This article was written by John Pastier
This article was published in 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers essays
The years immediately following World War II were a golden age for baseball attendance. In 1945, the Major Leagues drew more than 10.8 million, breaking a 15-year old record. The next year, they eclipsed that total by more than 70 percent, attracting more than 18.5 million paying fans. The 1947 season was even better, producing nearly 19.9 million paid-for and filled seats.
That year was especially productive for the National League. It outdrew the American League for the only time between 1944 and 1952, overcoming the junior circuit’s formidable 27 percent advantage in seating capacity to lead it by nearly 10 percent. Brooklyn topped the league with more than 1.8 million at home and nearly 1.9 million on the road—both were league records. If one includes the World Series, those numbers rise to more than 1.9 million and nearly 2.2 million. The home figures are particularly impressive considering that the Dodgers were limited by playing in a park with 34,000 seats, the league’s second-smallest. By filling nearly 79 percent of Ebbets Field’s available seats, they set a Major League record that stood for thirty-five years until the Los Angeles incarnation of the team filled Dodger Stadium to 79.6 percent of capacity while drawing 3.6 million.
Counting their World Series home games, the Dodgers attracted more than 38 percent of the total NL gate as hosts or as visitors. Their games, home and away, drew 87 percent better on average than NL games not involving the team. Including the World Series, more than 4.1 million paying fans saw the Dodgers play in 1947.
Along the way to setting these full-season records, the Dodgers notched several notable daily figures. Facing the Giants at Ebbets Field on August 30, they set a Brooklyn single game record of 37,512. On August 18, playing the Cardinals in a day/night, separate admissions doubleheader, they drew 66,504—a one-day Ebbets Field record. On Labor Day, 63,621 turned out for separate admission morning and afternoon games against the Phillies. These records stood unbroken thorugh the Brooklyn years.
There were also some impressive road crowds. On May 11, 40,720 fans packed Shibe Park for a Dodgers-Phillies doubleheader, the largest crowd ever to see a Phillies or A’s contest in that park’s history. Exactly a week later, the Cubs and Dodgers drew 46,572, a single game Wrigley Field record that still stands, even though seating has been expanded. This turnout easily topped the All-Star Game (41,123), which was held at Wrigley that year.
In six of their seven NL road parks, the Dodgers attracted the largest crowd of the season.(In the seventh, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, they drew the second largest.) At Shibe Park, they drew two of the three highest turnouts. At Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, they produced the season’s two largest crowds, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis the top four, and at the Polo Grounds, by far the league’s biggest venue, they attracted the top six. In the World Series, the Dodgers helped draw Yankee Stadium’s four biggest daytime crowds of the season. Three of those games took place during the work week, and three topped 70,000, a figure that had never been reached in a Series game before. The overall World Series gate of 389,763 was a record at the time, and the October 5 crowd of 74,065 set a New York City postseason record that has stood sixty-two years.
At the time, this unprecedented fan interest in the Dodgers was largely attributed to Jackie Robinson’s remarkable drawing power in his rookie year. Informed contemporary observers repeatedly affirmed Robinson’s ability to turn out crowds and attract a new audience. At the Ebbets Field season opener it was estimated that 14,000 fans—more than half the attendance that day—were black. Assessing Robinson’s career, Dodgers publicist Arthur Mann declared that his “status is beyond evaluation as [the] greatest box-office draw since Babe Ruth.” Even before Jackie’s first season was over, Time magazine said that he “has pulled about $150,000 in extra admissions this season.” This was big money at the time, representing well over 100,000 added tickets, and was thirty times Robinson’s salary.
Broadcaster Red Barber wrote that “wherever Jackie played, he drew large crowds. He became the biggest attraction in baseball since Babe Ruth. Robinson put serious money into the pockets of every NL owner.” Dodgers traveling secretary Harold Parrott, previously a sportswriter, observed that “Robinson drew the fans to pack the ballparks wherever we went in 1947.” Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon declared him to be “the most lucrative draw since Babe Ruth. Later writers also echoed these sentiments. In 1984, Peter Golenbock wrote that Robinson “had become an attraction of Ruthian dimensions.” Roger Kahn was a bit more cautious, calling him ”the game’s greatest box-office attraction in 1947.”
At first the novelty of a black major leaguer attracted the big crowds which were bolstered by unprecedented numbers of African Americans in the stands, as well as whites who were rooting both for and against Robinson and baseball integration. But soon, novelty was supplanted by a desire to see a fresh and exciting brand of aggressive baserunning that Robinson brought from the Negro Leagues. What Babe Ruth did with his big bat in the Twenties, Robinson did with his feet in 1947. That year, black journalist Wendell Smith summed up the phenomenon in a snappy piece of doggerel: “Jackie’s nimble /Jackie’s quick / Jackie’s making the turnstiles click”.
At a three-day conference held in 1997 at Long Island University commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s debut, one presenter expressed great skepticism about such “starry-eyed myths” of Robinson’s 1947 box-office prowess. Henry D. Fetter, a Los Angeles entertainment and litigation attorney and enthusiastic admirer of “the well financed and brilliantly managed Yankees,” charged many of the observers cited above with collectively “overstating Robinson’s impact on attendance,” and objected to, but never fully defined, “the Robinson-Rickey myth.” His presentation later appeared in “Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream,” a selection of the conference presentations edited by Joseph Dorinson and Joram Warmund published in 1998.
In contrast to contemporary observers who actually witnessed the Dodgers’ attendance phenomenon day after day, Fetter used numerical analysis to create what he felt to be “a more accurate perspective on attendance and fan reaction to Robinson in 1947.” But he also went well beyond that pivotal year, tracking absolute and relative declines in Dodger attendance through 1956, and ending his argument by saying: “In the end, stemming the declining fortunes of major league baseball in Brooklyn as a business in Brooklyn was one burden that was too great even for Robinson to bear.” Not only is that chronologically far afield for an analysis entitled “Robinson in 1947: Measuring an Uncertain Impact,” but it also seems to be rebutting a claim about Robinson’s role in saving the Brooklyn frachise that no one, other than Fetter, had actually made.
Fetter’s argument is often detailed, but not necessarily comprehensive or well-balanced. He offers certain facts and interpretations that bolster his case, but ignores others that weaken it. For example, he notes that the Dodgers had more road dates in 1947 than the year before, which accounted for part of their road attendance gain. But he doesn’t mention that their Ebbets Field gains occurred despite having fewer home dates. He correctly notes that Dodger home attendance, while topping its record-setting 1946 season, did not rise to a great degree. But he doesn’t mention that in the same year, Yankees’ attendance actually fell, as did American League attendance as a whole. Significantly, as previously mentioned, 1947 was the only year between 1944 and 1952 in which the National League was able to overcome a steep seating capacity disadvantage and outdraw the Junior Circuit. Is it unreasonable to think that Robinson’s debut season played a significant role in this once in nine years event?
Individual games are also cited selectively, and not always informatively. Rather than trying to rebut all of Fetter’s inaccurate or debatable claims, I’ll focus on events of Robinson’s first week or so in Brooklyn: “. . . Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn was conspicuous for the absence of hometown reaction it generated. . . Rather than dominating the news (even the baseball news), Robinson’s call-up yielded top billing on the city’s sports pages to the continuing furor [over the] stunning suspension . . . of Leo Durocher as Dodger manager for the season.” Durocher’s arbitrary suspension by Commissioner Happy Chandler was indeed a bombshell, but it did not get top billing over Robinson that day, at least not in the city’s leading newspaper. The New York Times gave Robinson’s signing a full-page-width eight-column headline on its first sports page (p. 20), while Durocher earned a seven-column headline on the second sports page (p. 21).
Fetter continued (non-chronologically): “Ebbets Field had been barely one-third full on April 10 when Robinson made his first Brooklyn appearance, in a Montreal uniform in a Royals-Dodgers exhibition game.” The attendance was 14,282, which the Times called “the biggest crowd to watch the Dodgers this spring.”
Fetter: “Robinson’s local debut, the year before in a Montreal-Jersey City game, by contrast, had drawn over 25,000 to Roosevelt Stadium.” The Jersey City contest was the first 20th century appearance by a black player in an official league game in organized baseball. The Brooklyn game was an exhibition between the Dodgers and their top minor league club, with Robinson still a Dodgers farmhand, as he had been for the entire previous season.
Jersey City openers were only incidentally about baseball. They were primarily demonstrations of civic and political fealty to Mayor Frank “Boss” Hague and his legendary political machine, and invariably drew full houses or better. Immediately following the Montreal exhibition game, Robinson debuted as a Dodger in a set of Ebbets Field exhibition games against the Yankees which drew more than 79,441, a three-game record for this traditional spring series. Fetter did not mention this example of Robinson’s drawing power.
“The season opener crowd at Ebbets Field was the smallest at any National League ballpark that day. . . The 26,000 [actually, closer to 27,000] fans at Ebbets Field that day fell far short of the 39,000 who turned out that same afternoon to see the Yankees open the season in the Bronx. (Not to mention the 27,306 fans attending the races at Jamaica Race Track that afternoon.)” Confining this opening day comparison to a single date and league creates the impression that this was the smallest first-game crowd of 1947, but it wasn’t even close. Four big-league teams failed to reach 10,000, and two of those fell short of 5,000. The defending world-champion Cardinals failed to draw even half the Dodgers’ figure, falling short of 12,000. The Yankee comparison is misleading, since their home park held more than twice that of the Dodgers. One could accurately say that on that day, there were about 5,300 empty seats in Brooklyn, compared to about 30,000 in the Bronx. The racetrack comparison is simply a red herring.
“In their second home game . . . Dodger attendance fell to 10,252. . .” Second games usually dipped below opening day levels in that era, as they still often do. In 1947, half the major-league teams drew less than the Dodgers for their second home games, averaging fewer than 6,000 fans. Fetter does not mention that, or that the Yankees’ second-game attendance plunged to 8,350.
Fetter also presented two graphs attempting to show a negative correlation between 1947 NL attendance gains, and black population in the league’s various cities. These diagrams each showed a scatter-plot of eight data points, but no trend line. Much of the input data was inaccurate or conceptually questionable, but the fundamental flaw was that three quarters of the games represented in the data did not involve the Dodgers at all, and therefore had little or no relevance to the issue of Robinson’s drawing power.
The question of Jackie Robinson’s effect on attendance is a complex one, and cannot be definitively answered by looking at numbers alone, even if the analysis is done even-handedly. Red Barber noted that “the Dodgers often played before turn-away crowds . . . there has not been another season like it,” and, of course, official attendance figures take no note of fans who came to the ballpark but couldn’t get in. About 37 percent of the Dodgers’ home crowds exceeded park capacity, as was the case with about 16 percent of their road dates. It seems safe to say that at those games, even more fans were on hand but were denied admission after standing room was filled.
Taking a few steps back from the thicket of possible analytical details of the Dodgers’ 1947 games, the most useful picture that emerges is that a team with the league’s second-smallest ballpark capacity managed to set attendance records for two years in succession, and fill a greater proportion of its seats than any club did either before, or for another third of a century after.
This is not simply a matter of cold, abstract numbers, but an indication of unprecedented passion and energy in the stands. The fans of 1947 were witnessing not only a fresh new approach to major-league baseball, but also a watershed event in the nation’s social and ethical evolution. Barber’s words bear repeating: “there has not been another season like it.”
JOHN PASTIER has been an architect, city planner, design critic, and university teacher. He was awarded a USA Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to research ballpark history and design, and he has written about those topics for SABR publications, other sports periodcals and professional and general-interest periodicals in print and online. He was the lead author of “Historic Ballparks” (Chartwell Books, 2006) and “Ballparks Yesterday and Today” (Chartwell Books, 2007), and is an editor of a Tiger Stadium book to be published by McFarland. He was a consultant on Camden Yards, Safeco Field, Petco Park, and two Minor League ballparks and an expert witness for the City of Chicago regarding historic landmark status for Wrigley Field. A SABR member since 1988, he was an officer in the society’s Allan Roth and Northwest chapters, and he received the USA Today/Baseball Weekly Award for the 1996 SABR national convention’s best research presentation.
Notes and References
Attendance patterns and magnitudes between the end of World War II and the flurry of franchise relocations a few years later were dramatically different than they are today, and, without some sense of context, might seem unremarkable by present standards In those days, a million in a season was a badge of economic health, while now twice that number is regarded as substandard Today, day-to-day attendance variation is not as dramatic as it was then In our era, season ticket sales (whether full or partial plans) provide a large and stable base of patronage, while then they were far less common Now, most games are at night, and thus don’t conflict with work schedules; then, night games accounted for less than a fifth of the schedule, meaning that about half the games were unlikely to generate a large turnout Teams then were heavily dependent on weekend and holiday dates to bolster their bottom lines Single-admission doubleheaders are now virtually nonexistent, but were common then: in 1947 the Dodgers played seven of them at home, usually insuring a healthy turnout, but also in effect giving seven games away free They also played five doubleheaders on the road And today’s longer schedules provide roughly five percent more home games per team.
Reduced-price or free tickets for knothole gangs and ladies days helped fill the seats on slow dates, but didn’t show up in the official attendance figures Also, official tallies in the earlier period included only those fans who both bought tickets and attended the game, while today all sold tickets count, whether or not their holders actually show up. Around 1947, seating capacities varied widely between a minimum of below 30,000, and a maximum of nearly 79,000, with a standard deviation of about 15,200 Current ballparks range much more narrowly between about 35,000 and 56,000, with a standard deviation of only about 5,066 Many published seating capacities of the time were approximate (often ending in three or even four zeroes), and frequently contradictory, which is why this article often refers to numerical data in an approximate way (Fortunately, the most critical capacity figure, that of Ebbets Field, seems reliably defined by a detailed World Series accounting as 31,944 seats.) Even with two parks shared by the leagues, the National League teams had much smaller aggregate and average capacities than the American League, averaging about 37,300 compared to the AL’s 47,500 On average, the other thirteen major league ballparks had about 13,200 more seats than Ebbets Field.
A similar uncertainty applies to cumulative attendance figures: my methodology has been to use Retrosheet numbers as a basis, and frequently cross check them against New York Times boxscores or Red Barber citations based on the same source, correcting the former when there is a discrepancy. The result is a set of totals similar to commonly published season totals, but not identical to them.
Ticket prices back then were low; according to one source, AL tickets averaged about $1.25 in 1946. Today, an average MLB ticket runs nearly $27.00—a more than 21-fold hike, compared to an 11.6 times rise in the consumer price index. As a rough estimate, the Major Leagues grossed about $25 million in ticket sales in 1947, compared to about $2 billion in 2009.