Athletic Ancestors? Relive Their Glory Days

by Sunny McClellan Morton | May 9, 2012

There's a star athlete in every clan, if you believe what you hear at family reunions. Grandpa played wide receiver for The Ohio State University; a cousin pitched three years in the minor leagues; Aunt Lou led her high school basketball team in rebounds the year they went to state.

How can you research these tales of glory? Winning touchdowns don't exactly show up on census returns. But that touchdown may have been the highlight of grandpa's youth. Your story of his life isn't complete without it. So it's worth getting your game on to learn more about his.


Home-Run Heritage

Within the past hundred years, numbers of everyday and professional athletes have multiplied dramatically. So have records of all that sweating: news clippings, yearbook photos, awards, race registries, statistics logs, local histories, etc. You may possibly learn when a relative played, for what team or organization, what position, how well they performed, what they wore, names of fellow athletes, and what kind of recognition they received.

Follow these strategies for winning results whether you're researching a high school sport, city touch football league, or pro baseball.

Press your home court advantage. Gather stories and memorabilia from relatives. Dig through every source at hand: letters, diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, obituaries, school papers, biographical summaries, photos and more. Scour dusty shelves and attic boxes for trophies or plaques. Ask every relative what they recall, even if it's a minor detail. Every clue can lead you to more information.

For example, my mom and her siblings recall that their dad lettered in football at Pueblo Central High School in Pueblo, Colorado. They estimate he would have graduated about 1942. My mom recalls seeing a yearbook photo showing my leather-helmeted young grandfather along with the rest of his team. My uncle recalls that "his knees were seriously beat up from football injuries," and that his team "either made it to state or won state for his division while he was playing."

This information--school name, location, approximate date, sport, and a hint of championship success--is excellent kickoff material. Now move on to the next play.

Read the sports pages. You've likely checked local newspapers for obituaries in the past; now turn to the sports section! Separate sports pages began appearing in newspapers in the 1890s, and became more common as "watching the game" became an American pastime. Papers without dedicated sports sections still reported scores and highlights of amateur and professional games.

Use your historical newspaper sleuthing skills to find mentions of your relative's team, league, race, etc. Even small-town newspapers have been digitized these days; you'd be surprised at what you might find. Community softball, baseball, football and other leagues may have their games reported at the back of the sports section in an agate (rows or columns that give a quick rundown of scores and stats). High school sports are often covered with highlights and commentary, particularly when a local star is emerging, team rivalries are strong, or championship status is on the line.

Archives.com's collection of over 100 million newspaper pages includes coverage of Pueblo Central football games from my grandfather's era. (No Pueblo city papers are listed, but the nearby Greeley Daily Tribune reported games from the opposing side's point of view.) My uncle recalls that "dad went directly from high school graduation to volunteering for the Army Air Corps for WWII; all his friends were getting drafted, so he already knew it was coming." The newspapers from the fall of 1942 report high school football scores alongside war news, a grim reminder that a 17-year old offensive tackle was a scant few months from a very different kind of front line.

Not all newspapers are digitized, of course. Try to access collegiate papers or other small-run newspapers in a local archive or on microfilm. When browsing back issues, remember that each sport has a season and often a consistent schedule within that season, and the same newspaper will likely report that sport in a similar fashion each time. Once you determine the rhythms of the sport and its coverage, you can focus your browsing more effectively.

Take your game to the next level. Hometown sports events sometimes appear in published local histories. Where a particular sport has a proud local presence, you'll likely find a book on the topic in Arcadia Publishing's Images of Sports series . Additionally, athletic organizations and various archives keep records of sporting events. Try these resources for...

High school and collegiate teams:

  • On-line yearbook collections may include individual or team photos. Check out yearbook sites at classmates.com, e-yearbook.com, and old-yearbooks.com. A 1942 yearbook at Classmates.com shows my grandfather with his team and reports a single loss in an otherwise victorious regular season.
  • Alumni associations, school administrative offices, collegiate archives and sports information departments, historical societies and even local libraries may have collections with photographs, memorabilia, team rosters, and even statistics for individual games or players.
  • State or national athletic associations often have information about championship games or tournaments. For example, the Colorado High School Activities Association website reports that Pueblo Central took state in football in 1938 and 1944. These wins and the 1942 news articles support my uncle's memory that my grandpa played on a strong team. State associations may have other interesting information, like the Illinois High School Athletic Association's on-line archive of Historical Articles about Illinois High School Sports.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association Library & Archives in Indianapolis, Indiana has records of championship games and record-setters. Their records reach back to the late 1890s for football, early 1900s for basketball, and at least the 1950s for most other sports. Contact them through the NCAA office to make research requests. There is a noncomprehensive player database at ncaa.org for several men's (1947-2009) and women's (1981-2007) sports.
  • If your relative played early intercollegiate football, tackle Spalding's Official Football Guides. Original copies are rare; find 1892-1940 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Archive & Information Center. Some years, both eastern and western editions were published; look for a tiny "E" or "W" on the cover.
  • Female athletes were fewer in number before Title IX legislation passed in 1972. That year, less than 300,000 girls participated in organized high school sports; today, around half of girls participate. That said, basketball was a popular intramural sport for girls throughout the 1900s. After the late 1960s, it's more common to see girls' softball (or "indoor baseball" as it was called in the early years), soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, track, swimming, tennis, etc. Where specific resources don't exist, turn to fascinating sources like Shattering the Glass: The Dazzling History of Women's Basketball from the Turn of the Century to the Present by Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford (UNC Press).

Community sports:

  • If your relative played with a community league, try to determine its name (look on awards or check newspaper reports). If the league is still around, contact whoever is in charge of it now and ask where old records and player statistics might be.
  • Ask at local repositories whether any memorabilia relating to that league is in their collections or on display anywhere in town. "Anywhere in town" might include a community or recreation center, trophy shop, or even a sports bar with a lot of local pride.
  • Community sports leagues may be part of a larger organization, like the Amateur Softball Association of America or the United States Flag & Touch Football League. Look for championship game results (but not individual player statistics) from these organizations.
  • Do you want to confirm someone's participation in the Boston Marathon? The Boston Athletic Association lost many of its records during the Great Depression and in a 1960s fire. But in the very early years, when the race field was small, participants and/or finishers may be listed in the newspaper; search Archives.com's Historic Newspaper Archive for the year in question (also search the keywords "American Marathon"). Race record books for much of the 1980s-90s can be searched at the Boston Public Library.

Semi-professional and professional athletes:

  • Warm up with preliminary research on minor and major league baseball players at baseball-almanac.com. A database of all players listed in Official Baseball Guides (plus some who are not) includes batting and pitching statistics. Inexpensive research services are offered through this site. For a major workup on major leaguers, contact the research center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Their three million plus documents and half million photographs purportedly include files on anyone who has ever played a major league game.
  • The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Archives & Information Center in Canton, Ohio claims "the largest and most comprehensive collection related to the history of professional football." Their holdings include thousands of individual player files on microfiche, as well as team files and game summaries.
  • Got an NBA star on your family tree? Confirm the rumor at the National Basketball Association's Historical Player Search at nba.com. There is an NBA Digital Media Archive that contains all filmed games, but it is not currently available to the public.
  • On-line player biographies are common for the pros. They're not necessarily accurate or well-cited, but may serve up information you can verify someplace else, or an author contact who might have more data on-hand. So enter the player's name and sport in your web browser and see what you find.

The Recap

Obviously, I haven't mentioned every sport out there, nor have I covered the above sports thoroughly. But you can use the same concepts to tackle other sports records. Your resulting research will create champion accounts of your athletic ancestor's sweat and skills.


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