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When baseball was America’s Game

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Nickel seats and radio

President Calvin Coolidge throwing out the ball before opening game of the 1924 World Series
politico.com

Once upon a time, baseball was by far the most beloved sport in America. Let’s throw it back to a time of nickel seats, two-hour games, radio only, and playing the game literally anywhere—at any time. The first half of the 1900s featured the likes of Ty Cobb, Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig but the game of baseball would give us more than just folk heroes.

Participation in the sport was at an all-time high in the 1920’s. It was almost uncommon during this time period if you weren’t on an amateur team or at least going out after work and playing pickup games. One league (The Coalfield Leagues) really showed how baseball was America’s Game. During the first four centuries of the 1900’s, coalfield baseball was thriving, and the level of play was so high they were at an even playing field with any of the professional minor league baseball teams across the country. The coal mines would look for good players and give them the jobs above ground and more time off. This was a period where someone could earn a lot more money digging in the coal mines than playing professional baseball.

The southern Appalachia region of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia hosted the Coalfields. The games always took place on Sundays after church. Big crowds gathered and the atmosphere was electric as the fans cheered on their favorite teams. The game took a more important place in history though, as it broke down ethnic/racial barriers. Baseball became more than just a sport.

The sport was enjoyed by literally everyone in the first half of the 20th century. The game still had its scandals—as the 1919 Black Sox scandal will live on in infamy (Shoeless Joe should be in the Hall of Fame, but we won’t talk about that right now). However, the good outweighed the bad and it gave everyone an escape from reality. The game of baseball became something that a father and son could do without talking. Simply just throwing the ball back and forth with one another became a way to bond. But baseball wasn’t just for fathers and sons.

The game tried to get women involved as far back as 1883 by introducing Ladies Days (free entrance). This attempted to created a reason for women to care about a game that had previously been billed as “for men.” It sure did work, as the 1929 Chicago Cubs had over 200,000 ladies come to the games throughout the season. As the attendance soared, the Ladies Day promotion would diminish but ladies everywhere were hooked on the game of baseball, and the game remained affordable as well.

The price of games during the first half of the 20th century meant nearly everyone could get into the gates. In the late 1910’s, you could buy a bleachers seat for a nickel ($1.36 in 2020 dollars) and get a grandstand seat for 50 cents (13.58 today.) Average price to take a family of four to an MLB game this past year (including tickets, food, and transportation) was a little over $200. A star player coming into 1920 was lucky to make $10,000 for a season (just under $130k in 2020 money.) The pace of play in 1928 was 1 hour and 55 minutes compared to 3 hours and 10 minutes in 2019. You could even purchase a ticket to a game for $1 in the late 1920’s. Yes, that means we only needed a $1 to have seen Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig during those years. That dollar would be less than thirteen dollars today.

The first radio broadcast for an MLB game took place in 1921 and it was the only way you knew what was going on during the game—until the first televised game in 1939. For almost two decades, people gathered around listening to their radio waiting to hear what happened next. You would have been listening to Graham McNamee in 1924 when the Washington Senators won game seven of the World Series. In the bottom of the 12th, you would have heard when he told you Earl McNeely hit a grounder past Freddie Lindstrom and score home Muddy Ruel from second with the World Series’ winning run! The earliest broadcasts were sent from the stadium to the local radio affiliates by telegraph, where an announcer would fill in the details.

The first half of the 20th century seems like it was a magical time to watch baseball. With nickel to $1 seats, radio only games, and leagues that played for the love of the game. This seems like a dream for baseball fans everywhere.

In my baseball time machine, I would enter the year 1905 and get on the train with then-rookie Ty Cobb. I would go on the 20-game road trip (that lasted from May 29th to June 23rd) and write about what it was like to see the greatest hitter ever play in his first season.