March 31 brings Opening Day with your – well, at least my – World Champion San Francisco Giants facing the team that used to be called ‘Da Bums (before they became Hollywoodized). The come-from-behind-the-pack saga of a team of undervalued position players was capped by a tremendous victory parade last November along Market Street that even stunned the veteran players (see Andy Baggarly’s account). San Francisco fans remain, months later, in a blissed-out stupor.
The social history angle here – there has to be one – is to wonder about such mass adulation of sports heroes. Millions of people spend good money and spend good time watching a bunch of men play a game. No paycheck, religious duty, threat to life or family, tribal allegiance, or urge for freedom draws them into the stadium to cheer or onto the streets to celebrate. How does that make sense?
Modern mass spectator sports in America began in the late 19th and early 20th century. Historians have tried to understand what brought the masses out to spectate. Many say it’s all about compensation.
Starting as a gentlemen’s recreation and popularized during the Civil War, baseball became nationally organized, professional, and commercial in the 1860s and ’70s. Mark Twain described the sport as “the very symbol . . . of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”
This was an era when the eastern cities were bursting with immigrants from impoverished Europe and kids from America’s farms. They filled up the cheap seats and standing places in ballparks. The new inter-urban rail lines, trolleys, ferries, and then Model-T’s brought people into the cities from miles away for day trips. Baseball’s immense popularity spurred the building of ever larger ballparks. One built in 1896 in Philadelphia accommodated an unprecedented 16,000 spectators seated with room for another 5,000 to stand (in many parks, fans could stand along the foul lines); only thirteen years later, 35,000 crowded into the new Shibe Park. By the 1920s, many more “attended” via radio broadcasts.
Why did people jam the major league parks – not to mention minor league parks, barnstorming games (a recent story noted that those games were often besieged by huge crowds), and sandlot match-ups? One line of analysis, still a common intellectual’s explanation of sports fandom, is that the spectators were “compensating.” They were compensating for the ordeal and burden of industrial work. It was a way, to quote one historian, “to break out of the frustrations, the routine, the sheer dullness of an urban-industrial culture.” It’s a sort of bread-and-circuses explanation: People distract themselves or the powers-that-be distract them from the misery of their lives with the spectacles that are modern spectator sports.
A similar psychological analysis that is sometimes offered is that modern society demanded so much emotional constraint and self-control that turn-of-the-last-century Americans needed “release.” One analyst wrote that “Commercial amusements, particularly organized sports, provided a safety valve that allowed great masses of people to blow off steam . . .”
Fans and Fun
There are a few problems with these sorts of psychological explanations. One is that the baseball boom of the 1880s-1920s was just part of a much larger boom in public activities: the emergence, growth, and popularity of department stores, museums and freak shows, circuses, dance halls, vaudeville houses, and amusement parks. City fathers also provided other public spaces, particularly large nature parks – New York’s Central Park being the most famous. So well attended were many of the public attractions that promoters began specializing them by style and class, differentiating “highbrow” from “lowbrow” theaters, concerts, museums, and exhibitions. The most popular development of all was the arrival of movies.
Americans quickly thronged to movies. One-fourth of all New Yorkers, by one estimate, saw at least one film in a single week in 1910. The nickel movies drew crowds in working-class neighborhoods, while entrepreneurs built more sedate and controlled settings, even “movie palaces,” for middle-class families. By 1918, about three-quarters of urban white families regularly went to the movies; they more than doubled their weekly visits by 1930. Baseball was part of a general public entertainment boom.
A second problem with the compensation explanation is that there is no reason to assume that the people who joined the industrial labor force needed a psychological salve for doing so. Some Americans fell into industrial jobs because they lost the farmwork or craftwork they preferred. But far more workers saw it as a step up from peonage in Europe or in the American South, from farm poverty, and from being a servant. (The preference of many women for factory work over maid jobs helps explain the “servant problem” of the early twentieth century.)
A third problem with the compensation or release theses is that there is a simpler explanation: The baseball boom coincided with a general, long-term increase in Americans’ leisure time and disposable income (the long Depression of 1893 being a major regression). Between 1890 and 1940, Americans’ average work hours per week dropped steadily from about 54 to about 44. People sought out more entertainment with their greater time and money.
Watching baseball may have been a less-than-exalted use of leisure time. The crowds attending poetry readings, art exhibitions, and Shakespeare performances, although growing, were far smaller. Nor did nearly as many workers use their extra free time to write poetry, paint, or act (much less to foment a workers’ revolt). But people who find enjoyment in something less exalted are probably not doing so because there is void to fill or a wound to salve; it’s just fun.
Freud once said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes, a game is just a game. Play ball!
(This column was crossposted on The Berkeley Blog on April 1, 2011.)