This article was written by Art Ahrens
This article was published in 1972 Baseball Research Journal
Witnessing thousands of empty seats at Baltimore during the final two games of the 1971 World Series, one starts to wonder if interest in the national game really is at an all-time high, the record attendance figures of recent years notwithstanding. Or could fandom have been more enthusiastic 25, 50, or even 75 years ago, in the far removed nineteenth century for which baseball records are still far from complete?
Inquiry into major league attendances of the old century is a fascinating and often frustrating task, an official tabulation of such figures having never been available. My own research is certainly not complete either, thus far having been confined to the Chicago National League club, primarily for the years 1892 through 1900. Nevertheless, it is a start, and hopefully a good one.
The compilation of accurate figures for this period is, of course, hampered by certain stumbling blocks. First of all, there has always been a chronic lack of sources from which to gather the needed information. The Chicago National League Ball Club could supply no statistics of early attendances, while the Sporting News had available only the figures from 1901 to the present. The Baseball Hall of Fame keeps an unofficial listing, but it, too, is largely incomplete; hence there were virtually no other sources left open but old newspaper files.
Here was where the second and more formidable “stumbling block” appeared. Prior to the l890’s (and in some cases, for a long time thereafter), newspaper accounts of sporting events left much to be desired. Evidently, the Chicago Tribune of 1892 was the first journal of that city to publish baseball attendances on a full-tune basis; hence, little information could be found for the seasons before then. Any ideas of what attendances were like in the 1876-1891 period could be gained only through inferences based on the sparse newspaper coverage of the era, or whatever other sources could be located.
On September 7, 1883, for example, the Chicago Tribune referred to the crowd of 6,000 present during the
previous days’ ball game at Chicago’s Lake Park as “overwhelming”, while half a decade later the largest crowd of the season appears to have been the 10,000 on hand an the Cubs (then called the White Stockings) outlasted the Detroit Nationals in a slugfest, 21-17, on July 28, 1888. And as late as 1891, the Chicago Inter-Ocean regarded the gathering of 13,000 for the second game of a Fourth of July double-header with Brooklyn as “one of the largest crowds that ever saw a game of ball in this town.” But more often than not, the press in those days was quite vague in its’ descriptions of ball park gatherings, as figures were generally given out only in the event of an exceptionally large crowd, as in the examples cited above. The Inter-Ocean’s June 26, 1891 reference to “the large and intelligent crowd” typified the usual remarks concerning attendances during this early period.
Research for the years beginning in 1892, however, proved more than fruitful. Following the example set by the Tribune, the Chicago Times and Chicago Record began printing daily attendance counts in 1894, which policy was taken up by the Inter-Ocean in `95. At this point it must be noted, however, that it was the general practice of newspapers well into the twentieth century to give rounded rather than exact figures, i.e. 6,500, 7,200, etc. The only file which offered exact attendance counts on a day-by-day basis for the entire year was the Tribune of 1894, which figures were probably the most accurate of any I compiled.
Although the compilations from the various newspapers did not coincide with letter perfection, there were no major discrepancies between any of them, which itself gives credence to the possibility that at least a reasonably accurate estimate of attendances for this period can at last be determined. Carried below is a summary of the Chicago home games, the Tribune season totals, the average totals of four Chicago newspapers (Tribune, Times & Times Herald, Inter-Ocean, and Record), and the largest single paid crowd.
|Year||Home Games||Tribune||Average||Largest Crowd|
Granted, these figures are certainly small by today’s standards, but appear far more impressive in light of the Boston Braves drawing s scant 281,278 as late as 1952, while the St. Louis Browns of `53 and the Philadelpha Athletics of `54 fared little better. On more than one occasion during the 1950’s, the Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates drew barely more than 400,000 paid a year, while in the computerized jet age of 1970 the Chicago White Sox hardly scraped over the 495,000 mark, all of which are poor by comparison.
One must consider, too, that in the pre-automobile era of the 1890’s, major league baseball was for the most part confined to the dwellers of the great cities, the average working class fan going to the ball game via the streetcar or the elevated train, while the more well-to-do rode to the park in carriages or hacks. Those who lived in rural or suburban areas were fortunate to visit the ballpark once a year, if that often. Not to mention the obvious fact that at this time big league cities, as well as their baseball fields, were usually less than half their present day size.
The 1890’s attendances also indicate that Chicago was one of the most enthusiastic baseball cities of the day. If the counts of other National League teams given to me through the courtesy of the Hall of Fame are in any way accurate, the only club which drew a consistently higher gate during the 1890’s was Philadelphia, which boasted a consistently superior team to Chicago as well.
Attendances for all baseball teams had taken a plunge in the wake of the Players’ League “uprising” of 1890, the resulting financial disaster having caused the old American Association to go bankrupt. The general decline of the early 1890’s was reflected in Chicago as in other cities, the Cubs (Colts at this time) drawing but 90,000 in 1892. Attendances perked up when the team moved to the now-fabled West Side Grounds the following year. With the return of the team to the first division in 1895 following three bad seasons, the crowds swelled beyond even the most optimistic expectations as the fans poured in by the droves to witness the feats of such gate attractions as Cap Anson, Jimmy Ryan, Bill Lange, Clark Griffith, and Bill Dahlen. The Chicago Tribune of July 8, 1895 remarked that:
Baseball fever has again got a strong hold on the Chicago public… .Last week, seven games were played, and nearly 80,000 paid the admission fee to see them. For one week’s attendance, the number is unprecedented.
Another boon during the 90’s was Sunday baseball, first becoming acceptable at the time. Even when first adopted by the Chicago club in 1893, Sunday contests drew an average of 9,000 per game at a time when weekdays were barely averaging 2,300. Within a couple of years, crowds of 10,000 were beginning to be seen even on weekdays while a Sunday, providing the weather was fair, like as not meant an overflow crowd.
Field crowds, of course, created problems both in regard to ballplaying and mob control. With the outfield packed with fans during such occurrences, it was generally agreed by both sides and the umpire that any ball knocked into the crowd would go for three bases, although in at least one case, the player was allowed a home run. All the while, extra police were required to prevent the crowd from overwhelming the playing area and/or intimidating the umpire. During field crowds, many would-be patrons were by necessity turned away, which created the problem of satisfying disappointed fans, who, from all indications, were far more temperamental in the 1890’s than they are today. A newspaper account of one field crowd observed that “a large floating population managed to get in over the back fence”, while on another occasion a group of fans “battered down two closed gates to gain admittance.” In spite of such occurrences, however, the mobs were usually kept well under control.
As the fans continued to come out to the West Side en masse, more seating apace was soon required; thus, 2,300 seats were added to the grandstand and bleachers during the winter of 1897-98. But even larger stands could not keep pace with the growing number of fans, as roughly 400,000 paid their way into the park during each of the next two seasons, the 1898 attendance being particularly remarkable in that it occurred during a year in which baseball attendance in general dropped sharply due to concern over the Spanish-American war.
Fan interest reached its apex on Sunday, April 30, 1899, as 27,489 paying customers jammed their way into the West Side Grounds for the Cub-Cardinal game, shattering the old record of 24,500 which had attended the second game of s Memorial Day double-header between the Giants and the Cleveland Spiders at New York’s Polo Grounds-in 1894. An estimated 7,000 people were turned away from this contest while another couple of thousand viewed the game from the rooftops and windows of surrounding tenements. In a park which had a seating capacity for little more than 15,000, this remarkable crowd was nearly double what there was comfortable room for, as fans stood but a few short feet in back of Cub catcher Frank Chance. Small wonder the Chicago Tribune of the following morning commented that “people everywhere were fighting for standing room” and that extra streetcars were put into use at the game’s end to help clear out the crowd.
It was beyond a doubt, the “crowd of the century” and an appropriate manner for the decade in which professional baseball became of age to celebrate its’ final year.
This in mind, we return to the more sophisticated but less colorful 1970s, with its row after row of empty seats during world series games, while 75 years earlier, in one city at least, baseball fans “broke down the doors”- in order to see their favorites perform.
This article originally appeared in the 1972 “Baseball Research Journal.”