How sports became 'an American obsession' 100 years ago

Baseball had yet to tar Shoeless Joe Jackson as a cheat when the sweet-swinging outfielder, one of eight Chicago White Sox players alleged to have thrown the World Series in 1919, stepped to bat at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds the following July 19. Rain clouds that delayed the start of a doubleheader with the New York Yankees were gone by the second game’s second inning, when Jackson, his club chasing the home team in the American League pennant hunt, connected on a deep drive that soared over the right-field wall.

Characteristic of the sport’s dead-ball era, Jackson wasn’t much of a slugger: The most home runs he ever hit, 12, came in 1920, his final season in the majors. Across Jackson’s 13-year career, the average team stroked a homer once every five games, at most, manufacturing offense instead through light contact, bunts, and basepath speed. Power was subordinate to moxie and guile. That damp summer afternoon, though, signaled change was coming.

1920 was Babe Ruth’s first season in Yankee pinstripes, the Boston Red Sox having flipped him to their budding archrival that January for cash. The Bambino tagged 29 home runs for Boston his last year there, a big-league record, and in New York, he immediately began to rake like no batter before him. Entering the White Sox twin bill, a mere 86 games into the campaign, Ruth was sitting on 29 homers, rapping once again on history’s door.

“King Ruth.” George Rinhart / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

More than Ruth’s Yankees debut, 1920 was baseball’s first full-length season since the end of the Great War, and it coincided with the tail end of a flu pandemic that killed, at minimum, 50 million people worldwide. Americans coveted normalcy, and in New York, they yearned for Ruth to crank moonshots, deeper and more frequently than ever.

The breakthrough came shortly after Jackson went yard, in the bottom of the fourth on July 19. Chicago still led 1-0 when southpaw Dickey Kerr, battling Ruth in a 2-2 count, tried to fool the Yankees’ cleanup hitter with a curveball.

“There was a resounding smack as bat met ball and the noise from the stand swelled in volume before the ball had started its descent,” The New York Times reported from the park, recounting how the 28,000 fans on hand greeted Ruth’s blast with deafening applause. The shot to right field was Ruth’s 30th homer, and by season’s end, his count totaled 54, a new standard for greatness that he’d surpass twice more before the decade was out.

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In hindsight, the timing was perfect. Sent to New York at the dawn of the 1920s, a human remedy to the Black Sox misdeeds, Ruth came to define the free-swinging spirit of the age. War and contagion were bygone memories in the Roaring Twenties, when pay increases and shortened workweeks unlocked leisure time in the U.S., and people searched for fun diversions to fill the hours.

This was the decade, the historian Frederick Lewis Allen once observed, when sports became “an American obsession.”

As our own pandemic year ends, to think back a century is to remember how baseball – and football, boxing, tennis, and golf – first gripped the United States’ collective attention. Highlights aired weekly at movie theaters. Starting in 1921, radio broadcasts connected listeners across the nation to faraway title games and marquee fights. For daily news, the public turned to newspapers, whose sportswriters had leeway to relentlessly hype the athletes they covered.

Tim Clayton / Corbis Sport / Getty Images

Ruth was the Sultan of Swat, the Wizard of Wallop, the embodiment of this boom time, and as author Michael K. Bohn has written, almost everybody loved the guy: “He appealed to everyone but opposing pitchers.” Bohn made this remark in his 2009 book, “Heroes & Ballyhoo,” the latter term synonymous with the buzz that surrounded sports in the ’20s. Ballyhoo was a phenomenon that fed itself, Bohn wrote. Journalists promoted the players, which drew spectators to games, and eventually, their interest compelled promoters and teams to shell out to build grand new venues. All the while, fans demanded more coverage of their favorite athletes, whose reputations thrived.

“And on it went,” Bohn wrote.

If two symbols defined the decade in sports, they were probably the knockout and the home run, like Ruth’s record-breaker against Chicago that inspired the Polo Grounds faithful to fling their hats, wave their arms, and howl “in glee,” as the Times noted. The Yankees didn’t win the AL pennant in 1920, but their heyday wasn’t far off, and throughout that period, they spearheaded an offensive revolution. By the end of the ’20s, the average MLB team clubbed a homer every couple of games, and the Yanks and select other contenders were almost twice as dangerous.

The fans who flocked to watch Ruth live appreciated his power, but also his fondness for drinking and aversion to team-imposed curfews, Donald L. Miller wrote in The Conversation several years ago: “White-collar workers fearful of flouting authority and telling off their bosses could take secret pleasure in Ruth’s insubordination.” Whatever their particular motivation, these diehards helped the Yankees smash spectatorship records in the early ’20s, spurring owner Jacob Ruppert to commission a bigger ballpark in the Bronx. The original Yankee Stadium opened for play in April 1923, less than a year after construction started.

Jack Dempsey. George Rinhart / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Across town from Ruppert’s baseball temple, promoter Tex Rickard soon broke ground on Madison Square Garden, New York’s regal new hub for basketball, hockey, and boxing. Rickard understood the power of spectacle, and together with Jack Dempsey, the era’s best heavyweight, he organized mammoth title bouts at MSG and stadiums around the U.S. that in some cases drew more than 100,000 spectators.

Dempsey was boxing’s original moneymaker, the power puncher who legitimized the brutal art for mass consumption. The first sporting event broadcast on radio nationwide was his July 2, 1921 title defense against French war pilot Georges Carpentier, which also generated boxing’s first million-dollar gate. A suspected but acquitted draft dodger, Dempsey entered the ring in New Jersey a foil to his distinguished challenger, but he won over the capacity crowd of 91,613 by KO’ing Carpentier in the fourth round. In 1927, 50 million listeners worldwide heard Dempsey fight Gene Tunney, and this time, the gate at Chicago’s Soldier Field surpassed $2 million.