When baseball successfully marketed itself as America’s national pastime, the ridiculous yielded to the mythological…
Lexington Park, 1916
From American Scholar:
While Lardner was establishing himself as a writer, the sport he covered was undergoing a transformation: from its 19th-century origins as a club sport among the aristocracy to the game of the masses. The phenomenon of a spectator sport of national proportion was new to America. Football would remain secular to collegiate life for decades, and the two other contenders, boxing and horse racing, operated under increasingly strict regulation. By the turn of the 20th century, every major American city had a major league baseball team—New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston each fielded two—and every substantial municipality had a minor league team. The rival National and American Leagues called “a truce” one winter and staged the first “World Series” in 1903. Major league baseball attendance rose steadily, from 3.5 million in 1900 to double that in 1908. That year the New York Giants alone drew nearly a million fans. Attendance rose throughout the 1910s and exceeded nine million in 1920.
But baseball had its problems. The sport was highly sensitive to the economic condition of the nation. The American and National Leagues were nearly bankrupted by financial crises in the 1890s, the recession of 1904/05, a panic in 1907/08, and another slump in 1915. The 1917 and 1918 seasons brought a severe drop in profits due to the war. More threatening were baseball’s internal struggles. Even after the American and National Leagues united, there was still the nemesis of the Federal League, which had ballparks and teams in some of the same cities as the majors, sucking away revenue and attendance. Additionally, there were constant battles among owners and players over contract issues that could alter the game radically.
There’s no surprise here: big money, big problems. What’s noteworthy is how organized baseball tailored its image—not as a business trying to survive and thrive, but rather as a “pastime” to be cherished and preserved. Enter Albert Spalding, the sporting-goods magnate who, in 1907, spearheaded a campaign to discover baseball’s roots. Spalding commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, which included two U.S. senators, to disprove those who held that the national pastime was a bastardized version of some snooty British game. The tale they came up with—of Union Civil War General Abner Doubleday inventing baseball one historic day in 1839 in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture, just off Main Street in Cooperstown, New York—would become part of American mythology. No matter that Doubleday would have had to be awol from West Point Military Academy on the day in question, or that his obituary informs us that he “did not care for or go into any outdoor sports.” No matter that baseball was in fact a bastardized version of a snooty British game—rounders—already nicknamed “baseball” in Tudor England, where two teams alternated between hitting and fielding.
Spalding’s blue-ribbon panel may seem silly, but in terms of public relations it was the stuff of legend. As soccer fans have repeatedly found out, mass spectator sports don’t catch on in America unless they are seen to have originated in America. The further association of baseball, once called “The New York Game,” with a pastoral setting (in a town named for the father of James Fenimore Cooper, no less) put it in perfect alignment with the progressives’ embrace of agrarian values—the notion that rural life provides a spiritual counterpoise to the degrading effects of city life. As historian Steven A. Riess points out, although the game was entirely an urban product, fans nevertheless “saw baseball as an extension of rural America into the cities.” Ballparks were “green oases in a largely concrete world . . . where spectators could readily slip back into an idyllic, rural past.” This rustic image was so important to Charles Wrigley, chewing-gum king and owner of the Chicago Cubs, that he prohibited the display of advertising in his park. Why spoil the best billboard you could have—the park itself?