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Part IV: The Roaring Twenties, Babe Ruth and the Great Depression

The “Roaring Twenties” arrived full of hope, prosperity and the beginning of the modern era. It was a time of celebration – peace, new fashions, the Charleston, women’s right to vote, talking movies, speak easies, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Babe Ruth. Life in America was exciting.

Warren J. Harding was seated in the White House, and the economy was growing at a record pace. Stock market investors evidently thought the bull market would never end. The automotive industry was leading the way. Henry Ford’s Model T was dominant but new entrants into the market included Chevrolet, Dodge, and Chrysler. Mass production was evident in factories throughout the country. Making newspaper headlines in the early twenties were:  the Scopes Trial, in which the Supreme Court ruled that evolution was allowed to be taught in public schools, President Harding’s sudden death, and the Teapot Scandal that exposed bribery when President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior was found guilty of accepting bribes from the Teapot Dome Oil Company of Wyoming.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement gained the women’s right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. In the same year, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union achieved its objective with the passing of the Prohibition Act, outlawing liquor. Of course that did not slow down the creative Americans of the time as speakeasy bars opened and prospered throughout the country. Prohibition was a boom for whiskey bootleggers and organized crime. Notorious gangsters made fortunes smuggling liquor and operating illegal clubs. Al Capone became famous in Chicago for his gangster activities including the Valentine Massacre of 1927 in which seven opposing gang members were  gunned down by his henchmen. Other famous criminals of the time included Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Faced Nelson.

Baseball was having its own heyday. Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby were joined by Babe Ruth in what became the Babe Ruth era. The Babe, who was discovered playing baseball for an orphanage in Baltimore, Md. blossomed into a star pitcher who could also hit homeruns for the Boston Red Sox. In 1920, In what turned out to be the biggest bargain in the history of baseball, the New York Yankees bought The Babe from the Red Sox for $100,000. Ruth was moved permanently to the outfield where he became the greatest home run hitter of all time.  In addition to hitting home runs at a pace that was inconceivable at the time, Babe’s magnetic personality won the hearts of America. He was fun, generous and the idol of men, women and children. The House That Ruth Built, aka Yankee Stadium, was considered an architectural marvel and opened to great fanfare in 1923. The Yankees were the powerhouse of baseball. Ruth, along with the “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig, led the 1927 Yanks in winning 110 games while losing only 44 in 1927. That championship team is considered by many as the greatest team of all time.

As They Played the Game:

Ed Sherman from his book, “Babe Ruth’s Called Shot.”

“Don’t let anyone tell you that Babe Ruth didn’t call that shot. I was in a perfect position to see and hear everything.

With two strikes, Ruth lifted his bat, pointed toward the center field flag pole, and dug in for Charlie Root’s next pitch. That was the most terrific homerun I’ve ever seen. It went out of the park at almost precisely the same spot that Ruth had indicated. As far as I’m concerned that ball is still traveling. ‘You bet your life Babe Ruth called it.”

One thing is for sure: Something of considerable magnitude occurred during the 5th inning of Game 3 of the  series. Ruth was being taunted by Cubs players who were actually standing on the field. The crowd was in a frenzy, as the Cubs finally seized momentum to tie the game at 4-4. Ruth responded vehemently with not one but several dramatic gestures, suggesting he was going to do something bad to the Cubs. Then he hit one of the longest homers in Wrigley Field history, which effectively sealed the World Series for the Yankees.

The emergence of Ruth, Gehrig and the Yankees, could not have come at a better time as the country was welcoming mass communication through movies, magazines and the radio. This truly was when baseball became the national pasttime. There was no NFL or NBA, and baseball held center stage.  Radio announcers could not get enough of Ruth and Gehrig of the Yanks, Ty Cobb of the Tigers and Rogers Hornsby, the infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League, who batted over .400 three times. The “Iron Horse” played in 2130 consecutive games, a record that stood for over 60 years until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. Gehrig compiled a lifetime batting average  of .340 with 493 homeruns over 17 seasons. Often overshadowed by teammate Ruth, he was in many ways his equal. He particularly stood out in World Series play in which he batted .361 in seven World Series. Tragically he was forced to retire in 1939 after being diagnosed with ALS disease, now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died shortly after his retirement from baseball.

In 1927 Ruth had to share the spotlight with Charles Lindbergh, the pioneer who was the first to cross the Atlantic in his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh was a hero in the USA and Europe. Everywhere he went crowds gathered and parades were held in his honor. He was the Neil Armstrong of the era. However his life took a tragic turn on March 1, 1932 when his 20- month-old son Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr was kidnapped from home in Hopewell, N.J. The kidnapper demanded $50,000 which was paid, but the child was never returned. The boy’s body was discovered May 12 having been killed by a blunt force to the head. Bruno Hauptman was arrested, convicted and electrocuted for the murder on April 3, 1936. It was one of the biggest news stories of the 1930s.

The country was stunned by the stock market crash of 1929. The depression that followed brought ten years of a failing economy. Herbert Hoover was in the White House and was unable to turn the tide. Unemployment rose to a staggering 25 percent by 1933. Food lines became a common sight in most communities. Franklin Roosevelt was elected as the 32nd President in 1932 with the hope of pulling the country out of this great recession.

It did not happen overnight but the creation of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 started a slow turn- around. Welfare programs were started to help the homeless and unemployed. Social security was enacted in 1935 to aid the elderly. The Civil Conservation Corp was formed to put Americans back to work in building national and state parks and other major government projects. Adding to the misery of the country was a tremendous drought in the Midwest and in particular Oklahoma. The drought area became known as the Dust Bowl. Author John Steinbeck’s famous novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” illustrated the pain of those who suffered through the drought.

Major League Baseball was not spared from the depression. Attendance dropped as did players’ salaries. The average player salary of $6,000 went unchanged for over a decade. Fortunately owners started receiving advertising revenues from the radio networks. The Negro Leagues proved their resilience as their exposure grew by playing well in exhibition games against Major League All Stars, including a team led by Ruth. Future Hall of Famer “Cool Papa Bell” made his debut as an outfielder in 1922 with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro League. “Cool Papa” was one of the first Negro League All Stars inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Possibly the greatest highlight of the Negro Leagues was the appearance of a young pitcher, Leroy Satchel Paige in 1926. Satchel was the ultimate showman of the Negro Leagues and eventually the Major Leagues, when he was finally allowed to join the Cleveland Browns in 1948 at the age of 42. Although he was primarily associated with the Kansas City Monarchs, Paige jumped from team to team in the Negro Leagues to whomever held out the most money. He became a household name as he roamed the country on barnstorming teams during the off seasons. He would pitch over a hundred games a year. A popular movie, The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings in 1976 depicts the lifestyle that Satchel and his teammates on the Indianapolis Clowns enjoyed during this era. The Clowns were a baseball team that performed in a similar manner to the Harlem Globetrotters Basketball Team. Satchel was so confident of his fast ball that at times he would call his outfielders in and tell them to sit down as he struck out the next batter. He once struck out 21 batters in an exhibition game versus Major League All Stars. He continued barnstorming during off seasons and after his Major League career ended in 1953. He resurfaced for one game in 1965 with the Kansas City Athletics of the American League at the age of 59. Satchel was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.

As the country struggled with its emergence from the great depression, a host of new star players appeared in the major leagues. Pitcher Johnny Vander Meer of the Reds threw consecutive no hitters. “Joltin Joe” Dimaggio became a New York Yankee and Ted “The Splinter“ Williams joined the Boston Red Sox. The first nighttime game was played in 1935. The Yankees won four World Series. The Giants, Cubs and Giants dominated the National League. The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals were nicknamed the “Gashouse Gang” due to their shabby appearance and supposedly bad body odor. They were led by pitcher Dizzy Dean, a 30-game winner and Leo Durocher a feisty shortstop who later became a feisty manager. Ballpark revenues increased with the selling of beer following the end of prohibition.

The Depression was over and things were looking good but it didn’t quell the anxieties arising from stories coming out of Europe.

Next week Part V:  World War II and Jackie Robinson

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