electricity almost ruined baseball -- 3/28/17

Today's selection -- from The Selling of the Babe by Glenn Stout. By 1918, the popularity of baseball was dwindling because electricity had made so many new forms of entertainment available -- dance halls, recorded music, nickelodeons and more. Baseball was saved by the arrival of the home run era, made possible by the introduction of a livelier baseball and home run stars, especially the inimitable Babe Ruth:

"[In the 1910s], the spread of electricity and the affordability of the automobile had ushered in the greatest transformation in American society to date. Every­thing America had ever been suddenly seemed old and out of date.

Lubin Nickelodeon on
Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

"That included the game of baseball. The recent failure of the Federal League underscored the trouble in the game. Baseball had thrived for years as the national pastime primarily because there was no alternative, really­ -- nothing other than vaudeville and the theater to occupy workers' few spare moments. But the spread of electricity offered new outlets -- the nick­elodeon, recorded music and nightclubs and dance halls. In less than a decade, the number of minor leagues had tumbled from more than fifty to only ten by 1918. Major league attendance had peaked at more than seven million in 1909 and then dropped steadily to barely half that. The game's long-term survival was hardly assured. Twenty years before, bicycle racing had been nearly as popular as baseball. Now, almost every city of any size sported an empty or abandoned velodrome. In a few years, the ballpark risked a similar fate.

"The game was boring. No one would say it aloud, but that was the truth. The men who ran the game had been brought up with baseball in the 1880s and 1890s and still thought it should be played the way it had been then. 'Scientific,' inside baseball ruled and managers such as Connie Mack and the Giants' John McGraw were considered stars as much as any player, bril­liant tacticians who controlled their men as if chess pieces, squeezing out runs through a combination of bunts, scratch base hits, stolen bases, and sacrifices.

Babe Ruth during practice in 1916

"Unfortunately, that mixture was becoming ever more predictable, and more rare. At its highest level, such as in the World Series, the style of play made every pitch, like the move of every pawn, replete with meaning and significance. But for the rest of the year, players and managers alike too often simply went through the motions as if they couldn't wait to get off the field. In one spring training game in 1918, the Red Sox and Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) played seven full innings in only thirty minutes. It was only an exhibition, but still ... More often the only people who really enjoyed the contests were die-hard insiders and the men who whiled away their afternoons making 'do they or don't they' bets in stands, arcane wagers based on the intricacies of the game, like whether the next hit would be in the air or on the ground, regardless of the score.

"Since 1901 the total number of runs scored per game had dropped by nearly four and was showing no signs of increasing as improvements in gloves (they were bigger), field conditions (they caused fewer errors), and pitching approach combined to make it ever more difficult to score runs. Now almost every pitcher either threw a spitball or scuffed the ball in some way to make it move and dart erratically, all of which made runs more precious."

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Glenn Stout


The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend


Thomas Dunne Books


Copyright 2016 by Glenn Stout


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