Baseball Coverage of the Charlotte Observer

This article was written by Adrian O’Connor

This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal


In the years between 1892 and 1925, Charlotte, North Carolina, “Queen City of the South,” emerged from the obscurity of a backwater frontier boomtown to its present position as one of the South’s most prosperous, thriving cities. One of the early exponents of the “New South” commercial and industrial development was Daniel Augustus Tompkins. In 1892, this Renaissance Southerner bought control of Charlotte’s morning newspaper and set himself up as publisher. Thus began a tradition of excellence, as the Daily Observer grew as rapidly as its city and was hailed (as it still is today) as one of the South’s finest dailies. The objective of this article is to chronicle the development of the Observer‘s baseball coverage from 1892 to the game’s Golden Age in 1925.

In the early years of the Tompkins regime, the Observer had no recognizable sports page. The major league baseball scores were liable to be found anywhere, but usually near the classified ads or between items of local interest. At first, simple line scores were all that appeared, when anything appeared. The reporting of major league games was, at best, haphazard. In 1896, short, pithy paragraphs, sometimes just one sentence long, accompanied the line tallies. A classic example is this piece on the April 28 contest between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. “Only four hits were made on each side and at least half a dozen of these were lucky.” This early writing usually concentrated on the performance of the pitchers and the effect their hurling had on the game’s final outcome. League standings were introduced in 1896 and final batting statistics for the season were first printed in 1898.

Charlotte has had for many years a minor league club of some affiliation playing within its borders. In the last decade of the 19th century, it was the Corkers of the Interstate League. Almost from its inception in 1892, Tompkins’ Observer ran feature-length articles and complete box scores on the home team. Major league coverage was not comparable for many years. The accounts of the Corker games were often given to hyperbole; to wit, “The most brilliant game ever played on the Columbia diamond was witnessed here this evening when the Charlotte boys crossed bats with the home team.” The final verdict read 1-0 in favor of Columbia. The area colleges, especially the state university at Chapel Hill, received special treatment, usually in the form of a paragraph on the game’s salient points and a box score.

A fact worthy of note is that during times of intense political activity or war, coverage of the national pastime diminished greatly. Interest, however, remained high as the Observer pointed out one day in 1898 as American warships under William Sampson were steaming victoriously from Santiago, Cuba:

“Is baseball doomed?”, asks the Atlanta Journal. It is not. If the Journal were a morning paper, it would know that when the war (Spanish-American War) was at its height and the bulletin boards were thronged with people reading of the destruction of Cervera’s fleet or the battle of Santiago, none of these things moved the baseball cranks, but these piped in with their usual inquiries as to “how today’s score stands”, and the morning paper which, by any bad chance, failed to print the score, was a failure in the eyes of the cranks, no matter how hot its war news was. No, baseball is not doomed.

The Observer learned its lesson, for in 1914, when all Europe was ablaze with the guns of August, the headline read, “War Will Wait – The Braves Must Win.” The day-to-day saga of George Stallings and his “Miracle Braves” led by Rabbit Maranvile seemed to absorb the thoughts of Americans much more than a mere balance-of-power-squabble some 3000 miles away. By 1917, things would be different, however.

A new major league and a new term, “World Series,” were introduced to the American public in the initial decade of the present century. At first, the Observer seemed satisfied simply to print the line scores of American League ballgames, but deigned not to supply the crank with the standings of the new circuit. By 1903 however, the American League was on equal footing with its older, established brother in the eyes of the Observer‘s editors. If Observer readers did not know that Boston and Pittsburgh were vying for the first world’s championship in 1903, they never would have realized it by scanning the pages of their morning paper that October as the Observer treated it like just another series. Front-page coverage for the World Series came in 1905 when Christy Mathewson shut out the A’s three times and, by 1910, the whole sports page was filled with news of the Series and its personalities, not to mention its statistics.

It was during this decade that rhyme and reason introduced themselves at the Observer sports desk; thus, some consistency was displayed in its baseball coverage. For example the right things (important hits, how the winning run or runs were scored, winning and losing pitchers) were being written about each game and winning and losing streaks were now being updated. Most significantly, articles on the big league ball games slowly started edging their way to the top of the sports page, thereby endangering the “most-favored” status of the area’s minor league clubs. Furthermore, the grand old game had become a sport of year-round interest as practitioners in the Hot Stove League were treated to all kinds of trade rumors and various other anecdotes and vignettes during the winter. Commencing in 1909, the spring training communiques of the noted baseball writer John B. Foster were run in the Observer. Finally, tabs were kept on the doings of local stars in the major leagues, including those of a slugger from Greenville, just across the South Carolina line, a man who would achieve immortality for his exploits with the bat and notoriety for his alleged involvement in the most sordid episode in baseball history. The reference is to Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson.

It was not that coverage of the minor leagues diminished during this period but that interest in the major circuits increased. Charlotte’s entry in the new Virginia-Carolina League, the Hornets, still received the usual long, detailed story and box score for each of its games and the standings of many minor loops, including the relatively far-away Eastern League, appeared every day. The college game did not suffer from want of coverage either, as scores were conscientiously reported and an All-Southern team was chosen annually at the close of each season.

Two wars, a scandal, and new trends in sportswriting and reporting dominated the Observer‘s baseball coverage in this century’s second decade. In 1912, the Charlotte paper experimented with the printing of daily box scores. Individual statistics and league leader numbers were first seen in the Observer during the 1910 season, just in time for the Cobb-Lajoie dogfight for the American League batting title and the snappy touring car the Chalmers company would award the winner. Though not particularly stylish by today’s standards, the sportswriting in the Observer was improving and, at the very least, colorful. Reported one of Smokey Joe Wood’s masterful victories in the 1912 World Series, an Observer scribe remarked that

Gray sodden clouds screened the sun and in the murky atmosphere Wood’s speedball worked havoc with the Giant batters.

Headlines from this period were long, tedious, frequently tongue-twisting affairs. For example, on July 1, 1913, the headline crowning the major league roundup read, “Watson Holds Mackmen Down –  The Smiling Slabbist Allowed Only One Willow to Graft Itself to His Curves.”

The rise of the sports feature writer, the syndicated sports columnist and the baseball-personality-turned-reporter was a salient development in sports coverage in this decade. The Observer hooked up with the NEA news service in 1914 and soon thereafter the imaginative prose of Billy Evans graced its sports page. Scouring about for the unusual and unique in baseball, Evans’ subjects included anything and everything from Cuban stars, such as Balmadero Acosta, Jacinto Calvo, and Adolfo Luque, playing in America, to “Yoricks of the National Game,” wild, clownish – but legendary – men like Rube Waddell and his roommate Ossee Schreckengost, Nick Altrock, and Germany Schaefer. Another NEA writer whose features were run frequently in the Observer was Paul Purman. Possessed of a style more analytical than that of Evans, Purman yet wrote beautifully and poignantly of the struggle of the little man and the partially crippled to succeed in baseball.

The two outstanding syndicated sports columnists of the era were Ringgold W. “Ring” Lardner and Grantland Rice. The Observer carried Rice’s words of wit and wisdom quite often; Lardner’s, less so. “Granny” even by today’s standards, was the quintessential sportswriter  –  clever, knowledgeable, and given to composing sports doggerel and quoting Shakespeare. One of his better efforts in verse, a tribute to Stuffy McInnis of the Philadelphia A’s, appeared in the Observer of August 18, 1915:

Piking alone with the trailers
Here as the Summer flits,
Sometimes isn’t it lonesome
Wasting your two-base hits?

Batting above Three-Hundred
While hanging on to a dream,
Swept from the years behind you,
Last of the Old Regime?

Lardner’s most memorable contribution to the pages of the Observer, his pre-Series assessment of the ill-fated 1919 World’s Championship related in his classic “busher” vocabulary, was set off by the headline “Ring Lardner Tells of World’s Series in `Ringing’ Terms – Picking the Winner Not an Easy Matter, According to the Chi Comedian – But You Know Me Al – If Reds Don’t Win, Sox Will, Says Expert.”

Though most, if not all, of their work was ghost-written (Christy Mathewson being the possible exception), many baseball personalities tried their hand at reporting and column-writing. The college-bred Mathewson, “Big Six” and the “idol of a nation,” supplied Charlotte’s Hot Stove Leaguers with fodder in the winter of 1913 when the Observer ran “Matty’s Big League Gossip.” Christy’s stall-mate in John McGraw’s powerhouse pitching stable, Rube Marquard, “covered” the 1913 World Series. Stories carrying his candid by-line, “By Richard Marquard – Star Southpaw of the Giants”, were found in the Observer that last autumn before the outbreak of World War I. McGraw himself got into the act the following spring training when he gave his impression of and predictions for the National League that year. No, “Muggsy” did not pick the Braves to take it all!

The decade’s two wars – the Federal League War of 1914-15 and World War I – affected our national game each in its own way. The Federal League, the first widespread organized resistance to the reserve clause, could have destroyed baseball down to its very foundations with its “raids” of National and American League ball clubs. The Observer saw this conflict through to its ultimate climax in 1915; however, during its short-lived existence, the Federal League received very much the same treatment spacewise as its two respectable brothers on the sports page of the Charlotte paper:

When American entered the First World War in 1917, the ball scores were understandably lost in the shuffle of news bearing datelines from such previously unknown places as Chateau-Theirry, Soissons, Sedan, and the Argonne Forest. Coverage in 1917 was cut short only to be revived for the World Series. But, as Germany made her final push during the spring and summer of 1918, the ardent fan was hard-pressed to find even the line scores for the previous day’s games.

Baseball’s final and most jarring shock of the decade came in 1919 when eight members of the American League champion Chicago White Sox allegedly conspired with gamblers to “throw” that year’s World Series to the Cincinnati Reds for $80,000. Even before the Series began, there was something peculiar about the way the Observer handled the story. It was as if the newswire writers and special correspondents knew something was going on, as the White Sox were painted as villains right from the start. The morning after the dismal opening game, one of the headlines on the sports page read “Betting on World’s Series Now At Even Money in Cincinnati.” Never before had there been anything written on the betting odds for any sports event, save horse racing, in the Observer. Yet, after the eighth and final game, there was no concrete talk of scandal. And there would be none in Charlotte until the following September 23 when evidence was introduced in Chicago proving the Series was fixed.

When Eddie Cicotte and local-boy “Shoeless Joe” Jackson confessed to their part in the conspiracy, it was front-page news in the Observer. There was much of the same the following two days as public opinion definitely went against the newly-christened “Black Sox.” A caption under the individual photographs of the “eight men out” read: “Here they are, the whole bunch. These are the men who betrayed Comiskey, the `Old Roman,’ and one of the grandest sports in baseball, for a few thousand dollars.” Little did the Charlotte ball fan know that Comiskey was actually a skinflint of an owner, a miser who treated his players like the dirt on the unclean uniforms they were forced to wear.

Finally, minor league coverage, like that of the major circuits, reached new heights, especially toward the end of the decade when the new South Atlantic or Sally League was born. There was some question as to whether Charlotte would receive a franchise in this new loop and the issue was bandied back and forth in the Observer. After the Hornets were accepted as members, articles on their games were longer than ever and the box scores more complete and comprehensive. Of course, any time two big league teams came to town on their way up north from spring training it was a truly festive occasion. Such a day was April 12, 1919 when the Phils and Senators, with the “Big Train,” Walter Johnson, hurling, played their final exhibition game at Hearn Field in Charlotte. However, the best was yet to come.

“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” would be an adequate title for an essay discussing the Observer‘s baseball coverage in that “era of wonderful nonsense,” the l920s. The paper’s sports page finally acquired the cluttered, busy appearance so characteristic of the sports pages of the big city dailies. Baseball in the reign of Babe Ruth, and prizefighting in the era of Dempsey, Leonard, Loughran, and the phenom from the Georgia canebrakes, W.L. “Young” Stribling, were the undisputed kingpins in the eyes of K.B. Crandall, the Observer sports editor.

As the sports page expanded from one page to two, major league coverage finally gained parity with that of the local ball clubs. The brick which made the load complete was set in early 1923 when the Observer solidified its ties with the Associated Press and made arrangements to print daily all major league box scores. Accompanying this development was the fact that by 1925 every big league game had begun to receive individual treatment, each with its own headline and article. Once again, the writing and reporting of the syndicated special correspondents, John B. Foster and George Chadwick, added an air of refinement to the sports page. Their commentary, especially during spring training, was perceptive and incisive, yet devoid of the self-righteous frippery so evident today.

The regular day-to-day coverage also improved considerably with regard to style and content. To wit, an analysis of Joe Bush’s effort late in the fourth game of the 1923 World Series: “Bush seemed to grow stronger as the game progressed, or perhaps it was that the Giants lost heart, and in the eighth `Bullet Joe’ received an ovation when he struck out Jimmy O’Connell, the $75,000 beauty, and Dave Bancroft in succession.”

Statistics as well became more comprehensive as a complete roundup of all batting and pitching averages was supplied each week to the Observer by NEA statistician Al Munro Elias. As the pastime neared its golden anniversary, serialized accounts of the game’s history were disseminated to many papers throughout the country. Two such series, “The History of the National Game” by John B. Foster and “The Men Who Built Baseball and Kept America Young” by Bozeman Bulger, could be found daily in the Observer. After the Senators won their first pennant in 1924, a serial on the life of the champion’s young yet fiery player-manager, Stanley “Bucky” Harris, entitled “Mine Boy to Manager,” was run in the early wintry days of 1925.

During the 1920s, a pantheon of sports heroes walked the good earth of America. On the pages of the Observer, two ball players seemed to make more headlines than anyone else, one a swaggering giant of a man whose oversized body was set precariously on sprinter’s legs, the other equally impressive physically but of such a gentle demeanor that it seemed impossible that anyone could fear him. The exploits of Babe Ruth, the one and only, and Walter Johnson, the “Big Train” with the paralyzing fastball, were chronicled religiously by the Observer throughout their respective careers.

Charlotte was a city gone mad over baseball in the 1920s. Everybody dreamed of either poling them high and far like the Babe or blowing it by `em like the “Big Train.” As a result, the Observer covered local ball on all levels. The Hornets, of course, were as popular as ever, but by August 1922, even the Charlotte City League games, especially those of the Twilight League, were drawing crowds of up to 1500 people and even had their own reporter dispatched regularly by the Observer. High school contests also began to garner some headlines, but when a game between the Observer paper boys and the East Morehead Street gang merited not only an article but a full box score as well, one knew for sure that Charlotte had developed a serious case of baseball fever.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved