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Thread: Baseball during the Great Depression

  1. #1
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    Baseball during the Great Depression

    Here's a good NY Time article about the economic state of baseball during the Great Depression. The accompanying photo is pretty cool, too. It's from an Senators-Athletics game in 1931.

    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.”
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  2. #2
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    I would guess that the photo is from April 14, 1931, which was opening day in Washington. Philadelphia won 5-3 in 11 innings.

    It looks like a rare smile from Herbert Hoover in this picture.

  3. #3
    I can't recall the name, but there is a book that came out around a decade ago that focuses on baseball in the 1930s.
    A lot of teams focused more on the entertainment than the sport itself, with circus type acts and vaudeville performances before and after the game to attract fans. Colorful personalities were often kept on the team roster as well.
    If I can find the name of it, I will post it here.

  4. #4
    I think that baseball in the depression had it`s finest hour. Think of it, it was the only sport going, pro football was a part time thing, pro basketball was`nt, so you had the finest athletes in the country vieing for berths on the major league baseball teams. REMEMBER we did not have the adulterated major leagues we have now; there were only 8 teams in each league, no ********* divisions as we have now. The players were the best of the best, we`ll never get back to this quality again. The Waner bros, Al Simmons, Chuck Klein, Jimmy Foxx and on and on. I think baseball fielded the finest players during the depression

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by rkoch View Post
    I think that baseball in the depression had it`s finest hour. Think of it, it was the only sport going, pro football was a part time thing, pro basketball was`nt, so you had the finest athletes in the country vieing for berths on the major league baseball teams. REMEMBER we did not have the adulterated major leagues we have now; there were only 8 teams in each league, no ********* divisions as we have now. The players were the best of the best, we`ll never get back to this quality again. The Waner bros, Al Simmons, Chuck Klein, Jimmy Foxx and on and on. I think baseball fielded the finest players during the depression
    Sure they did, they had the best of the best......except for Oscar Charleston, Biz Mackey, Josh Gibson, Newt Allen, Sam Bankhead, John Beckwith, Cool Papa Bell, Larry Brown, Rev Cannady, Tank Carr, Martin Dihigo, Rap Dixon, Frank Duncan, Vic Harris, Sammy T. Hughes, Fats Jenkins, Judy Johnson, Newt Joseph, Pop Lloyd, Dick Lundy, Alejandro Oms, Red Parnell, Cy Perkins, Alec Radcliff, Double Duty Radcliffe, Frog Redus, Bullet Joe Rogan, George Scales, Turkey Stearnes, Jake Stephens, Mule Suttles, Clint Thomas, Cristobal Torriente, Willie Wells, Chaney White, Jud Wilson, William Bell, Chet Brewer, Bill Foster, Bill Holland, Leroy Matlock, Webster McDonald, Satchel Paige, Connie Rector, Dick Redding, Luis Tiant Sr., Ted Trent, Smokey Joe Williams and Nip Winters......all of whom were playing pro baseball during the depression.

    Yes, during the depression major league baseball had the best of the best.....except for these 50 players and a bunch more.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SavoyBG View Post
    Sure they did, they had the best of the best......except for Oscar Charleston, Biz Mackey, Josh Gibson, Newt Allen, Sam Bankhead, John Beckwith, Cool Papa Bell, Larry Brown, Rev Cannady, Tank Carr, Martin Dihigo, Rap Dixon, Frank Duncan, Vic Harris, Sammy T. Hughes, Fats Jenkins, Judy Johnson, Newt Joseph, Pop Lloyd, Dick Lundy, Alejandro Oms, Red Parnell, Cy Perkins, Alec Radcliff, Double Duty Radcliffe, Frog Redus, Bullet Joe Rogan, George Scales, Turkey Stearnes, Jake Stephens, Mule Suttles, Clint Thomas, Cristobal Torriente, Willie Wells, Chaney White, Jud Wilson, William Bell, Chet Brewer, Bill Foster, Bill Holland, Leroy Matlock, Webster McDonald, Satchel Paige, Connie Rector, Dick Redding, Luis Tiant Sr., Ted Trent, Smokey Joe Williams and Nip Winters......all of whom were playing pro baseball during the depression.

    Yes, during the depression major league baseball had the best of the best.....except for these 50 players and a bunch more.
    Of course not. He was saying that the organization of baseball most people followed had the best atheletes.
    "Allen Sutton Sothoron pitched his initials off today."--1920s article

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    I thought this was going to be about baseball in the coming Depression.
    Buck O'Neil: The Monarch of Baseball

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    In 1933, only the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies finished the season in the black.

    The Phillies??? How on earth did that happen?

    Yankees Fan Since 1957

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    Quote Originally Posted by yanks0714 View Post
    In 1933, only the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies finished the season in the black.

    The Phillies??? How on earth did that happen?
    They only drew 156,000, their lowest total since 1918 and worst in the league. The Giants drew almost four times that. The Yankees led the majors with 728,000.

    Chuck Klein was the only star the Phillies had so their payroll must have been fairly low, but I don't see how they could have made a profit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tyrus4189Cobb View Post
    Of course not. He was saying that the organization of baseball most people followed had the best atheletes.
    I'm not sure what you mean by this post because savoy was absolutely right. There's no way you could say the best athletes were playing in the majors when several Black and Hispanic players couldn't play in the big leagues due to their color.

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    Quote Originally Posted by yanks0714 View Post
    In 1933, only the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies finished the season in the black.

    The Phillies??? How on earth did that happen?
    Selling Lefty Grove at the end of the season probably helped. Unlike most baseball owners, then and now, Mack made his income exclusively from the team. It was very much in his personal best interest to make sure the team did well financially.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Scoops View Post
    Selling Lefty Grove at the end of the season probably helped. Unlike most baseball owners, then and now, Mack made his income exclusively from the team. It was very much in his personal best interest to make sure the team did well financially.
    That was the A's, not the Phillies.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mwiggins View Post
    That was the A's, not the Phillies.
    And my reading comprehension score takes a nose dive. D'oh.

    What if I say Chuck Klein and Spud Davis instead?

  14. #14
    I certainly did`nt mean to omit black players in my post about depression ball players. I was about 13 when contempory friends and I went to an exhibition ball game at the old Oaks Park in Emeryville Ca. This was in bad times[1935] The game was between our beloved Oaks and a black team which we were sure our local heroes would completely destroy.The black team just happened to be the Kansas City Monarchs. and us kids just sat there open mouthed and completely silent. We`d never seen baseball players like that in our lives. I`m 86 and I remember it vividly to this day. The grace and speed and the hitting were such as we`d never seen before. Seemed like there was a superstar at every position. Remember there was no major league ball out here then but the PCL had a lot of ex major leaguers. In this same season we got to see Joe D. before he went up with the Yankees and he was something else he`d hit frozen ropes into that old fence. You`d hear "thunk" and there he would be on second with that grin mirrored by his somewhat prominent upper teeth. He was something else, made everything look easy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by rkoch View Post
    I certainly did`nt mean to omit black players in my post about depression ball players. I was about 13 when contempory friends and I went to an exhibition ball game at the old Oaks Park in Emeryville Ca. This was in bad times[1935] The game was between our beloved Oaks and a black team which we were sure our local heroes would completely destroy.The black team just happened to be the Kansas City Monarchs. and us kids just sat there open mouthed and completely silent. We`d never seen baseball players like that in our lives. I`m 86 and I remember it vividly to this day. The grace and speed and the hitting were such as we`d never seen before. Seemed like there was a superstar at every position. Remember there was no major league ball out here then but the PCL had a lot of ex major leaguers. In this same season we got to see Joe D. before he went up with the Yankees and he was something else he`d hit frozen ropes into that old fence. You`d hear "thunk" and there he would be on second with that grin mirrored by his somewhat prominent upper teeth. He was something else, made everything look easy.
    Great story, man. Thanks for sharing that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by rkoch View Post
    I certainly did`nt mean to omit black players in my post about depression ball players. I was about 13 when contempory friends and I went to an exhibition ball game at the old Oaks Park in Emeryville Ca. This was in bad times[1935] The game was between our beloved Oaks and a black team which we were sure our local heroes would completely destroy.The black team just happened to be the Kansas City Monarchs. and us kids just sat there open mouthed and completely silent. We`d never seen baseball players like that in our lives. I`m 86 and I remember it vividly to this day. The grace and speed and the hitting were such as we`d never seen before. Seemed like there was a superstar at every position. Remember there was no major league ball out here then but the PCL had a lot of ex major leaguers. In this same season we got to see Joe D. before he went up with the Yankees and he was something else he`d hit frozen ropes into that old fence. You`d hear "thunk" and there he would be on second with that grin mirrored by his somewhat prominent upper teeth. He was something else, made everything look easy.
    Thanks for sharing that. Feel free to post more of your experiences and thoughts.

    Yankees Fan Since 1957

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    Quote Originally Posted by rkoch View Post
    I certainly did`nt mean to omit black players in my post about depression ball players. I was about 13 when contempory friends and I went to an exhibition ball game at the old Oaks Park in Emeryville Ca. This was in bad times[1935] The game was between our beloved Oaks and a black team which we were sure our local heroes would completely destroy.The black team just happened to be the Kansas City Monarchs. and us kids just sat there open mouthed and completely silent. We`d never seen baseball players like that in our lives. I`m 86 and I remember it vividly to this day. The grace and speed and the hitting were such as we`d never seen before. Seemed like there was a superstar at every position. Remember there was no major league ball out here then but the PCL had a lot of ex major leaguers. In this same season we got to see Joe D. before he went up with the Yankees and he was something else he`d hit frozen ropes into that old fence. You`d hear "thunk" and there he would be on second with that grin mirrored by his somewhat prominent upper teeth. He was something else, made everything look easy.
    Wonderful story, sir! Thank you for posting it. If you have more stories please do share them.
    Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.-Crash Davis

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by KCGHOST View Post
    I thought this was going to be about baseball in the coming Depression.
    Yes, this will be a Current Events thread in another year.

    Actually there is a CE thread with some talk about the possible economic future, as well as a mention of the minor league impact so far.

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