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Baseball Hits Rock Bottom in the Early 1930s

In part 2 of Dickson's account of MLB's All-Star Game, the Great Depression causes baseball to hit a new low, and owners and sportswriters are looking for a way to boost attendance and interest in the game.

By Paul Dickson, February 12, 2017
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Original artwork by Joey Enos.

The effect of the Great Depression on baseball was a severe decrease in attendance and a loss of revenue. People simply had less money available for anything other than food and shelter, and for many Americans, baseball games were a luxury that could no longer be afforded. Americans, and not just the working class, were suddenly more likely to be found in a bread line than a reserved seat at a baseball game.

Between 1930 and 1933, attendance at Major League Baseball games, which had skyrocketed during the 1920s, plummeted. The situation was not improved by the fact that the Major Leagues steadfastly refused to lower ticket prices. Early in 1932, American League President William Harridge explained, “During the boom period baseball made no attempt to take advantage of easy money,” so it was not going to discount them now. Since 1920, both the National and American Leagues had rigidly adhered to a rule that no seat in a baseball park could be sold for less than 50 cents.[i]

Many of those fans who could still afford tickets migrated from the more expensive box and reserved seats to the bleachers, which cost 50 cents. But even half a dollar was a considerable sum in a world in which that amount could buy a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon or 10 loaves of bread.

Baseball hit rock bottom over the winter of 1932–33 as overall attendance at Major League games had dropped from more than 10 million in 1930 to just under 7 million for 1932. Case in point was the opening game of the 1932 World Series, which drew only 49,000 to a stadium whose capacity was over 72,000.

Anticipating even worse turnstile numbers for 1933, salaries were cut widely for the upcoming 1933 season, with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis taking a 40 percent pay cut from $65,000 to $39,000. Babe Ruth—after a long battle over his final cut—finally agreed to a $23,000 salary reduction, and Lou Gehrig, who was paid a lot less than Ruth, lost $5,000. Some managers took 50 percent cuts.[ii]

In early February 1933, journalist Fred Lieb of the New York Post and North American Newspaper Alliance (and later The Sporting News) addressed the problems of baseball in a 12-part series syndicated to newspapers throughout the country. Titled “What’s Wrong With Baseball?” Lieb’s series outlined a range of concerns, including the threat posed by the growing interest in golf as both a participation and spectator sport. Lieb felt, for example, that the New York Giants were dragging the National League down with their low attendance marks in a large market and that the New York Yankees had created an imbalance of power in the American League that was driving fans away late in the season as their teams fell further behind.

 Fred Lieb (right), shown here with American League umpire George Moriartiy, was a long time baseball writer with a true love of the game. In fact, Lieb covered every World Series game from 1911–1958.

Above all, he seemed legitimately concerned with the growing aloofness of players from the fans. Fines were imposed on players who spoke with the public during the season because of the fear that gamblers would get inside information. The National League had just given up the practice, but the American League held onto its extreme ban on fan fraternization. A White Sox player had been fined five dollars for talking to his father. Lieb felt this rule was deeply offensive to the fans, whom he believed were feeling more removed from the game and its star players.[iii]

As the “What’s Wrong With Baseball?” series ran in newspapers, on February 5, 1933, the 10th annual New York Baseball Writers’ Association dinner hosted more than 600 of the most important people in the game at the grand ballroom of New York City’s Commodore Hotel. One of the three speakers who addressed the group was Heywood Broun, a Scripps-Howard columnist who was read in New York World-Telegram, the Washington Daily News, and dozens of other newspapers. Broun was talented, outspoken, and highly admired by his fellow writers. He came to the dinner with a full-blown proposal for racial integration, and his speech had been written in response to Lieb’s “What’s Wrong With Baseball?” Broun said that the falling gate receipts for baseball could be reversed by dropping the invisible “color line,” which the New York World-Telegram strongly advocated should happen immediately.

One issue Broun addressed head on was the question that some players would object to racial integration, but he dismissed it by pointing out that ballplayers object to many things that still take place with a high degree of regularity—players object to being fined and suspended, and they were, at this very moment, objecting to widespread salary cuts being imposed for the upcoming season.[iv]

After the dinner, the proposal, to quote Broun, “met with no overwhelming roar of approval” among the writers, nor was it dismissed. Bill Gibson, a writer for the Baltimore Afro-American and one of a handful of black baseball writers from the Negro press at the dinner, made the rounds at the dinner after Broun’s talk and found that there were a number of people who expressed an open mind on the subject, including Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals, slugger Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, and John A. Heydler, president of the National League.[v]

As the 1933 season approached, it was clear that racial integration was not going to be the answer to the immediate problem, but for the first time the issue was on the table and not missed by the nation’s Negro League baseball players and an increasingly outspoken black press.

For the moment, baseball was in need of a fresh idea to at least start to put baseball back on its feet—specifically one that put the fans back into the picture and back in the seats.

Jack Stewart of the Los Angeles Times caught up with Commissioner Landis on February 12 in Arizona to ask him his opinion of the questions raised by Lieb.

“All tommyrot—it’s the bunk,” he shot back. “I’ve been watching this grand old game for fifty years and I’ve yet to see anything wrong with it.”

Despite the denials, baseball needed a shot in the arm.

Despite the outstanding talent of Negro League players, baseball remained segregated during the tenure of Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

 


[i] “Major Leagues Will Not Cut Ticket Prices Because They Were Not Raised in Boom Times,” New York Times, January 16, 1932.
[ii] 10,132,262 in 1930 to 8,467,107 in 1931 to 6,974,566 in 1932. 1933 saw the numbers hit rock bottom with 6,089,031, the worst since the war shortened season of 1918 when only 3,080,126 went through the turnstiles.
[iii] Hartford Courant, February 6, 1933.
[iv] Baltimore Afro-American, February 18, 1933. This is the only place I could find the full text of Broun’s address.
[v] Philadelphia Tribune, February 9, 1933; Baltimore Afro-American, February 18, 1933. Heydler’s open-mindedness came into question later in the month when he said, “I do not recall one instance where baseball has allowed either race, creed or color to enter into the question of the selection of its players.” Chicago Daily News, February 25, 1933.

 

 

 

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