William J. Ryczek has written a trilogy on the early history of baseball. Baseball’s First Inning, When Johnny Came Sliding Home, and Blackguards and Red Stockings cover the period from baseball’s beginnings through 1875.
In the 2014 World Series, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner came out of the bullpen to save Game 7 with five innings of scoreless relief. On just two days of rest, Bumgarner shut out the Royals on two hits, and it was considered a remarkable feat. The use of top starting pitchers in relief, which occurred fairly regularly during the twentieth century, had (due to high salaries, five-man rotations, and pitch counts) become a novelty in the twenty-first.
By the latter stages of the 1875 season, the National Association (NA) was teetering. In its fifth year, the league had become horribly unbalanced; the Boston Red Stockings were running away with the pennant and on their way to a 71–8 record, while at the bottom of the standings the Brooklyn Atlantics were staggering to a 2–42 finish. Four teams didn’t survive the season, there were numerous rumors of dishonest play, and in July, the Chicago White Stockings had signed Boston’s four best players for 1876.
For teams fighting for a pennant, the final weekend of the season is packed with tension and excitement. For those far out of contention, it is the end of a long grind and the anticipation of going home after an arduous, disappointing season.
Ed Runge was the patriarch of the only family to produce three generations of Major League umpires. He was an American League arbiter from 1954 through 1970, his son Paul worked in the National League from 1973 through 1997, and Paul’s son Brian was a Major League umpire from 1999 through 2012.
Since it was an even-numbered decade, the 1940s should have been a prosperous period for baseball, following the lean years of the Great Depression. Prosperity would have to wait, however, while America fought a world war and many Major League stars traded flannels for khakis.
Over the centuries, we have softened the words used to describe periods of financial distress. In the nineteenth century we called them “Panics,” in the twentieth they were “Depressions,” and in the twenty-first we refer to them by the benign “Corrections.” No matter what they’re called, the result is usually the same. People lose their jobs and businesses fail.
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.
In the 1880s, the prosperity of the National League had encouraged competition, and the success of the American and National Leagues during the first decade of the twentieth century likewise drew the interest of men who thought they could create a third major league. After a couple of abortive attempts—the Columbian League in 1912 and the United States League a year later—the Federal League came to life in 1913 and attempted to achieve Major League status.
The theme of the nineteenth century had been constant change, but the dawn of the twentieth brought stability; for 50 years, beginning in 1903, the two Major Leagues had the same 16 franchises in the same cities. The Federal League caused a brief disruption in 1914–15, but the league that provided balance for the National League was the American League, which acquired Major League status in 1901 under the leadership of a husky former semipro player and newspaperman named Ban Johnson.