Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607
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 World Series, intermixed with context-setting reports on events in the larger world. After a quick survey of the state of the game and the nation at the end of the 1920’s, he begins with 1930, “The Last Fat Year,” when major league baseball enjoyed record attendance totals that would not be repeated for a decade. Though baseball fared well, the impact of the 1929 stock market collapse was already being felt, and a number of baseball players were among those who saw their life savings lost in bank failures. Still, those who were able to make a living as ballplayers were among the fortunate, and as the Depression settled in, it lent an extra edge of ferocious competition as players fought not just to stay in the game but to hold a good job at a time when jobs of any description were increasingly scarce. The result, Alexander suggests, was a certain intensity that lifted the quality of play.
An occasional dose of baseball history should be required reading for historians who seek to turn their discipline into a science—and for all readers, historians or not, who are tempted to forget about the role of the unpredictable, the idiosyncratic, the contingent, and the individual in history. The 1930 season is a case in point. For reasons never satisfactorily explained (though theories abound), that year produced an offensive explosion somewhat comparable to the end of the dead- ball era in 1920 (when, among other things, a livelier ball contributed to a sharp increase in run production) and to the power boom of the late 1990’s. Breaking the Slump is full of such exemplary cases, though not many are as dramatic as the 1930 explosion.
With the 1931 season, major league baseball began to feel the effects of the Depression with a vengeance. In seasons to come, many players had to accept salary cuts even when their performance was very good. Many were simply glad that they were still employed. Yet even when management lacked the excuse of economic necessity, players could not feel secure. In this era, long before the onset of free agency, players were essentially without recourse; power resided in the hands of the owners.
In some respects, however, economic hard times accelerated change. At the beginning of the 1930’s, several minor league teams installed lights and began to play some games at night. Major league franchises were strongly resistant, but declining gate revenues for traditional day games (when many of those people who could afford a ticket were at work) eventually prompted a change, and by 1939 a number of teams were introducing night games for the first time. That was also the year of the first televised game, a Brooklyn-Cincinnati doubleheader on August 26, seen only by a tiny number. Radio coverage of major league baseball had continued to expand, bringing the game to the majority of fans, who had few opportunities to see a game in person. Indeed, it was the ambience of baseball on the radio, perhaps more than any other single factor, that created the lifelong attachment the game enjoyed during its heyday.
Partway through the book, Alexander interrupts his chronological narrative for two thematic chapters. In “Baseball Lives,” he offers an overview of the players of the era: the backgrounds (regional, ethnic, and otherwise) from which they were most likely to come, their size, their education (or lack of same), the benefits they enjoyed and the perils and temptations to which they were prone, and more. Included here is an account of the ethnic stereotyping that accompanied the rise of Italian American players. In the accompanying chapter, “Shadowball,” Alexander surveys the ups and downs of the Negro leagues in the 1930’s, making good use of the growing scholarship on black baseball.
Any interesting history of baseball is to a considerable extent an account of great players and great teams, and Alexander does not disappoint in this respect. Breaking the Slump is full of stories of outstanding achievement, not to mention the controversies and oddities, the quirky characters and the litany of names that any fan loves to recite: Hack Wilson and Goose Goslin, Pepper Martin and Frenchy Bordogaray, Dizzy Dean and Dazzy Vance, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell.
Whether beguiled or disgusted by the recent dominance of George Steinbrenner’s Yankees after a long spell of mediocrity, readers will find that Breaking the Slump offers a reminder of the least remembered of the great Yankee dynasties: the post-Ruth teams that won the World Series four consecutive times from 1936 through 1939—and won again in 1941. (When they won the series in 1939, the Yankees had been victorious in twenty-eight of their previous thirty-one World Series games.) Like the Yankees of recent vintage, this was a team that relentlessly reinvented itself, adding outstanding rookies and key trade acquisitions to a core of veterans. When the indomitable Lou Gehrig was finally slowed by the illness that would soon kill him, there was a young outfielder the Yankees had purchased several years earlier from the minor league San Francisco Seals, Joe DiMaggio, just coming into his prime.
The distance between the Barry Bonds era and the appearance of DiMaggio on the cover ofTime magazine in 1936 (the first time a ballplayer was so honored) is at least as great as that between DiMaggio’s Yankees and the barnstorming Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, the first great professional team. Baseball in the early twenty-first century is not by any stretch of the imagination the nation’s pastime, and yet it is recognizably the same game. How Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Randy Johnson, and their peers will look in the eyes of a historian seventy or eighty years in the future can only be guessed. Will such a historian be able to count on a living knowledge of the game, or—as seems more likely—will this require the reconstruction of a lost world?
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (March 15, 2002): 1202.
Choice 40 (December, 2002): 666.
Library Journal 127 (March 15, 2002): 86.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 5, 2002, p. 7.
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