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The Roaring Twenties

Baseball in the 1920s
By William Ryczek, January 5, 2017

Original artwork by Joey Enos.

Baseball seemed to prosper in alternate decades, and thus it was due for a boom during the 1920s. The pattern was not coincidental, for the health of baseball was heavily dependent on the state of the U.S. economy, and the 1920s were very good years for American business.

The decade began unpromisingly, as the Black Sox scandal was uncovered just before the end of the 1920 season and the trial took place the following summer. In the wake of the scandal, in November 1920, the owners hired Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as baseball’s first commissioner. The Black Sox episode, the war, and flat attendance had scared them, and they realized that the three-man National Commission, which had been baseball’s ultimate authority since 1903, was too burdened by the self-interest of its members to lead the sport out of the wilderness. They wanted a strong man, and Landis, although physically slight, appeared to be that man.

Landis was not new to baseball, having presided over the antitrust suit brought by the Federal League in January 1915. During the trial, Landis expressed his admiration for the game of baseball and, by declining to issue a decision, effectively put an end to the third Major League, for the longer they had to wait for help, the more money they lost. It’s said that “justice delayed is justice denied” and that is what Landis did to the Federal League, which ingratiated him with American and National League owners.

Landis served until his death in 1944, and none of his successors would have the power he wielded for nearly a quarter century. With the concurrence of the owners, Landis was an autocrat, which suited his dictatorial personality. By 1944, the owners weren’t as frightened as they’d been in 1920, and they made it clear that Landis’s successors, the first of whom was Happy Chandler, were employees of the owners. If they chose to exercise authority, they did so at their peril.

Landis added credibility to the game, but it was an offensive explosion that made the 1920s an exciting decade. The ball was a little livelier than it had been in the past, and it was replaced more frequently, before it became discolored and mushy. The spitball and similar pitches were outlawed in 1920, but it was not just rule changes that sent more runners across the plate. There was one man who made the home run the most exciting play in baseball, and that person was George Herman Ruth.

Yankee slugger Babe Ruth prepares to bat during the 1920 season opener at the Polo Grounds.

Since the 1850s, Henry Chadwick, baseball’s leading journalist throughout the nineteenth century, preached scientific batting, and denigrated slugging as selfish and ineffective. Placing the ball and trying for singles was scientific and characteristic of a team player. Chadwick’s logic persisted for decades, with managers playing for a run at a time, utilizing heady strategy rather than looking for men who could hit the ball over the outfield fence.

Babe Ruth changed the way the game was played, and in the opinion of this writer, he was the greatest player of all time. Like John Montgomery Ward, Ruth was one of baseball’s best pitchers at the beginning of his career. He won a total of 47 games in 1916 and 1917 and finished his mound career with a 94–46 record and a 2.28 ERA. Unlike Ward, he was not driven from the mound by a sore arm; Ruth was simply too good a hitter to play just every fourth day.

In 1918, splitting his time between pitching and the outfield, he led the American League with 11 home runs. Moving to the outfield full-time in 1919, he hit 29, 54, and 59 home runs the next three seasons.

With the exception of the 1884 season, when Chicago had a ridiculously short right field fence, no one had ever hit more than 24 home runs in a season. Fifty-nine home runs were more than twice that—equivalent to Roger Maris breaking Ruth’s mark by hitting 148 home runs in 1961. It wasn’t just a new record, it was a different dimension. Moreover, the year Ruth hit 59, no other AL team hit more than 50.

Ruth was a swashbuckling hero made for the 1920s. He was big, he was loud, and with the press carefully cultivating his image, Ruth became one of the most famous men in America, the rare idol who transcends their field. Ty Cobb was a baseball hero; Ruth was known to virtually every American, and many foreigners, regardless of whether they were baseball fans.

With Ruth and his home runs leading the way, the Yankee dynasty that would last for over 40 years began with the team’s first pennant in 1921. They followed with flags in 1922, 1923, 1926, 1927, and 1928. Winning led to financial success, and in 1920, the Yankees became the first Major League team to draw more than a million fans in a season. They topped the million mark eight times during the decade, a feat no other AL club was able to accomplish even once.

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Baseball fans flocked to the ballpark in the 1920’s, particularly New York fans. More than 300,000 turned out to see the Yankees take on the Giants in the 1923 World Series.

Success breeds imitation, and managers began to change their offensive thinking. Home run hitters became heroes, and players began to swing for the fences. In 1919, NL teams combined for 207 home runs and American Leaguers hit 240. By 1929, the total had increased to 754 in the NL and 595 in the AL, led by the Yankees with 142. The more wide-open style of play reflected the freewheeling jazz age; would F. Scott Fitzgerald have played close-to-the-vest “small ball?”

Fans had money in their pockets due to the strong economy, and they liked the new style of play. Total attendance increased from 6.5 million in 1919 to 9.1 million in 1920 and remained around that level for the rest of the decade. Fans that didn’t go to the ballpark could follow their team from home, for in August 1921, station KDKA of Pittsburgh broadcast a Major League game on radio for the first time. Like many things, radio scared the owners, who worried that fans would choose to listen to games rather than buy tickets. They didn’t understand the added publicity radio could bring, and they certainly didn’t anticipate the revenue that would eventually accrue from radio and television rights.

The 1920s also saw the growth of African-American baseball leagues. No African-American had played in the Major Leagues since 1884, but there were a lot of talented black players on barnstorming teams that played independently. Just after the turn of the century, there were a few attempts to organize leagues composed of black teams, but by the time of the First World War, none remained. In 1920, Rube Foster, a former pitcher, manager, and owner of the Chicago American Giants, formed the Negro National League (NNL). The same year, the Negro Southern League came into being, and three years later the Eastern Colored League was formed by white New York promoter Nat Strong.

This panoramic features the Hilldale Club versus the Cuban Stars in the 1927 opening game of the Eastern Colored League.

The Southern League was a secondary circuit, and Foster and Strong’s leagues had the best players. Existence was precarious, capital was in short supply, and while the white Major Leagues featured the same franchises year after year, the Negro Leagues experienced an almost constant changing of the guard, sometimes in midseason. Foster tried to have as many black-owned franchises as possible, and in the first year of the NNL, only one of his owners was white.

Many clubs played in stadiums used by white teams and could play there only when the primary tenant was on the road. In addition to their league schedules, Negro League clubs played numerous exhibition games, sometimes almost as many as they played against league teams. They bought portable lighting systems and played night games long before it was common practice in white leagues. Negro Leaguers were entertainers, and often performed pregame routines similar to those of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, playing to the stereotype held by many whites.

In late October 1929, a couple of weeks after the Athletics beat the Cubs in the World Series, the stock market collapsed. Baseball’s pattern of alternating decades of prosperity and hardship would continue in the 1930s. Major League teams would suffer but survive, but the Negro Leagues, precarious even in good times, would not.

Baseball Magazine, December 1929

 

 

 

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