The Game of the Century:
Major League Baseball Agrees to an All-Star Game
Major League Baseball Agrees to an All-Star Game
Chicago's 1933 World's Fair served as an impetus for the first MLB All-Star Game. In part 3, Dickson explains how Chicago boosters had to convince some of baseball's establishment to agree to the exhibition game.
Original artwork by Joey Enos.
The most enduring baseball custom to emerge during the Great Depression—the midseason All-Star Game between the American and National Leagues—was the brainchild of several individuals with no direct connection to baseball.
In 1933, the city of Chicago was to host a World’s Fair known as the Century of Progress International Exposition. The event would celebrate the city’s centennial while creating optimism in the throes the Depression. Mayor Edward Kelly, newly installed after the death of Mayor Anton J. Cermak who died when an assassin attempted to kill President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami, was determined to make the fair a success, which meant more and better entertainment. He approached Colonel Robert McCormick, the powerful publisher of the Chicago Tribune, with the idea of staging a special baseball exhibition game as an element of the fair.
McCormick liked the idea and turned the matter over to his sports editor, Arch Ward, who proposed a one-time “Game of the Century” that would pit the finest players of the American and National Leagues against each other in Chicago. Ward was so certain the game would be a hit that he offered McCormick the option of taking any losses out of his own paycheck, an option that McCormick rejected.
With his boss on board, Ward made his case to the presidents of both leagues and the various team owners, assuring the skeptics among them that the event would help pull baseball out of its slump. By donating all proceeds to the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America, a charity for retired players and umpires in need, he argued, they could show the country that Major League Baseball was not, as some had suggested, embracing a culture of “decadence” while ordinary Americans suffered financial ruin. He also argued that the Century of Progress Exposition was an ideal setting for baseball to show itself off at a time when the game most needed a boost.[i]
Baseball, like the nation that supported it, was suffering. Americans, and not just the working class, were more likely to be in a bread line than a reserved seat at a ballpark in 1932. Overall attendance at Major League games had dropped from more than 10 million in 1930 to just under 7 million in 1932. Anticipating even worse numbers for 1933, salaries were cut widely during the preseason: Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis took a 40 percent pay cut from $65,000 to $39,000. Ruth took a $23,000 salary reduction. Gehrig, who was paid a lot less than Ruth, lost $5,000, and some managers took 50 percent cuts.[ii]
On May 9, the American League owners enthusiastically approved of the game at a special meeting in Cleveland. They chose July 6 as the date and instructed AL President William Harridge to adjust the schedule accordingly.
The National League was another story. A few days after the AL agreed, Ward received a telegram from John Heydler informing him that he was having trouble getting consent from several National League owners. Ward, who was a close friend of Cubs President William L. Veeck, watched with delight as Veeck help him get the owners to agree. Veeck’s first line of resistance was Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, who saw the game as an intrusion on the excitement of the World Series, but he relented after Veeck pointed out how dependent the Cubs were on the good will of the Chicago Tribune.
This letter signed by National League President John Heydler served as the official invitation for Chicago Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett to participate in the inaugural All-Star Game.
Three NL owners immediately rejected the idea. Sam Breadon of the St. Louis Cardinals based his opposition on the fear that the game would become an annual event and that any money earned from any future exhibition games of this nature would be given to the players’ fund. Charles Stoneham of the New York Giants and Charles Adams of the Boston Braves opposed the idea because their teams were scheduled to play one another in a doubleheader in Boston on July 5. These two argued that it would be impossible for the Braves and Giants players selected for the game to participate in the doubleheader and then be in Chicago in time to play on July 6.
Ward then convinced Breadon that St. Louis, and any other potential host city, could profit by hosting future All-Star Games. That left Stoneham and Adams and the issue of the July 5 doubleheader. All eight National League owners sent Heydler a telegram in support of the game if he would postpone that doubleheader. Adams was finally convinced after a rumored report that Ward threatened to expose Adams as having blocked the game. National League owners were still fearful that the contest would be dominated by the hot bats of the American League, and by Babe Ruth in particular.
Within hours of Adams agreeing, Ward, representing the Tribune, Heydler, and Harridge signed a contract. The contract was necessary to convince Commissioner Landis, who finally gave his consent. The game would be played at Comiskey Park rather than at Wrigley, the result of a flip of a coin.
Now to tell the public.
On May 19 under Arch Ward’s byline, the Chicago Tribune announced that the greatest game ever scheduled in the history of baseball would be played in Chicago on July 6 as baseball’s contribution to the Century of Progress. Then, in the fourth paragraph, Ward offered “the best news of all,” which was that the teams were to be selected by the vote of the fans.
Today, as it has been for decades, fan involvement in All-Star voting is a given, but in 1933 the idea was something unimagined by fans—a total break from the past. For years honorary All-Star teams had been selected by players, managers, and special organizations such as The Sporting News. These teams—appointed by the likes of John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth—never played a game but rather stood only as lists. In fact, in January 1933, a 1932 All-Star team was appointed. The ballot, which ignored Ruth for the first time since it was started eight years earlier, was based on the vote of 191 sportswriters polled by The Sporting News. Fan reaction to leaving Ruth off this list was strong but to no avail, as they had no say in the matter.
Fan favorites Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx were voted to play in the first All-Star Game.
As the date drew near, Ward wrote story after story in the Tribune, promoting the game and encouraging the public to participate. Part of Ward’s plan had been to ask 55 newspapers across the country to take part in the exercise. He doubted he would get anywhere near 55 acceptances, but he was most pleased when all said they would print and tally ballots printed in their newspapers.
Word of the first Major League All-Star Game brought spectator interest back to the sport of baseball at a time when it was difficult to afford such activities. At times, taking an active role in the All-Star Games was hard to pass up. Fans not only had the opportunity to vote for the players they felt deserved to be on the team, but the Chicago Tribune also began “awarding $500 in cash prizes to the fans who come closest to naming the teams.” The Boston Herald, one of the 55 participating newspapers, offered a prize to the fan who came closest to the correct final lineups of an all-expenses-paid trip to Chicago during which he or she would travel like a king—a lower birth on the train, a suite at the best hotel in Chicago, a box seat for the game, and plenty of time to visit the exposition.[iii]
Fans cast hundreds of thousands of votes for their favorite players, and Babe Ruth was at the top of the list with more than 100,000 ballots. The fans also elected, among others, Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett, Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. The ball clubs—not the fans—got to pick the managers. John McGraw, who had retired from the game in 1932, was the unanimous pick of the National League owners. “I suppose I can still tell the difference between a sacrifice hit and a Texas leaguer, but after this one shot I should go back into retirement immediately.” He added that he hoped that Connie Mack would be in the National League dugout, “because I always got a kick out of matching up with him in the World Series.”
Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Phillies was quickly named the American League choice.
Connie Mack and John McGraw were named as managers of their respective leagues for what was billed as the “Game of the Century.”
The other thing that appealed to the fans, players, and many newspaper reporters was that the money from the event would not go to the owners but to the sick and disabled old-timers. As Edward J. Geiger, sports editor of the Chicago American, pointed out on the eve of the game, the owners made millions out of the good work of players and were now being forced to contribute to a charity that until now was entirely funded from donations from the players.[iv]
Tickets to the game were sold quickly. Admission prices would be the same as they were for both Chicago ballparks—box seats at $1.65, grandstand seats at $1.10, and bleacher seats at $0.55—to be sold on the day of the game.
On the eve of the game, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune promised that 49,000 human beings would never be the same again. “They are the ticket holders. They probably will be somewhat annoying to their neighbors for the rest of their lives as they are bound to be anecdotal in a persistent way, regardless of the passage of years, and their acquaintances may take to avoiding them when it is possible to do so undetected.”
Then came the bombastic finale to the Tribune editorial that amounted to what was probably the greatest drumroll ever accorded to a single baseball game: “If Goliath had met Samson, if Napoleon had encountered Caesar when he defiled out of the Alps, if John L. Sullivan had faced Jack Dempsey when both were twenty-five or so, if Patrick Henry had replied to Edmund Burke, if Mussolini and Stalin were both Russians, and if Cleopatra and Helen of Troy had entered in the same beauty contest, there might have been something like a parallel to what must happen when Gehrig or Foxx faces Hubbell.”
National League All-Stars Carl Hubbell and Lefty Grove.
[i] David Vincent, Lyle Spatz, and David W. Smith, The Midsummer Classic: The Complete History of Baseball’s All-Star Game (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), xi.
[ii] Attendance fell from 10,132,262 in 1930 to 8,467,107 in 1931 to 6,974,566 in 1932. The 1933 season 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] Boston Herald, May 26, 1933, 29.
[iv] Chicago American, July 5, 1933.
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