As we gear up for the 2008 World Series, I get nostalgic for the idea of baseball as the great American pastime. But I started to think about all the people cutting back, trying to find ways to save money in this worsening present-day economy. So I started to wonder, what was baseball like during the Great Depression? And what does that say about us as a society?
I surmised that baseball was an important way to “get away from it all” during the Great Depression … a perfect opportunity for people to forget about the worries of their day-to-day lives and financial difficulties. And as I did some research, I found I was correrct.
As I watched the Rays beat Boston Sunday night in the 7th game late into the evening, I was enjoying myself before having to return to work for another week the following day. In 1935, the first ever major league night game was played at Crosley field in Cincinnati. This allowed fans who worked during the day to enjoy an evening ball game. By 1941, 11 of the 16 major league clubs had lighted fields. Otherwise, it would have been difficult for the average “Joe the Plumber” fan to take off work to see a game back then. Attendance started to increase, after a marked drop in total attendance from 10.1 million in 1930 to 6.3 million in 1933 according to Wikipedia. (Similarly, attendance this year has dropped after four straight record years.)
To keep fan interest in the game alive, baseball created the Most Valuable Player award in 1933. The all-star game and the Baseball Hall of Fame were started in 1936. I wonder how many players really love the game today that they’d be willing to suffer through a salary cut, like many others are right now in order to keep their jobs.
Even amidst the Great Depression and World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt insisted that the game be given a green light to aid and enhance the morale of the country. As Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, “A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return, only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” It has been said that it was FDR’s social reforms, along with baseball, that lit the way through the great depression. Perhaps the same can be said or should be considered for today.
Fans filled the stands at Navin Field in 1934 and ’35, accounting for nearly 25 percent of baseball’s total paid attendance during the period. It cost a dollar to get into the grandstands, 50 cents for a bleacher seat. The average ticket price today is $25.40 – about 30 times more than back then. So what else was different then and from how it is now? In 1935, gasoline was 19 cents/gallon, a postage stamp cost 3 cents, and the average major league baseball player salary was $6000 in the early ’30s. Today, a gallon of gas costs $2.91, a postage stamp is 42 cents, but the average MLB wage is $1,214,863.33. The gas and postage have gone up by rougly 15. The salaries for players have increased approximately 200 times!
It makes me want to root for the Tampa Bay Rays, whose median player salary is only $414,650 – at least closer to being on par with the other inflationary trends. But mostly, it makes me appreciate the role that the upcoming World Series has to bring us all having an escape and something we can share in common, regardless of politics or finances.