A Day in the Life of a 1917 Baseball Fan

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The “Baseball” article in the 2017 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia states, “Baseball is so popular in the United States that it is often called the national pastime.” The 1917 World Book was even more enthusiastic: “Baseball, the national game of the United States, is rapidly conquering the world.” To back up that claim, the 1917 edition notes that “While William H. Taft was governor of the Philippine Islands, baseball was successfully introduced among the Igorrotes (a native people) as a substitute for head-hunting.”

Baseball fans in 1917 and 2017 both would enjoy a game that has barely changed in 100 years. The distance between bases and between the pitching mound and home plate remains the same, and so do the sizes of the bat and ball. Nine players still play the same defensive positions. But a 1917 fan would be dazzled by the difference in baseball outside the playing field.

Players in 1917 were fortunate to earn a few thousand dollars for an entire season, though a star pitcher could make $10,000. Today, major league players average $4 million a season. Baseball was also strictly segregated. African Americans did not play in the major leagues in 1917. They played only in the Negro leagues until 1947.

Fans in 1917 did not have an easy time following their favorite team. The first radio broadcast of a major league game did not take place until 1921. The first televised game took place only in 1939. Newspaper sports sections did not become common until the 1920’s. Fans would have to live in or visit the eastern half of the United States to see a game live. The farthest west that teams played was in St. Louis. The major leagues did not go truly national until 1958, when the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to California. Canada did not get its first major league team until 1969.

Baseball was a more intimate sport in 1917, with attendance at a game averaging about 4,500. Today, crowds of 40,000 are common. Back in 1917, a fan could buy a bleachers ticket for 5 or 10 cents and a grandstand seat for 50 cents or 1 dollar. Parking was no problem. Fans could ride a trolley car to the ballpark. Today’s fans pay handsomely to see a game. The average cost of a single game for a family of four—including tickets, food, and parking—is more than $210.

As World Book begins to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the Chicago Cubs are also celebrating. In 2016, the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 seasons. In winning the series, Chicago ended the longest World Series winless streak in baseball history.

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