Professional baseball began in the 1860’s as a product of the vogue for “sporting culture” that took many forms in mid-nineteenth century America, ranging from yachting and other sports reserved for the wealthy to more democratic outlets such as hunting and shooting clubs, boxing, and baseball. These were principally male activities that emphasized fellowship and camaraderie. They were largely inspired by British models, but a strong nationalistic spirit pervaded American sporting culture—hence, in the case of baseball, the myth that the game was a pristinely American invention, created by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York.
In fact, various ball games had been common in America since the colonial era, drawing on British games such as rounders and also no doubt absorbing influences from Native American ball games. In the 1850’s, the amateur Knickerbocker Base Ball club in New York—founded in the previous decade—popularized the variant of baseball that led to the modern game, with foul lines, three outs per inning (as opposed to one per inning in the “Massachusetts” game), and nine innings altogether. From those humble beginnings, baseball has evolved to the multibillion-dollar industry that delights and dismays fans in the early twenty-first century, with major league franchises in thirty cities and a vast and ever-growing archive of history and lore, for no other sport matches the historical self-consciousness of baseball.
The period covered in Charles Alexander’s Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era, is exactly midway between the beginnings of professional baseball and its current incarnation. The formative years of the game had been turbulent in every way, with shifting franchises, rule changes, and financial instability. However, after 1903, when an agreement was reached between the warring National League (established in 1876) and American League (the upstart founded in 1901 by crusader Ban Johnson, who was determined to eliminate violence and routine profanity, making the game more appealing to the general public and, not least, to women), with the annual World Series between the champions of the two leagues marking the culmination of the season, baseball enjoyed five decades of exceptional stability. Not until 1953, when the Boston National League franchise moved to Milwaukee, did any of the sixteen teams active in 1903 shift location, nor were there any fundamental rule changes.
Baseball’s traditional claim to be known as “the national pastime” sounds merely quaint in the twenty-first century, but as Alexander observes, there was a time when this slogan was the simple truth. From the mid-nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, no other game was so widely played at so many levels, from sandlots and cow pastures to college diamonds. In 1930, the first year of Alexander’s chronicle, professional sports in general were in their infancy; not for decades would professional football and basketball begin to rival baseball’s appeal, competing with golf and tennis and other sports in the extraordinary surge of spectatorship fueled by television.
In tracing the fortunes of baseball from 1930 to 1941, Breaking the Slump shows how the game reflected the story of the nation—from the depths of the Depression through a painfully slow recovery to the onset of a world war—while at the same time looking at baseball during this period for its own sake. Alexander is well equipped to do both. A historian who has published books on the Ku Klux Klan, Project Mercury, and American nationalism, among other subjects, he is best known for his books on baseball, including superb biographies of John McGraw, Ty Cobb, and Rogers Hornsby and a one-volume history, Our Game (1991).
For the most part, Alexander tells his story in straight chronological fashion, season by season, with accounts of what happened in each league and in the...
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