“Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season–these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?” – George Will 1999
It is rare to find a historian that does not love baseball. Together they are intertwined. The Civil War did more for the game than any television or radio ever could. Letters, journals, and diaries of soldiers detail the spreading of the game from camp to camp and back to towns all across America. As America’s march on history took place, baseball went along with it. During the Spanish-American War, soldiers took baseball to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the islands of the Caribbean in the following years. Following World War II, occupied Japan got its taste of the great game. Wherever America has gone baseball has been sure to follow. And historians will be there keeping score.
But when we look at the history of the game, it is arguable as to what the greatest age of baseball has been? Was it in the 1920s with the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row? Was it in the 1930s when the Gashouse Gang arrived? Was it the post-war era of the late 1940s and early 1950s? The 1960s before the mound was raised? The 70s dynasties of the Oakland A’s, the Cincinnati Reds, and the re-emergence of the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry? Or was it the steroids era of the late 1990s? Or are we standing in the midst of the greatest age of baseball right now? An argument could be made for all of them. That is one of the great things about baseball. The game is not stagnant. It changes along with America. The dead ball era gave way to home runs which gave way to speed which went back to power and now is back in an era of youth dominated teams in the post steroids era. Over the next few weeks, I will look at the history of the game and make points about what each era has to say about why it is the greatest age.
Two words describe why the 1920s stake a claim to baseball’s golden age – Babe Ruth. The man had stadiums (some could say cathedrals) built to either house his home runs or for him to hit them out. Everything about today’s game goes back to Ruth. The home run became the predominant force of the game, unless you count good pitching. But still, the game revolved around the home run. However, there are other factors which helped to make the game a national passion.
1. Radio – during the 1920s, radios could now be massed produced, and massed produced cheaply. It was the way to get the information about the game. Many families in the Midwest and the Mideast tuned in to hear some of the greats of radio bring the game to life. On a clear night, you could hear games from across the eastern half of the country.
2. Newspapers – during the 1920s, many national newspapers began to have their own sports sections solely devoted the game. While pro football was in its infancy and basketball not even a national or professional sport yet, baseball had the run of the roost in the pages of the newspapers.
3. Stability – by the end of the decade, the teams of the next 30 years were established. Until expansion arrived in the 1960s, the league itself did not change much for over three decades until the Dodgers and Giants moved west.
4. Cork – the ball was now being made with a cork center instead of being wound. This changed the emphasis of the game from pitching and defense to hitting.
5. The Negro Leagues – starting in 1920, the National Negro Leagues provided an opportunity for some of the greatest talent the game has never seen. Rube Foster’s business sense provided a sound foundation for the next 30 years for African-Americans and Latin greats to play in the US.
6. Stadiums – Baseball was coming off its greatest scandal when the decade started. Within ten years, Ruth had transformed the sport in to what we recognize it as today. All but two of the stadiums of that era are gone – Wrigley and Fenway – but the stadiums built would last until the cookie-cutter-AstroTurf fields were built in the 1960s and 1970s. If you ever have played a recent baseball game on XBox or PS3, the previous stadiums were mammoth parks built to hold the ball inside the park. The Polo Grounds and the West Side Grounds (Chicago) were places where fly balls went to die. The 1920s made parks that were still spacious but one could hit one out and Ruth did 714 times. The game as we know it was made by him.
Ruth was not the only star to emerge from the decade. Other great players included: Lou Gehrig along with Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, and Pie Traynor. The 20s also saw the end of Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.
Everything about the 1920s set up the next 80 years of the great American game.
For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s