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The origin of the All-Star Game

Born out of necessity in the Great Depression, the first All-Star Game featured several classic moments that rejuvenated baseball.

Illustration By Jack Burnley
The Call Leader, July 5, 1933, pg. 6.

Pepper Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals stepped to the plate on July 9th, 1933, in front of 49,000 fans jammed into Comisky Park, the largest crowd the park had seen in about half a decade. In the heart of the Great Depression, it was incredibly rare for this many people to gather anywhere outside of Wall Street during bank openings. But this ballgame was different. This was the Game of the Century, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans to watch the game’s greatest players on the same field, and so they arrived in droves, hoping to witness spectacular baseball feats.

By 1933, the Great Depression had ensnared all aspects of American society, reducing life for many to a scramble to acquire the most basic necessities. Unemployment rose to 25 percent, and roughly 33 million people were left without a source of income. After the bank collapse earlier that year, millions lost their savings, leaving them homeless and forcing families to part ways with their children. Cities and the countryside alike were ravaged, decimating both the middle and working classes, forcing millions of little Oliver Twists to roam the streets.

As such, entertainment became a luxury, available only to the wealthy and those willing to sacrifice other necessities to partake in it. Across the National and American leagues, attendance dropped by 40 percent and player salaries correspondingly shrunk by 25 percent. Baseball, and America as a whole, was in dire need of a morale boost. Sensing this need, Chicago Tribune sports writer and editor Arch Ward called for a star-studded baseball game that would coincide with the World Fair “Century of Progress” exposition celebrating Chicago’s centennial.

Ward began writing columns espousing the hypothetical virtues of such an event, asserting it would increase ticket sales across both leagues and provide an opportunity for the older NL to prove itself against the more dominant AL. Shortly after creating the idea, Ward named it the “Game of the Century,” a term that proved instrumental to its success by creating an automatic aura around it and billing it as a can’t-miss attraction. Ward’s connections to baseball executives and players would create an easy set-up for the game, and his die-hard readers would provide a staunch initial audience.

He eventually partnered with Chicago’s mayor, Edward J. Kelly, to pitch the idea to the two professional baseball leagues. The league presidents and 16 owners readily agreed to the plan, though quibbled over a number of specifics. Both Wrigley and Comisky were available for the game, and American League president William Harridge chose the White Sox’s home after winning a coin toss, but John Heydler, NL president, vehemently objected to the American League automatically obtaining home team status with the pick. The duo squabbled for weeks over this issue, each submitting their letters for Ward to publish in an effort to drum up business for the game. Ultimately, Harridge won the argument after asserting that all ticket sales had been predicated under the assumption that the AL was the home team, and it would be foolish to revert to a coin toss to decide these arguments when common sense dictated in favor of the AL.[1]

Another area that invited some dissension was the idea of having fans determine the rosters (which may sound familiar to modern readers). Ward rightly believed it would increase ticket and newspaper sales, but each league owner wanted more control over the game. Ultimately, the trio agreed to a fan vote for the first 16 players on the roster, subject to veto by commissioner Landis, with each manager (John McGraw for the NL and Connie Mack representing the AL) supplementing the roster. Fans could vote by mail-in ballots to 55 participating newspapers, primarily the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago newspaper, under the leadership of Ward, utilized the idea to bolster newspaper sales, “offering $500 in cash prizes to the fans who come closest to naming the teams.”[2] At a time when people were desperate for cash and eager to vote for people who might positively impact their lives, the responses were overwhelming, totalling upward of 500,000 ballots submitted during the campaign. These fans did well with their votes, selecting 16 future Hall of Famers among the 30 who played in the game.

Though many fans and sportswriters quickly attached themselves to the game, there were a select few who were reluctant to do so. One writer for the Tribune declared the game “the only constructive original idea” introduced to baseball since the turnstile, but fretted over the possible future impact of the game, declaring, “in time some sort of baseball Tammany would come into being and the selected teams would take the field with left handers at shortstop and and popular clam bake heroes doing the pitching.”[3] These voices comprised a small minority, and though they grew louder in the off-season when the leagues declared the game to be an annual event, they could not dampen the excitement surrounding the game.

Comisky quickly sold out, despite ticket prices remaining the same as regular game prices ($1.65 for box seats, $1.10 for grandstand ones, and $0.55 for bleacher seats) and applicants requiring proof of cashiers check or money order.[4] Each applicant was limited to four tickets, assuring a more diverse crowd. The admissions money, roughly $45,000, was to be donated to the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America for dispersal among former players requiring assistance.

The rosters for the game certainly looked promising, featuring the likes of Chuck Klein, Paul Wagner, Carl Hubbell, and Gabby Hartnett on the NL side, and Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Lefty Grove, and Babe Ruth (a sentimental fan pick) on the AL side. Most papers predicted an AL victory that featured far more offense than pitching, but some staunch NL supporters expected Hubbell to stifle the vaunted AL bats, while others likened choosing a victor to the impossible task of “predicting the next move of a congressman.”[5] These groups all agreed, however, that the game would be nothing short of magnificent.

Fans flocked from across the country to see this great spectacle, coming from as far away as Texas. Thousands of other, closer fans who had not secured seats meandered around the park hoping to beg their way through the gates. Though each of the players did not disappoint, the game belonged to Babe Ruth, who “became the greatest player of all time again, just for one day.”[6] In the bottom of the third, Ruth smacked a 2-run homer to right field to give the AL a 3-0 lead. The NL clawed their way back into the game with a 2-run sixth inning capped by the second home run in all-star game history by Frankie Frisch. Down 4-2 in the eighth, with two outs and Frisch on first, Chick Hafey hit what looked to be the game-tying home run. But Babe Ruth, summoning more athleticism than he had perhaps displayed in his 19-year career to date, reached back over the right field wall to make the catch and save the game for his team. Lefty Grove closed it out with a perfect ninth inning, and the AL continued its dominance over the NL.

The game provided a brief respite from the daily grind of the Great Depression, changing the crowd’s fearful uncertainty into one of anticipation. Of all the sporting events entangled with the World Fair in Chicago, this game was the only one to draw a large, sustained crowd. Other sports, such as track and field, soccer, and rugby, felt the effects of the Great Depression more strongly. Potential onlookers balked at the ticket prices, choosing instead to wander the fairgrounds for free. But unlike these sports, baseball had long been entwined with the American lifestyle, and for an event of such magnitude, there was no way it would not have done well. The spectators piled in, eager to allow Babe Ruth to transcend baseball for a day by embodying everything great about the game.

[1] Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1933, pg. 27-28.

[2] Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1933, pg. 22.

[3] Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1933, pg. 21.

[4] Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1933, pg. 23.

[5] Pennsylvania Evening Report, June 6, 1933, pg. 6.

[6] Klamath News, July 7, 1933, pg. 1.