Apples for a Nickel, and Plenty of Empty Seats
By KEN BELSON
January 7, 2009
In the depths of the Depression, Ray Robinson remembers with wonder, he would go to Yankee Stadium to see his heroes Lou Gehrig and Herb Pennock. He can also recall trips to the Polo Grounds with a family friend, a bootlegger who knew Giants Manager John J. McGraw and would often score box seats.
But when the games ended and he and the rest of the crowds filed out of those parks, they were confronted once again with the despair around them.
“Like many other recreational activities, people did go to the ballpark to get away from the economic horrors of empty wallets and ice boxes,” said Robinson, 88, a writer and lifelong resident of Manhattan. “I was very aware of the guys selling apples on street corners for a nickel. Along the Hudson River, you had some of these guys living in ramshackle huts in rags. So going to the ballpark was a big thing.”
Despite the immense popularity of baseball in the 1920s, the 16 teams that made up the major leagues then were not insulated from hard times. Attendance plummeted 40 percent from 1930 to 1933 and did not return to pre-Depression levels until after World War II, when millions of soldiers returned.
Players’ salaries fell by 25 percent on average, yet nearly every team, including the wealthy Yankees, lost money for at least a year or two in the decade.
“Economically, it was a very tough decade for baseball,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.
As Americans grapple with what could be the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, many are asking whether major league baseball, and professional sports more broadly, will prove impervious to the grim realities of the economic cycle, or will suffer as teams did then.
Optimists point to the shallow dips in attendance in past recessions, guaranteed television contracts, lucrative sponsorship deals and new luxury boxes in modern stadiums. These revenue streams were largely unavailable to owners in the 1930s and have helped modern teams diversify and bolster their incomes.
Optimists also point to the large free-agent contracts signed by C. C. Sabathia, A. J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodríguez this winter — evidence, they say, that shows that at least the strong teams have the wherewithal to withstand a severe slowdown.
But Zimbalist and others who have studied the history of the game said the last few recessions were mild enough that even the weakest teams got by. This slump, he said, is more analogous to the economic chaos of the 1930s, and historians should look to that era for hints on how teams will hold up in the coming years.
Clearly, times were tough, though the owners were slow to recognize what was to come. The stock market crashed in October 1929, but baseball enjoyed record attendance the next year, with more than 10 million fans passing through the turnstiles.
At their winter meetings after the 1930 season, the owners made no significant changes or concessions. The National League owners, however, did take the time to note that 5,145 dozen baseballs were used that year, a 10 percent increase, which disturbed their thrifty impulses.
As the 1931 season dawned, Frank J. Navin, the acting American League president and the owner of the Detroit Tigers, saw no sign of the impending collapse.
“Former business depressions have not hurt baseball,” he told The Associated Press, “and I do not think the present depression will materially affect attendance this year.”
But the hard times did arrive, and quickly. Attendance fell 16 percent in 1931, driven not just by rising unemployment but also a decision by the owners to dampen the scoring boom by changing the rules for what constituted a home run and tinkering with the composition of Spalding’s baseballs.
Attendance fell in 1932, when a 10 percent federal amusement tax was added to ticket prices, and again in 1933, when bank holidays left many Americans short of cash. President Herbert Hoover, an avid baseball fan, was lustily booed at games he attended. The hapless St. Louis Browns drew fewer than 100,000 fans for several seasons in the decade. On opening day in 1933, half the 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium sat in the bleachers, where tickets were 50 cents, according to Charles C. Alexander, author of “Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era,” which was published in 2002.
Many teams, strong and weak ones alike, kept costs down by reducing the number of coaches, or by eliminating them and employing player-managers. Owners opted for 23-man rosters, down from 25. Even the best players — Babe Ruth among them — took pay cuts. Connie Mack sold many of the stars from the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics teams of 1929, 1930 and 1931.
Only the two pennant-winning teams — the Chicago Cubs and the Yankees — made money in 1932. In 1933, only the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies finished the season in the black.
The Brooklyn Dodgers, which had gone deep into debt to expand Ebbets Field, received turn-off notices from the power company at its offices on Montague Street, according to Bob McGee, who wrote “The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” which was published in 2005.
Some weaker teams survived partly because they received a share of the gate when they played against popular teams like the Yankees, the Cubs and the Giants.
Despite the need for new sources of revenue, many of baseball’s hidebound owners continued to resist allowing live radio broadcasts of their games, fearing fewer fans would attend in person. This attitude persisted even though radio had helped generate interest in, as well as money for, minor league teams.
“They finally came to the conclusion that, depression notwithstanding, they would do nothing drastic in the way of retrenchments that would seriously affect baseball’s time-honored customers or, as one owner expressed it, ‘cheapen’ the game,” John Drebinger of The New York Times wrote of the 1932 winter meetings.
Some owners, it seemed, lived in another world. Navin, the owner of the Tigers, bought a racehorse in 1931 even though his players were reportedly having their meal money reduced. Others focused on yachting.
Whatever the predilections of the owners, baseball’s fans, even those not attending games in person, took solace in the game. Pepper Martin, an outfielder on the 1931 St. Louis Cardinals championship team, became a folk hero for his scrappy play in the World Series.
Ruth added to his voluminous legend when he hit a home run at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series that, legend has it, he predicted in advance.
Dizzy Dean and his younger brother, Paul, were among the most chronicled players in 1934, as much for their down-home flamboyance as for their feats on the field.
“The times were tough for just about everybody, including the young men who tried to make their way as professional baseball players in a decade of persistently discouraging prospects in most kinds of employment,” Alexander wrote in “Breaking the Slump.”
“Yet the period featured a galaxy of memorable personalities and some of the most memorable baseball ever played.”
The Depression also forced teams to innovate. The Cardinals, for instance, expanded their network of minor league teams. Several teams, including the Cubs, did not charge women for admission, a promotion that East Coast teams soon copied.
A few teams generated income by allowing live radio broadcasts. Taking a cue from the minor leagues, the Cincinnati Reds in 1935 became the first team to host a night game, which proved very popular with fans.
The end of the blue laws in Pennsylvania also helped franchises in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which, until 1934, had not been able to schedule home games on Sundays.
Remarkably, while thousands of banks collapsed during the Depression and millions of people lost their jobs, no major league baseball franchises folded or moved during the period (though at least two changed hands, including the Boston Red Sox).
“The teams muddled through,” said Rodney Fort, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “We know from this truly historic episode that things didn’t go to hell in a handbag.”