Baseball in the Great Depression

By Chuck Fiebernitz | Apr 14, 2012

A very large crowd crossed over the Hudson River to watch the New York Knickerbockers play the New York Nine in a Hoboken, New Jersey waterfront park called Elysian Fields in the first officially recognized baseball game.
It was a sunny Friday afternoon on June 19, 1846, and the Knickerbockers lost, 23-1. Over the next 84 years, the game of baseball had spread to every city, town and village in this country. Its popularity rose by leaps and bounds and it even survived a civil war, a world war and a couple bouts from the influence of gamblers.   
But our National Pastime came of age and really defined itself during a period when our nation struggled through economic hardship on an enormous scale.
During the Great Depression, which started in late 1929 and lasted until the early 1940s, organized baseball underwent a multitude of changes that changed its structure and how it operated.
The Great Depression consumed the country as one in every four wage earners, more than 15 million Americans, were unemployed. Attendance dropped significantly as in one case, the St. Louis Browns Baseball Club, averaged just 1,500 fans per home game at Sportsmen’s Park
The Browns, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Braves and both Philadelphia teams, the Phillies and the Athletics, nearly went out of business. Even players’ salaries fell as well.
Though baseball never shut down, it wasn’t immune to the problems of the Great Depression. Millions of fans couldn’t afford the 50 cents to buy a ticket. But they also couldn’t give up on baseball and many fans still found a way to buy a ticket, watch an afternoon game and purchase one, five cent hot dog. For most, the hot dog would be their only meal for that day.
It was desperate times that called for desperate measures and baseball stepped up to the plate, along with so many of its stars, to save the game.


The first measure taken by baseball was Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward’s idea of a midsummer exhibition game.
Ward sold his idea to coincide with the celebration of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. It was called the Major League All-Star Game. The first all-star game was played on July 6, 1933 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the home of the Chicago White Sox of the American League.
The American League defeated the National League, 4-2, and for 79 years, the “Midsummer Classic” has remained a fan favorite showcasing the top talent in baseball.

Despite the struggles of the nation, the 30s saw a bounty of talent that helped baseball survive. In the American League, it was the aging Yankees, but the National League, a collection of colorful personalities unlike any in baseball at the time emerged in 1934 called the “Gashouse Gang” of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The term really stuck when the Cards won the 1934 World Series. The nickname was a way the baseball writers and fans described the enjoyment with which they seemed to play the game, along with the aggressive attitude they took that always seemed to give them dirty uniforms.
Prominent members of the “Gashouse Gang,” who were from working class backgrounds, included player/manager Frankie “Fordham Flash” Frisch, Joe “Ducky” Medwick, James Anthony “Ripper” Collins, Leo ‘the Lip” Durocher, Johnny Leonard Roosevelt “Pepper” Martin, the Dean brothers, Paul Dean and his infamous brother Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean.

Baseball also decided in order for the game to survive, it needed to go international in hopes of transforming our National Pastime into a Transnational Pastime.
In November, 1934, a group of American all-stars — led by Babe Ruth — toured the country, playing 18 games against Japanese teams.
The success of the tour sparked the creation of the first professional baseball league in Japan, setting the stage for a long history of baseball talent coming in and out of the Land of the Rising Sun.

In 1936, baseball —and notably National League president Ford Frick — established a National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Cooperstown was chosen because it was said to have been the site of the creation of the game by Abner Doubleday (but we know the truth).
The first Hall of Fame class, the class of 1936, was made up of Detroit Tigers’ Ty Cobb, Pittsburgh Pirates’ Honus Wagner, Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson, New York Giants’ Christy Mathewson and New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth, who had retired the previous season.


Whether as rookies, stars in their prime, or legends on the wane, the 30s were filled with the game’s greatest players. The legends still playing the game were Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Gomez, Dizzy Dean, Charlie Gehringer and Mel Ott.
However, the star power of the game in the midst of the Depression never dwindled when the legends retired as more of the game’s greatest stars broke into the game to take the mantle from their predecessors.
The first was Detroit’ first baseman Hank Greenberg, who was in 1930 the youngest player in the majors at 19.  He would become the greatest Jewish professional baseball player.
In 1936, two players broke into the big leagues. Pitcher Bob Feller, a 17-year-old kid who broke into the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians, striking out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first game and 17 Philadelphia A’s just a few weeks later, a then-American League record.
In addition, sensational rookie outfielder Joe DiMaggio, who would become one of the all-time greats, was a rookie for the Yankees. He helped lead the Bronx Bombers to four straight championships in his first four seasons.
Joltin’ Joe was followed in 1939 by Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams, who arguably was the greatest hitter in the game.

Because of struggles with attendance during the Depression, owners sought new ways to draw crowds. Larry McPhail, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, came up with two ideas that not only helped sell tickets, but revolutionized the game.
First, to draw fans to the Reds’ games, he put up lights at Crosley Field to play at night.
The first night game was May 24, 1935, as the Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1.   
The next ten years, every ballclub in the nation would have lights with the exception of the Chicago Cubs, who wouldn’t install lights in Wrigley Field until 1988.
McPhail also champion regular broadcast of baseball games live on the radio. Radio broadcasts of baseball games helped sell tickets everywhere they went, and became the standard for baseball in America.
In 1935, Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis saw the benefits of McPhail’s idea and orchestrated a radio deal that covered the World Series. All three networks were involved, and baseball made $400,000.
Radio grew quickly as a medium for baseball.

We are reminded every day of baseball’s extraordinary measures it took in the face of the Great Depression.
We still break for the Midsummer Classic, we still preserve the game’s greatest in an American history museum called the Hall of Fame, the percentage of Major League Baseball players born outside the United States, which includes Japanese players, in 2012 rose to one of its highest levels ever, the majority of baseball games are played at night and we still follow our favorite teams by radio and by television.
Even in 2012, 83 years after the crash of the stock market, baseball is filled with great figures, and they are still coming from large and medium size cities, high schools, suburbs, college campuses, farms, small villages and now foreign lands.
As I have said before and will say many more times, it’s just the beauty of baseball.