Baseball is Still the National Sport

This article was written by Fred Lieb

This article was published in 1972 Baseball Research Journal

This veteran observer saw his first big league game at old Columbia Park, Philadelphia, in 1904, and saw the Philadelphia Athletics win the game, 3-0, from the Detroit Tigers. It was the season before the immortal Ty Cobb played his first game in Detroit. But I saw Hall of Famer San Crawford and lesser Tigers shut out by another Hall of Famer, southpaw Eddie Plank. I couldn’t guess it at the time, but it was one of Plank’s 325 big league wins and one of his 70 shutouts, the American League record for left-handed whitewash jobs.

A month later, I saw my first National League game at the old Phillies’ Huntington Street grounds, later the infamous Baker Bowl. Although the Phillies lost to the Pirates, the NL champs of 1901-02-03, I was fortunate to see the shortstop marvel, Pittsburgh’s famous “Flying Dutchman” Honus Wagner, who won his second of seven NL batting championships that year with a percentage of .355. Most moderns asked to name baseball’s greatest all-time player pick Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. Yet, such observing and objective baseball men as John McGraw, managerial genius of the old New York Giants, and Ed Barrow, the Yankees’ general manager who supplied both Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy with material for their great world championship teams, both insisted baseball’s all-time great was Haps, or Honus Wagner.

By the autumn of 1909, five years after I saw my first big league game, my by-line first appeared in print, with biographies of Hans Wagner and Ty Cobb in early numbers of the then new Baseball Magazine. Two years later, in 1911, I had my first card in the Baseball Writers Association as Baseball Editor of the now defunct New York Press.

On the Press, I was successor to Ernie Lanigan, a first cousin to J.G. Taylor Spink, the late dynamic publisher of the Sporting News. Lanigan loved baseball figures and statistics more than the great game itself. Damon Runyon, then a young freshman New York American baseball writer, nicknamed Ernie “The Figure Filbert.” I’m sure he didn’t like the designation;

In the week between the New York National and American League openings, Ernie taught me how to score a ball game. It was quite fitting, as the New York Press, which favored baseball, first introduced Runs Batted In, and also runners thrown out by catcher, in its box score. In the first AL game that I attended as a baseball writer, I also was the official scorer. That couldn’t happen today, when a writer must have written baseball for two years before he is eligible for a scoring appointment.

However, things were different six decades ago. The man who wrote baseball for the New York Press did all the scoring for Ban Johnson’s flourishing new league. It was the Press’ reward for early backing of the Highlanders (now the Yankees) in their fight for recognition in 1903. Some very pro-National League newspapers even referred to the newcomers in 1903 as “the invaders.”

There was no changing about of the scorers. John B. Foster, sports editor and baseball writer for the New York Evening Telegram, did all the scoring for the Giants, year in and year out. In neighboring Brooklyn, Abe Yaeger, sports editor of the Brooklyn Eagle had a similar monopoly on Dodger games. By today’s standards, our pay for a season’s work would be considered peanuts. As it is, my stipend from the Yankees was $50 more than Foster received from the Giants. But John, an idealist, used to say: “To be named official scorer is an honor. It means more to me than the money I receive.”

Later on, when Manhattan still used to have 13 dailies, the scoring for the New York clubs was divided by two men, later by three, and in Chicago there was a different scorer for each month. They received as much for a month as Foster, Yaeger, and I received for a season in 1911. But, then there was the glory

Everything in life is relative, however. In 1923, in the early days of baseball radio, I did a 15-minute wrap-up of the second game of the Yankees-Giants World Series for free, and for glory. It was fun, and a thrill, to have friends in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Owatonna, Minnesota write or wire that they had heard me on the air waves. Today, a writer who had my 1923 reputation, would get anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for doing the same stint.

From my early press seats at the New York Polo Grounds and Highlander Park, I soon made the circuits of the then existing 16 major league clubs, which were unchanged from 1903 to 1952. Later there were trips to the plush new stadiums of the new major league cities and the expansion clubs. Last summer I took my younger brother George, ten years my junior, to a game at the new Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Somehow, we got talking of the old days and comparing the past with the present. Around 1908, when I was 20, I used to take George to Phillise and Athletic ball games. I then liked to sit behind first base, and patronized the rightfield bleacher. Gate-tenders and turnstile operators apparently were kind-hearted men. At the bleacher entrance I bought my ticket for a quarter, and shoved George in the turnstile with me. We two (he was only 10) got in for two-bits. The cheapest seats in Veterans Stadium sell for $2.25, which is in the highest tier and from where the players look like chess men. The field box seats that John Quinn kindly provided for us retailed at $4.50. In 1908, bleacher seats were 25ç, grandstand $.50, boxes $1.00.

About that same time, 1908, Philadelphia newspapers made quite a thing out of the fact that the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds had played an entire nine-inning game with one baseball. It was supposed to be something out of the ordinary. It was an era when they could spit on the ball, rub it in the grass, dirt, mud, and coal dust, and on the sly roughen up one side with emory or smooth it with talcum powder. A real dead ball then was in use, as the cork center ball was not used until 1911 after experimentation in the 1910 World Series.

I have never actually seen a big league game in which only one ball was used, but in many early games which I have covered, or served as the official scorer, no more than half a dozen balls were put into play. Such early thrifty club owners as Charley Ebbets of Brooklyn and Barney Dreyfuss of Pittsburgh used to complain to the league president about umpires who threw out a ball just because it had a little nick on the cover. I even recall that Fred Tenney, manager-first baseman of the 1911 Boston Rustlers, actually would climb into the first base bleacher and wrestle fans for foul balls that were hit into the stands.

Compare that with the dozens of baseballs that are used in an average big league contest of 1971. Umpires today will throw out a ball if it has the slightest dent or a stitch has only a trace of a cut. Pitchers, throwing a number of called balls, will ask the umpire for a new ball because the player did not like the “feel” of the ball that curved too sharply or not enough. And the umps will let them get by with it.

In the first decade of this century, the two major leagues still were on the single umpire system. Each league had five umpires, four regulars, and one fill-in man who usually worked with one of the older umpires until he was ordered elsewhere to take over for a sick or injured ump. The single umpire started behind the plate, but later moved behind the pitcher, slightly to one side. It was during the single umpire years of the 1890’s that John McGraw, fiery third baseman of the Baltimore Orioles, ran from first base to third via the pitcher’s box. After all, the single umpire had only two eyes, and he couldn’t look north, south, east, and west at the same time.

In the 1909 Pirate-Tiger World Series, the National Commission, then the governing body of baseball, put in an innovation, two teams of two umpires. Jim Johnstone (NL) and Silk O’Loughlin (AL), umpired the first game in Detroit, and Bill Klem (NL) and Billy Evans (AL) the second game in Pittsburgh. The two idle umpires sat in a field box.

During the second game at Forbes Field, which was new that season, a ball hit by Fred Clarke, the Pirate manager-leftfielder, landed in the leftfield bleacher, which was in partly-fair, partly-foul territory. As the ball fell among standing bleacher fans, neither Evans, at the plate, nor Klem, the arbiter on the bases, could tell whether it fell fair or foul. Evans and Klem marched out to the bleacher to consult the crowd. The Pirate-minded fans yelled, “It was a homer, Umps, a sure homer!” However, Evans requested a fan to point out the exact place where the ball hit the bleacher. So Evans ruled “the ball hit fair, but bounded sidewise into foul territory, so it is a ground rule double.” Clarke argued stoutly that it was a home run, but Evans’ decision stood up.

At a meeting of the National Commission, John Heydler, then the young fill-in president of the ML, said: “The situation at the ball park this afternoon was absurd. We have four umpires in the ball park, but two of them are sitting on their fannies, and we have to consult the fans on whether a batted ball is fair or foul. Why don’t we put those extra umpires to work?”

It was such a sensible question, that from this view some 62 years later we must wonder that the two experienced Commissioners, Chairman Carry Herrmann and AL president Ban Johnson never had thought of it. The next day, Johnstone and O’Loughlin again umpired the plate and bases, but Evans and Klem, in their blues, were stationed along the foul lines. So the practice of having four working umpires at a World Series was born. It later became six at the World Series and the All-Star game.

By 1911, the National and American Leagues regularly assigned two men to all of their championship games. At first the more experienced men, such as Johnstone, Sheridan, O’Loughlin, and O’Day, handled duties behind the plate, and secondary or new umpires took care of decisions on the bases. Perhaps the most amusing thing I ever saw on the ball field in 60 plus years of covering baseball happened at New York’s Polo Grounds in 1911. Klem was the thief umpire, and Emslie worked the bases. It was a gusty day, and as Bob ran over to second base to make a close decision, the wind blew off first his blue cap, and then his brownish wig. Bob’s exposed head was as bald as an ivory billiard ball. The fans rocked the stands with their laughter, but for poor Emslie it was a moat embarrassing moment. Perhaps some of Emslie’s fellow umpires knew he wore a wig, but none of the players or writers suspected it. He didn’t last long in the league after that.

Compare five umpires for each major league in 1908, nine in 1911, with the regiments of umpires that are employed today. The NL started its 1971 season with 33 umpires and the AL with 28. And, according to such observers as Leo Durocher, Dick Williams, and Earl Weaver, they call as many wrong, but not in their heart, as did the ten umps who called `em in the early years of this century.

Nevertheless, it still is the same game in 1971 as it was in 1911. Rule changes in the six decades have been minimal. It still is a game of three strikes, four called balls, three outs, and the first two foul balls designated as strikes. Despite the orgy of home run hitting since the early 1920’s managers still use the stolen base, sacrifice, the hit-and-run play, and station their fielders defensively where the batter is moat likely to hit. The venerable Connie Mack moved around infielders and outfielders as early as his first Philadelphia pennant in 1902.

Of course, the home run era, ushered in by Babe Ruth when he hit 54 homers for the 1920 Yankees, made a decided change in baseball. Up to that time, managers were inclined to play for one run; later when they had a Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx, Rank Aaron, or Willie Stargell in their line-up, they played for blocks of four or five runs.

At the time of the super-jackrabbit baseball in 1929 and in 1930 when six NL clubs and three in the AL hit over .300, and home runs flew over the fences like pigeons, some writers were discussing the lurking dangers of too many home runs. One man observed, “The fans already are tired of them.” Sam Breadon, then president of the Cardinals, overheard the last remark and said dryly, “Well, I have yet to hear a fan boo a home run.”

During the early home run era, attendance went up all along the line, and with bigger crowds there were bigger pay checks for the players. During that period, Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt, who always had an apt wise-crack, said: “Wives of ball players, when they teach their children their prayers, should instruct them to say: `God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy, God bless Babe Ruth! Babe has upped Daddy’s home pay check by 15 to 40 percent. `”

The game also has changed financially since the time I first took my press seat in 1911. During the 1971 season, a Washington syndicate said it was willing to buy the Washington franchise and keep it in the Capital city for $9 million. In 1911, you could have bought all eight NL franchises, plus their ball parks, for $5 million, and the same amount would have purchased all eight AL franchises. Of course, the 1911 dollar bought three to four times as much as does the shrunken dollar of 1971.

In recent years baseball has been subject to stronger competition from all sports. But baseball is still holding its own. Mote that the Philadelphia Phillies broke their home attendance record with some 1,500,000 fans in 1971. And with a tailend club. Yes, baseball is still the national sport!


This article originally appeared in the 1972 “Baseball Research Journal.”