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.
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:
Semi-professional and professional athletes:
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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