Editor’s note: Every Sunday we publish a favorite story from our magazine archives. As the summer sports season kicks off, we turn to this snapshot of the baseball business published in 1937. Neither depressions nor scandals, then as now, could kill America’s favorite pastime. “It continues to flourish, not only because it magnificently brings out the average American’s most healthful instincts, but also because it quite harmlessly brings out his most psychopathic ones,” this article says. It stands as a reminder of a time when the highest earning player, Lou Gehrig, earned $36,000 per-year. Play ball!
Drop in these days on that arch pessimist, the baseball owner–who is always looking out of the window for signs of rain or expecting to hear that his ace pitcher has broken his wrist–and don’t be amazed if he greets you with something that almost resembles a smile. It’s hard to look worried and anxious knowing how much faster the turnstiles are clicking off attendance in 1937 than they did in 1936, or have done in any season for years. The only solid explanation seems to be that 1937 is running ahead of 1936 generally; but baseball’s mystic sense vibrates, all the same, with the hunch that the game itself has taken on fresh allure and is nearing the peak of another cycle, as it did in 1920 and 1929. After all, the past few years have seen some hot races and close finishes, some spectacular performers like Dizzy Dean, Carl Hubbell, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller; some refreshingly mad teams (with a method in their madness) like the Gashouse Gang from St. Louis; they have lapped up huge publicity from the growth of the farm system, the fireworks of the All-Star Game in midseason, the unfamiliar glare of night baseball. Lumped together, such factors should make baseball “mysticism” pretty safe for underwriters.
Indeed, baseball has always come back: neither scandals nor depressions have killed it off. Not idly have you heard it called, once or twice, the Great American Game. It continues to flourish, not only because it magnificently brings out the average American’s most healthful instincts, but also because it quite harmlessly brings out his most psychopathic ones. Sport has always helped to satisfy man’s killer instinct, but someone actually had to be butchered to make a Roman holiday, and unpleasant things still happen to horses and bulls and men to make a Spanish or a Mexican one. Baseball is a far better safety valve. It subsists on purely vocal massacre: “Kill the umpire!”–and it purifies the blood by no costlier purge than yelling, swearing, sarcasm, and now and then a pop bottle. Dangerous steam is worked off in terms of innocuous sweat, and metaphorically your fan sweats as hard as your ballplayer–because he is your ballplayer. In no other game does a spectator engage in such intense vicarious participation, being now the player, now the manager, now the coach, now the umpire; hence in no other game is there so much rage when things go wrong, so much jubilation when things go right. The Great American Game, unlike the great British one, doesn’t make a fetish of fair play; it makes a fetish of success. Accordingly, in grandstand and bleachers heroes die like flies. Grandstand and bleachers tirelessly pump new cynicism, endlessly mint new wisecracks, showering all their affection on the man of the moment, all their contempt on the man of a moment ago.
For baseball’s paradoxical soul lies in its hooting and cheering alike out of the same deep well of rabid partisanship. In the end, all the national characteristics displayed by fans are swallowed up in their local pride. They forget they have paid money to see men perform for money in the money making interests of still other men. While the game is on, the fair name of Washington, the civic honor of Pittsburgh, the eventual fate of Chicago hang in the balance. Safety valve, business, amusement, sport–baseball is all of these; but more than any of them, it is imaginary ownership–something that belongs, as much as his hat or his home, to the fan. Of the approximately 8,000,000 persons who paid to see major-league games last year, the overwhelming majority, you can bet your boots, went because they wanted to see their team win.
That is why, though big-league baseball may be an industry, an individual team is something more than a business. Baseball is idiomatic, so to speak, not grammatical. There is no “typical” big-league club. Each one is a complex of varying elements–of the atmosphere of its particular city, the policy of its particular owners, the ideas of its particular manager, the personalities of its particular players, the location of its particular ball park, the number of victories to its credit, the degree of vehemence among its fans. Every major-league club stands in relation to the fifteen others as a theme in music does to fifteen variations. For this article FORTUNE will give the theme sometimes to one club, sometimes to another: as to the Chicago Cubs, scored for strings, or the New York Yankees, scored for horns, or the Gashouse Gang in St. Louis–scored for brasses.
No, there is no typical club. But there is an average player–call him Henry W. (Hank) Jogue. In 1933 he was making local history on the sand lots of–call it Lorain, Ohio. Worked in a hardware store but wanted to play ball for a living. Somebody in Lorain wrote to somebody on the St. Louis Cardinals: “Heard about your farm system … fellow here named Henry Jogue, hits like all hell, picks sizzlers right up off the ground … would advise you look him over. Respec’ly yours.” One day there was a stranger in the crowd. Hank hit like all hell, picked sizzlers right up off the ground. The next day he had a contract to play with Lincoln, Nebraska, Class D. Had a bad start–a little too green: then suddenly he came to life, hit, stole a flock of bases, ended up on a rampage. Finished the season hitting .327. He jumped two hurdles in 1934, clean into Houston, Texas, Class A, making his first real money ($2,000 a year) and earning it. Houston, September 29. Hank Jogue, local third baseman, will go to Columbus in the American Association next year, it was announced today. In Columbus Hank went right on hitting, right on stealing bases, learned to handle fast double plays. Last year he graduated into the Big Time. Up there the competition’s fierce, and Hank’s no knockout. Just an average player, hits .284, fields .970, earns $4,500 a year. If the market becomes glutted with unusually fine infielders, he’ll have to go back where he came from. But the chances are good that he’ll hang on up there for many a year.
That’s the Hank Jogue of the box scores. But there’s also the fellow who signs his contracts, in a schoolboy hand, Henry W. Jogue–the fellow who is part of a large, revolving industry.
Henry W. Jogue’s occupation is still not a hundred years old. It started–as fun–in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. It didn’t become work until 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-salaried team. It got going in earnest in 1876, when the National League was formed. Chicago had Charter No. 1, Boston Charter No. 2, and they are the only clubs, it so happens, that have remained continuously in the league ever since. In the nineties it ran to twelve teams, including the famous Baltimore Orioles, who won three pennants in a row and had John J. McGraw at third base. In 1900 the circuit was cut down again to the eight clubs that have composed it ever since. The American League was organized in 1901, and at first the National League froze up on it. But in 1903 the two leagues made their peace, and since then most of their fighting has been confined to a lucrative scrap known as the World Series.
Since 1839 a great deal has happened to the Hank Jogues besides their coming out from behind their whiskers and playing ball in short pants. They have become tiny cogs in an industrial machine–a machine growing constantly more slick. Today, thanks to a special new lever known as the farm system, it works almost perfectly.
Hank’s pretty little climb up the ladder was really nothing but the machine in action. The day he left the sand lots he stopped being a free agent. The first contract he signed was the last one in which he had the right to pick his boss.* He played on one minor-league team after another that a big-league club either owned or controlled. He performed, less to thrill the fans of Lincoln or Houston than that eventually he might be worthy of thrilling the fans of Chicago or New York.
[*Exceptions: a player may be given his unconditional release at any time by the club holding his contract provided all rival clubs waive claim to him. If it can be proved that a club has Hank Jogue under contract in such a way as to violate baseball law–such as taking him direct from the sand lots to the big leagues–he can be declared a free agent by baseball’s final arbiter, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He then can sell himself to the highest bidder, as Tom Henrich sold himself this year for some $20,000 to the Yankees.]
Hank Jogue can’t bargain separately with ball clubs, as a musician can bargain separately with orchestras or an actor with producers. He works for a closed ring of proprietors, and it is the proprietors who make the rules. Once he signs up with, let us say, St. Louis, Hank is the property of St. Louis; when his contract expires he cannot accept more advantageous terms from, let us say, Philadelphia. He can only be sold or traded to Philadelphia. And when he starts downhill he can only go by sale or trade, be unconditionally released, or quit baseball.
Hank’s chattel status has been the same for years. But less than a generation ago he would have climbed into the major leagues by being passed from one boss to another. Today, with the farm system, it’s different. Thirty-odd minor leagues–ranging from Class AA at the top down through A-1, A, B, C, to D–form a compact hierarchy whose member clubs are nearly all under the ownership or partial control of the sixteen big-league clubs. It is “planned” baseball, with the minor leagues serving as prep schools for the majors. Hank Jogue steps from the sand lots fingerprinted, so to speak; already, while playing with a Class D team, he’s indirectly in the employ of a big-league team. The big-league team has “laid him down” for future use as a vintner lays down wine.
It was Branch Rickey, the St. Louis Cardinals’ brilliant Vice President, who, in 1921, created the farm system. Before then the major leagues were confronted by two difficulties: there was too much inequality and guesswork about obtaining players; there was too much chance of free-lance minor-league clubs’ collapsing after a disastrous season or two. In the past major-league clubs sometimes got first pick of minor-league players through “gentlemen’s agreements”—only minor-league owners weren’t always gentlemen. Later came the “working agreement,” by which the majors paid the minors direct option money–a method that still bulks largest in the farm system. But Rickey went further. He also bought minor-league clubs outright for St. Louis, and St. Louis operates them as it operates itself.
Today St. Louis, under Rickey’s generalship, controls thirty clubs, of which it owns thirteen. Besides the parent club these include three AA clubs–Rochester, Columbus, and Sacramento–and clubs in every other class except A. The chain system has brought St. Louis some of its greatest players–the Deans, Joe Medwick, Pepper Martin, Rip Collins (now with the Chicago Cubs); it contributed three-fifths of the men on its first great 1926 team; it contributed two-thirds of the men (as of May 10) on its this year’s team.
With St. Louis launching this campaign, other clubs eventually could not fail to follow suit. Soon after came the New York Yankees, who have the second-largest farm system. Later came others: some, like the Cincinnati Reds, because they were convinced of Rickey’s wisdom; some, like the Cleveland Indians, more or less in self-defense. Among clubs that have shown greatest resistance, even though by now they have partly fallen into line, the Cubs perhaps rank first. P. K. Wrigley, their owner, felt he hadn’t the time to get too deep into another side of baseball, though hiring a Rickey might have solved his problem. At any rate, in recent years the Cubs have acquired a number of players by buying them from other clubs.
The farm system has one great aim: to build up Hank Jogues for the parent club. Parent clubs do not hope to make money from the smaller clubs as separate performing units, and almost never do. St. Louis is budgeted to lose on operations $125,000 a year from its B clubs down; it seeks–but seldom gets–a $40,000 to $50,000 profit from each of its AA clubs, and during the past few years has built three new parks for them at a cost of $1,500,000. Where a team like St. Louis can make money, however, is in selling its overflow of material to other major-league organizations.
So, under the farm system, Hank Jogue is more than ever a chattel. The parent club can ship him from one minor-league team to another at virtually any salary it chooses. He is nowhere guaranteed a minimum salary, and in most minor leagues he is conditioned by the club’s salary limit. Furthermore, if Hank is an infielder worthy of the Big Time, and his parent club happens to be overstocked with worthy infielders already, it can keep Hank stuck away on the farm sometimes for years.
But Hank doesn’t seem to mind. Three attempts years ago to unionize players petered out, even though one, while it lasted, secured players such benefits as having the club pay for their uniforms and their traveling expenses in training season. Players, as owners are in a hurry to point out, are an individualistic race, and the stars, who could exert the most power, are the most individualistic of all. But a rank–and–file player like Hank is in much the same position that a rank-and-file actor was in before Actors’ Equity Association was formed, and has some of the same ends to gain from a union in organized baseball.
You might imagine that the men Hank works for, watching him bob up and down on his $4,500 treadmill and controlling an empire, are glacial, tight-lipped, efficiency-mad padrones. You might imagine them clutching their franchises with predatory, bony fingers. But, with a gloomy self-depreciation that can never quite conceal the radiant smugness behind it, club owners like to say that you have to be crazy to go into baseball. Sometimes the slogan is varied to the effect that you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps. Nor is this wholly a smoke-screen attitude, for though every good baseball man faithfully regards his job as a business, he can’t keep his emotions out of it and wouldn’t if he could. Furthermore, no amount of skepticism on the part of the public can destroy the fact that, however successful a ball club may turn out to be, nobody ever bought one because it represented the soundest way of making money. The potential risks are out of all proportion to the potential returns. The variables are out of all proportion to the constants.
Not all ball-club owners, it is true, are men of independent fortunes. In fact, two of the most famous–the late Barney Dreyfuss of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the late Charles A. Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox–built up their organizations by the sweat of their faces and depended upon them for a living. But what might be called bread-and-butter clubs are few in number; far oftener there is the comfortable sensation of having Ruppert beer, or Crosley radios, or Briggs bodies behind you. Most men have gone into baseball chiefly because they were fans. Even Barney Dreyfuss, it is told, always asked, “What was the score?” before he asked, “What was the gate?” And now and then men acquire ball clubs out of civic interest: Powel Crosley Jr. took over the Cincinnati Reds, and a group of businessmen have taken over the St. Louis Browns, chiefly to prevent their franchises from going to other cities.
True enough, Colonel Ruppert saw the New York Yankees as a darn good investment. And true again, Fan-Owner William Wrigley Jr.’s son P.K., to whom the Chicago Cubs descended at his father’s death in 1932, treats baseball as a straight business though he likes the game as a sport as well. (P.K., along with J. Louis Comiskey and Horace C. Stoneham, belongs in a special category of owner–what might be called the Second Generation Man, or the Man Who Has Baseball Thrust Upon Him.) Aiming at steady volume, he is using the merchandising methods on baseball that he uses on gum. He has taken advertisements, in midwinter, in the newspapers; he has plastered Chicago’s El with baseball posters; he has attempted to advertise the Cubs in taxicabs; he has arranged with Western Union to open a ticket agency in some hundred-odd of its Chicago branches; he has put the club on a budget, which in 1936 was only $1,000 out of the way. Possessing the money for a long-pull experiment of this kind, he may eventually create baseball fans as well as tempt those who already exist. But outsiders and other baseball men think that Wrigley is a step ahead of himself; say emphatically, moreover, that his policy could work only in a very large city like Chicago or New York.
The mixed sentiments of most baseball men have created a somewhat anomalous industry. The eight clubs in each league, in terms of putting on a show, are like partners; in terms of assembling a cast, like competitors. Yet actually they are neither. They do not really pool their finances, although they support a common organization; they do not really pit their finances against one another, although they are rival bidders in the market place. They are simply a confederation of businesses dependent upon one another for existence but militantly independent in their operations. Baseball, perhaps the most publicized commercial activity in America, is perhaps the most secretly operated. As President of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., P.K. Wrigley can stalk a rival gum company; but as President of the Chicago National League Ball Club he is pledged by the rules of the game not to stalk another club. (What he happens to hear is another matter.) The proper analogy for a big league is an interfraternity association. The members stand ganged up against the outsider, but each has his own grip and password.
But the secrecy inside baseball is nothing compared to that displayed toward the public. Shushing has become the byword of the industry. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some clubs keep their players’ salaries in code. Most clubs won’t tell you how much money they make or lose, though they will sooner tell you what they lose than what they make. Peculiarly yet logically enough, what causes this secrecy is the extremely public nature of the game itself. Just because every fan regards his team as a personal possession, he subconsciously disputes the owner’s right to it. For an owner to make too much money seems calculating–the reverse of public-spirited. Turn back your profits, yell the fans, into the ball team: buy more good players, fix up the ball park, cut the price of seats. So the shushing goes on, every club has its pet secrets, the Giants won’t give out even a lump sum on players’ salaries, the Cubs won’t breathe their attendance figures, the Pirates won’t say what percentage of the stock Mrs. Barney Dreyfuss owns.
But there’s nothing quiet about how a club gets its revenue. Listen, first and foremost, to the slapping down of bills and jingling of silver at the ticket booths. Listen, again, to the crunching of peanuts and crackling of popcorn in the stands. Listen to the radio booming out home games–which Wheaties (General Mills) or Mobiloil (Socony-Vacuum) or some other firm pays to broadcast, and which most clubs take advantage of. The Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers, who do not, insist that broadcasting hurts the gate. Notice, at the majority of ball parks, the screaming billboards on the fence. Some clubs, like the Chicago Cubs,* refuse to “mutilate” their park fences; but as an indication of possible returns, Charles A. Weber, the Cubs’ business manager, says he would gladly pay Mr. Wrigley $25,000 for the privilege of reselling the space. Your club owner also gets revenue from scorecard advertising; from renting out the park for prize fights, football games, rallies, and the like; and, finally, from selling players.
[*Only advertising at Wrigley Field consists of two Wrigley Gum imps perched on top of the four-story-high scoreboard.]
Of what he pays out, the largest amount goes into players’ salaries. For all sixteen clubs, salaries this year are reported to be in excess of $3,200,000–roughly half of total operating expenses. Individual payrolls differ considerably: the Yankees, probably baseball’s highest-priced team and including baseball’s currently highest-paid player (Lou Gehrig, $36,000), will cost this season around $370,000; the Pirates, by no means baseball’s lowest-priced team, will cost around $200,000.
For a breakdown of annual expenses, the Cubs for 1936 offer a good example of a higher-bracket club. Omitting concessions, plant depreciation, and reconstruction costs, and omitting any expenses in buying players, total operating costs came to $644,000. Of this $74,000 went into fixed charges, such as taxes and rent; $177,000 went into supplies, equipment, spring training, traveling expenses, and publicity. The remaining $393,000 went into direct labor of all kinds, that is, ground crews, ushers, and office force as well as players. Office force absorbed just $33,000; Wrigley himself draws no salary as President.
As for profit and loss, they run a fairly extensive gamut. Over the two-year period 1933-34, the Cubs lost $430,000; over the two-year 1935-36, they made $198,000. Last year nine of the sixteen clubs made money, two lost it, one broke even-and the remaining four won’t say what they did.
Without divulging the business of one club to another, the league offices act as clearinghouses and registry bureaus, regulate and supervise umpiring. Club owners or their representatives meet several times a year to approve the playing schedule; make, modify, or rescind the laws; agree upon new tactics or questions of policy. Each year sees one or two changes: this year, for example, it was voted to begin and end the season a week later than usual, since there is more likelihood of encountering rain and cold weather in April than in late September and early October. Next year, the modem “lively” ball will be stripped of some of its zoom.
Looming above all clubs and both leagues stands the Commissioner of Baseball, former U.S. District Judge Landis, who has been final arbiter of all disputes since the office of Commissioner was created in 1921 by vote of all sixteen clubs. Landis entered baseball at a ticklish moment, right after its worst scandal, when certain players on the Chicago “Black Sox” were accused of throwing the World Series to Cincinnati by accepting bribes from a pool of gamblers that included Arnold Rothstein. Before then, final jurisdiction had rested with a commission of three men–the two league Presidents and a club owner, the late “Garry” Herrmann of the Reds. This, to say the least, did not look well. Landis, a chest-thumping, vivid-spoken man past seventy–who as a judge once imposed a $29,000,000 fine (later reversed) on the Standard Oil Co. of Indiana–has the fighting look of a crusader, though his baseball record reveals no evidence of important crusades. But he remains the earnest of integrity that big-league baseball offers up to a public that sharply reacted (in cash as well as sentiment) to the game’s nastiest jam.
If you ask ballplayers about their work, their favorite comeback is: “The hours are good.” Nor do they mind what is frequently an economic snag–seasonal employment. When they hang up their uniforms in October, chances are less than even that they’ll go to work elsewhere; more likely they’ll get out their guns and fishing tackle for the fall, then wander south for some nice sunny rounds of golf. Not till after New Year’s need they think again of baseball.
After New Year’s, contracts arrive. Many players sign and return them at once; many others, however, have a way of discussing the matter with their wives, fathers, lawyers, and agents, and of reaching the conclusion that a ridiculously low estimate has been put on their playing ability. A month or more may be spent in reconciling differences of opinion, but when training season begins in late February or early March, most players have fallen into line. A few men hold out till after they are due in camp; occasionally somebody, like Red Ruffing of the Yankees this year, holds out till after the season opens. But in view of the alternative of having to quit baseball, almost nobody holds out for good.
Training season lasts six weeks to two months: part of it spent tuning up in camp, part in playing exhibition games. A player gets his expenses paid but draws no salary till the season opens. Spring training costs most clubs around $25,000; but it costs the Giants and Yankees $35,000 or $40,000, partly because they shoulder the expenses of twelve or fifteen, instead of the usual three or four, newspapermen. You can salvage a large part of training costs from exhibition games: the Cubs, this year, even showed a slight profit.
When the team has been punched into shape, it rides back to home grounds, but never for long. It spends half the season on the road, with a traveling secretary arranging for trains, transporting the baggage, herding the players into taxis (“Four to a cab, boys!”), straightening out the hotel bills. Years ago, when ballplayers had the reputation of being roughnecks, good hotels didn’t want them, but today good hotels compete for the trade. The Cubs, for example, use the Commodore in New York, the Copley-Plaza in Boston, the Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati. The boys sleep two to a double room. They used to get money for meals, but there was too much temptation to eat cheaply and pocket the difference, and today nearly all clubs make them sign for their meals at the hotel. Daily allowance with the Cubs is $4. A player’s only road expense, except for amusements, is laundry. His only equipment expense is for his gloves, shoes, and undersocks.
The boys may be glamorous fellows but they don’t lead glamorous lives. They lead pretty dull ones. A ballplayer has to combine the routine of a drummer on the road with the regimen of an athlete in training. If he breaks the rules, sooner or later he must suffer. The manager, who makes the rules, expects a few fumbles off the diamond as well as on, but, generally speaking, the rules work. The manager expects a player to be in bed, for example, by midnight, because he needs nine or ten hours’ sleep. The manager forbids him to drink anything stronger than beer, but a player will probably go off the rails now and then, and so long as he doesn’t come swaying into the clubhouse or staggering over the diamond, he will probably get away with it. Years ago there was a lot more hard drinking in baseball than there is today: John J. McGraw used to hire detectives to shadow some of his men. Still, only in 1930, Flint Rhem, then with the Cardinals, once disappeared for several days, turned up again much the worse for wear, to announce: “Bandits kidnapped me. They were gamblers, betting on Brooklyn. They pointed their guns at me and made me drink raw liquor for two days. It was awful!”
A ballplayer is usually married (got married in his early twenties), but his wife seldom goes with him on the road. Socially, it’s much the same to him whether he’s in St. Louis or Cleveland, Washington or Philadelphia, except that it’s five-to-one that he dislikes New York. For diversion, there is the dangerous lure of the movies, the siren voice of the popular magazine, the deadly wiles of pinochle or bridge for small stakes–poker and dice, like hard liquor, are usually against the rules. Now and then he may back a winner at Belmont or Washington Park, and he goes fairly often to the fights. Ballplayers and boxers often become friendly, since each likes the other’s game.
But for the most part the boys stick to themselves. Newspapermen see little of them: they seek them out for copy, but make it a point not to include them in drinking or gambling sessions. The manager sees even less of them: partly because it’s infra dig; partly because he doesn’t want to seem like a snooper; partly because he doesn’t want to form friendships that may lead to charges of favoritism. Umpires see them virtually not at all; following the “Avoid Suspicion” clause in their printed instructions, they never have meals or go on parties with the players, and usually travel on different trains and stop at different hotels. Bill Klem, baseball’s senior active umpire, who has been at the job for over thirty years, knows almost all ballplayers and is friendly with almost none. Klem, incidentally, believes he has never made a mistake umpiring a game: “I don’t call ’em as I see ’em, I call ’em as they are.” Even though they are goats on the diamond, most umpires enjoy their work; but away from the ball park road life sometimes can be very lonely, which is one reason Umpire “Dolly” Stark quit his job for a while. But the pay is good: Klem is reputed to earn $12,000 a year; most other umpires make from $5,000 to $10,000.
Far from ever killing a cat, a ballplayer’s curiosity would seldom kill a kitten. He is rarely concerned with what goes on in the world, whether it be Spain, the Soviet Union, the New Deal, or sit-down strikes. Rip Collins, who began life as a miner, displays no interest in John L. Lewis. There are many college men among the players today–“Tex” Carleton of the Cubs, Lou Gehrig and Johnny Broaca of the Yankees, Hank Greenberg of the Tigers, Luke Appling of the White Sox, Burgess Whitehead (who is also Phi Beta Kappa) of the Giants–but there is very rarely a highbrow. Moe Berg, who catches for the Red Sox, is one exception: he holds a law degree, has studied winters at the Sorbonne, and knows seven languages.
Among themselves, players go in for all the friendships you might expect, some of the hostilities, some practical joking that reminds you of The Rover Boys, and a good deal of rough weather, at times, for the rookie or sorehead. For the lighter side of hazing, take young Joe Marty playing his first big-league ball this year with the Cubs. One day when Rip Collins returned to the bench after hitting a home run, Marty rushed over to the water cooler to congratulate him; with an exquisite sense of the occasion, Collins thanked him by letting fly a mouthful of water.
The boys have their own lingo, though in a game so persistently replayed on paper, it’s not always clear where they have borrowed from sports writers and where sports writers have borrowed from them. Certainly “Annie Oakley” for a base on balls, or “papier-mâché” for a player easily hurt, smack strongly of the press box. But the well-known “cousin” for a pitcher easy to hit, and expressions like “barber” for a guy who talks too much, “strawberry” for a bruise, “sweetheart” for a star pitcher, and “rabbit ears” for a player who hears what is said about him, good or bad, smack more of the dugout.
Old-timers insist that players aren’t what they used to be, and that the game is getting too well-behaved. Today it’s not the umpire who’s threatened; he himself is the threat. If players still curse, they usually curse the universe. But certainly the present season has fallen short of Round Table perfection. Whole teams have become embroiled with each other, like the Giants and the Cardinals; Jerome H. Dean has been talking out of turn; the beanball–fired to hit the batter–has been a hot subject for discussion. The wages of unruliness is generally a fine: $25 for a minor offense, like getting into an argument and holding up the game; $50 for something more serious, like getting into a fight. But, as they put it in the clubs’ front offices, when your players are fighting so hard to win that they forget their bringing-up, you can’t expect them to foot the bill and fight so hard in the future.
Players have changed in other ways. There was a time when almost every other ballplayer had an Irish name (Detroit’s 1908 pennant winners included a Donovan, a Mullin, a Killian, a Coughlin, an O’Leary, and a Mcintyre); with German names like Wagner and Zimmerman and Schulte as runners-up. But today there’s a liberal sprinkling of Italian DiMaggios, Crosettis, and Mancusos; there’s a Polish Ogrodowski, a Lithuanian Malinosky, a Syrian Skaff, a Greek Kampouris. Most clubs today welcome a good Jewish player also, like Hank Greenberg of Detroit, or Phil Weintraub of Cincinnati, since he’s a sure-fire draw from the city’s Jewish population. There is no official ruling against Negro players, but there has never been one.
Formerly, too, the old-timers insisted that a man played ball because he loved it. But today, once the fever of the sand lots has burned itself out, most players are in the game for the money. Knowing their playing careers to be limited, they are looking above all for security. With most of them, even the limelight comes second. Unlike actors, the great run of them aren’t concerned with exploiting their personalities.
Yet great baseball personalities continue to flare up, as they did in the past with a Pop Anson, a Mathewson, a Ty Cobb, a Babe Ruth. No one is ever likely again to equal Ruth, but for sheer brass and base-stealing ability in the news columns, Dizzy Dean cuts a hardly less striking figure today. His fights with newspapermen, feuds with the league President, sit-down strikes on the mound, monkeyshines over choosing a bat, are too much a part of current Americana to need much restating here, but one fairly fresh anecdote may be added to the list. Seems that the Bees were arguing, in the privacy of their clubhouse, as to whether Dizzy’s teammate Medwick hit oftener to the left or right of the shortstop’s normal stance. A Boston player thought one way, Manager Bill McKechnie another. Suddenly a voice rang out, “Bill’s right!” and the startled team looked up to find Diz standing before them. Reminding him that he had no business breaking into their meeting, they witheringly invited him to be gone. Imperturbably, Mr. Dean continued: “Now don’t be silly. You listen to me. Last week the Pirates were having the same argument down in their dressing room, and they got left because they wouldn’t let me tell ’em.”
Men like Dizzy, however screwy their tactics, give baseball a tremendous lift. And men like him–most ballplayers, in fact–are forever being asked to speak at banquets, talk to boys’ clubs, appear at charity drives. They are also frequently asked to endorse commercial products. (Average price for most endorsements is around $100.) As it happens, there are cigarette endorsers, like Larry French of the Cubs, who don’t smoke.
How do you manage?
The manager runs the team. It is he and he alone who puts men in and yanks them out of the line-up, who determines all strategy, flashes all signals except those between pitcher and catcher, and makes all decisions. It is he too who enforces discipline, fines and benches players, has final say over their habits of living. Beyond that, his position varies. At one extreme, Bill Terry of the Giants has full power in the buying, selling, trading, and jockeying of players, being as much an operator as a manager; at the other extreme, last year Casey Stengel in Brooklyn was so much a subordinate that he once learned of a player deal from a reporter. But most managers work somewhere in between–in consultation with a higher-up. This may be the club owner, as it is in Detroit; the club President, as it is in Pittsburgh; or the general manager, as it is in Cincinnati.
Not all managers arrive by the same route. There are so few managing jobs that most ballplayers give them little thought. But players may get the bug (as Ruth did) when their playing days are numbered, and certain managers, like cocky Charlie Dressen of the Reds and mild-mannered Pie Traynor of the Pirates, have always had it. Some men, like Traynor, go straight into managing while they are players, then give up playing; others, like Jimmy Wilson of the Phillies, continue to play. Some, like Dressen, graduate from running minor-league clubs to running major-league ones. Joe McCarthy of the Yankees always wanted to rate the big leagues and knew he never could except as a manager.
It is pretty generally held by experts that a player manager is at a disadvantage. Of recent years there have been many such–Wilson, Hornsby, Terry, Frisch, Cronin, Cochrane; and there have been great player managers in the past, notably Frank (Tinker-to-Evers-to-) Chance of the old Cubs’ team. But handling two jobs at once takes an awful lot out of you.
Managers are far from alike. John J. McGraw was an autocrat, and so is Rogers Hornsby of the Browns, who handles his players simply as so many pawns. Mickey Cochrane of Detroit is a different, an “inspirational” type, all energy; whereas a still different type is Charlie Grimm of the Cubs, who talks to a player as one guy to another. Most managers are fairly popular; despite his unpopularity with reporters and cold-fish attitude toward the public, the most popular of all with his team is probably Bill Terry.
What a manager needs most, besides a thorough knowledge of the game, is an ability to think fast in a particular situation. But most managers, in any given situation, play percentages far oftener than hunches; hunches are too dangerous. Yet playing percentages doesn’t mean depending on mechanical tactics; you must try to be a step ahead of your opponent. Thus, what the game calls “crossing ’em up” happens frequently, though what the game calls “trick plays” may happen only once a season against any team. Example of crossing ’em up: with none out, and men on first and second, the batter is instructed to hit hard rather than perform his classical role of sacrifice bunter. Example of a trick play: with men on first and third, the man on first starts for second (the orthodox beginning of a double steal); the catcher, along equally orthodox lines, makes a feint of throwing to second, then wheels round to nip the man on third in his attempt to steal home; but Man No. 2 has stayed safely near third, and it is now too late to catch Man No. 1 at second.
Most managers agree about what a player must have to start off with. He must have speed and a throwing arm (it is possible to improve your hitting); if a pitcher, he must have a fast ball (it is possible to acquire curves and control). But in the long run, control alone will make or break a pitcher: the only kind of wild pitcher to play along with is a wild genius, like Brooklyn’s Van Lingle Mungo.
A manager has to nurse, soothe, shock, wheedle, bull y his players as their temperaments require. He has to have an eye for knowing whether a player is holding down the right position or should be shifted elsewhere. Men are often shifted around the infield or outfield, but otherwise about 95 per cent stay put after reaching the big leagues. Most players don’t mind being belatedly turned into, say, a left fielder or a second baseman, but they hate being turned into catchers–the catcher is the bull fiddler of baseball. Rarest reshuffle of all is to make a man into a pitcher: Bucky Walters of the Phillies is one of the few to whom it has happened. Managers are pretty well agreed about the game’s most valuable players today. No one denies that Hubbell is baseball’s greatest southpaw, few deny he is the greatest pitcher. Dizzy romps home an easy second. Pitchers aside (and pitchers always come first), most votes go to Joe Medwick or Lou Gehrig, both great hitters. As to what managers think of other managers, they rate Connie Mack and Bill Terry tops. And Branch Rickey is “the smartest man in baseball.”
What lifts the game out of any limited pigeonhole to the level of life itself is the crowd. In one sense, you can box off the crowd by calling them customers. You can think of some 55,000 customers watching the Giants and the Cards at the Polo Grounds last June, when Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean opposed each other in the first game of a double-header. But if the Man from Mars, or even from Marseille, had been squeezed–and it would have required a lot of squeezing that day–in to the middle of the grandstand, he must have thought differently. To him, that packed, shouting, hysterical crowd must have indicated some great crisis in the life of a whole people, and whatever was happening down there on the field must have had the power to weld them together.
It had. There is an amazing camaraderie among fans. Watch them spotting one another and talking up the game while jammed in the trolley or the El or subway on the way out to the park. Getting all of them out there is a job in itself. The transit companies keep in touch, as a rule, with the ball club, to know how many extra cars or trains to run. And on big days there’s a fine parking snarl for automobiles; at the Yankee Stadium there may be 5,000 of them. Usually the only answer possible is a line of cars, overflow of parking yards, stretching in all directions. Out in Chicago P.K. Wrigley has toyed with the idea of raising the stands at Wrigley Field and installing a huge parking space beneath them, but at present he is spending too much money elsewhere to do more than toy.
Watch the fans arguing about a game that hasn’t been played yet while they buy their tickets. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a seat in the bleachers at fifty-five cents or a top-price seat in a box at $1.65 ($2 in Pittsburgh, $2.20 at both New York parks and in Brooklyn). Watch them surge in, fussing around to find just the seat they‘re after, particularly in the grandstand, where some of them would explode if they didn’t sit between third and home, and others if they didn’t sit between home and first.
Watch them, now they’re seated, getting hungry. In a great year, like 1929 at Wrigley Field, they’ll tear into 457,000 hot dogs, guzzle 570,000 bottles of pop, empty 267,000 bags of peanuts, put away 388,000 slabs of ice cream. On a hot day, your average rooter spends eighteen cents, netting your average concessionaire a profit of a dime. All the same, less than half the clubs run their own concessions; the others would rather take a juicy cut and let the other fellow hire the vendors and keep the books. The other fellow, at five eastern parks, is Harry M. Stevens, Inc.; at three western parks Jacobs Brothers.
Watch the fans swapping baseball dope in lulls during the game. Some of them could almost match Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide. Thinking all the way back to the beginning of the century, they’ll make known to you that Hornsby holds the batting record–.424 in 1924; that Lefty Grove holds the full-season pitching record—thirty-one and four in 1931; that the Cubs set a Won-and-Lost record in 1906–116 games to 36. And that the Athletics set a Lost-and-Won record in 1916–117 games to 36. They’ll tell you that the Browns are the only team that has never won a pennant, and the Tigers the only team that has never ended up in eighth place. They’ll reel off that the Giants have won the most pennants, namely twelve, and have the highest average for league standing, namely just above third place.
That’s nothing. They’ll also tell you that the Phillies’ park, famous for its short right-field “home run” fence, holds the fewest people (18,500); and that the Yankee Stadium holds the most (85,000 by the end of this year) and cost the most to build ($3,000,000). And they’ll be glad to explain that of the fifteen ball parks–for of course you know that the two St. Louis teams share the same one–twelve are owned by the clubs.
It is difficult to determine what bearing the location of a ball park has in fetching fans. In Chicago, the location of the Cubs’ park on the North Side and of the Sox park on the South Side has created a lucrative regional rivalry. The Cubs’ park, hard by a well-to-do residential section, draws a tremendous number of women fans. Many are steady customers; many more are simply Ladies’ Day faithfuls who get in free. Ladies’ Day at Wrigley Field is so popular that the Cubs now have to limit their passes to 20,000, which sometimes isn’t enough to go around. At Wrigley Field you might also once have seen Al Capone surrounded by his henchmen. Or another gangster named Bugs Moran who (while the papers ran huge headlines reading Where Is Bugs Moran?) was sitting day after day in the ball park. The Sox park is in the heart of an industrial center, near Chicago’s large Negro belt. (Negroes are fair fans.) The two clubs play up the rivalry for all it is worth, but it is probably less intense than they make it out to be and certainly less today than it once was. Most parks are in industrial centers, or in or near lower-class residential sections. This is far from a drawback, for most real rooters are workers and white-collar people. Navin Field in Detroit, however, is close to the center of town; Forbes Field in Pittsburgh lies next to lovely Schenley Park; and the Bees’ park in Boston is close to fashionable Brookline.
Though population is an immense asset, it is not an infallible yardstick, for there are naturally good baseball towns and naturally bad ones. Probably the best major-league city is Brooklyn, with Boston and Detroit the next best, and New York and Chicago good because of their size. Rated the poorest are St. Louis and Philadelphia: they become ennuyé even of pennant winners (probably one reason why Connie Mack had twice to break up his highly successful but expensive Athletics). Last year the Browns in St. Louis showed what a poor team in a poor town can look forward to: their total paid attendance for seventy-seven home games sagged to 93,000. The record high is around 1,500,000, achieved by the Yanks in 1928 and perhaps equaled by the Cubs in 1929 and 1930.
But in the main, so far as packing in the crowd goes, it’s not where the team plays, but how. It’s a winning team that makes the fans hoarse and the owner rich. And if it isn’t a winner, as Joe McCarthy puts it, you could install armchairs and serve a free lunch at the end of the sixth inning, and the crowd still wouldn’t come. Next to a winning team comes a close race: the fans want a fight as well as a finish. And after that comes personality on the ball field, whether in individual players or whole teams. Babe Ruth was a legend for the provinces; the Gashouse Gang from St. Louis tilts the road gate today partly under the heading of vaudeville. (Best drawing cards on the road are the Yankees and Tigers in the American League, the Giants and Cardinals in the National.)
But a winning team in a close race, all tricked out with glitter, can still come to grief. On crucial days the skies may open and the rain descend. Or injuries may cripple a team all rarin’ to go, as they did the Tigers last year, with Cochrane and Greenberg out of the line-up.
Finally, general economic conditions can mow down the most enthusiastic crowd in the world. The depression, reaching its baseball nadir in 1934, cut into gate receipts everywhere, although at the very beginning, when idle men still had money in their pockets, it boosted the gate a little. Pittsburgh, for example, with a team that finished second in both 1932 and 1933, was both years in the red.
But one part of any crowd can snap its fingers at depressions–the part that gets in free. The pass gate always does well. There are Boys’ Club Days at every park, Ladies’ Days at every park but the Yankees’. And there is a long line of such people as stockholders, politicians, clergymen, newspapermen, and a “friend of a friend,” who slide through on “pink slips.” New York and Chicago have particularly heavy free lists; last year, all told, the Cubs had 309,000 unpaid admissions.
The night has a thousand eyes
If the farm system is the great new move for players and owners, night baseball is the great new wrinkle for the fans. The idea itself isn’t new; a night game was played in Fort Wayne, Indiana, way back in 1883. But only since 1930 has night ball become a featured part of minor-league schedules and a godsend for minor-league attendance; and only since 1935 has Cincinnati–the only big-league club to play it at the moment–got under way with a $60,000 lighting system. In Cincinnati it has drawn tremendously: the seven regulation night games drew some 120,000 people
in 1936. Both St. Louis teams plan to play at night next season; as Sam Breadon of the Cards puts it, “It gives you seven extra Sundays a year.”
Cincinnati finds that night ball draws a new kind of fan: the sort that wants outdoor amusement on a warm night; the sort that works weekdays and drives to the country or plays golf weekends; husbands and wives spending their evenings together. But despite Cincinnati’ s success, most other clubs oppose the idea. They insist that the quality of the game suffers from too much glare in some parts of the field and too little light in others; that night ball keeps both players and spectators up too late; that in many cities it gets too cool for the fan’s comfort or the player’s welfare; that the game can’t be properly reported in the morning papers, with consequent loss of valuable publicity. Further, almost all big-league players dislike it. The Giants, acting within their rights, refuse to play the Reds at night, and the Yanks say they will refuse to play the Browns at night next year
The clash over night ball involves something fundamental. Those who favor it, with its “shopping” type of fan, its brass bands and fireworks, feel they can cash in on baseball as a form of general amusement. But the majority who oppose it see baseball as a tense competition involving violent partisanship, and prefer to put all their eggs in the basket of the stanch partisan. He doesn’t want brass bands; he doesn’t think of baseball as just an alternative to the movies; he regards it as something permanent in his life.
But whatever the future course of the game and whatever the future risks, there is no likelihood of its ever passing into civic or government hands. As long as the U.S. remains a democracy, baseball will voice the democratic emotions of the crowd. But equally, as long as the U.S. remains a democracy and therefore sanctions private enterprise, baseball will be rigidly controlled by private capital. The two facts may be complementary, or they may be contradictory; but whichever they are, they express, on a smaller scale, the basic character of the nation itself.