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.
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.
The discord sowed by the owners in the late 1880s erupted into full-scale rebellion in 1890. The first seeds of discontent had appeared in 1885, with the formation of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. The Brotherhood initially played more defense than offense, choosing not to affiliate with the Knights of Labor (the pre-eminent national labor organization) and trying to work cooperatively with the owners.
Baseball was competitive and professional by the end of the 1860s, but competition is unsatisfying without an effective process for determining a champion. In the 1850s, the championship of the United States could be won by defeating the incumbent in a best-of-three series. When only two or three clubs were in the hunt, that system was workable, but as baseball became more widespread and several teams from different cities vied for the title, it became highly problematic.
The sporting world is frequently subject to historical, political, and social influence, and when great events occurred in America, baseball felt their impact. At first, the game was too small and parochial to be affected by national trends. During the 1850s, when baseball experienced its first growth spurt, there had been bitter intersectional conflict between Northern and Southern states, but baseball was essentially a New York sport, and regional differences were irrelevant.
The 1850s were the decade in which baseball evolved from a game played for fun by children and for exercise by a few grown men to a competitive affair in which teams of adult men competed for victory against other teams of equally serious men. Cordiality, decorous behavior, and hospitality remained an integral part of the game, but by the end of the 1850s, winning was equally important.