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The National Pastime in the 1920s: The Rise of the Baseball Fan

Baseball’s growing popularity in the 1920s can be measured by structural and cultural changes that helped transform the game, including the building of commodious new ballparks; the emergence of sports pages in daily urban newspapers; and the enormous popularity of radio broadcasts of baseball games.Baseball commentators and critics expended much ink during the 1920s discussing the exact nature and composition of this new and expanding fan population. Some derided the influx of new fans to urban ballparks, in part because of the growing visibility in the bleachers of the sons and daughters of working-class Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants, and in part because the game seemed to be straying from its origins in traditional rural and small-town America. On the other hand, writer Edgar F. Wolfe argued in the 1923 Literary Digest that the urban ballpark was a meeting ground for Americans of all classes and backgrounds.

A “Who’s Who in the Grandstand” seems to be the latest “crying need” in America—a volume which would tell at a glance at least the job, business, trade, or profession (if any) of each one of the fans, rooters, or bugs—call them what you will—who blithely kill thousands of grandmothers day after day in order to get a chance to see big, and even little, league baseball teams in action. Of course our “hoi-polloi” can be counted upon to be among those present at these games. In fact, some writers have even hinted broadly that the attendance at a ball park consists of nothing else but “hoi-polloi,” and that the “laboring class” dominates not only the bleachers but also the choice seats right behind the home-plate. In other words, the rumor has gone abroad that baseball is a “poor man’s” game, and not good enough for anybody who is anybody. News dispatches frequently tell us that this or that college has dropped baseball as a major sport in favor of some more genteel form of athletics, such as tennis, rowing, or basketball, or football. All of which leads Edgar F. Wolfe, writing under the pseudonym “Jim Nasium” in Sporting Life (Philadelphia) to exclaim peevishly that “some benighted persons, whose intellect has shriveled till it rattles in their skulls like a pea in a gourd, have the nerve to say that baseball fans are the ‘rabble of the community.’”

With typically American vigor and slang Mr. Wolfe retorts, “‘Rabble’ my eyes. They’re the soul of the solid citizenry of the nation, that’s what they are!” He says further: “Only in that country in which baseball is known—America—does democracy achieve a close approach to a real fact. And probably the country at large does not fully appreciate the important part that baseball has played in this establishment. Nothing in all history has so gripped an entire people as baseball has gripped the American nation from the highest to the lowest; nothing has ever been known to form´such a bond of common interest between men of all ranks. Its great value to the nation and individuals as a whole is that of a connecting link between the classes.” By way of elaborating his views, he continues:

Men may be far apart in their stations in life, but that one common interest draws them together in human sympathy. Capital and Labor may have their own private differences, but they unite in “rooting” for the same ball club, forget their selfish ends in discussing a subject that holds a common interest for both.

It makes human beings out of those who would otherwise be self-centered fops. As a bond of brotherhood it has every fraternal organization ever invented whipt to a whisper, because its scope is wider—the average fraternal organization being a class institution in itself, while every mother’s son from banker to bum is eligible for membership in the Benevolent Brotherhood of Baseball Bugs.

The popular fallacy seems to be that baseball fans are confined almost exclusively to the laboring classes. It is a common mistake of writers who should know better to assert that the working class—the ordinary “hands” of the factories, mills and industrial plants, are the principal financial support of our great national pastime, and even baseball club owners labor under this delusion and place undue importance on the arranging of their sitting time to suit the working hours of the laboring class. Publications devoted to baseball are continually met by the mistaken assertion of advertising space buyers that “baseball fans do not constitute the buying public.” There seems to exist a popular delusion to the effect that baseball interest is more rife among the so-called “lower classes” than it is among the higher type of business man—in other word, that baseball “fans” are the rabble of the community, in spite of every evidence that goes to prove that the biggest percentage of baseball “fans” is really found among the leaders in the marts of trade and the social world.

As a matter of real fact, the financial support of baseball is provided by the so-called “moneyed class” and NOT by the “working class” to whom that honor is too frequently accorded. We have no hesitation in declaring that if an accurate poll were taken of the attendance at any big-league ball game the ratio would be around 80 per cent. of business officials, office employees and men of leisure to 20 per cent. of the actual “laboring class.” Take the Polo Grounds on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and compare the bleacher attendance to that of the private boxes and higher priced grandstand seats and you will see that this is true.

Watch the average business man as he looks over his morning paper and you will see that while he glances over the headlines of the other pages holding the paper spread out in both hands, when he comes to the sporting page he turns it over and begins to read, and it’s a mortal cinch that the banks, brokerage offices, and higher type of commercial institutions provide a larger percentage of the average baseball crowd than all factories and mills in the land. If baseball clubs had to depend upon the “laboring class” for its financial support there wouldn’t be any $100,000 ball players or million dollar ball parks—yet they tell you that the “laboring class constitutes the great army of baseball fans” and that "baseball fans are not the buying public."

Source: Edgar F. Wolfe, “The Benevolent Brotherhood of Baseball Bugs,” Literary Digest, 1923.

See Also:Poet William Carlos Williams Describes the Crowd at the Ballpark
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