History of Baseball: The National Pastime 1920-1930

The third decade of baseball as we know it started out on a rather negative note on August, 16th 1920 when Carl Mays, a pitcher with a bad reputation, threw a fastball that hit the Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman in the side of the head. A reporter from the Washington Star stated that

“So terrific was the blow that the report of impact caused the spectators to think the ball had struck his bat. Mays,âÂ?¦acting under this impression, fielded the ball which rebounded halfway to the pitcher’s box and threw it to first base to retire Chapman.”

In reality the ball had struck Chapman’s temple and after taking two steps he collapsed with blood running from both ears. He was carried from the field and died the next morning becoming major league baseballs first fatality. There was talk of pressing charges against Mays but it never happened. Baseball was still a sport of the people and while the death was unfortunate it was part of the game. Chapman was not the first man killed by a pitcher during a game but because of his death the rules of baseball were changed.

The officials decided that pitches that altered the ball would be banned. The only pitchers allowed to continue the practice were those whose lively hood depended upon their famous pitches. With this new rule the focus of the crowd turned from the pitcher to the batter and one of the first new batting stars was Babe Ruth.

While Babe Ruth and other new players were busy hitting home runs society as a whole was suffering from the continuing problem of racism. Race riots affect twenty-six cities sand the worst was in Chicago when a young black man was stoned to death after floating to close to a white beach. Of all the bloodshed and violence some good came out of the riots.

The feelings among some members of the black population decided it was no longer time to be fearful of the rest of America. It was time to take charge of the future and taking this feeling to heart Andrew “Rube” Foster started putting together the Negro National League. Finally black baseball players would have a chance to be part of a true major league. Until that time black players were constantly shut out of the major leagues by white owners and white players who refused to be on a team with black players.

There were a few teams that had Cubans who were light skinned playing on the team but even that was considered pushing it. Reporters commented on the coloring of these players and many doubted that fans would be willing to pay to see a team that included black players. Rather than lose prejudiced, but established, stars and fan base it was easier to keep black players from joining the league.

There were eight teams in Foster’s league and he was tough on the players insisting that they win and play an aggressive, fast-moving, baseball game. He fined each player five dollars if they were tagged out standing because they were supposed to ‘slide’ into the base. The league was a huge success as four hundred thousand black fans turned out to see the teams. It was a chance for young black men to see true professional black baseball stars and for other members of the black community to see others of their race being part of a well known, highly respected sport.

The Negro National League did not last long though. White business owners, wanting a piece of the action, created rival teams and another organization. Eventually many of Foster’s stars left to play for the white-owned teams and Foster eventually had to be institutionalized and died four years later.

While white owners recognized the potential of black players and saw how many were extremely talented they were not able to overcome the years of segregation that was a part of every day life. John McGraw saw the Monarchs win a game thanks to the pitching of Jose Mendez; a dark skinned Cuban, and said that he would happily pay him $50,000 if only he were white. His thoughts were echoed by many and while as players they could see that black players were just as good as white they would not sign them because baseball, like everything else, was segregated.

Born George Herman Ruth, Jr. on February 6th 1985 he was one of the only two surviving children born to his parents out of 7 pregnancies. Babe Ruth learned the game of baseball after his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. He was so good that at the age of 8 years old he was allowed to play with the 12 year old boys.

At the age of 19 Babe Ruth was discovered by the owner of the Baltimore Orioles and when he came to bat he hit the ball so hard that he was able to walk around the bases. Within months he was bought by the Boston Red Sox as a pitcher and Babe Ruth couldn’t be happier. After spending the majority of his life in St. Mary’s he was happy to be out in the world and even married the 16 year old waitress he met in a coffee shop on his first day in Boston.

He quickly became the Red Sox’s greatest player winning 89 games in six seasons. Chances are Babe Ruth would have continued to make the Red Sox greats until the team was bought by H. Harrison Frazee who loved Broadway a bit more than he loved baseball. In 1920 he sold Babe Ruth’s contract to the Yankee’s so that he could finance a production. The sale proved to be a mistake as Ruth went on to hit 54 home runs for New York in 1920, 25 more than he hit the previous year, and for the first time in baseball history more than a million fans turned out to see him play.

There were other famous batters who were great players in their own right but none captured the attention of the reporters or the fans the way Babe Ruth did. He was flamboyant with a personality that fit the roaring twenties. He made more money than other players and seemed determined to spend every penny of it. When asked what it was like to room with Babe Rube while on the road a teammate, Ping Bodie, answered

“I don’t room with him, I room with his suitcase.”

While Babe Ruth was gaining fame and followers the suit filed by the old Federal Leagues Baltimore team owners finally came before the Supreme Court. The Court upheld that baseball was indeed a business but “Personal effort put out by baseball players could not be construed as a subject of commerce”. In the in the end antitrust laws would not apply to baseball. Though it would later apply to other sports at the time the court did not want to do anything that might disrupt the National Pastime and possibly anger the fans and owners.

Meanwhile Babe Ruth continued to his sometimes crude and abrasive nature. He was loud and abusive to umpires and fans during games which resulted in suspensions from games. When he was finally taken to task on how his behavior affected the younger fans who were being allowed to watch the games by their mothers he promised to reform. Even in those days owners and managers understood the relationship the teams had with their fans. The success of the sport depended upon the fans continuing to come to games and while Babe Ruth’s behavior was great subject matter for reports it diminished the family friendly atmosphere of baseball and the stadiums.

His reform did not last long and on April 9th, 1925 Babe Ruth collapsed during spring training. The disease was never explained and many it suspected it was a venereal disease caught during one of his many visits to whorehouses. On the day before Babe Ruth was due to return the Yankee’s debuted a new player, Lou Gehrig. Lou became a popular player and hit almost as many home runs as Babe Ruth without any of his less desirable behaviors.

A year later Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker suddenly left baseball. Ty Cobb had been managing the Tigers as well as playing and it was known that he was not at all fond of Babe Ruth’s style or behavior. While curious reporters tried to figure out why the two well known players had suddenly quit the game Judge Landis let it be known that both men had been involved in the 1919 World Series scandal and that Ban Johnson had permitted the two to retire in order to avoid scandal. The damage done by bringing these accusations to light caused Johnson to collapse twice and then finally leave his job.

Meanwhile Babe Ruth was determined that he would distance himself from Lou Gehrig and be known as the batter with the most home runs. He vowed to beat his own record and hit 61 home runs in a single season. Babe managed to hit all 60 home runs and it was believed that no one would ever beat his record. His success was later dimmed when, in 1929, Babe’s first wife Helen Ruth died in a fire. Three months following his death Babe married his long time mistress Claire Ruth who took over his finances and his career. In August Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run and shortly after Wall Street crashed bringing an end to the twenties and singling the beginning of the Great Depression.

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