U.S. Open, Wimbledon (held in Britain), the French Open and the Australian Open.
Though specifically honored on a 1990 25-cent postage stamp for her status as a gold medal winning Olympic athlete, tennis player Hazel Wightman was most famous for her dominance of women’s tennis between 1909 and 1929. During that period, Wightman won numerous U.S. Championships in the singles, doubles and mixed doubles categories. Her influential presence in the tennis world continued as a competitor until the mid-1950s and an ambassador for the sport until her death in 1974.
Arthur Ashe, one of the most influential professional American tennis players to have ever lived, became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam Tennis Tournament at the U.S. Open in 1968. Ashe spent considerable time working for civil rights and other philanthropic causes. He died in 1993 at the age of forty-nine from AIDS which he contracted from a blood transfusion. In 1997, the new main stadium of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament was named after Arthur Ashe.
The 37-cent Arthur Ashe stamp was issued August 27, 2005.
Thoroughbred Horse Racing
In 1973, a two-year-old, twelve hundred pound Caroline County, Virginia born Thoroughbred racehorse named Secretariat cemented his place in sports history after winning the Triple Crown. This achievement is composed of three important races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. At the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat set a new track record with a sub-two minute first place finish. At the Preakness Stakes, Secreatriat moved during the race from last to first place and finished first with a new track record time. At the Belmont Stakes, Secreatriat completed his Triple Crown victory with a thirty-one length margin of victory setting a new world record for that distance. The 1973 Triple Crown victory along with his other career achievements firmly cemented Secretariat's place in sports history as the most important non-human athlete of the twentieth century.
The Olympics: All Americans On The Same Team
Since the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896, the United States has hosted eight Olympic Games, four Winter Games (1932, 1960, 1980 & 2002) and four Summer Games (1904, 1932, 1984 & 1996). A plethora of monumental moments in the history of American sports have occurred during Olympic events. Many of these Olympic moments, competing athletes and events have been highlighted on American postage stamps.
1896-1908 Olympic Games
The United States placed second (behind the host nations) in the total medal count in the first two Olympic Games (1896 & 1900). In the 1904 Olympic Games, the first to be hosted by the United States, the American team dominated almost every event.
One American athlete, Ray Ewry, distinguished himself in three consecutive Olympic Games between 1900 and 1908. Ewry achieved the longest distance in the Standing Long Jump event and the highest height in the Standing High Jump event in each of these Olympic Games. His gold medals in the 1900 and 1904 Standing Triple Jump event brought Ewry’s career medal count to eight and solidified him as one of America’s most important early Olympic Games athletes.
1912 Olympic Games
Jim Thorpe, a Native American and one of America’s greatest athletes of the twentieth century, came home a hero after winning gold medals in the traditional Pentathlon and Decathlon events at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe became the first athlete to win both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at a single modern Olympic Games.
1912 Olympic Games
One of Jim Thorpe’s U.S. teammates at the 1912 Olympics was a twenty-seven year old U.S. Army Officer named George Patton who competed in the Modern Pentathlon event. Though overall Patton competed with great skill in most of the event, his efforts were not enough to place for an Olympic medal. Fortunately for the United States, history remembers Patton better for his service during World War I and as the Commanding General of the U.S. 7th Army (1943) and U.S. 3rd Army (1944-45) during World War II.
1920 & 1932 Olympic Games
The 1920 Olympic Games held in Antwerp, Belgium, marked the first time in the Modern Era that the host country did not achieve the highest medal count by the conclusion of the Games. The United States’ overall first place ranking by medal count at the 1920 Games included a gold medal won by boxer Eddie Eagan. Twelve years later, Eagan competed in the four-man bobsled event in the first Winter Olympic Games hosted in the United States at Lake Placid, New York. Incredibly, Eagan along with his teammates succeeded in placing first in the event and earning an Olympic gold medal. Eddie Eagan is the only American to win a gold medal in a Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
1932 Summer Olympic Games
Two American women made their mark on American sports history at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles California. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, a Renaissance Sportswoman, competed in the Women’s Javelin Throw, 80-meter Hurdles and the High Jump. Zaharias won a gold medal in the first two events and a silver medal in the High Jump event. Following the Games, among competition in other sports, Zaharias began playing in amateur golf tournaments. In 1947, she was the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship and three years later, Zaharias helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LGPA). By the time of her death in 1956, Babe Zaharias had achieved fifty-five amateur and professional tournament wins including three U.S. Women’s Open victories. Additionally, Zaharias received the Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year Award a record six times between 1932 and 1954.
1932 Summer Olympic Games
The second American woman who excelled at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games was swimmer Helene Madison. Competing in the Women’s 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle and the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, Madison won gold medals and set Olympic or world records in each event. Her dominance of Women’s swimming before the 1932 Olympic Games earned her the first Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year Award in 1931.
Jesse Owens At The 1936 Summer Olympics
"I always loved running - it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs." ~Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens
Believed by many to be the most important American Olympic athlete of the twentieth century, Jesse Owens' remarkable achievements at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany foreshadowed the Allies eventual triumph over the Axis Powers in World War II. Although frail and sickly as a child, Owens developed into a strong runner, winning national high school titles in three events. Pursued by dozens of colleges, he chose to go to Ohio State University, where he worked his way through school. Following tremendous success at the 1935 Big Ten Championships including the setting of three world records in track and field events, Owens began preparations for the 1936 Olympics.
Jesse Owens At The 1936 Summer Olympics
At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens stunned the world by capturing four gold medals in track and field (100-meter, 200-meter, long jump and 4x100-meter relay events). Owens became the first American track and field athlete to garner four gold medals in a single Olympic Games. It was not until 1984, almost fifty years later that another American track and field athlete, Carl Lewis, would match Owens’s record.
The 32-cent Jesse Owens stamp was issued September 10, 1998 as part of the Celebrate The Century: 1930s issue.
1960 Summer Olympic Games
Suffering as a child from polio, Wilma Rudolph overcame incredible odds to compete as a member of the U.S. Team at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. After winning three gold medals in sprint events (the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4-x-100-meter relay events), Rudolph was dubbed "the world's fastest woman."
Rudolph, who also won a bronze medal in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, was inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. After retiring from competition, Rudolph worked as a teacher, track coach, and sports broadcaster. She also founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to promote community-based, youth-oriented athletic and academic programs. In her honor, the Women’s Sports Foundation annually presents the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award to a female athlete who exhibits fortitude, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and inspiration.
Miracle On Ice At The 1980 Winter Olympics
Going into the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the Soviet Union’s hockey team was favored to win the gold medal. This outcome would not have been surprising since the Soviet team had won the gold at five of the past six Olympic Winter Games. In comparison to the U.S. team, the Soviet team was seemingly unstoppable as it included numerous former Olympic champions and individual players considered by all to be the best in the world.
The 1980 the U.S. hockey team, lead by coach Herb Brooks, was composed entirely of amateur players whose toughest level of competition took place at the inter-collegiate level. Doubts about the American team’s chances to beat the Soviets at the Olympics or even to win a medal were intensified following a ten to three victory by the Soviets over the Americans in a pre-Olympics exhibition game at Madison Square Garden.
Thirteen days later, the American team’s hard work and determination paid off on February 22, 1980, when the Soviet players looked on in disbelief (after winning every game leading into the medal round), as the game-ending buzzer sounded and the American team celebrated their incredible “miracle-like” four to three victory.
At the beginning of 1980, the Soviet Union’s power appeared on the rise and American hostages were still being held in Iran. The U.S. hockey team’s underdog triumph over the Soviets ignited the hope and optimism of an American public desperate for a sign of strength and better things to come. The “Miracle On Ice” victory of the U.S. Hockey Team over the Soviets is considered one of the most remarkable moments in the history of Olympic and American sports.
In 1968, the Chicago Park District and the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation sponsored the First International Special Olympics Games for one thousand participants. Since then, it has grown into the largest program for sports training and athletic competition in the world for mentally challenged persons. Today, with the assistance of hundreds of thousands of volunteers worldwide, more than 3,000,000 children and adults participate in year-round athletic programs.
A 22-cent stamp commemorating the Winter Special Olympics was issued March 25, 1985 in Park City, Utah.
In 1972, ice skating became the first winter sport to be added to the roster of Special Olympics events. At that time there were only a few participants. By 1977, winter sports competition had grown to the stage where it was possible to hold International Winter Games. Along with the addition of more participants ahs come the inclusion of more sports. The athletes not only compete in ice skating, but also figure skating, speed skating and numerous alpine and cross country skiing events.
Since the first U.S. postage stamps with a sports theme were issued in 1932 to commemorate the U.S. hosted Olympic Winter and Summer Games, the United States has issued hundreds of stamps depicting athletic activities enjoyed by Americans. The following images feature a small sample of the stamps related to American sports and athletics that have not already been included in this online exhibit.
The 1983 Physical Fitness stamp recognized the increasing enthusiasm of Americans for attaining and maintaining good physical health. The stamp draws attention to all forms of exercise, sport, and physical fitness activities. Since runners are a recognizable symbol of the modern fitness movement, the designer, Donald Moss of Ridgefield, Connecticut, chose to depict one female and two male joggers dressed in appropriate running attire. Behind the runners appears a white wavy line representing an electrocardiograph tracing. It graphically depicts the changes in electric potential of the currents that traverse the heart and initiate its contractions.
Norman Todhunter designed the 1965 Physical Fitness-Sokol stamp issue inspired by the statue of a discus thrower that stands near the State Department in Washington, DC. It was issued to publicize the importance of physical fitness and for the centenary of the founding of the Sokol (athletic) organization in the United States.
Beginning in the 1990s, Extreme Sports, a new form of adreneline-flowing high risk, yet physically demanding set of athletic activities took off in popularity among young Americans. Extreme sports include snowboarding, inline skating, skateboarding, BMX biking. The widespread participation and interest in these types of athletic activities has its roots in the organization and promotion of the X Games by the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN).
World Cup Soccer
In 1994, the World Cup Soccer competition came to the United States for the first time. The tournament brought together twenty-four national teams for fifty-two games over a one-month period to determine a world champion. The games began on June 17 in Chicago's Soldier Field and concluded July 17 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
The souvenir sheet includes the three stamps set on a background image of a United States map. Identified on the map are the nine US cities where the games were played. Listed across the top and bottom of the sheet are the twenty-four countries that compete in the games.
Playing To Win: American Sports & Athletes On Stamps
Alexander T. Haimann, Collections Specialist, Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
I would like to extend my thanks to MJ Meredith and Marty Emery, for their careful assistance in reviewing and editing the text of this online exhibit. Additionally, I would like to thank my fellow Web Team members Bill Lommel and Christine Mereand for their support throughout the work on this project.
Finally, this exhibit would not be what it is today without the encouragement and sports enthusiasm of my close friend Adam Jacob, my brother Clifford Haimann and longtime teacher Gordon Powell.