Players and Teams Emerge
With a stable league structure in place, teams and players could get down to the business of playing ball. From 1905-20, teams like the Chicago Cubs, New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics displayed their prowess. The first baseball stars began to emerge. Names like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young and Walter Johnson and Cy became common on the sports pages.
In 1914, a young left-handed pitcher joined the Boston Red Sox. In 1916, he won 23 games and had an ERA of 1.75. Yet pitching is not what made George Herman Ruth famous. Babe Ruth knew how to hit a baseball. He became the games first great hitter. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs, more than any American League team except the Yankees who he happened to play for.
Scandal Hits the Big Leagues
Since the days of the NAPBP, baseball had always been somewhat suspect in the eyes of its fans. Rumors of gambling and underhanded activities regularly circulated. The suspicion reached a fever pitch when the talented Chicago White Sox somehow managed to lose the 1919 World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds.
In 1921, eight White Sox players were tried on charges of accepting $100,000 to intentionally lose the series. The players were acquitted but the damage was done. The Black Sox scandal, it became known, had besmirched the game.
To help recover from the scandal, baseball appointed its first commissioner, a truly independent party who had no financial stake in the game. Baseball chose a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis laid down strict conditions for taking the job.
He wanted absolute control. The leagues gave it to him and his first act as commissioner was banning the eight White Sox players implicated in the game-fixing scandal from baseball for life. (Click Here for two excellent books: “Blackball – the Black Sox and the Babe” and “The Pitch that Killed” written about the 1920’s era in Baseball)
On the Rebound
It took the heavy hand of Commissioner Landis, the star power of Babe Ruth along with exciting teams and rivalries to bring baseball back into favor with its fans. The New York Yankees emerged as the powerhouse team of the 1920s. The 1927 Yankees had an amazing lineup of hitters anchored by Ruth. The Yankee batting order was so strong it was called “Murderer’s Row.” Joining Ruth on “the row” were centerfielder Earle Combs (batting average .356), shortstop Mark Koenig (.285), first baseman Lou Gehrig (.373), left fielder Bob Meusel (.337) and second baseman Tony Lazzeri (.309). Ruth’s 1927 batting average was .356. Between 1920-40, the Yankees won eight World Series championships, and another three American League titles.
Depression and Baseball in United States history
Baseball was important to national moral during the Great Depression. Radio had began to broadcast baseball games during the 1920s bringing action to fans who couldn’t make it to the ballpark for afternoon games. This connection to the game proved especially valuable during the dark decade of the 1930s. To keep fan interest in the game alive, baseball created the Most Valuable Player award in 1933. The all-star game was started in 1936 and the Baseball Hall of Fame was established in 1936. These actions all helped baseball survive the depression and created much-needed national heroes.
MVPs and Inaugural Hall of Fame Class
In 1935, the first ever major league night game was played at Crosley field in Cincinnati. Now fans who worked during the day could enjoy an evening ball game. By 1941, 11 of the 16 major league clubs had lighted fields. The Chicago Cubs waited until 1988 to add lights to Wrigley Field.
When the United State entered the Second World War, many professional baseball players joined the military. Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley was slow to light his ballpark, but quick to provide a wartime alternative to professional baseball. Wrigley started a women’s pro league. Fans flocked to see the women play.
Baseball’s Best Move
In 1946, major league baseball did what it should have done decades before. In that historic year, Jackie Robinson signed a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1947 when Robinson joined the Dodgers, he became the first black major league baseball player of the 20th century. In the 1840s, two black players, brothers Moses and Welday Walker had played pro ball for Toledo, until the atmosphere and abuse they endured from fans, opponents and even teammates became unbearable.
There was no official rule keeping black players out of major league baseball. Before the Dodger’s Branch Rickey, however, club owners simply wouldn’t sign them. Robinson’s introduction into major league baseball was not easy. Fans would taunt the first baseman and opposing pitchers threw at his head. But Robinson handled it all with dignity and let his talent quiet the critics. He was named 1947 Rookie of the Year after he scored 125 runs and stole a league-leading 29 bases.
While black players were shut out of the majors, they formed their own league. Negro League teams crossed the country on barnstorming tours playing any team that would take them on. As many as 50,000 fans attended Negro League All Star games. The talent and quality of play in the Negro Leagues was on par with the major leagues and everyone knew it.