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The American Game: Baseball & Popular Culture

Baseball entered the American mainstream with a bang in the early years of the 20th century. The game’s popularity soared during this period, thanks to tremendous growth in the number of major and minor league teams, increased coverage in newspapers and periodicals, thrilling pennant races, and the advent of the World Series as an annual event. Baseball was celebrated in poems, in humorous prose, on the vaudeville stage, and in the new mediums of recorded song and cinema. Baseball’s presence in American society was so ubiquitous during the aughts and teens that the game became synonymous with popular culture or—some would assert—was popular culture.

The lyrics to baseball's most enduring song, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, were written by Jack Norworth in 1908 (Albert von Tilzer composed the music) for one of his vaudeville routines. Amazingly, Norworth wrote the song without ever attending a baseball game! That he could depict the passionate intensity of baseball fans with such vividness despite never seeing a game is a perfect illustration of baseball's pervasiveness and popularity in American culture. (Norwood finally saw his first game in 1940, thirty-two years later.) Other baseball-related compositions and recordings were popular as well, as evidenced by the selection of sheet music covers included here.

A few ballplayers, enjoyed some notoriety on the stage and pursued their off-season avocation with great energy. "Turkey" Mike Donlin, flamboyant star outfielder of the New York Giants, married Broadway actress Mabel Hite and left baseball after the 1908 season to pursue a career in vaudeville and motion pictures. Germany Schaefer, one of baseball's zaniest characters, and teammate Charley O'Leary, developed a highly successful vaudeville act which inspired two MGM musicals: the forgotten 1930 film They Learned About Women, featuring the noted vaudeville act Van and Schenck, and Busby Berkeley's last film, Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Pitcher Rube Marquard won a phenomenal 19 straight games during the 1912 season, achieving instant celebrity in the process. After acting in the film 19 Straight in 1912, Marquard teamed up with headliner Blossom Seeley in the vaudeville skit "Breaking the Record." The two married and continued to perform. They introduced a dance called The Marquard Glide and in 1913 performed The Suffragette Pitcher, an act in which Marquard donned a dress and pitched for Blossom's all-girl team.

When cigarettes were first mass-produced and marketed in the late 19th century, each soft packet of smokes contained a piece of cardboard (called a "stiffener" in the industry) that prevented the packet from being crumpled. Most smokers would simply discard these blank "stiffeners." Enterprising tobacco company executives-among them American Tobacco Company's James Buchanan "Buck" Duke-realized that a golden marketing opportunity was being thrown away with the blank "stiffeners," and began printing brand names on the cards. As further incentive to buy, appealing images were printed on the opposite side of the "stiffeners," thereby giving birth to what we now know as tobacco cards. Although tobacco cards featured a variety of subjects, it is those cards bearing images of baseball players that are best remembered and most highly valued today.

I don't want my picture in any cigarettes, but I also don't want you to lose the ten dollars, so I'm enclosing my check for that sum.
-Honus Wagner

Coverage of baseball in the print media grew enormously during the dead-ball era. Fans demanded not only information about the daily details of their favorite teams and leagues, but more expansive articles that newspapers could not provide. Talented writers like Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Fred Lieb and Hugh Fullerton raised the craft of sportswriting to new heights. The venerable Baseball Magazine ("for Red-Blooded Americans") debuted in 1908, providing an expanded forum for detailed baseball coverage. Francis Richter, an early chronicler of the game, edited the annual Reach Guide from its inception in 1901 through the 1926 edition, and also authored Richter's History and Records of Baseball: the American Nation's Chief Sport in 1914, thus adding a measure of sophistication to the statistical history of the game.

"Lardner is the Shakespeare of baseball, or the Boswell, if you like. A real classic American writer, one of the few, as American as hamburgers, hotdogs, and apple pie-and baseball."
-"The Old Timer" in W.R. Burnett's The Roar of the Crowd (1964)


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Last update: March 18, 2005

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