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article number 146
article date 07-19-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The 1920’s Business of Sport, Baseball, College Football and Boxing.
by Preston William Slosson
Red Grange.

From the book, The Great Crusade and After, 1914 -1928.

Next to the sport of business the American enjoyed most the business of sport. Politics, religion, education, the fine arts and other human activities, had to compete for third prize at best. “Not far from one quarter of the entire national income of America is expended for play and recreation broadly interpreted,” wrote Stuart Chase in 1928. “Perhaps half that sum is expended in forms of play new since the coming of the industrial revolution, and requiring more or less complicated machinery for their enjoyment.” All forms of amusement required increased outlay, from the two hundred million dollars a year spent on sporting goods to the manufacture of twenty million dolls a year for American children.

The high tide of prosperity after 1914 popularized recreation far beyond anything known in any earlier period and made the provision of pleasure the most comprehensive of national industries. Other influences helped in the same direction. There was, for example, the invention of new toys with which the nation could play. Obviously the rapid and almost simultaneous development of the automobile, the moving picture, the phonograph and the radio opened pleasant ways of killing time quite impossible to any previous generation. Demand may create supply, but supply may also nourish demand. Without these new pleasures many might have been content to put in more time at work, not being sufficiently attracted by the older forms of recreation. Perhaps, too, the continued growth of the great cities with their confining indoor life caused increasing numbers to seek outdoor play to meet the physical needs once satisfied by outdoor labor.

The radio has opened pleasant ways of killing time quite impossible to any previous generation.

Nor should we forget the skill of the merchandisers of sports in hawking their wares. The same arts of publicity which made bathtubs, face creams and vacuum cleaners universal were employed to sell sporting goods, and the same press-agenting which helped make the reputation of a grand-opera star or a politician was also at the service of a pugilist. Millions went to see “Babe” Ruth play baseball, “Red” Grange play football, or Jack Dempsey fight in the ring, because they had learned to know these stars in the columns of the press. The sense of proportion thus created, was amusingly illustrated in July, 1928, when the debarment of the tennis champion W. T. Tilden from the amateur ranks drove from the front pages a presidential campaign, the assassination of the Mexican president-elect, the mysterious death of a Belgian millionaire, and the search for lost aviators in the Arctic. Charges of bribe-taking by the White Sox professional baseball team a few years earlier created wider popular excitement than charges of bribe-taking by members of the cabinet.

The pleasure-loving American, however, did not form a leisure class in the European sense. He carried into sport the same grim seriousness that had served him so well in trade, and the desire to excel was as cruelly competitive in sport as in commerce. This brought to the United States many trophies and world championships, but the spirit of play was lost. There was a technical distinction between amateur and professional athletics in the United States, insisted on with such pedantic precision that a player could be disqualified as an amateur for writing articles on his own sport or coaching a schoolboy for money in another game; but there was little psychological distinction. Both amateur and professional had the essentially professional attitude which takes training seriously, admires technical form, and would make almost any sacrifice for victory. “Does handling ice,” wrote one earnest young athlete to the sports writer Handley Cross, “develop the arms for weight throwing?” “We told him that it did. We did not add that, even more important, weight throwing develops the arms for handling ice. What was the use?” To that boy, as to many thousands of his elders, play was neither recreation from work nor preparation for it, but work itself, and of the most exacting and important type.

Football and baseball were close rivals for leadership in the business of sport. Football remained essentially a college game in spite of the attempt to make it a popular professional sport by inducing athletes on graduation from college to enter the commercial teams. Baseball, on the contrary, was the unquestioned leader among professional games. Though amateurs joyfully played it everywhere, from six-year-olds on the vacant lots up to the university teams, not all these amateur contests together awoke a tithe of the interest aroused by the games of the National and American leagues, the leading professional organizations. In 1913 the World Baseball Series had an attendance of one hundred and fifty thousand and receipts of $325,980; in 1923, the attendance was three hundred thousand and the receipts more than a million dollars. A single game in the 1928 series attracted over sixty thousand spectators and reaped a harvest of more than $224,000.

1928 World Series.

The World Series—justly named, for in baseball the United States was virtually the world—was the last week’s culmination of a whole summer of intense rivalry. Although the baseball teams in no sense really represented the cities after which they were named, so hearty was the American capacity for make-believe that a contest between two financial organizations whose players were assembled from all over the nation became a strife in which the pride of the cities was directly involved, and feeling was as intense as at any college football game, though it no longer found frequent expression in assaults on the umpire who gave a decision against the “home team.” From mid-spring to mid-autumn, even encroaching on the season sacred to football, the baseball teams battled around the country, the newspapers carefully recording their percentages, until one team emerged clearly at the head of its league, and then came for one brief week, the struggle of the giants. When Washington, D. C. first won world honors in baseball in 1924, the city held such a jubilee as would have done credit to the close of a great war or the inauguration of a president. George (“Babe”) Ruth of the New York Yankees, by hitting the ball for fifty-nine home runs in 1921 and for sixty in 1927, made himself one of the best-known individuals in the United States.

Football, with altered rules to encourage open play— running, throwing and kicking—won a greater following than ever before. Though the most important of the new rules had become established before 1910, the possibilities of the more open game were not fully developed until the years following the World War, which had temporarily deflected interest even from football. But from 1919 to 1928 football reigned supreme in college life. Thirty years earlier only a few schools and colleges played the game, and most of these without expert coaching, so that Walter Camp could make up his list of “All-American” football stars by selecting the best men from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. For a thousand players in the whole nation then, there were two hundred thousand playing in 1926, and from six to ten thousand professional coaches and trainers to keep them fit.


Any school which chose to spend the money could have expert coaching, and Harvard and Yale were sometimes outranked in gridiron efficiency by a score of other schools. No college could longer claim national ascendancy; the old dynasties of the East had given place to a turbulent democracy of sport. A very small college, like Centre in Kentucky, would blaze as a star of the first magnitude for a single year or two and then sink back to obscurity. The only permanent advantage of the larger colleges was their superior reservoir of man power for reserves. Games were no longer of team against team but of squad against squad, and the larger institutions had at least two competent substitutes for every man on the field.

One of the differences between the old game and the new was that the older football interested chiefly the students and the alumni; the new game, more spectacular, attracted also the general public. Although the football season, except in California, lasted only from late September to Thanksgiving, thirty million spectators in 1927 paid some fifty million dollars in gate receipts. To accommodate these enormous crowds huge stadiums of steel and concrete were built, seating about eighty thousand at Yale and California, and seventy thousand or more at Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan and several others. For the greater part of the year these enormous “lunar craters,” as Coach A. A. Stagg of Chicago aptly called them, stood empty, but on the day of a great game they were filled to overflowing with the largest crowds that ever witnessed athletic sports since the fall of Rome.

Many went to enjoy the pageantry of the affair as much as the game itself—the gay colors in the stands, the organized cheering under specially drilled cheer leaders, the military parade of the college band, the tense atmosphere of suspense when seventy thousand clamorous voices were hushed as a pigskin hesitated in mid-air above the wooden crossbar. The games played by the West Point and Annapolis teams were always popular, whether they were weak or strong, because the drills, the songs, the uniforms and the “stunts” of the army and navy boys were particularly picturesque.

Excitement of a 1927 Rose Bowl touchdown.

The complaints against the new football as voiced, for example, by a committee of the American Association of University Professors were not so much, as formerly, against brutality or dishonesty, though neither had become wholly extinct, but rather against the danger of transforming an amateur sport into a commercial amusement business run by coaches and alumni for the benefit of the general sporting public. Not even the huge gate receipts reconciled everyone to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on football equipment, stadiums, uniforms, coaching and travel, at a time when many departments of the university were starved of funds for teaching and research. It should in fairness be said, however, that a large part of the profits of football were used to make up deficits in general athletic equipment or to support less profitable “minor sports.” Gambling was common, and the attitude of alumni and townsfolk often thoroughly unsportsmanlike.

But the public was impatient with these faint misgivings. A typical editorial in the news-stand periodical Liberty, retorted to the hostile report of the professors that the whole trouble was faculty jealousy of the superior abilities and earning power of coaches and ex-players: “The problem is not the elimination or restriction of football, but how long it will be before red-blooded colleges demand the elimination or the restriction of those afflicted with this inferiority complex.” Sometimes alumni were impatient of the increased standards of scholarship when they threatened to interfere with the superior claims of football. “When high class athletes with a passable and qualifying school record are turned aside as unfit,” complained one alumnus, “it is just as foolish as it would be to turn aside high class scholars who had only a passable record in physical training.” It was often noted that alumni were more concerned over the prospects of a football team than the students themselves, perhaps because they had gone to college in a day when campus interests were more concentrated. “When I was in college,” said President Ernest Hopkins of Dartmouth, “a man would have been considered white-livered . . . who was not present at every football game. Now, except for some great dramatic spectacle during the season, undergraduates will be found upon the golf links, the trout streams and the Outing Club trails, and in canoes on the river on the fall afternoons of the most important games.”

Next to a world-series baseball game or a football match between two great universities, a prize fight drew the largest crowds. After a period of eclipse, the well-staged and decorous contests in a twentieth-century arena more than recaptured the fashionable note of a hundred years earlier when English gentry, nobility and even royalty (as represented by the Crown Prince who was later George IV) attended bare-knuckle fights and themselves studied the art of self-defense under expert boxers.

Jack Dempsey’s picturesque punch.

In 1926 a world’s championship boxing contest took place in Philadelphia as part of the entertainment of the Sesquicentennial Exposition. The attendance was estimated at one hundred and twenty-five thousand, not including the millions who listened to the thud of the boxing gloves over the radio. The public paid $1,895,000 for admission, of which Jack Dempsey, who was that day uncrowned as king of the pugilistic world, drew $700,000. Thus was celebrated the hundred and fiftieth year of American independence! Other heavyweight contests were almost as plutocratic. Spectators paid $1,626,000 to see Jack Dempsey defeat the gallant French challenger Georges Carpentier in 1921. Two years later he defeated the Argentine giant Firpo before a crowd which had paid more than a million to see him do it. But the record athletic event was Dempsey’s return match against Gene Tunney, the new world champion, in 1927, a contest with gate receipts of more than $2,650,000. So rapid was the development of pugilism from a sport into an industry, that nineteen fights between 1918 and the end of 1924 yielded more than $100,000 each, as compared with only four such costly contests for all previous history.

Successful pugilists were often able to augment their prize-ring income by going into vaudeville or the moving pictures, or by writing—perhaps with a reporter’s assistance—sport comment for the newspapers. Under such circumstances the champion was not apt to waste his precious fisticuffs on barroom brawls. Years often elapsed between his battles, the diplomatic preliminaries whereof might occupy several months. Most states permitted professional pugilism under certain legal restrictions, and in about a third of the states salaried state officials supervised boxing contests. At the better and larger fights, the crowds were usually quiet and well behaved, the press was largely represented, distinguished literary lights wrote up the fights from their own point of view at generous space rates, ladies were welcomed, and a radio hook-up brought the whole nation to the ring side. Twenty or thirty years before, pugilism had been an outlawed sport, banned by the authorities and shunned by the respectable. This transformation was due largely to the promoting activities of George (“Tex”) Rickard.

Tex Rickard had lived a varied and colorful life for many years before he was able to carry into effect his life’s ambition of making pugilism a society sport. He had tramped the snows of Alaska and the Yukon, hunting gold in mines, gambling halls and saloons. He tried his fortune in the alkali deserts of Nevada. There he had staged prize fights with some success, but not on the scale of his later operations. For a time he raised cattle in South America. Soon after his return to the United States he discovered Jack Dempsey, who had not only the ability to win the heavyweight championship but also (and more important from Rickard’s viewpoint) the personality to attract a paying public. At Toledo in 1919, Dempsey defeated Jess Willard, a heavy Kansas giant who had taken the honors from the Negro champion Jack Johnson four years earlier. Dempsey was disliked at first for his failure to enlist in the World War, but the fickle crowd which at first went to see him defeated, later made him their favorite because he so perfectly embodied their ideal of a human fighting machine, scowling, ruthless, aggressive. With the genius of a ‘Barnum’ in master showmanship, Rickard capitalized his find. From the moment when he staged “The Battle of the Century” between Dempsey and Carpentier, the fortunes of both Rickard and Dempsey were made.

Jess Willard.

The man who defeated Dempsey in 1926 should have been even more the idol of the crowd. Gene Tunney had fought in the war as a marine; he was handsome, genial, with the manners of a gentleman and interested enough in letters to talk to a class of Yale students on Shakespeare. Moreover, he was the best boxer in the heavyweight division. But the “fans” never took to Tunney because he did not fit their abstract platonic ideal of what a pugilist should be. They labeled him a “highbrow” and made no effort to detain him when he voluntarily left the ring to enjoy the higher levels of society. Tunney’s retirement, Dempsey’s defeat, and the death of Rickard the super-salesman, left pugilism in 1929 divested of the chief attractions of its golden decade.

The worst feature of the new pugilism was that dishonesty was so rife that, even when an honest fighter was defeated, his disappointed backers were likely to claim that he had been paid to surrender the victory by gamblers on the other side. Wrestling, professional track meets, horse racing in its many forms, shared with boxing the reproach of being “fixed” by gamblers too frequently for the spectator to feel that he was watching a real contest. Hence the popularity of amateur tennis, golf, football and track, which were usually conducted with a sincere desire to win. Honesty was, perhaps, the only real moral superiority which amateur athletics could claim over professional, and this superiority lasted only so long as gambling could be kept to a relatively unimportant place. There was real commercial advantage in not making sport too commercial.

Babe Ruth.
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