When Baseball Was Everywhere

From Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line, by Tom Dunkel (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 357-410:

There is no big bang theory of baseball. It evolved, like the blues and the miniskirt. Bat-and-ball games were being played in Massachusetts in 1735 and in Pennsylvania in 1831. The New York Knickerbockers put baseball rules down on paper in 1845, but nine innings weren’t the norm until 1857 and overhand pitches wouldn’t gain acceptance until 1884.

Through every modification, baseball’s popularity swelled. By the end of the Civil War, America finally had a pastime with mass appeal; somehow square dancing and rail splitting had never quite captured the public imagination. A pair of milestones marked the transition to commercialism. In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings put ten players on salary, a luxury the team seemingly couldn’t afford, since the Stockings unraveled within two years. In 1876 the eight-team National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs began play; this was the first entity with the resources and the leadership to survive over time. (That’s the same National League still going strong today.) The 52–14 Chicago White Stockings won the 1876 championship, finishing six games ahead of the spunky Hartford Dark Blues and St. Louis Brown Stockings.

Poet Carl Sandburg grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, in the 1880s on a steady diet of Chicago sports pages, which fed his fantasy that he would someday wake up a big-league outfielder. “What is this fascination about making a hickory stick connect with a thrown ball . . . or running for a fly and leaping in the air for a one-handed catch?” he mused in his memoir Always the Young Strangers. “These questions have gone round and round in the heads of millions of American boys for generations.” Adulthood didn’t necessarily bring definitive answers to such questions.

The professional ranks expanded in 1901 with the spawning of an American League to compete with the National League, but their combined sixteen teams occupied only the top floor of what historian Harold Seymour referred to as the sprawling “House of Baseball.” There was plenty of action below and it wasn’t confined to schoolyards or playgrounds. Industrial and recreation leagues flourished. Grown men by the tens of thousands laced on spikes and lost themselves in takeout slides and doubles that split the gap. Indian reservations had hardball teams. Employees of coal companies, trolley car manufacturers, police departments, funeral homes, and local Communist parties took to the field together in off-hours. As baseball became the language of leisure, it collided with another cherished American tradition: the will to win. The result was predictable. Dollar bills got stuffed into uniform pockets, usually because a company or a town or some civic-minded pooh-bah had lost patience with losing. This semipro ethos infused the farthest fringes of the sport. Dwight Eisenhower earned spending money patrolling center field for a team in the Kansas State League in 1910, registering under the phony surname “Wilson” in order to protect his amateur status. Young Mr. Eisenhower had his eyes on an appointment to West Point and—who knows?—maybe a career in the military. On a summer day in 1915 an estimated 100,000 fans flooded Cleveland’s Brookside Park to watch a game between the White Autos and Omaha Luxers, two regional semipro superpowers.

The WPA Guide for Alabama made mention of “a semi pro team in nearly every town.” Some of the teams courted a broad audience. When Nashville, [Alabama Arkansas], hosted Dierks, [Alabama Arkansas], for a game in 1924, the Nashville News reported, “Ladies will be admitted free, as will one-armed and one-legged men and children under 6 years old.” Up north in New York, the Brooklyn Bushwicks installed lights on their field in 1930, five years before the Major Leagues took the plunge into night baseball.

Family-owned Bona Allen, Incorporated, of Buford, Georgia, had several thousand employees. It primarily produced shoes but also supplied the raw leather used to make baseball gloves. The semipro Bona Allen Shoemakers crisscrossed the Southeast with players earning a princely $300 to $400 a month. The company mounted a giant shoe on a Chevrolet chassis and an advance man would drive from town to town, handing out leather key chains to drum up interest before ball games. There was a standing offer: every member of an opposing team that beat Bona Allen received a free pair of dress shoes. The company didn’t give many away. In 1936, for example, the Shoemakers stomped to a 73–6 record, peeling off a 35–game winning streak. Their ballpark in Buford was a gem. Crowds turned out even when the Shoemakers weren’t there. In-progress summaries from important road games were relayed by Teletype to the Bona Allen plant. Somebody would read the updates over a loudspeaker while hundreds of fans sat in the stands outside cheering a deserted field.

Major League baseball held the line at just sixteen teams until 1961, but a crazy quilt of minor leagues got stitched together by independent hands. As far back as 1909 there were 246 minor league teams loosely tied to 35 leagues. These were rogue operators that sold their best players to the highest-bidding big-league club. In 1921 the Major Leagues chose to take more direct control of their destiny and adopted the farm system. American and National league teams were free to own and operate multiple minor-league affiliates that would feed talent up the organizational chain. Branch Rickey, then running the St. Louis Cardinals, was the visionary godfather of this new business model. The New York Yankees followed a few steps behind him. Those two teams set about assembling well-funded farm systems that would give them a competitive advantage for decades to come. Other teams dragged their feet and paid the price as the Yanks and Cards made regular trips to the World Series.

By 1932 the minor leagues had contracted to 102 teams and 14 leagues, but they were still a vibrant enterprise and still predominantly independent. However, the country remained largely rural and provincial. The automobile was duke, not yet king, of the culture. Fans wanted to cheer for a home team that was only a few blocks from home; all the better if they could walk to the ballpark. Since most major and minor league teams were many miles away, local semipro teams bridged that sports gap, although the definition of “semipro” was elastic. At the “light” end of the semipro spectrum, players received a token salary or passed the hat for donations during games. They’d often put in a full day’s work before slipping on their uniforms. At the opposite, “heavy,” extreme were generously subsidized clubs like the Bona Allen Shoemakers. They charged admission to games, the quality of play was high, the pay was excellent, and work obligations generally minimal. A player’s “job” might be to read the newspaper or to hopscotch bars at night chatting up fans. In 1930 the average minor leaguer earned about $65 a month. It was not unheard of for prospects to turn down a pro contract in favor of sticking with their company or town team. The money was likely to be better and there was the added security of year-round employment, no trifling consideration with the economy a shambles.

This book is far, far better by every measure than the very poorly written Barnstorming Hawaiian Travelers book I’ve just finished. I had to force myself to finish the last one. But once I began reading Color Blind, I couldn’t put it down. It reads well, but unfortunately appears to be very poorly fact-checked in places.

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