The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever.
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.
World War I broke out in late-July 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, though it was not until April 1917 that the United States officially entered the war. America had remained neutral in the conflict, at least until German U-boats began to strike at ships with Americans passengers on them. In retaliation, the United States declared war on Germany mere days before the start of the 1917 baseball season.
As the war raged on, Major League Baseball proceeded with its full schedule, in spite of the fact that most minor leagues shut down for the season. Very few professional players joined the military at first, either through the draft or through voluntary enlistment. This, unsurprisingly, did not sit too well with the American public. Even as owners donated money to the war cause and gathered up baseball gear for soldier recreation, the public demanded greater sacrifices from organized baseball. In response, owners cut down on team travel, reduced the 1918 schedule from 154 games to 140, and trimmed player salaries. When the criticism continued, owners answered with the insistence that baseball played a role as the national pastime. Its contribution to the war effort, they claimed, was in its ability to keep American spirits high.
Early in the 1918 season, however, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that being a baseball player was a non-essential occupation to the war effort. Furthermore, all draft-eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations were required to apply for work directly related to the war or take a chance on being called into military service. Baseball owners managed to delay the “work or fight” requirement until the end of the season on September 1st, and continued fighting in order to gain a longer reprieve for World Series participants. In spite of its misgivings, the government relented.
Nevertheless, an average of fifteen players per team found themselves drafted or chose to
enlist prior to the deadline. All teams, as a result, sought out replacements, who were often younger, less experienced, and less talented. As the quality of play deteriorated, so did fan attendance in stadiums. The 1918 World Series ended up being a match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It remains the only World Series to be played entirely in September (running from the 5th to the 11th), due to the premature end of the regular season, and a number of players threatened to strike due to low attendance.
Game 1 of the 1918 World Series became the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed at a Major League game. Thanks to the war effort, no doubt, baseball seemed eager to continue to prove its patriotic contribution to the cause. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” would become the national anthem in 1931.) The Red Sox went on to win the Series, four games to two, led by a young pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth.
Meanwhile, in Europe, players who found themselves participating in the war had a not-so-enjoyable experience. Grover Alexander, considered to be one of the top pitchers of the time period, suffered from loss of hearing, shell shock, and would later develop epilepsy. He would later be driven to alcohol abuse, as a result of his experiences during the war. Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson were part of a gas defense drill that turned out very badly when a number of soldiers missed the signal to put their gas masks in place. Ty Cobb managed to escape unharmed, but Mathewson inhaled a considerable amount of poison gas. His health deteriorated over time, and Mathewson died of tuberculosis seven years later. Also among those sent to Europe were George Sisler and Branch Rickey. In total, an estimated two hundred and fifty ballplayers ended up serving in the military, while others joined the reserves or found war-related work.
If the war continued into 1919, rumor had it, owners would be forced to cancel the 1919 season altogether. Fortunately for baseball, however, Germany formally surrendered on November 11, 1918, thus ending the First World War.
It seemed like it was back to business as usual for baseball. However, the 1919 season would prove in phenomenal fashion that this was hardly the case. While baseball managed to continue limping along during the war, the racetracks had been forced to shut down entirely. As a result, gambling in baseball skyrocketed. This, combined with the efforts of owners to recoup loss funds as a result of the war, would set off a domino effect that resulted in a metaphorical explosion by the end of 1919.