Major League Baseball Finds Its Roots in Progressive America

Peter Panacy@@PeterPanacyFeatured Columnist IVApril 12, 2011

The late broadcaster Ernie Harwell described baseball in almost religious terms with his 1955 poem, "A Game for All America."
The late broadcaster Ernie Harwell described baseball in almost religious terms with his 1955 poem, "A Game for All America."Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

"Our Great American Game:" Baseball as a Reflection of Gilded Age and the Progressive Era Values and Challenges

"Baseball? It's just a game; as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  It's a sport, business, and sometimes even religion."[1]

Ernie Harwell's quote in his 1955 poem, "The Game for All America," epitomizes America's sentiment for its national pastime. The game of baseball is as complex and changing as America itself. Baseball has gone through glory days and periods of desolation, has seen the country through its best and worst and has served almost every purpose to the American psyche.

From its roots in the mid-19th century, baseball represented the hegemony of the nation as a whole and, as the country grew, so did the game. Perhaps at no other point in its history did baseball undergo such radical metamorphosis as it did during the national transformation of the Progressive Era.

The radical shift in American society that accompanied the rise of Progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries influenced, and arguably was influenced by, the growing popularization of baseball. Whether American citizens realized it or not, the sport showcased aspects of their daily lives. With the drastic changes brought by the Progressive Era, baseball too saw its own changes. Like the country itself, baseball needed to transform and evolve.

Throughout the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era, the nation underwent a series of drastic changes that symbolized the rapid transformation of the country. While the Gilded Age of the late 19th century showcased the major accomplishments of industrialization and growth, it also made apparent numerous problems associated with such developments.

Issues of class, poverty, working conditions and environmental conditions were at the forefront of concerns when Progressive Era politics came into being. The Progressives sought to right these wrongs and employed various strategies in doing so.

Yet it was not the goal of Progressive minds to undermine the feeling of national greatness that had existed throughout the decades previous. Progressive Era politicians, such as Theodore Roosevelt, championed the ideas of expansion and competition, and baseball would follow alongside.

Baseball's origins are as disputed and confusing as the history of early America itself. Some historians of the sport, such as Henry Chadwick, have argued that baseball was born of the British game rounders, which also involved a ball and a bat.

Yet this story did not fit with Progressive American's notion of uniquely American progress and greatness. In order to be a truly American game, the sport had to rise within the country.  Outside influences were permissible, but the genesis had to be American. Such sentiment launched numerous investigations of the game's history during the Progressive Era.

In 1905 Albert Spalding formed a special committee to investigate baseball's roots and to determine if it was an American game, not one of British origins. Not surprisingly, Spalding concluded that the sport was indeed American and identified its roots in Spalding's Official Baseball Guide of 1907.[2] 

While the origins of baseball were certainly important to many Americans who enjoyed the sport around the turn of the 20th century, the depth of its influence and interaction with American society is much more profound, and much harder to capture definitively. 

The known origins of baseball share an ironic point in American history. The rapid industrialization of the United States during the 19th century provided a backdrop for multiple new aspects of American society.

America was transforming from its agrarian origins into an urbanized nation of large industry.  While baseball's origins are still debated, the game's certain popularity and growth before the Progressive Era represent this shift in American ideology.

Baseball shared elements of both the agrarian independence championed by Jeffersonian Democracy and elements from developing concepts of business and industry. Baseball championed the former by celebrating the individual, pitting the lone batter against an opposing pitcher with a supporting cast of defensive fielders. If the individual batter reached base, he attempted to score a run however possible.

In addition, baseball stood in stark contrast to the time-clock-obsessed working culture of the industrial revolution. There was no official time limit. Unlike football or basketball, which stuck rigorously to the clock, baseball could be infinite, lasting into extra innings, pending only the weather or the completion of the game itself.

Yet baseball also represented the growing industrialization that came to dominate the country following the Civil War.

During the Gilded Age as well as the Progressive Era, industrialization had become a driving force behind American identity, and baseball paralleled its development.

Baseball's "team first" mentality championed the notions of American industry. As in the business world, it took a team effort to win not only a ballgame, but to be champion of a league.  Individual sacrifices were necessary in order to succeed. In an era dominated by the theories of "social Darwinism," baseball helped reinforce the emergence of business and business competition in the late 19th century.

Historian Steven Gelber emphasizes this link between baseball and the agrarian and industrial: "Because the game combined traditional pre-industrial individualism with the new urban corporatism, the game, like the economy from which it grew, was transitional."[3]

Yet Gelber stresses that baseball was more industrial in its roots than agrarian.[4]

Indeed baseball started out as a game for the social elite of inner cities. Its originators played strictly for recreation and intended it as a game for "gentlemen" only.[5] The first professional ball club was formed in 1842 by such gentlemen. This club called itself the New York Knickerbockers and it became the model for numerous teams to follow.[6]

Yet it was the elite's intention to keep the game limited to the wealthy who could afford to enjoy such sportsmanship. Consistent with the social stratification that the Progressive Era sought to change, baseball was initially restricted to the upper classes. These elite urbanites, however, could not prevent the spread of baseball's popularity.

The sport quickly reached into less industrialized cities, such as Louisville and St. Louis, and became more popular than almost every other form of organized American recreation. Advances in technology fueled this spread. Widely distributed newspapers of the day frequently published game results, thus increasing national attention.[7]

The game also organized into a professional sport. In 1876, the chartering of the National League allowed baseball to become an occupation for those who could play it well.[8] By 1892, 12 eastern cities laid claim to professional baseball teams in the league.[9]

Baseball continued as a powerful representation of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. As it grew in the laissez-faire dominated culture of the late 19th century, baseball, like the surrounding society, began to require rules and regulations. Efforts to standardize play permeated both amateur and professional organizations. Efforts, like those of William Hulbert in 1875, sought to regulate play and league competition.

Hulbert concluded that the inconsistencies of baseball could be detrimental. But if the game was standardized, baseball could grow both in popularity and in competitiveness.[10] Just like Progressive Era policies that sought to regulate the issues raised by the Gilded Age, baseball also made efforts to correct its own internal affairs. Such theories, within the context of the changing social and political spectrum in the country, set in motion the course of events that would bring baseball into the 20th century and even further into the forefront of American interest.

Unlike the concrete dates that can be associated with baseball's expansion, the end of the Gilded Age and the beginning of the Progressive Era remain indefinite. Yet these two eras profoundly affected baseball and, in the latter, the game would continue to flourish along with the country's growth.

Steven Riess, perhaps the best authority on baseball at the turn of the 20th century, argues that the game did not reach its unchallenged zenith until after the turn of the century, when its "clean," fast, exciting action captured the country's imagination. Other sports, such as boxing, horse racing and football, existed only on the peripheries of society and came nowhere near baseball in popularity.[11]

The country was growing and baseball grew with it the entire way.

What had began as a game for the social elite had turned into a great public spectacle. It represented the pure and glorious elements of America that society admired. The game championed fair competition, athleticism, bravery, and wit.[12] American newspapers and periodicals championed the game. Articles referred to baseball in religious terms, calling the game an "open-air sermon."[13]

American nationalism, prevalent in the realm of many Progressive mindsets, also weighed in when the game of baseball was compared to games played abroad. In comparing baseball to the British game of cricket, Dr. J.P. Casey noted that baseball had invaded England, coercing thousands to shift their attention from cricket to the American sport.[14] He noted the superiority of baseball to cricket and other sports, citing its action as the reason for thousands of spectators to take interest.

Baseball had a huge impact at home as well as abroad during the Progressive Era. While social stratification certainly existed among the various classes of the American populous, baseball provided a situation in which the poor and the rich shared the same experience. Cities took pride in their baseball teams and intense rivalries followed between not only competing teams, but also in the host cities that cheered them on.

A New York Sun article in 1884 summarized this sentiment and fans' attention to the game: "The next thing that impresses the visitor is the absolute knowledge of baseball which every visitor at the grounds possesses."[15] The game's aura breached differences in class and status, paralleling Progressive Era sentiments. The article continues by noting how a slim schoolboy and a 50-year-old saloon keeper could talk of the game as if they had known each other for years. Fans could exchange opinions freely about the game with persons they never saw before without remorse or setback.[16] 

Gelber also illustrates this unique relationship between baseball and the national populous in stating that baseball was not only a mirror of American life, but also represented the relationship of urban life, business organization and the values that underlay them.[17]  John Mandigo also stressed the "business" of baseball: "So rapid has been the growth of baseball that today it is a business, run on the most approved business principles."[18]

Baseball represented not only the public's recreational interests but also the conditions and circumstances of business during the Progressive Era.

While baseball was usually a means for players to engage in leisurely activity and recreation, the rise of professional baseball showed that the public was highly interested in observing the sport. In this regard, baseball was transformed from a localized social gathering into a highly developed and efficient business. Men who excelled in baseball could make a living by playing the game.[19] Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson epitomized players from humble origins who rose to greatness through their abilities on the diamond.[20] 

In addition, baseball attracted the interests of entrepreneurs who used the game's popularity to gain influence and financial profit. As argued by Steven Riess, amateur and professional baseball was always closely linked to Tammany Hall.[21] A number of prominent New York politicians got their start in politics through baseball because Tammany Hall sponsored amateur teams as a way of attracting ambitious young men to its ranks.[22] 

Baseball had developed and evolved from its humble roots and origins into a highly complex and diversified game with features that reflected Progressive American society.

The benefits of playing baseball also reflected Progressive society. In an age that championed social activity and competition, baseball could provide the means for one to harness his own talents and express them to others.

In a 1913 article, H. Addington Bruce noted that one need attend only a few games, played by amateurs or professionals, to appreciate the great value of baseball as a developmental agent.[23]  According to numerous experts during the Progressive Era, baseball provided the arena in which to develop athletic prowess, a keen sense of competition and the ability to work as a team.

Success was rewarded. Dr. J.P. Casey noted how salaries of promising ball players could range from $2,500 to $6,000.[24] On average, baseball players could earn over $100 per week, with additional expenses paid during the season.[25] In comparison, $12 per week was considered a high wage for unskilled labor and the average New Yorker earned about $543 a year.[26] 

The game required the same skills deemed necessary by the Progressives to be successful in business. Technical skill and good character were required along with a certain type of intelligence, often given the moniker "head work."[27]

While Progressive America celebrated baseball for its harnessing of characteristics thought valuable at the time, the sport still experienced its fair share of controversy.

Reflecting the issues concerning progressive-minded persons during the late 1800's and early 1900's, baseball received criticism for its own shortcomings. These were especially apparent during the latter years of the 1910's, when a series of financial disputes provided the source of some of the greatest controversies in baseball history.

The most controversial and influential issue concerning baseball and the Progressive Era was the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal. Following the 1919 World Series, eight ballplayers of the American League Champion Chicago White Sox were accused of having thrown the series in return for bribes from gamblers who had placed money on the opposing Cincinnati Reds. One of the accused players was Chicago great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.[28] The scandal revealed how unregulated competition and the influence of outside money could negatively affect the game and threatened to completely ruin baseball's integrity and popularity.

However, in a classic Progressive move of appointing experts to examine and breach major issues, baseball's owners met and decided to appoint Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball to examine the problem and to come up with a solution. Although they were found not guilty in court, Landis banned the eight players from baseball for life on the grounds that it was immoral to throw a game for the benefit of gamblers. 

The January 1920 sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees for $125,000 (to fund a failing musical) showed the power of a wealthy owner to change the face of competition for his own interests.[29] 

Not only did Red Sox owner Harry Frazee move the game's best player; he laid the grounds for arguably the most famous "curse" in professional sports history. The Red Sox, who had won an unprecedented five world championships before the sale, would not win another until 2004. Empowered by the sale of Ruth, the New York Yankees emerged as baseball's vanguard, and won an unequaled twenty-six World Series titles during the Red Sox championship drought.

To many following the Black Sox scandal and the sale of Babe Ruth, baseball had received a blow from which it likely could not recover. Like numerous other elements of the Progressive Era, corruption and financial greed had tarnished baseball's image. The efforts of men like Landis to save the game were viewed as being too little, too late.

Yet these feelings were short-lived as baseball soared back into the public realm during the 1920's. This decade, considered a golden era by many historians of sport, brought forth a new generation of baseball greats joining Babe Ruth and Mel Ott who, with their great talents, helped propel forward the game of baseball beyond any threat created by the Black Sox scandal or devious owners. The advent of radio broadcast also fueled baseball's popularity as even fans that lived far from urban centers could now tune into games from the comfort of their own homes. 

Baseball paralleled the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era very closely. At its core, baseball represented the hard working individualism that captured many ideals of these periods. While the game was not necessarily rural in its roots, its aura was, and fans welcomed the sport into industrial America where, it was argued, it assisted urban populations in becoming noteworthy citizens.

Steven Riess concludes, "Baseball fans saw the sport as an extension of rural America within the cities, where it could help urbanites become good Americans by their playing baseball and participating in the rituals of spectatorship."[30] 

Like the Progressives however, scandals and problems permeated the sport. Various contradictions, injustices and circumstances clouded the pure nature of the game. Despite these problems, baseball remained a high point of American interest.

The monologue of James Earl Jones, in the 1989 classic baseball film Field of Dreams, perhaps best summarizes the relationship of baseball to the growing nation of the Progressive Era: "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rewritten and erased again. But baseball has marked the time."[31]

[1] Ernie Harwell, "The Game for All America," The Sporting News (1955), in "Baseball Quotes and Sayings," The Quote Garden, 21 April 2007,  13 May 2007.

[2] Dean A. Sullivan, ed. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995): 284-85.

[3] Steven Gelber, "Working at Playing," Journal of Social History 16 (1983): 13.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] F.H. Wade, "Half Century of National Game," Current Literature 26 (September 1899): 259.

[6] Steven A. Riess, Sport in Industrial America: 1850-1920 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davison, Inc., 1995): 61.

[7] For an example of one of the first box scores see, Henry Chadwick, "Baseball," Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation 19 (November 1891): 32.

[8] Paul MacFarlane, ed. The Sporting News Hall of Fame Fact Book (St. Louis, MO: The Sporting News Publishing Company, 1983): 2.

[9] John H. Mandigo, "The National Game," The Chautauquan: A Weekly Newsmagazine 15 (July 1892): 410.

[10] William Hulbert, "Sporting – The Professional Baseball Association – What it Must do to be Saved: The Coming Trouble for the Game and its Remedy," Chicago Tribune (October 1875), in Dean A. Sullivan, Early Innings (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995): 92-93.

[11] Steven A. Riess, Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980): 4.

[12] See "Is Professional Baseball Wholesome?" Outlook (October 1912): 329 and "The Fascination of Baseball," The Independent 71 (August 1911): 494.

[13] See "An Open-Air Sermon," The National Police Gazette 56 (June 1890): 7.

[14] J.P. Casey, "Our Great American Game," The Independent 61 (August 1906): 375.

[15] "The New York Sun's Portrayal of a Typical Baseball Crowd, 1884," New York Sun (June 1884), in Steven A. Riess, Major Problems in American Sport History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997): 215.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Steven Gelber, "Working at Playing: The Culture of the Workplace and the Rise of Baseball," Journal of Social History 16 (1983): 3.

[18] John H. Mandigo, "The National Game," The Chautauquan: A Weekly Newsmagazine 15 (July 1892): 411.

[19] See "Professional Ball Players who Manage to Make Money in the Winter," The National Police Gazette 84 (January 1904): 3.

[20] See The Sporting News: Hall of Fame Fact Book (St. Louis, MO: The Sporting News Publishing Company, 1983): 31 and 98.

[21] Steven A. Riess, Touching Base: 66.

[22] Ibid.

[23] H. Addington Bruce, "Baseball and the National Life," Outlook 104 (May 1913): 105.

[24] J.P. Casey, "Our Great American Game," The Independent 61 (August 1906): 377.

[25] "Professional Ball Players," The National Police Gazette 84 (January 1904): 3.

[26] Steven A. Riess, Touching Base: 163.

[27] "Is Professional Baseball Wholesome?" Outlook (October 1912): 329.

[28] For the confession of Joe Jackson see, Steven A. Riess, "The Black Sox Scandal and the Fallen Hero: The Confession of Joe Jackson, 1920," Major Problems in American Sport History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997): 313.

[29] Not only did Red Sox owner Harry Frazee move the game's best player, but he also laid the grounds for arguably the most famous "curse" in professional sports history.  The Red Sox, who had won an unprecedented five world championships before the sale, would not win another until 2004.  See  MacFarlane, The Sporting News: 119.

[30] Riess, Touching Base: 228.

[31] Phil Alden Robinson, Field of Dreams (Universal City, CA: Universal Home Video, 1998).


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