Skip to main content

The Navy Department Library

Related Content

Adapted from: Lewis, Jim. "Sports in the Navy: 1775-1963." All Hands 557 (June 1963): 2-7.

  • Heritage-Customs and Traditions
Document Type
  • News Story
  • Historical Summary
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
  • Image (gif, jpg, tiff)
Location of Archival Materials

Sports in the Navy: 1775 to 1963


By Jim Lewis, JO2, USN

Image of sailors participating in climb-the-rigging races.
Image of sailors participating in climb-the-rigging races.

Since those long-ago days when a Navy ship organized the first spontaneous "smoker," replete with boxing matches, or ran climb-the-rigging races over the bounding main, sports and athletics have been a highly important part of the Navy scene.

In a short time in the life of the youthful U.S. Fleet, it became apparent that, with a minimum of athletic and recreational gear, a lot could be accomplished in promoting a good time, good morale and esprit de corps.

It was far from an organized effort in the beginning - more of a "Hey, you guys on the USS Neversail, our whaleboat crew can beat yours across the bay any old time" type of thing. Or, the "Our old man can lick your old man" bit - which meant, in Navy lingo, something like, "We've got a fireman in our black gang who can whip the bell-bottoms off anybody you've got aboard."

But it was a beginning, and from it has evolved the Navywide undertaking we know today as the Navy Sports Program.

Some of the early sports activities came more under the heading of shipboard drills than actual sporting events. For instance, on a lazy day aboard a Navy frigate in the Caribbean in the early 1800s came the boatswain's call - "All hands reef topsails!" Sailors swarmed on deck. A reefing match was in the making.

"Man the top-gallant clew-lines and jib down-haul," shouted the first lieutenant through his speaking trumpet. "Stand by to furl top-gallant sails. Keep down, keep down there forwards! Not a man of you lay aloft till I give the order."

After a succession of rapid commands, the match was over and the winners announced.

A Ringer - Navy men slug it out on board USS California back in 1923.
A Ringer - Navy men slug it out on board USS California back in 1923.

If such an activity could not be called a "sport," it was certainly exercise - a physical conditioner that served also as a drill in seamanship flavored with the salt of competition.

At that time, boxing or just plain "slugging" bouts were clandestine affairs staged contrary to shipboard regulations and sometimes used as a means of settling personal grievances.

Boat races were held both for money and ship prestige. Challenges were rarely left unanswered. Typical was one issued by the U.S. store ship Relief, at Callao, Peru, in June 1841: "We the crew of the United States Ship Relief's first cutter, challenge the United States Frigate Constitution's lifeboat to run tomorrow at 4 p. m. for the amount of 11 dollars. Our commander has granted us his permission. Marshall Garth, Coxswain."

The ship's companies backed their teams to the hilt. Sometimes the ships themselves raced each other - a real feat of seamanship.

Early Navy sports records are quite vague, but we do know that at the beginning of the 1800s, "rigging races" were held. These races required contestants to scramble on a predetermined course through the mast and sail equipment.

Navy men test their fitness in manner reminiscent of sailing days (climbing rigging).
Navy men test their fitness in manner reminiscent of sailing days (climbing rigging).

But officers began to be concerned over the lack of athletics in the Fleet with the advent of steam and the end of the vigorous sailing ship days toward the end of the 19th century. Sailing ship sailors had to be as agile as stuntmen as part of their duty, while the steamship sailor was much more of a technician and less active physically. Sports-minded flag officers began to set up in their squadrons a series of sports and recreational pastimes with proper committees, rules and prizes.

In one squadron, around the turn of the century, a baseball league was formed between battleships. Out of it came an exciting and rugged schedule, with a series of 21 games played in a little over a month's time.

Competitive sports like these, Navy commanders felt, made physical conditioning more pleasant than compulsory drills which were usually engaged in half-heartedly and considered by the men to be more work than play.

To further these early beginnings of organized sports, a special appropriation of $5000 for "athletic exercises and sports," was included by Congress in the Navy funds for the fiscal year 1904. With the appropriation, the groundwork had been laid for a full-fledged Navy sports program.

At the same time, the Navy started to establish permanent athletic facilities ashore. The first athletic field now known to be completed was at the Norfolk Navy yard. It was part of a Bureau of Navigation (now BuPers) plan started in 1903. Norfolk's athletic plant consisted of a football field, baseball diamond, grandstand, cinder track, swimming pool and recreational hall.

Many trophies, symbols of supremacy with oar or sail, have come and gone. A few of the better remembered old awards are the Neese Trophy, a challenge cup for Atlantic Fleet whaleboats under sail; the Barnett Cup, donated by Major General Barnett, one time Commandant of the Marine Corps, for winning cutter crews; the Thanksgiving Challenge Cup, for whaleboat sailing among Asiatic Squadron crews; and the President's Trophy, at one time presented annually by direction of the President to the winner of the Winter Pulling Regatta of the Atlantic Fleet.

There was also the Chapin Racing Cup, given in memory of CAPT F. L. Chapin, USN, and the Coffin Cup, donated by Daniel M. Coffin for prize racing cutters. Still another was the San Pedro Cup, donated by the citizens of San Pedro, Calif., when the U.S. Fleet, in its voyage around the world stopped in San Pedro harbor in April 1908.

A cup which made its debut in 1906 and became the oldest trophy in continuous competition in American naval sports history was the Battenberg Cup. In May 1906, Rear Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, R.N, commander of England's second Cruiser Division, donated the massive trophy to the U.S. Navy. Although the name appears nowhere on the trophy, it almost immediately became known as the Battenberg Cup.

Sometimes also referred to as the "British Challenge Cup," this trophy posed a perpetual challenge for racing cutters of the Atlantic Fleet. Under the agreement, whenever a ship holding the cup would fall in with a British man-o'-war, she had to give the Englishman a chance to compete for the prize.

If the British ship won, her name would be engraved on the cup - but the cup was to leave the U.S. Fleet only once. As it turned out, only two British ships ever challenged a U.S. Navy ship to a Battenberg race and only one won. She was HMS Argyll.

The first U.S. ship to win the cup was Illinois (BB 7), in September 1906. She held it until May 1907 when Argyll won her victory. Louisiana (BB 19) took over in September of that year and the cup was thereafter held by U.S. Navy ships.

Finally, after West Virginia (BB 48) won the trophy in August 1940, the Battenberg Cup was taken out of competition. When that ship was placed out of commission in January 1947, the cup was taken into custody by the Special Services Division of BuPers.

While the Battenberg Cup was strictly a one-sport award, two equally famous but younger trophies are the Navy Department's pair of Iron Man Trophies awarded for general excellence in athletic competition.

On deck - Baseball team, USS New Hampshire, 1918, poses for photo.
On deck - Baseball team, USS New Hampshire, 1918, poses for photo.

The first Iron Man originated in 1919. It was originally known and inscribed as the "Navy Department General Excellency Trophy for Capital Ships of the Pacific Fleet." Because of the trophy's design, it was soon nicknamed the "Iron Man Trophy." When the second trophy came along nine years later, the well-known nickname was included in its inscription. Oddly enough, no comparable Iron Man has ever been inaugurated for ships of the Atlantic Fleet.

The three-foot Iron Man is a bronze athlete standing on the World and holding aloft a laurel crown, the ancient symbol of athletic victory.

The First Iron Man was awarded by COMSERVPAC on a system of points figured on the basis of participation and standings of athletic teams of ships of the Fleet.

The first to win it was USS Mississippi (BB 41) in 1919. She held the trophy until 1924 when California (BB 44) took it over for three years. Succeeding ships to win the trophy were (in this order): Tennessee (BB 43), Mississippi, West Virginia, Maryland (BB 46), Tennessee, West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada (BB 36) and Tennessee.

The Iron Man was withdrawn from competition during World War II. After the war, competition-minded Pacific Fleet sailors began to ask what had happened to the Iron Man. It was a tough question to answer.

Meanwhile, a government storehouse near the Nation's Capital had become the resting place for a sundry cargo of "homeless" pre-Pearl Harbor cups, plaques and other athletic awards. In early 1948, the thought occurred to someone that possibly the missing Iron Man might be among this collection. After a long and somewhat dusty search, not only this Iron Man was discovered, but the second one also.

Iron Man trophy Number One was dusted and polished and restored to Pacific Fleet competition. This time, though, the regulations governing competition for it were modified to include not only battleships, but any vessel of the Pacific Fleet.

As if in answer to the 21-year "capital ship" monopoly of the Iron Man, the trophy was won the first year of the new competition not by a "big ship," but by the destroyer tender USS Dixie (AD 14).

This was in 1949. In 1950, the first submarine ever to win it took possession when USS Sea Fox (SS 402) came through on top. On the books, Sea Fox remains defending champion, for the trophy was again withdrawn from competition when the Korean conflict broke out. For the time being, the Number One Iron Man is at COMSERVPAC headquarters at Pearl.

The Number Two Iron Man had been placed in competition in 1928 among cruisers, destroyers and aircraft squadrons of the Pacific Fleet. This trophy is now in the possession of the BuPers Special Services Division.

Pointed issue - Fencing in the Navy is a sport that dates way back.
Pointed issue - Fencing in the Navy is a sport that dates way back.

Then there was the Dryden Trophy for shooting. It was presented about 1903 by U.S. Senator John F. Dryden of New Jersey for annual competition under the auspices of the New Jersey Rifle Association and was open to teams from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and National Guard units of the states, territories and District of Columbia.

The most elaborate of all Navy trophies, old or new, is probably the Amoy Cup. Made of solid gold, it is valued at more than $5000. This vase-type cup of Chinese workmanship was presented by the Imperial Chinese Government at Amoy, China, on 3 Nov 1908 in commemoration of the visit of the U.S. Second Squadron of battleships during the cruise around the world.

It became a football trophy (and at times a baseball award) hotly contested for by Navy teams. Today, it is among trophies encased at the Naval Academy.

The President's Cup, donated in October 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge, was awarded annually to the winner of a football game in Washington's Griffith Stadium between teams representing the Army and Navy. This was distinct from the yearly West Point-Annapolis gridiron series.


Football stars from various naval and military establishments were selected to form the two service teams. Army won the cup the first year of competition with a 12-6 victory. The Marine Corps was permitted to enter competition after this, and for the next three years the Leathernecks from Quantico won the trophy - 20-0 in 1925, 26-7 in 1926, and 14-0 in 1927. Records of further President's Cup football games are out of circulation and the, final disposition of the trophy is also unknown.

Jumping Jack - Navy men of olden times hold track event at Great Lakes.
Jumping Jack - Navy men of olden times hold track event at Great Lakes.

Another trophy that deserves mention is the Leech Cup, presented by A. Y. Leech, Jr., through the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association for annual competition between teams composed of officers and men of the Army and Navy. In 1948, the Leech Cup gained a third competitor - the Air Force.

Leech Cup statistics show a total of 10 victories for Navy, four for the Army, and one for the Air Force. The Leech Cup competition was suspended in 1950. Many of these Navy trophies met a patriotic fate early in World War II when they went into melting pots throughout the country.

Competition for all these trophies was spirited. The honor a ship gained when it won a baseball, football or rowing championship was second only to the prestige that came if it won top honors in target practice and engineering competition.

In 1900, Navy Regulations made the following mention of athletics. In the section dealing with duties of commanding officers is the statement that COs "shall encourage the men to engage in athletics, fencing, boxing, boating, and other similar sports and exercises. Gymnastic outfits will be furnished by the Department to vessels requesting them."

Later, quarterly allowances were authorized for ships to use in purchasing athletic gear. In the 1920s, as sports and sports trophies came into their own in increasing numbers, the Navy Department announced that profits from the canteens (ships' stores) could be spent for the amusement, comfort and contentment of the "enlisted forces" and for the purchase of athletic equipment.

As for shipboard organization of sports, each captain was directed to appoint an athletic officer to be in general charge of all ship athletics. The captain also could appoint an officer-in-charge of each of the following sports: boat racing, football, baseball, track, swimming, basketball, boxing, fencing and gymnastics. Such officers would be assistants to the athletic officer and act as coaches for their respective teams.

Impromptu hockey games helped to keep these officers physically fit.
Impromptu hockey games helped to keep these officers physically fit.

In the early days, back in the 1800s and early 1900s, championships, especially in boxing, changed hands at the drop of an anchor. "Champeens" sprung up overnight. They became champs by virtue of having bested all comers in their own squadron, division or ship.

Ships' boxers gave exhibitions ashore whenever possible. It was considered (as today) that such bouts did much to publicize the Navy among young men. Shore activities also conducted boxing championships.

The Atlantic and Pacific Fleets enthusiastically conducted competitions, but All-Navy tournaments as we know them today were unheard of. Air transportation, of course, was still a thing of the future and our two fleets were separated not only by the North American continent but by some 14,000 miles of ocean via Cape Horn (the Panama Canal was not put into regular operation until 1914).

In 1908, during the cruise of the Great White Fleet, one of the largest athletic events in Navy history was staged at Los Angeles. It was a field day which included almost every sport popular at the time.

The nearest thing to our present All-Navy championship in any of the early Navy sports events occurred during fleet concentrations. When the ships got together for maneuvers, the athletes got together to prove their mettle.

In 1916, football championships of Atlantic naval activities (both ship and shore) were beginning to be held. Although varsity sports were the big thing, there was also competition for novices. This was the beginning of today's intramural sports program.

Also in 1916, a spirited Far Eastern baseball championship was conducted among Pacific Fleet units. The Torpedo Flotilla team from Manila traveled to Shanghai where they battled the team from the cruiser Brooklyn (AC 3). More than 30,000 fans watched the games, which saw the Brooklyn nine emerge the champions in the best-of-five series.

Splash - Sailors of the past hit the water in swimming meet held at USN Radio School, Cambridge, Mass.
Splash - Sailors of the past hit the water in swimming meet held at USN Radio School, Cambridge, Mass.

Although the U.S. was not to become actively involved in World War I until April 1917, ships and personnel had begun much earlier to concentrate on military preparedness. Emphasis on competitive athletics lessened proportionately. However, the entry of the U.S. into that conflict saw the influx of collegiate athletic talent into the Navy along with the active affiliation of many great names in the sporting world.

Despite the pressing attention to World War I matters, some of Uncle Sam's ships found time to engage in sports in foreign ports, much to the enjoyment (and often the amazement) of our allies.

The Navy is credited, for example, with showing the Egyptians their first football game. When the cruiser Des Moines (C 15) put into Alexandria, two elements from that ship went ashore to put on an intra-ship contest. But Des Moines sailors didn't restrict themselves to one sport. Some months later, the ship's athletes startled Egyptian sportsmen by winning that country's field hockey championship.

Navy teams were also instrumental in introducing and popularizing baseball in China, Japan, Hawaii and the Philippine Islands.

Old timers box on USS Minneapolis.
Old timers box on USS Minneapolis.

After the armistice in 1918, the Navy took a deep breath and settled down to take stock. The prewar physical conditioning had paid off in many ways.

It took a couple of years to get the ball rolling again, but 1920 came up a sparkler in Navy sports. It was an Olympic Games year. Many Navy eyes were turned toward the highly competitive berths on the U.S. squad.

The greatest Navy sports news of the year spread around the world under headlines announcing that for the first time in Olympic history an American crew had captured the eight-oared shell rowing event of the Olympiad. The winning crew was that of the Naval Academy - and it was the first time a Navy crew had been entered in the competition.

Not only did the Academy oarsmen sweep to their win by a good quarter-length, but they covered the course in a new Olympic record time of six minutes, two and three-fifths seconds. Another winning Navy crew was to show this prowess 32 years later as it won the rowing championship in the 1952 Olympics.

By 1921, the Navy Department had come to realize more and more that livewire athletic ships not only stood high in morale and ship spirit, but the same ships that habitually won top sports honors usually carried off the prizes in gunnery, engineering and navigation, too.

For example, in 1919, when Mississippi was in her heyday as a battleship, she became the first vessel to win the Iron Man Trophy. Mississippi defended the trophy successfully through 1923 and again held it during the 1929-1930 season. During all these years, Mississippi also won the fleet target and battle practice awards.

Probably the most significant sports event of 1921, as far as the Navy is concerned, was one which is now generally accepted as the most direct ancestor of All-Navy competition as it is known today.

It was this year that the top leather pushers of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets squared off in Balboa Stadium in the Panama Canal Zone to determine that year's "All-Navy" boxing champions. Although this event was unofficial as far as the Navy Department was concerned, it marked the beginning of an annual ring show that was staged every year (except for 1922 and 1928) until 1941. After the lapse during World War II, the staging of the annual fistic show was begun again in 1946.

Making sports history - LTJG Bob Beck wins medal in 1960 Olympics.
Making sports history - LTJG Bob Beck wins medal in 1960 Olympics.

From 1924 to 1941, Navy sports continued much along the same lines. Unofficial "All-Navy" contests became more numerous and Fleet units continued to acclaim their respective Navy-wide champs.

Not only was there an increasing emphasis on the encouragement of sports within the naval establishment, but more concern was being paid to the standards of performance.

During World War II, the progress of Navy sports from a competitive viewpoint was halted. The stress at training stations and in ships at sea, whenever practicable, shifted to physical conditioning. Athletic contests, because of their physical training and morale factors, were continued in so far as possible.

As in the first World War, there arose an urgent need for athletic specialists to carry out the Navy's physical training and welfare and recreation program. In April 1941, the Navy Department announced the appointment of CDR James J. Tunney, USNR, as Director of the Navy Physical Fitness Program. CDR Tunney is best known as "Gene" Tunney, the gentleman who won the world's heavyweight title from Jack Dempsey in 1926. Following Tunney, incidentally, as world champ was another ex-sailor, Jack Sharkey.

Softball pitcher Joe Lynch made All-Navy in past two years (1961-62).
Softball pitcher Joe Lynch made All-Navy in past two years (1961-62).

Tunney started his fighting career in the service as a Marine back in 1917. He was the unofficial light-heavyweight champion of the Navy before entering professional ranks.

Sharkey won the world's heavyweight title from Max Schmeling in 1932. Jack Sharkey also began his fistic career in the Navy, fighting for the battleship North Dakota (BB 29) and cruiser Denver (C 14) in fleet boxing championships.

Tunney and Sharkey were world champs, and down through the years, both before and since, the Navy has had its quota of top athletes. Lesser known perhaps, they have still demonstrated their prowess and sportsmanship at home and abroad.

A new crop is coming up in the widening field of Navy sports, and there are more opportunities for potential champions at various levels of competition.

At, the present time seven sports - basketball, volleyball, boxing, bowling, tennis, golf and softball - are included in All-Navy competition. Each is played according to recognized amateur rules. In addition to these, opportunities are present in numerous other programs.

Navy sports have come a long way from the days when sailors received their sports competition by clambering up and down the rigging of a ship.


Published: Fri Feb 01 13:00:47 EST 2019