The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age

  • By William Lanouette
  • Lyons Press
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jay Price
  • April 23, 2021

A detail-rich — if somewhat flat — look at a brief era when scullers were superstars.

Among modern American spectator sports, rowing is right up there with badminton, dressage, or the luge — Olympic curiosities we might catch a glimpse of on television once every four years, but only if the runners, gymnasts, swimmers, and volleyball players all have the day off.

Asked to identify a rower by name, the best the average sports fan is likely to come up with is one of the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, onetime Harvard scullers portrayed in the movie “The Social Network” as a pair of blueblood snobs who famously let Mark Zuckerberg outmaneuver them for control of the social-media platform that becomes Facebook and are condemned to spend the rest of their lives whining about it while nonetheless becoming Bitcoin billionaires.

But, as author William Lanouette, who comes to his subject matter with the sensibilities of a onetime collegiate and club rower, instructs us in The Triumph of the Amateurs, it wasn’t always this way.

In post-Civil War America, rowing was for a time the most popular spectator sport in the country. Professional rowers made a handsome living, and a rowing economy grew up around the sport, with regattas in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and steamboat and railroad companies ferrying enthusiasts to less-populated venues. When a few of America’s top oarsmen crossed the Atlantic to challenge Britain’s best, 750,000 spectators cheered from the banks of the Thames.

Plus, you could bet on it, which first proved to be the driving force behind the sport’s runaway growth, and later, the bane of its existence.

In retrospect, it was only natural that in any group of men working on boats — whalers, fishermen, or even ferrymen moving passengers and cargo on the nation’s harbors, rivers, and lakes — there would be a few anxious to test who was fastest among them, racing for a beer or bragging rights.

Just as natural, too, was that once the watermen in one locale identified a champion, it was only a matter of time until their peers in the next boatyard or town (or, in time, the next state or even a neighboring country) would issue a challenge of their own. And as the interest and accompanying publicity for these matches grew, so the stakes would grow accordingly, from that post-race beer or a silver cup to purses of hundreds, then thousands, of dollars.

Lanouette straps a portion of his narrative to the strong back of one such champion: John Biglin, the son of Irish immigrants trying to scratch out a living in post-Civil War Manhattan. Once he and others like him realize they can make as much by winning a single race as their laborer peers might earn in a year, a new class of professional athlete is born, bound, for better or worse, to ride the whirlwind as the money men — betting syndicates, gamblers, and assorted “sporting men” — insinuate their way into the sport.

Biglin goes whole years without losing a race, and others without racing at all, his reputation such that rivals avoid competing against him and syndicates are reluctant to bet against him. He is, in those instances, too good for his own good.

And then, perhaps just as predictably, it all goes sideways, as even the best rowers succumb to the pressures to cheat to win — or to lose, depending on which way their backers are betting that day.

In short order, once the newspaper and magazine writers turn a spotlight on the growing corruption, the big regattas decide the pros aren’t worth the trouble, and the gamblers find new places (like baseball and horseracing) to lose their money. The sport is left to the college boys, and “professional rowing” becomes a phrase from the ever-more-distant past.

For a sport so long out of the limelight, rowing has spawned some fine books, most recently The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s story of a bunch of working-class kids from Depression-era Washington state who row their way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and join Jesse Owens in exploding the myth of Adolf Hitler’s “master race.”

This isn’t that.

It’s not The Amateurs, David Halberstam’s account of the solitary struggles and sacrifice of four single scullers trying to qualify for the 1984 Olympics, either. Unlike Halberstam, who was able to spend countless hours in conversation with the men he was writing about, Lanouette is limited by what he can know about long-dead protagonists who, when living, were hardly given to introspection, much less keeping personal journals or writing lots of long, revealing letters.

What Lanouette and, thus, we are left with, aside from some handsome portraits of scullers from the artist Charles Eakins, and a trove of prints depicting 19th-century races — or, more often, scenes of spectators crowding the shore, with a few racing shells in the far distance — is a compilation of newspaper and magazine accounts of the day, a few of which may even be true.

The end result is a sometimes-bloodless accounting of races won, lost, stolen, and thrown, along with a cataloging of almost cartoon-level dishonesty and villainy, capped by the absurdity of two of the last of the old breed, Charles Courtney and Ned Hanlan, who spend a season alternately fixing races, backing out of them, and trading insults. In one painful exchange, Hanlan, who could’ve been talking about any number of contemporaries, calls Courtney a liar, a skinflint, and “almost a cheat.”

“I’m going to do everything I can,” he says, “to force you out of this profession which you have disgraced with your dishonest practices.”

Armie Hammer, the controversial Hollywood actor who — with the help of a body double and some CGI wizardry — unleashes the wrath of both Winklevoss twins on Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” couldn’t have said it any better.

Jay Price, a longtime sports columnist for the Staten Island Advance, is retired and living in Manasquan, New Jersey, where he coaches high school football.

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