by Paul R. Spitzzeri
At this still-early stage of the 2019 major league baseball campaign, the Dodgers are playing great ball, holding a 5 1/2 game lead in the National League West Division and just behind the American League’s Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins for the best record in the big leagues. Barring injury, the Dodgers look like they are again in contention for a pennant and a berth in the World Series.
As for the Angels, they’ve been playing decent ball as of late, but remain three games below .500 and 8 1/2 games behind the Astros in the AL West. The Halos have one of best players in the game in Mike Trout and Shohei Otani has returned to the lineup from injury, but whether the team can compete for a playoff spot is questionable.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the May 1928 issue of Baseball Magazine and it is always fun and enlightening to see how different the fame was ninety years ago. In its “Editorial Comment” column, the publishers noted that this edition marked the twentieth birthday of the magazine.
Noting intense competition in which there were “periodicals that will not survive two years,” the editors added that “Baseball Magazine has become, in a modest sense, a world institution,” with subscribers found in Egypt, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Korea and Tanzania (formerly Zanzibar) and references made to contact from the Gold Coast of Africa and an island in the South Pacific.
The column noted the condition of the major leagues in 1908, when the Chicago Cubs easily handled the Detroit Tigers, 4 games to 1, to win the World Series, the second title in a row for the Cubbies. Notably, the attendance at the clinching game was just over 6,000—game 5 of last year’s win by the Boston Red Sox over the Dodgers was before more than 54,000 spectators at Dodger Stadium. Then, came the long drought (including for some of us native Chicagoans and long-suffering Cubs fans) that was only broken in 2016 when the team finally won another World Series.
Among the star players was New York Giants’ pitching legend Christy Mathewson, who won 37 games (by contrast, the most wins in 2018 was 21), but he was only second to Chicago White Sox hurler Ed Walsh, who won 40 (being a proficient spit baller probably helped!
Hall of Famer Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates led the majors in batting average at .354 (last year’s highest average was .346), though the most home runs hit in 1908 was just 12, while last year it was 48.
The editorial made an interesting comment about the 20th century, stating that, while some might call it the Age of Invention, or science, or education and “these tributes are deserved,” it might be fair to say that it “may well go down in history as the Age of Sport.”
The magazine argued that, for all of the importance of the radio, automobile, airplane, research into the atom, astronomical discoveries and the like, “none of these brilliant achievements of the human mind has exerted so direct or profound an influence upon the American public as athletic sport.”
Professionalism was barely developed and sports were engrossed in “an atmosphere of bar room coarseness, of trickery and dishonesty.” In nearly three decades, however, conditions changed mightily, so that “sport for all and within the reach of all, has become the slogan of America.”
Sport isn’t just about “mere entertainment for the idle hour.” Instead, it promoted an era “of greater freedom, of clearer thinking, of saner living” with its conditions leading to “red blood, energy, health.” It developed “the good fellowship of effort; the graceful acceptance of defeat; the gracious use of victory.” Athletic endeavor grew as vice declined and sport “goes hand in hand with missionary effort among backward nations” and “proves a corrective force in juvenile delinquency” while “it brings hope to the felon behind bars.”
As for the 1928 season, there were varied opinions on which team would emerge victorious in the American and National leagues. F.C. Lane, for example, picked the New York Yankees, the dominant franchise of the era with mega stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their prime, to take the AL pennant, while it was a toss-up in the NL between the Pirates or the St. Louis Cardinals.
Meanwhile, James Gould agreed that the Bronx Bombers would repeat and win the American League title, while he placed the Pirates third and moved the Cubs up in a toss-up with the Cards for the NL crown.
Lane also analyzed the 1927 campaign, in which New York blew through the season with a 110-44 record, led by Ruth’s epoch-making 60 home runs, a record that lasted until 1961 in an expanded season (162 games instead of 154) when Roger Maris hit 61 round-trippers for the Yankees (Barry Bonds clubbed 73 homers in 2001, though that record remains shrouded in controversy.)
The Yanks won the AL crown by nearly 20 games, while the Pirates edged out the Cardinals and the New York Giants by just a couple of games to take the National League pennant. The World Series was a quick and decisive whitewashing as New York won the title in four games, with Ruth hitting the only two homers of the series and the Yankee pitching staff performing beautifully.
Among other articles of note is one by Lane that asked if the outfield trio of Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, and Duffy Lewis was the greatest in majors history. The obvious comparison was the current Yankees outfield tandem of Earl Combs, Bob Meusel and Ruth. With that trio, there was Combs’ speed and batting average of .350, Meusel’s throwing arm and power hitting and, of course, the towering presence of the Babe.
Of the Sultan of Swat, Speaker said “he is one of the greatest outfielders of my recollection . . . quite apart from his hitting, he deserves to rank among the leading half-dozen outfielders I ever saw.” With regards to the Yanks outfield, legendary manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, commented that the Red Sox trio “worked together a little more smoothly . . . but the Yankees outfield is not greatly their inferior on the defence. In hitting punch there is no comparison.”
Another interesting piece is one about how “the progress of baseball as the national sport is marked by the increasing friendliness of official Washington,” meaning the frequency with which the President turned out to throw the first ball at games. This article by George H. Dacy stated the Abraham Lincoln was the first chief executive to see a baseball game as he was out and about in the nation’s capital.
While much of the article was actually about early baseball development, it was mentioned that President James A. Garfield, who was only in office for six-and-a-half months before he was assassinated in September 1881, was the biggest presidential baseball fan. Unfortunately, Dacy and his editors made a colossal mistake when it was stated that Garfield attended the opening game of the Washington Nationals’ title-winning season in 1885! Unless, that is, Garfield’s ghost found a spot in the stands!
There were several articles about individual players, including Cardinals standout pitcher Jesse Haines, outfielder Russell Wrightstone of the last-place Philadelphia Phillies, and strikeout king Dazzy Vance of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the National Leauge in KOs for seven straight seasons, including 1927 and 1928. The 1924 most valuable player of the NL didn’t have a great 1927 season on the win-loss column, going 16-15, but he pitched 25 complete games (in 2018 a host of hurlers tied for the league record of just two) and fanned 184 batters.
There was also a piece about the lone big leaguer who had Portuguese ancestry, Lou, or Lew, Fonseca. A native of Oakland, Fonseca was a lifetime .316 hitter, including a 1929 AL batting title hitting .369, and played all positions in the infield and outfield during his 12-year career, including stints with teams in both leagues. He was also a player-manager for the Chicago White Sox in the 1931 and 1932 campaigns.
The article observed that, while with the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1920s, Fonseca was part of an infield quartet that included a German, an Italian, and a Jew, so that it was considered a “famous infield of All Nations.” Of course, almost no Latinos and no blacks at all were permitted to play in the majors in those days.
Another piece compared the pitchers who were deemed the best in the bigs in 1927: Charlie Root of the Cubs, who won 26 games, struck out 145 batters and had 4 shutouts, though he had a 3.76 earned run average over 390 innings of work in 48 appearances, and his cross-town counterpart Ted Lyons of the White Sox, who won 22 games, threw an astounding 30 complete games, and had a 2.84 ERA. The verdict was that, in looking at all factors in the record books, the pair were evenly matched as the finest hurlers in the majors.
Though in the editorial celebrating the 20th year of the magazine it was expressed that baseball was America’s sport, there is an article that is titled “Baseball, the World Sport, ‘Catches On’ in Africa” and which refers to the popularity of the sport in Tunis in Northern Africa, thanks to the efforts of a young American doctor, C. Guyer Kelly of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Kelly told the magazine that he selected the city for his Ligue Tunisienne de Baseball, comprised of sixteen teams of young men who he said eagerly embraced the sport, with players of nine ethnic and religious groups, including French, Arab, Jewish, British and Americans, among others. Despite a lack of uniforms and equipment, some 300 boys played baseball in the league and it was hoped the sport would become more popular in the future.
Speaking of which, the last article of note to mention was “A Vision of Professional Baseball in the Future” by Irving Sanborn. One significant concept was “a nation-wide junior baseball tournament” and another was the proposed creation of a fund for retired players who’d fallen on hard times.
It appears that the first idea was a precursor to the Little League World Series, which was brought into existence in 1947, though nearly two decades before the American Legion, the veterans organization formed after World War I and which established its amateur league and had a world series in 1926, was looking into organizing the tournament after failing to maintain the series in 1927.
Fortunately, major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis pledged to provide $50,000 annually for a tournament and it did resume in 1928 and continues today. There are now nearly 3,800 American Legion baseball teams in America and Canada and, while Major League Baseball and the Legion don’t maintain a formal relationship, the former still supports the latter and many Legion players have become major league stars and hall of fame members from Bob Feller and Ted Williams, who joined the hall in the early to mid 1960s to recent inductees Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, and Roy Halladay.
This issue of Baseball Magazine is a fascinating look into the state of professional baseball ninety years ago and can provide remarkable points of comparison to the state of the sport now.