March 5, 2011


Baseball’s Loss of Innocence: When the 1919 Black Sox scandal shattered Ring Lardner’s reverence for the game, the great sportswriter took a permanent walk (Douglas Goetsch, Spring 2011, American Scholar)

While Lardner was establishing himself as a writer, the sport he covered was undergoing a transformation: from its 19th-century origins as a club sport among the aristocracy to the game of the masses. The phenomenon of a spectator sport of national proportion was new to America. Football would remain secular to collegiate life for decades, and the two other contenders, boxing and horse racing, operated under increasingly strict regulation. By the turn of the 20th century, every major American city had a major league baseball team—New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston each fielded two—and every substantial municipality had a minor league team. The rival National and American Leagues called “a truce” one winter and staged the first “World Series” in 1903. Major league baseball attendance rose steadily, from 3.5 million in 1900 to double that in 1908. That year the New York Giants alone drew nearly a million fans. Attendance rose throughout the 1910s and exceeded nine million in 1920.

But baseball had its problems. The sport was highly sensitive to the economic condition of the nation. The American and National Leagues were nearly bankrupted by financial crises in the 1890s, the recession of 1904/05, a panic in 1907/08, and another slump in 1915. The 1917 and 1918 seasons brought a severe drop in profits due to the war. More threatening were baseball’s internal struggles. Even after the American and National Leagues united, there was still the nemesis of the Federal League, which had ballparks and teams in some of the same cities as the majors, sucking away revenue and attendance. Additionally, there were constant battles among owners and players over contract issues that could alter the game radically.

There’s no surprise here: big money, big problems. What’s noteworthy is how organized baseball tailored its image—not as a business trying to survive and thrive, but rather as a “pastime” to be cherished and preserved. Enter Albert Spalding, the sporting-goods magnate who, in 1907, spearheaded a campaign to discover baseball’s roots. Spalding commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, which included two U.S. senators, to disprove those who held that the national pastime was a bastardized version of some snooty British game. The tale they came up with—of Union Civil War General Abner Doubleday inventing baseball one historic day in 1839 in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture, just off Main Street in Cooperstown, New York—would become part of American mythology. No matter that Doubleday would have had to be awol from West Point Military Academy on the day in question, or that his obituary informs us that he “did not care for or go into any outdoor sports.” No matter that baseball was in fact a bastardized version of a snooty British game—rounders—already nicknamed “baseball” in Tudor England, where two teams alternated between hitting and fielding.

Spalding’s blue-ribbon panel may seem silly, but in terms of public relations it was the stuff of legend. As soccer fans have repeatedly found out, mass spectator sports don’t catch on in America unless they are seen to have originated in America. The further association of baseball, once called “The New York Game,” with a pastoral setting (in a town named for the father of James Fenimore Cooper, no less) put it in perfect alignment with the progressives’ embrace of agrarian values—the notion that rural life provides a spiritual counterpoise to the degrading effects of city life. As historian Steven A. Riess points out, although the game was entirely an urban product, fans nevertheless “saw baseball as an extension of rural America into the cities.” Ballparks were “green oases in a largely concrete world . . . where spectators could readily slip back into an idyllic, rural past.” This rustic image was so important to Charles Wrigley, chewing-gum king and owner of the Chicago Cubs, that he prohibited the display of advertising in his park. Why spoil the best billboard you could have—the park itself?

Baseball owners had to be thrilled when their franchises were seen as a source of civic pride. The Dial magazine credited baseball with drawing the chaotic multitudes into “mystic unity” with the life of their city. Even the highbrow New York Times gave the sport its due: “Local patriotism is so rare with us that it is refreshing to see it manifested even about baseball.” The promotion of civic pride was in part a response to the growth of cities—the United States shifted from a mostly rural to a mostly urban population between the censuses of 1910 and 1920—and the disturbing sights of urban squalor. The rituals of spectatorship would, it was hoped, provide a kind of safety valve, giving vent to the pent-up anger and frustrations of those living in immigrant ghettos.

In the new Progressive Era lexicon, the cousin of civic pride was melting pot, a notion fueled by old-stock Americans’ fear of being overrun by a plurality of “alien cultures” and their hope of assimilating the immigrants. In a 1910 Baseball Magazine article titled “The Baseball Melting Pot,” sportswriter W. A. Phelon taps into this cocktail of fear and hope as he offers an afternoon at the ballpark as the panacea for assimilating “the seething mass of 40 different nations”: “The ball field is the real crucible, the melting pot wherein the rival races are being mixed, combined and molded to the standards of real citizenship and the requirements of the true American.” Phelon thought that baseball would teach “the lessons learned by pioneers and yeoman farmers.” That’s ridiculous, of course. But when baseball successfully marketed itself as our national pastime, and when revered writers such as Ring Lardner used athletes to elucidate a moral code, the ridiculous yielded to the mythological.

The presentation of baseball as a public institution belonging to the fans, as opposed to a lucrative industry run by private entrepreneurs, is one of the great public relations stunts in the history of American business, which continues to this day.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 5, 2011 1:18 PM
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