Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.
Tigers’ left fielder Hank Greenberg was named the American League’s Most Valuable player on October 26, 1940 for the second time in his career. He hit .340 for the year with 41 home runs and 150 RBIs. Having won the award in 1935 as a first baseman, Greenberg thus became the first player in major league history to win an MVP award at two different positions.
Jim ‘Nixey’ Callahan threw the White Sox’s first no-hitter in franchise history on September 20, 1902, defeating the Tigers, 2-0. In addition to pitching in eight out of his thirteen Major League seasons, Callahan was a utility player who also played left field.
Senators’ pitcher Walter Johnson made his Major League debut on August 2, 1907 in a game against the Detroit Tigers in Washington. Ty Cobb had a bunt single for the first hit ever against Johnson. Detroit won the game, 9-6.
Deacon McGuire was a baseball player, coach, and manager in the major leagues during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. His professional career began in 1883 at the age of 19, and lasted until 1915. He was known as the most durable catcher of his time, setting major league records for most career games caught (1,612), putouts (6,856), assists (1,860), double plays turned (143), runners caught stealing (1,459), and stolen bases allowed (2,529).
James Thomas McGuire was born in Youngstown, Ohio on November 18, 1863, during the Civil War. He grew up in Cleveland, where he learned to play baseball on the streets, then later moved to Albion, Michigan where he worked as an apprentice iron molder, playing baseball during the weekends. His large hands proved ideal for playing catcher.
Playing baseball for a team in Hastings, Michigan, McGuire first drew attention catching for a pitcher named Charles “Lady” Baldwin. Baldwin was known for his “snake ball,” and McGuire gained a reputation as the only catcher who could handle the pitch. In 1883, McGuire began his professional career with the minor league Terre Haute Awkwards in Indiana.
In 1884, McGuire signed with the Cleveland Blues of the National League. He was released shortly thereafter, however, and signed with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. He made his major league debut with the Blue Stockings in June of 1884. He shared the catching responsibilities with Moses Fleetwood Walker, who is credited as being one of the first African-American players in Major League Baseball, each catching 41 games. McGuire only hit .185 at the plate, and the Blue Stockings came in eighth place out of thirteen with a 46-58 record.
Starting out the 1885 season, McGuire played 16 games with the minor league Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western League. He and eight of his teammates then signed with the Detroit Wolverines of the National League, upon the disbanding of the Western League. With the Wolverines, McGuire caught 31 games as backup to primary catcher Charlie Bennett, who caught 62 games. McGuire hit .190 in 121 at bats, and the Wolverines finished 41-67.
McGuire then spent the 1886 and 1887 seasons with the Philadelphia Quakers. While 1886 proved another poor offensive season for McGuire, hitting .198, the 1887 season proved to be a year of dramatic improvement, as he hit .307 in 150 at-bats. His two-year stint with a single team came to a close as 1888 saw him bounce from Philadelphia for 12 games, back to Detroit for three games, then onto Cleveland for 26 games. 1889 saw McGuire return to the minors with the Toronto Canucks of the International League, where he batted .282 in 93 games.
In 1890, McGuire returned to the big leagues with the Rochester Broncos of the American Association. He batted .299 with a .356 on-base percentage, .408 slugging, and 53 RBIs.
In 1891, he joined the Washington Statesmen of the American Association (which later became the Senators of the National League), where he would finally stay for nine seasons. He led all starters in batting with a .303 average in 1891. In 1892, however, he only hit .232 and led the league’s catchers in stolen bases allowed. The Senators finished that season in 10th place out of twelve teams. The 1893 season saw McGuire splitting time at catcher with Duke Farrell, playing 50 games behind the plate while Farrell caught 81. In spite of his limited playing time, McGuire committed 27 errors and the Senators finished in last place with a 40–89 record.
Farrell was traded to the New York Giants in 1894, leaving McGuire to carry the catching load. McGuire’s performance at the plate experienced a recovery, as he hit .306 with 78 RBIs for the 11th-place Senators. The following season, 1895, would prove the best of his career.
In 1895, McGuire caught all 133 games of the season, which set a major league record at the time. He led the team with a .336 batting average, which included 48 extra bases hits, 10 home runs, 97 RBIs (which also led the team), and 17 stolen bases. He also threw out 189 base runners attempting to steal, a record that stands to this day. Unfortunately, the Senators as a team didn’t fare nearly as well, finishing the season 43-85 and in tenth place.
McGuire had another solid season in 1896. He hit .321 and led the majors in games caught at 98 (Duke Farrell had been traded back to Washington, this time as McGuire’s backup). He led the National League in putouts; however, he also led the NL in errors and stolen bases allowed. That year, the Senators finished in ninth place at 58-73. In 1897, McGuire caught 73 games to Farrell’s 63. Both catchers had a solid year at the plate, as McGuire hit .343 and Farrell hit .322. The team improved to 61-71, which put them in sixth place.
McGuire’s performance waned in the 1898 season, hitting .268. After beginning 1899 with the Senators, McGuire found out in July that he had been traded to the star-studded Brooklyn Superbas, joining Duke Farrell yet again. He hit .318 in 46 contests with Brooklyn, posting a .385 on-base percentage and .446 slugging. The team finished 101–47 to win the National League pennant.
In 1900, McGuire once again shared catching responsibility with Farrell, with McGuire handling 69 games at the position and Farrell 76. McGuire finished with a .286 batting average and .348 on-base percentage. During one game in 1900, McGuire threw out seven runners attempting to steal second base. Brooklyn won its second consecutive pennant with a 82–54 record.
Brooklyn dropped to third place in 1901 with McGuire hitting .296 and catching 81 games. Then in 1902, McGuire was traded to Detroit in the American League, where he was the oldest player on the team at the age of 38. He caught 70 games and hit .227. He raised his batting average to .250 in 1902, but Detroit was never a contending team.
In February 1904, Detroit sold McGuire to the New York Highlanders, where he spent his final years as a full-time player. In spite of the fact that he was now 40 years old, he caught 97 games and played in 101 total, though his batting average fell to .208. In 1905, he caught 71 games and hit .219, and in 1906, McGuire played in 51 games and hit .299.
After taking a year to open a saloon with his brother George, McGuire joined the Boston Red Sox in 1907, primarily as a manager. The team finished 45–61 in 1907 and 53–62 in 1908, with McGuire making occasional playing appearances as a pinch hitter. In September of 1908, he signed on with the Cleveland Indians, first as a player. He took over as manager in 1909, replacing Nap Lajoie partway through the season. In 1910 McGuire managed his only full season, as the Cleveland club finished 71-81 and came in fifth place. He caught one game, going 1-for-3 at the plate. In 1911, McGuire resigned after the club started with a 6-11 record and would never manage in the big leagues again.
In 1912, McGuire signed with the Detroit Tigers as a pitching coach. In May of 1912, when the Detroit players refused to play in protest over the suspension of Ty Cobb for attacking a fan, Detroit was forced to come up with a substitute team for a game in Philadelphia. McGuire took to the field as one of the Tigers’ replacement players. He went 1-for-2 and scored a run in what would be his final major league game, but the Tigers lost the game by a score of 24–2.
McGuire served as a coach with the Tigers until 1915 and he remained associated with the club as a scout until he fully retired in 1926. He returned to Albion, where he coached the Albion College team in 1926. Finally, he retired from baseball altogether.
Jim McGuire’s nickname “Deacon” supposedly came from his gentlemanly, fair-play approach to the game. Most accounts support the widely-held claim that he was never fined or ejected from a game. According to some sources, he never drank, though according to others, he had been a heavy drinker for years before becoming a teetotaler. He wasn’t a flamboyant player, but he had a reputation for being a hard worker, and was considered a legend in his hometown of Albion.
His work ethic included a willingness to play through injury, which contributed greatly to his durability. He reportedly broke every finger in each of his hands over the course of his career, leaving him with grotesquely gnarled hands, as depicted by this 1906 x-ray:
This was a time, of course, that predated the advent of padded catcher’s mitts and other modern protective equipment. To help protect his hands, McGuire was reported to have slipped a piece of steak into his glove. According to his wife, the steak resembled hamburger by game’s end.
McGuire died of pneumonia in 1936 at the age of 72.
April 28, 1934 turned out to be a rough day for Tigers outfielder Leon Allen “Goose” Goslin. On this day, the future Hall of Famer ground into four consecutive double plays. Fortunately, Goslin’s offensive performance didn’t permeate the entire Tigers roster, as Detroit still defeated the Indians, 4-1.
There are so many inappropriate things that I could say about this graphic, but in the interest of keeping this blog rated PG, I’ll opt to refrain and allow my readers to snicker surreptitiously. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this ad was originally published in a 1976 Tigers scorebook.