Baseball and America

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Part II: The Gay Nineties and the Progressive Era

The Gay Nineties was somewhat of a misnomer. While the country and baseball were still experiencing the initial success from urbanization, there was a lurking recession primarily caused by the trade protection policies of President Grover Cleveland which severely limited imports causing tremendous inflation and deepening labor problems.  As mass production spread to factory floors, employers had little regard for the individual working on assembly lines. The combination of the trade and labor crises caused the “Panic of 1893.”

Baseball players were treated much like the American worker. The economic crash forced the population to tighten its belt and baseball felt the consequences. Owners were victorious in the players attempts to form a union and imposed a $2400 maximum annual player salary. Players of the time were considered a pretty crude and rough group with very little education. They stayed in cheap hotels and worked on farms and in factories during the off season.

However by the early nineties, the rules of the game were evolving into much the way they are played today. The season had grown to 140 games per year, pitchers threw overhand from 60 ‘ 6”, bases were 90 feet apart and the uniforms became more standardized. Fans flocked to wooden stadiums that had limited seating capacity but generous standing room. Before the recession of 1893 Major League games attracted over two million fans. Ernest Thayer wrote the famous poem “Casey at the Bat” and two national publications, The Sporting News and Sporting Life became popular reading. The 1890’s introduced three baseball players that are well known today for their contribution to the history of baseball: Cy Young, Wee Willie Keeler and John McGraw.

The year 1894 brought a new baseball dynasty to the forefront – the Baltimore Orioles. The team had only one star player but he was destined to create baseball excitement for the next 40 years. Initially as a scrawny third baseman with big ears and later as a manager. John McGraw led a band of swashbuckling players who would go to any extreme to win ballgames. They were the first team to perfect the hit and run and squeeze play. They were also known for creative, although not ethical, antics on the field. They would hide a baseball in the deep grass of the outfield so that in the event that they could not get to the one hit, they would pick up the previously hidden ball and throw it into the infield. They were also known to grab the uniforms of runners to slow them down. The win at any cost attitude netted the Orioles three consecutive pennants thanks in large part to adding “Wee Willie” Keeler to the team in 1894. The future Hall of Famer (class of 1939) batted .361 his rookie year and went on to play 19 seasons with a lifetime average of .342. Wee Willie batted .424 in 1897.

Boston was the dominant team from 91 thru 94 due primarily to pitcher Cy Young. He pitched for 22 seasons, started 906 games and won 510 times. Cy has been immortalized throughout baseball by the annual Cy Young awards given to the best pitcher in each league.

At the same time the country was becoming embroiled in the Spanish American War against Spain with the goal of acquiring control of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippine Islands. Future president Teddy Roosevelt was leading the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill as the United States invaded Cuba. By the conclusion of this short war America was being recognized as a world power. In defeating Spain, it colonized Cuba and Puerto Rico and chased the Spaniards out of the Philippines which lead to securing a military base in the Far East.  America had entered the world stage. It spread its influence throughout Central America and the Caribbean. The Panama Canal was built and the country annexed Hawaii which became an important strategic base. These actions also exposed American baseball to these islands which eventually resulted into the migration of Latino players into the Major Leagues.

The beginning of the twentieth century was also the start of the Progressive Era. Theodore Roosevelt became President following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Roosevelt, although initially seen as a conservative Republican took aim at corporate abuse. During this time of immense growth and opportunity corporations became very powerful. Power brought corruption and Roosevelt fought against the monopolies and oligopolies that were being created by muscling through the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act which prohibited monopolies.

The Progressive Era also paved the way for the enactment of protective legislation for women, blacks and workers. The women’s suffrage movement gained traction and laws were passed to protect women’s rights in the workplace. Booker T. Washington became the spokesperson for the black population. The NAACP was formed in 1909 as the growing economy opened up jobs for blacks particularly in the booming industrial Northeast. African American neighborhoods became an established part of every sizable northern city.  Safety regulations were passed partially as a result of a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City that killed 146 people primarily women and immigrant workers. Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, addressed the horrible working conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry and lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. The scientific era of management which was blind to the human needs of workers was being forced to change to a more humanistic approach to workers in many businesses. However the mass production assembly line work at Ford, Bethlehem Steel and many other industrial giants continued to abuse their workers with long hours and monotonous tasks.

Roosevelt was replaced by Republican William Taft in 1908. He attempted a comeback and nearly succeeded by running for President in 1912 with his self created more liberal “Bull Moose” party. The result of this party however split the Republican Party and allowed for the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Another group which started to gain attention during this time was the Klu Klux Klan.                      

In baseball the times were also changing. The undisciplined approach to the game and the greed of the owners eventually led to the creation of a second league, the American League in 1901. Led by Charles Commiskey, Connie Mack and Ban Johnson they developed a disciplined and highly respected minor league that competed with the National League cities. Commiskey took Chicago, Mack had Philadelphia and John McGraw deserted the National League to take control of the new American League franchises in Baltimore. Teams were also fielded in Boston, Milwaukee, and Washington. Ban Johnson became President of the new league which became known for its more ethical approach to the game and the fans liked it. The result was a competitive war between the two leagues.

As the march to the cities continued the growing middle class became more entranced with baseball. The creation of the American League added to competition between cities and arguments over the best teams and leagues. The two leagues each had eight teams and played a 154 game schedule which did not include playing any of the other league teams. In 1903 the first official World Series was played between Boston of the American League and Pittsburgh of the National League. The original teams of the two leagues remained intact until 1957. Attendance grew to over seven million fans in 1909, the same year that President Taft became the first president to throw out the seasoning opening pitch. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” became a popular song and new stadiums of concrete and steel began replacing the wooden structures of the 1800s.

As They Played the Game: Smoky Joe Wood, pitcher Boston (AL) 1908 -1915. Dominant fast ball pitcher until injury shortened his career. [excerpt from 1966 interview, The Glory of Their Times]

“I might as well just take a deep breath and come right out and put the matter bluntly: the team I started with was the Bloomer Girls. One day in September this Bloomer Girl team came to Ness City, Kansas. The girls were advertised in posters all around Ness City for weeks before they arrived, you know, and they finally came in town and we played them. Well, after the game the fellow who managed them asked me if I’d like to join and finish the tour with them. There was only three weeks left on the trip, and he offered me $20 if I’d play the infield with them the last three weeks.

“Are you kidding me,” I asked. Are you off your rocker?

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘You know as well as I do that all those Bloomer Girls are not girls. The third baseman’s real name is Bill Compton, not Dolly Madison. And the pitcher, Lady Waddell, sure isn’t Rube’s sister. If anything he’s his brother.’

‘Well, I figured as much.’ I said. But these guys are wearing wigs. If you think I’m going to put a wig on you’re crazy.’

“No need to’ he said.’ With your baby face you won’t need one anyway.’

Fact is there were four boys on the team: me, Lady Waddell, Dolly Madison and one other, the catcher. The other five were girls. In case you are interested, by the way, the first team Rogers Hornsby (Hall of Fame third baseman) played on was a Bloomer Girls team too. So I am not in such bad company.”

Players became stars and fans flocked for their autographs and attention. Names such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Nap Lajoie, Rube Walker, Three Fingers Brown and Walter Johnson became household names. It was still the dead ball era as the ball had little bounce compared to today’s ball. Teams relied on bunting, stealing bases, and squeeze plays and not home runs. Pitchers perfected using spitballs and scuffed baseballs to their advantage. The dominant teams of the early 20th century were the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs in the National League while Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit fought for supremacy in the American League. The reserve clause was challenged again in 1914 by an upstart league, the Federal League. The challenging league started play in eight cities and was able to recruit some prominent ball players from the Major Leagues with promises of large salaries. The Major Leagues threatened lifetime banishment to any player who dared to switch leagues. The Federal League was short lived however it challenged the legality of the reserve clause and its case ended up in the Supreme Court. Under the leadership of Supreme Court Justice Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis the court ruled in favor of the major league baseball owners by declaring that baseball was a sport and therefore not subject to the laws of industry. Judge Landis would later be elected by the owners to be the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Ironically during this time President Roosevelt was fighting against monopolies.   It was a monumental ruling that ended the Federal League and upheld until challenged in the Supreme Court by St. Louis outfielder Curt Flood in 1969.

Next week Part III:  America at War, a player named Babe, the Negro leagues flourish

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