They poured into Sportsman’s Park that summer. The St. Louis Browns and Cardinals combined to draw more than 1.2 million fans in 1922, a figure not eclipsed until after the Second World War. They came by taxi, streetcar, or just walked to the intersection of Grand and Dodier in North St. Louis. Few drove to the game.
Parking spots proved sparse in the residential neighborhood.
With Prohibition the law of the land for more than two years, fans arrived at a stadium with no alcohol sales. It also had no public-address system. A man with a megaphone patrolled the park, announcing changes to the crowd along the first-base line, then walking over to the other side and repeating the words to the fans on the third-base side of the field. With no names or numbers on jerseys, a pinch-hitter could be retired before many in attendance ever knew who was standing at the plate. Whatever the message, white fans likely heard it first. Blacks were relegated to the bleachers and the right-field pavilion. Segregation at Sportsman’s Park remained in place until 1944.
The Browns and Cardinals shared the same home field from 1920 through 1953. In the days of a 154-game schedule, each team played 77 games at home. As a result, almost every day, from April to September, a St. Louis fan had an opportunity to watch big-league baseball. The daily action and the harsh St. Louis summers took its toll on the field. “The infield grass got browner and soggier as the summer progressed,” remembered Gene Karst, a St. Louis sportswriter and later publicist for the Cardinals. “The outfield wasn’t much better.” Groundskeepers of the 1920s would sometimes spread gasoline around the infield and set it on fire to dry it out.
When action got underway, fans watched a game played at a brisk pace. Only the rare contest lasted any longer than two hours. One year in St. Louis, the Browns and Yankees played a doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park that lasted a combined two hours and seven minutes. The longer first game – lasting one hour and twelve minutes – featured 25 hits. The shorter second one – which took all of fifty-five minutes – had 20 hits.
At the beginning of the decade, complete games by starting pitchers were the rule, not the exception. Also helping to speed up play – no one had to wait on television timeouts or radio commercials in the early 1920s. Almost no one had to retrieve a glove from a dugout, either. That’s because players frequently left their mitts on the field when the side was retired and the half-inning complete. As the fielders made their way to the dugout, they passed a row of bats lined up on the ground on the edge of the grass. Bat racks were not common.
With bat in hand, a player walked to the plate with no batting helmet. Despite Cleveland’s Ray Chapman getting hit in the head and later dying from a pitched ball delivered by the Yankees’ Carl Mays in a game in 1920, helmets were not made mandatory until 1971. Fear of injury (or worse) didn’t come just at the plate. Infielders battled runners with raised cleats and outfielders battled walls with no padding.
Foul balls came with expectations in the game’s early days. The umpires and club owners wanted them returned to the field of play. Chicago Cubs owner Charles Weeghman is credited with being the first to allow fans to keep baseballs. Other cities didn’t give up the fight so easily. The New York Giants ejected a fan in 1921 for failing to turn over a foul ball. Reuben Berman then sued the Giants and won, collecting $100 for mental and physical distress. The Phillies once jailed a fan overnight for declining to return a ball.
When fans weren’t battling ushers over foul balls or hectoring players from their seats, they could stroll to the concession stand and choose from a wide variety of items. “Cracker Jack” – introduced at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago – as well as peanuts and hot dogs, were staple ballpark items by the 1920s (the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written in 1908). Some of the more unique offerings at Sportsman’s Park over the years included boiled-egg and tongue sandwiches. With alcohol off the menu, fans could still enjoy an assortment of tobacco products. Vendors sold chewing tobacco as well as cigarettes and cigars. During Prohibition, a ballpark cigar would typically cost fifteen to twenty cents.
When the game ended, visiting players returned to their hotel. In St. Louis, the Chase Hotel in the city’s Central West End was a popular destination. In the days before air conditioning, players would haul their mattresses out to a balcony to cool down or even try sleeping across the street in Forest Park. With their mornings and evenings free, visiting players typically stayed up late.
Two teams sharing one stadium meant extended durations in front of home crowds and lengthy trips on the road. For the entire 1922 season, the Browns and Cardinals had just five home stands apiece. Typical was a stretch in July where the Cardinals played twenty-three games in twenty-one days, all at Sportsman’s Park. During that same period, the Browns played eighteen games in twenty days, all on the road.
Sunday baseball laws complicated travel. Midwestern cities with large German immigrant populations like St. Louis and Cincinnati were the first to adopt Sunday baseball (and beer sales). The more established cities on the East Coast resisted the change. New York didn’t adopt Sunday baseball until 1919. The states of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, homes of the Puritans and the Quakers, were the last holdouts. The Boston Braves and Red Sox couldn’t host Sunday games until 1929. Pennsylvania held out until 1934, when finally, the Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates were allowed to play baseball on the Sabbath. During the Browns road trip in July of 1922, the team finished a series in Philadelphia on a Saturday, left for Detroit to play a single game on Sunday, then returned to the East Coast to start a series with the Yankees on Tuesday. All road trips involved trains. Commercial air service didn’t exist.
Train travel brought its own set of unique hurdles, not the least of which was simply keeping track of time. “The human relationship with time changed dramatically with the arrival of modernity – trains and telegraphs and wristwatches all around,” explained Time Travel author James Gleick. Calendars measured time in days and months, not minutes and hours. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, it simply didn’t matter whether the minute-hand on clocks in Cincinnati and St. Louis agreed. Technology, and the accelerating pace of life, changed that. Daylight Saving Time in the 1920s was not standardized. Cities such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia observed it. Other cities like St. Louis did not.
Once aboard the train, players would hang their sweaty and soiled uniforms out the window to dry out. “You should have seen how some of the passengers would lose their appetites when they passed through our car en route to the diner,” remembered longtime big-league manager Joe McCarthy.
Players wore heavy wool uniforms in those days, “which weighed eight ounces to the yard, even before it was soaked in sweat.” With a blazer, tie, dress shirt and slacks, an umpire’s gear was equally cumbersome. Attire of the fans was also frequently unprepared to deal with the elements. Heat waves could wreak havoc on the population. A brutal stretch of boiling temperatures in 1897 killed forty-two people in St. Louis by early July. Two baseball players, St. Louis infielder Mike Grady and Brooklyn catcher Aleck Smith were among the “numerous prostrations,” meaning they had collapsed and could no longer stand upright.
In an era with no night games, baking under the summer sun undoubtedly contributed to the irritability of fans, who often needed little provocation to lash out at umpires or opposing teams. Before Prohibition, alcohol-fueled crowds would show their disapproval by flinging anything handy onto the field of play. "These objects were of great variety,” remembered longtime New York sportswriter Westbrook Pegler, “being decanters, beer bottles, beer crocks, and the arms of chairs, as well as the occasional walking cane."
Soda bottles tossed at umpires proved to be such an issue for the Cardinals in 1917 that Rickey announced the club had hired plain-clothed detectives to monitor the crowd. “How are you going to stop it – abolish the selling of soda?” said an exasperated Rickey.
Three years later, Prohibition eliminated any beer bottles from the stands, but the soda bottles remained. Umpire Billy Evans had been struck by a thrown bottle at Sportsman’s Park in 1907. It fractured his skull. Fifteen years later, he was in uniform and on the field in St. Louis when a bottle from the stands made its way to the field of play. This one didn’t hit an umpire, though. It landed on the forehead of an outfielder in the ninth inning of a one-run game. It knocked him out cold. The incident took place in the first game of a three-game series that the press was calling the “Little World Series.” In September of 1922, pennant fever had finally arrived in St. Louis.
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