Before The ‘Bible of Baseball’: The First Quarter-Century of The Sporting News

This article was written by Steve Gietschier

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “St. Louis’s Favorite Sport,” the 1992 SABR convention journal.

 

In the late 1920s, John George Taylor Spink, publisher of The Sporting News, a weekly newspaper produced then as now in St. Louis, embarked on a European vacation with his wife, Blanche. The Spinks were in the French port of Cherbourg waiting to board an ocean liner when a voice from the bridge hailed the publisher. “I had no idea who was calling me from the captain’s bridge,” Spink recalled, “but when I looked up, I recognized Jack Potter [son of the former president of the Philadelphia Phillies] and, believe it or not, there was a copy of The Sporting News in his pocket.”

Potter turned to the ship’s captain and said, “There is the man who wrote the Bible.” “Who is he,” asked the captain, “Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” “That’s Taylor Spink,” Potter replied, “and he writes the Baseball Bible.” Spink knew a catchy phrase when he heard one, and was smitten by the authority suggested by Potter’s alliteration. Henceforth, “The Bible of Baseball” became the paper’s unofficial tide, a handy synonym that crisply described its editorial focus and the respect in which it was held. Indeed, some baseball addicts loved the paper so intensely that they willingly turned the metaphor inside out and insisted that the Bible, that is, the Old Testament and the New, was The Sporting News of religion.

Fitting though it was, “The Bible of Baseball” was not an original turn of phrase. The sport historian John R. Betts tells us that the nickname had earlier been bestowed on Frank Queen’s New York Clipper, founded in 1853. Potter’s usage, however, seemed particularly apt and has persisted. But the simple truth is that The Sporting News was exclusively a baseball paper for only a segment of its 106 years. It neither started out that way nor does it appear that way today.

Taylor Spink was the third of four Spinks to run this family-owned business before the paper was sold to the Times Mirror Corporation in 1977. He was the son of Charles Claude Spink and the nephew of Alfred Henry Spink, who published the first weekly issue on March 17, 1886. The Spink brothers (there were four in all and four sisters) were born in Quebec Province. The second and third sons, William and Alfred, were especially close.

They attended Quebec High School, read Tom Brown’s School Days at Rugby, and played on the school cricket eleven. We have Al’s testimony that the boys learned “that there was nothing so fair as a game at fisticuffs and down the hill from the high school there was a platform on which was settled with the fists all real differences that came up.” The family moved to Chicago during the American Civil War, and shortly thereafter the second oldest son. Billy, a crack telegrapher for Western Union, went on to St. Louis. Al soon followed his brother. Billy switched careers when the telegraphers’ union, of which he was secretary, lost a strike. He swore he would never work again for Western Union, a promise he kept, and became a newspaperman, eventually sports editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Al, after a few years with Joseph Pulitzer’s Post-Dispatch and the Missouri Republican, became sports editor of the St. Louis Chronicle.

The brothers seem to have been fully involved in the city’s sporting and journalistic subculture, what Betts calls “the barroom fraternity.” They knew its saloons and boardinghouses, its politicians and policemen, its ladies and gentlemen of leisure, and were interested in horse racing, boxing, and the stage. Most importantly, they had easily translated their youthful love of cricket into an adult zest for baseball. They were instrumental in organizing St. Louis’ first professional baseball team, the Browns, in 1875, and soon thereafter, with the financial backing of Chris Von der Ahe, they bought a local ballpark under the name Sportsman’ s Park and Club Association. Al left the Chronicle in 1881 and helped establish the American Association, a league that challenged the National League, then five years old. He worked for Von der Ahe as press agent and secretary and saw a new version of the Browns win four Association championships from 1885 to 1888.

In the midst of this success, Al began his own newspaper for reasons which are no longer clear. He called it The Sporting News. In the paper’s first issue, where it was traditional for the publisher to set out some sort of editorial philosophy, Spink remained purposely vague. “The Sporting News,” he wrote, “intends to ignore this custom and let its readers guess out what its aims and objects are.” Perhaps Al had been motivated by his friend Pulitzer, who had argued with him for years before that “Given a good business manager and an editor who can really write, any newspaper should fast become a good paying institution.” Perhaps he was encouraged that the competition was limited primarily to Sporting Life, published in faraway Philadelphia. Or maybe he was simply driven to find a vehicle for seeking riches and greater stature among the gentry in the burgeoning metropolis that was St. Louis.

At any rate, The Sporting News, eight pages long, hit the streets for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day, 1886. Parenthetically, we should add that there is some evidence that The Sporting News, or at least an earlier version, began in 1884. Spink himself says so twice in his book, The National Game, published in 1910. But there is no other evidence to support this claim, and the book, while valuable in many respects, is rife with errors.

There was baseball in the first issue, of course. Front page stories, written in the form of letters to the editor, covered “The Game in Gotham,” “The White Stockings,” “Harry Wright’s Team,” and “The Northwestern League.” But the longest piece on page one was about harness racing, “Ready for the Road,” and an equally interesting note concerned two wrestlers, one Japanese and one English, who had visited The Sporting News office during the week. Here we have evidence that Spink intended to publish a paper not just to satisfy his own enthusiasm for baseball, but to appeal to the broader interests of his friends.

The other six pages of editorial matter (there was one full page of ads) confirm this view. Page two was devoted entirely to baseball, including the first installment of “Caught on the Fly,” a column that still runs today. But in addition, there were sections on “The Wheel,” “The Gun,” “The Stage,” “The Ring,” and “The Turf.” Subscription rates were set at $2 a year (a single copy was five cents), and advertising cost 20 cents an agate line for the first insertion and fifteen cents thereafter.

The paper was an immediate hit, or at least enough of a success so that Al Spink buckled under the weight of multiple duties. He summoned his younger brother Charles to abandon a homesteading adventure in South Dakota for a $50 a week offer as business manager. Charles arrived in St. Louis with $10 in his pocket. Al borrowed the money and bought his brother dinner with it. Thus, we can surmise that it was Charles who would fit Pulitzer’s mold for a “good business manager.”

In May 1886, the paper proclaimed that it had “the largest circulation of any sporting paper published west of Philadelphia” and that it was “for sale weekly at every news stand from New Orleans to St. Paul, and west to San Francisco.” In October, 1887, just a year and a half later, the publisher boasted, probably with exaggeration, that circulation stood at 40,000.

The editorial mix continued: the first “extra” issue in July 1886, on the heavyweight fight between John L. Sullivan and Charles Mitchell; a special front page on October 30, 1886, to celebrate the triumph of the Browns over the National League’s Chicago White Stockings in the early version of the World Series; extensive coverage and support of the Brotherhood and the Players’ League beginning with a scoop in June 1889; and on-the-spot reporting by Al Spink of the July 1889, fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in New Orleans.

Slowly, baseball news began to predominate although other sports were not yet excluded. Starting in early 1887, the paper devoted a separate section to each league and then, over the next few months, was named the official organ of the Western League, the Central Inter-State League, and the Texas League, meaning that “the official scores of these organizations will now be published in The Sporting News only.” These relationships were engineered by Charles Spink, who also announced in May, 1887, that the paper would issue a daily edition commencing on June 6. Little is known of the daily since no copies survive. Apparently, it concentrated on baseball and horse racing and faded away after the summer.

Charles Spink also took a larger editorial role after 1890. In fact, the demise of the Brotherhood and the Players’ League, which hurt circulation badly, seemed to have doused Al’s interest in much of what the paper was trying to accomplish. He turned instead to his other passion, the theater. Al wrote and directed The Derby Winner, a play that required a cast of 42 persons, including jockey Tod Sloan, and six horses. The Spink name helped make it a success in St. Louis, but when Al took a year’s leave to take the play on the road, it flopped monumentally. He was wiped out, even using his Sporting News stock as collateral for the loans he could not repay. He tried homesteading in the Dakotas, too, with nephew Ernest J. Lanigan, later a prominent baseball statistician, but soon came back to St. Louis. Charles had bought up his brother’s stock, so when Al rejoined the paper, he did so as an employee. He left The Sporting News for good in 1899 and thereafter worked as a sportswriter and an author of books on baseball. He sued Charles in 1913 over the sale of his stock, but the suit was never tried. The brothers reconciled in time for Al to write a eulogy for his younger brother in 1914. It was his last contribution to the paper. He died in 1928 at the age of 74. Kenesaw Mountain Landis gave the eulogy.

With Charles Spink in control by the turn of the century, the paper devoted even more space to baseball. Gone were “The Stage” and “The Gun” and the patent medicine ads of earlier years. Horse racing and boxing remained, however, as the masthead from 1901 indicated: “A weekly journal devoted to baseball, the turf, ring, general sports and pastimes.” The paper employed the quaint custom, too, of using space on the masthead for transmitting information to newsdealers and correspondents: “Special Notice: Newsdealers supplied direct from this office. Unsold copies fully returnable. Correspondence on sporting topics solicited from all sections of the world. Communications, intended for publication, should be written on one side of the paper only.”

Charles was aided in this transition by the paper’s first non- Spink editor, Alonzo Joseph Planner. A native of New Bern, North Carolina, Joe Planner, too, was a South Dakota homesteader. After finishing a law apprenticeship. Planner served as the first state’s attorney for Lawrence County. We can presume that he knew the Spinks, for in 1892, after sixteen years at the bar, Planner left South Dakota for St. Louis and was immediately named sports editor of the Post-Dispatch. He joined The Sporting News three years later, and when Al Spink left the paper for good. Planner was named editor.

He brought a crisp, incisive style to his work along with a real devotion to baseball. He campaigned strenuously against liquor peddling in the stands, gambling abuses, and assaults upon umpires. In his desire to clean up baseball. Planner was joined by Ban Johnson, then in the process of turning the Western League into the American League. The Sporting News supported Johnson squarely and earned his lifelong appreciation. In 1903, Planner helped draft the National Agreement, which brought an end to the feud between the two major leagues and established the first modem World Series. Type for the agreement was set in the composing room of The Sporting News and forwarded to Cincinnati, where it was adopted without alteration.

During Planner’s tenure, the paper printed its first photograph, a picture of pitcher Charles Harper in 1902, followed in the next issue, by a four-column of three St. Louis Browns and in the fall of that year by two special supplements, “handsome, full-page half tones” of the champions of the 1902 season, the Pittsburgh team and the Athletics of Philadelphia. Planner’s other contribution was the elimination of all non-baseball material. There was, for example, no coverage of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The masthead for March 10, 1906, reflected this change. It read: “The Sporting News, a weekly journal devoted to the advancement of the interests of organized baseball.” A while later, the little box in the upper left comer of page 1, which had read “Largest Circulation of any Sporting paper,” was itself changed to “Official Organ, National Commission, Authority of Game.” The transition was complete. In 1909, Planner left The Sporting News after a dispute with Charles Spink. He joined the American League office as official statistician and secretary to Ban Johnson.

Two years later, he became assistant to Carry Herrmann, chairman of the National Commission, baseball’s ruling body before the commissioner system was adopted. In 1914, with Charles Spink dead, the paper fell into the hands of young Taylor Spink, a driven man if ever there was one. Taylor had been born in 1888 and first worked for the paper in 1909. Shortly thereafter, he commenced to badger Ban Johnson to let him serve as American League official scorer for the World Series. Johnson consented partly out of exasperation and partly out of affection for the Spink family. Taylor performed his duties creditably, and was reappointed to the post seven more times. He and his wife also reciprocated Johnson’s kindness by naming their only son Charles Claude Johnson Spink.

Under Taylor Spink’s intense leadership, The Sporting News lived up to the nickname bestowed upon it by Jack Potter. Its history became intertwined with that of baseball itself, so that no one in any phase of the game could be fully informed without reading it every week year round. Its lists of correspondents, recruited from the staffs of newspapers throughout the major cities, read like a Who’s Who of American sports journalism.

The paper’s editorial focus remained fixed exclusively on baseball until 1942. That fall the monopoly ended as coverage of football was added, followed in turn by basketball and hockey. There has been no turning back. Coverage of these sports, plus the Olympics, tennis, golf, auto racing, boxing, and horse racing is now year round. The Sporting News has in a sense come full circle in 106 years, back to an attempt to satisfy, as Al Spink did, the entire sports community. From “The Bible of Baseball” the paper has evolved into “The Bible of All Sports,” a name not so euphonious but one of which the founder would no doubt approve.

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