Believe it or not, sports were not permitted in Central Park when it opened. It was a place to stroll and relax, but but not to play. The website centralparkhistory.com explains:
The reasons why lay in the transformation of popular sports, particularly baseball, just at the moment the park was being built. In the 1850s New York and other large cities experienced an athletic boom; interest burgeoned in cricket, prizefighting, boating, ice skating, gymnastics, foot racing, horse racing, and especially baseball… The ball clubs saw the new park as the answer to their dreams, but Olmsted and the board began to wonder whether their presence might prove, instead, to be a nightmare. In May 1861 the commission rejected the applications of baseball clubs for use of the park.
If the park board would not allow baseball and cricket clubs, what was to be done with the playgrounds that had been in the plans from the start? After nine years of intensive discussion… the commissioners restricted the playgrounds to schoolboys who could produce a certificate of good attendance and character from a teacher. And even these exemplary lads found the fields open to them only three days of the week. Working-class youths were largely excluded, since relatively few of them went beyond elementary school in this period. A year after the commissioners opened the fields to schoolboys, they made a similar arrangement for girls. In 1867 they permitted schoolgirls to play croquet on the lawns three afternoons each week.
So kids were allowed to play on the lawns, but adults wouldn’t be permitted to play until the 1920s. Here in 1910, we can see a proposal for tennis courts, a bowling green, and football field in the North Meadow, plus a running track around the reservoir. The article explains that these are all contrary to the park’s purpose:
The Committee on Statuary, Fountains, and Architectural Structures… found that if any portion of the Park was set aside for such special purposes the ground that could be used by children for their general play would be curtailed, and it was decided that it was more important to provide wide open spaces than special playgrounds.
If you compare the proposed map with the North Meadow as it appears today, you can see that the western tennis courts are exactly where they were proposed. The meadow itself now has several baseball and soccer fields. The track around the reservoir is one of the most popular places for runners in the park. And kids can play whatever they want no matter how bad their school attendance may be.
FIFTY YEARS FIGHT TO KEEP CENTRAL PARK FROM INVASION: Since Back in 1859 Just After It Was Established Vigilance Has Been Necessary to Keep the Great Playbround from Being Used for Special Objects (PDF)
From July 10, 1910