Early fans flocked to a rougher game


Pastime: Baseball at the beginning of the 20th century was a raw sport - and the crowds loved it.

April 02, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

It's Opening Day, 1901:

Brass bands oompah their way around the ballpark filled with boisterous fans eager to greet their heroes, eat the new treats called "red-hots" and remind the umpire he still has sawdust for brains.

There are outcries against spiraling ticket prices, drawn-out games, greedy owners and free-agent players who jump ship for bigger paychecks.

Sound familiar?

The major leagues, in the form they are known today, were launched 100 years ago, in 1901, when the American League began play. (The National League had come into existence 25 years earlier.) But there were no dugouts, no night games, no swooshes on baseball gear.

Ballparks were strictly functional rather than entertainment centers; their wooden grandstands were slapped together almost overnight. Construction of Washington's "stadium" began just two months before Opening Day. Most parks seated 10,000 to 15,000; part of the crowd would spill onto the grass, restrained by ropes that hugged the foul lines.

And if a fly ball drifted into that sea of bowler hats and three-piece suits? Sometimes the crowd parted for the fielder, and sometimes it didn't. Visiting players might be hit with a bottle while chasing a pop fly.

If the stands were piddling, the ballfields were not. Many early parks were wedged into odd-shaped vacant lots of impressively large dimensions, hard by rail or horse-drawn trolley lines. Boston's left-field fence was almost 400 feet from home plate - about 70 feet farther than the average in today's ballparks. At New York's Polo Grounds, it was nearly 500 feet to the flagpole in center field, where both clubs paraded on Opening Day to raise Old Glory in typical pregame pomp.

Fans showered their favorites with gifts as they strode to the plate for the first time. Diamond cufflinks here, a floral horseshoe there. One player received a set of encyclopedias.

"Fans had relationships with players back then," says Tom Simon, a baseball historian in Burlington, Vt. "Nowadays, after the game, a player climbs into his SUV and heads home to the suburbs, to be buzzed through the security system surrounding his 4,000-square-foot mansion.

"A hundred years ago, these guys lived in boardinghouses near the ballpark, and ate and drank in the neighborhood pubs. Fans knew them, and players who had done something significant could expect a token of appreciation on Opening Day."

Fans, called "cranks," were mostly white. Few blacks attended games, and those who did were segregated in the right-field bleachers. And baseball was a decidedly northern game, played predominantly by men of German and Irish descent with names like Wagner, McGraw and Collins. There weren't enough Southerners in the big leagues to field a starting nine.

Not that being a ballplayer enhanced one's reputation.

"Most were considered bums, gamblers, rowdies and drinkers - and probably were," says Norman Macht, a baseball historian in Easton, Md. The 1901 season produced the game's first icon: New York Giants' pitcher Christy Mathewson, a handsome 20-game winner who had attended Bucknell College. "Prior to that, mothers locked their daughters in an upstairs bedroom if ballplayers were anywhere near," Macht says.

Nonetheless, the sport thrived. Immigrants discovered that embracing baseball was a great equalizer; its lexicon, the universal language. Americans were learning the etiquette of the game, some more quickly than others. In Philadelphia, on Opening Day, the mayor threw out the first ball, cardboard box and all.

In a world without Super Bowls, Shaq or March Madness, everyone celebrated the first pitch of spring. Women arrived dressed to the nines. Boys skipped school to see the likes of Boston's Cy Young, well on his way to 511 career victories, and Napoleon Lajoie, Philadelphia's moody slugger, who in 1901 would win baseball's Triple Crown: he led the league in homes runs, runs batted in, and had the highest batting average.

Young and Lajoie had been wooed from the tight-fisted NL, with its $2,400 wage cap, by the upstart AL for hefty raises. At a time when the average factory worker earned about $500 a year, Young received $3,500; Lajoie, $4,000.

Players' agents? Pshaw. "Lajoie signed his contract in pencil, leaning against a fence, during spring training - and never got a copy of it, which was the usual practice," Macht says.

The flood of defections triggered a terrible row. The NL cried foul, pointing to the reserve clause, which bound men to one team for life. Not so, said the courts, siding with the players. But the era of free agency was short-lived: In 1903, the warring leagues found common cause and restored the "slave" clause, which survived until 1975.

A century ago, players had to buy their uniforms ($30 apiece), itchy woolen outfits. Jerseys bore no numbers, much less names.

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