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Mudville: July 23, 2024 2:20 am PDT

Exhibitionist History


On April 10,1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers faced their AAA team, the Montreal Royals, at Ebbets Field. What everyone at the park and on the field – and in the nation – didn’t know was General Manager Branch Rickey had told Jackie Robinson earlier that day he was being promoted to Brooklyn. Robinson recalled he left Rickey’s office “in a daze.”

Robinson went hitless in the exhibition, but he did draw a walk and scored. In the fifth inning, after Robinson had bunted into a double play, Arthur Mann, an assistant to Rickey, released an announcement in the press box: “The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals.” The next two days, Robinson played for Brooklyn against the New York Yankees in an annual preseason series, unofficially breaking the color barrier before officially breaking it on opening day, April 15, against the Boston Braves.

Beginning in the 1880s, major league clubs played “exhibitions,” games that didn’t count and were considered post spring training, but “exhibited” major league players. Along with the Dodgers and Yankees, teams that shared a city – Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis – or even a state (Cleveland vs. Cincinnati) played each other. Exhibitions were played before, during, and even after the season.

“The city series was a promotion by the two clubs to encourage fans to buy tickets for the upcoming season,” said Charlie Bevis, a member of the Boston Braves Historical Society and author of Red Sox vs. Braves in Boston: The Battle for Fans’ Hearts, 1901-1952.

“I wouldn’t say the games were particularly well attended, as April weather in Boston can be fickle and cool most of the time,” said Bevis. “I wouldn’t say there was a rivalry between the clubs, either in management or at the player level. Before World War II, the two Boston teams had what I call a cooperative arrangement in my book, as friendly competitors, etc. They played to win, and entertain the fans in the stands, but like most exhibition games, they didn’t take it too seriously,” he said.

And yet when the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees played city season games, the players on both squads were determined to win.

Dodgers’ pitcher Carl Erskine said, “You always have that. You always wanted to do well. Yeah. I think there were some serious things going on there. You didn’t want to look bad against the Yankees. And if you could beat the Yankees (that was) exceptionally good.”

In some ways, the games were played like an extension of spring training. Erskine said, for example, that each pitcher was used for only a few innings in each contest.

The city series between the National League Cardinals and American League Browns in St. Louis started in 1903, after the Browns arrived from Milwaukee. “Initially it was a spring and fall series. The fall rivalry series was played twelve times,” said Ed Wheatley, Jr., president of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society and Fan Club, and co-author of St. Louis Browns: The Story of a Beloved Team.

“The spring series was played every year from 1903, with the exception of 1909 and 1910, and continued to be played through World War I and World II. While the Cardinals were the city’s best team when games mattered and had beaten the Browns in the 1944 World Series, the Browns held a significant winning edge over the Redbirds in this City Series – when it didn’t really count — with almost twice as many City Series wins,” said Wheatley.

Jackie Robinson, in 1947, wearing his Montreal Royals uniform, steps into the Brooklyn Dodgers clubhouse for the first time. (W.C. Greene/AFP/Getty Images)

The two teams played exhibitions after the season, unless one of them was in the postseason – it was almost always the Cardinals because they frequently were in the World Series, but in 1944 there were no exhibitions because both teams were in the series. But the Chicago Cubs and White Sox played 27 City Series on-again and off-again between 1903 and 1942, the most of any two clubs.

There were also inter-league games between major league clubs and minor league teams, college squads and semi-pro clubs.

Connie Mack called up 17-year old Jimmie Foxx in 1924. In an inter-league exhibition between the Athletics and Reds, Foxx singled as a pinch hitter. It didn’t count, but it was impressive for someone who started the season in high school.

“Such games were not uncommon, nor were they unusual. They were off-day, on-the-way-to-somewhere games; sometimes the A’s stopped for a game in a minor league town to help out a team financially – often an A’s farm team, but not always,” said Norman L. Macht, a SABR member who has written numerous baseball books, including a three-volume biography of Mack.

On July 6, 1936, Bob Feller pitched in an exhibition game between Cleveland and St. Louis at League Park during the All-Star break. A month before, Feller had completed his junior year of high school.

Feller took the mound in the fourth inning. The first batter, hearing the pop Feller’s fastball made when it hit the catcher’s mitt, decided to bunt for a hit but was thrown out by the third baseman. Next up was Leo Durocher, who saw one pitch sail over his head. Probably to get under the kid’s skin, Durocher went back to the dugout until ordered by the umpire to return to the plate. He struck out.

The 17-year-old (who wouldn’t be 18 until November) was wild – a run scored on a wild pitch – but in the three innings he struck out eight batters, including Pepper Martin and Rip Collins. Thirteen days later, Feller made his debut with Cleveland.

On May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig took himself out of the game between the Yankees and Detroit Tigers, ending his consecutive games streak of 2,130 games. But on June 12 of that year, the Ironman suited up one more time to play in an exhibition game between New York and the Kansas City Blues, one of their farm clubs. The Yankees were traveling in the region (they had just played the Browns in St. Louis) and on an off-day, they went to Kansas City. Gehrig started the game at first base. He played three innings, handling four fielding chances; but grounded weakly to second in his only at bat. After the game, Gehrig left his teammates and traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, where doctors would diagnose him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now better-known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

According to an article by Walter Le Conte, a SABR member and author of several baseball books, there was an exhibition on June 12 to commemorate baseball’s centennial in 1939. On the same day as Gehrig’s appearance in Kansas City, the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum was dedicated, and an all-star squad was put together by Eddie Collins and Honus Wagner to play a game at Cooperstown, New York. On June 12 at Doubleday Field, a team called the “Collinses” met the “Wagners” and every Major League club had a representative play in the game except the Chicago White Sox. In addition, Babe Ruth – who was in Cooperstown to be inducted into the Hall’s first group of inductees – made a hitless appearance as a pinch hitter (popping out to the catcher) in the fifth inning. The Wagners came out on top, 4-2, in a seven-inning contest.

The following year, there was an inaugural Hall of Fame contest between teams from each league. The first game had the Boston Red Sox face the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs won 10-9 in a seven-inning game that was shortened by rain as 3,500 fans looked on.

What was to be the final Hall of Fame Game – scheduled for June 16, 2008 – was canceled due to inclement weather when a thunderstorm rolled through Doubleday Field just prior to first pitch. The San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs were set to play before the weather deteriorated.

The Hall of Fame game was the final in-season exhibition game permitted by the collective bargaining agreement between management and the union. All in-season exhibition games, including the Hall of Fame Game, were eliminated following the 2008 season. After that, it became the Hall of Fame Classic game, which features retired players and Hall of Famers, according to Cassidy Lent, Manager of Reference Services at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Over the 69 years of the game, 61 games were played. Five games never started and were canceled due to rain. The 1945 game was called off due to war travel restrictions, and the 1981 game was canceled because of a strike.

The 1989 game between the Red Sox and the Reds was canceled when the Reds team plane had mechanical problems and was unable to fly. Instead, the Red Sox played an intersquad game at Doubleday Field.

In games between American League and National League teams, the AL won the inter-league exhibition series 27-22, with five ties. The White Sox made the most appearances in Hall of Fame games that were played, appearing nine times.

Le Conte wrote that “the heyday of In Season Exhibition Games (ISEGs) was the four-year period 1942 through 1945, the World War II years, when 332 were played, an average of exactly 83 per season.”

Dan Levitt, co-chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball Research Committee, said, “my understanding from reading about these in-season exhibition games is that players did not receive any additional salary for participating – it was simply part of what was expected of them by management. I suppose there may have been instances where players received a small stipend, but that would not have been the norm.”

Babe Ruth with Lou Gehrig.

In Philadelphia, Robert Warrington, a SABR member who has written many articles on the city’s baseball history, said, “In my view, the Phillies and Athletics sponsored the City Series to help fill their own coffers. The Series proved immensely popular among baseball fans who were eager to cheer on their respective teams and see their favorites crowned City Champion for the year.”

Warrington added, “It wasn’t until the 1940s that some of the revenue from City Series games was shared with charitable organizations. These included the Junior Baseball Federation of Philadelphia and the Community Chest. During World War II, revenue from one game was shared with the American Red Cross.”

In 1919, as the Boston Red Sox headed to Massachusetts, owner Harry Frazee scheduled games against the Baltimore Orioles of the International League – where Babe Ruth played before the Sox purchased him. In six consecutive at-bats over two games, Ruth hit six home runs. He also pitched four innings in the second game.

When a reporter asked Ruth about hitting those home runs in front of hometown fans, he replied, “I was afraid some of my old neighbors didn’t believe all that they’ve read in the papers about me. This was my chance to show them what I could do.”

Players such as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller and Frank “Home Run” Baker “made a stink” about playing in ISEGs, wrote Le Conte. “In 1917, Baker refused to play in an exhibition believing he was not under contract to play. New York Yankees owner, Jacob Ruppert, suspended Baker for failure to play. It seems owners felt players should play in ISEGs whenever and wherever directed.

“I think we had a contract that said we were obligated to do some of those extra things. If the club owner needed extra appearances, then we were willing to do it,” said Erskine, who is 95 and lives in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana. “I think the contracts required us to make maybe two or three appearances, at the beckoning of the owner.”

These obligations were the case until the Collective Bargaining Agreements of the 1970s regulated the number of in-season exhibition games. At one time, three ISEGs were permitted through the CBA, and then two could be scheduled.

Exhibitions differed from “barnstorming” because the latter took place after the season and players were either paid or took a share of gate receipts. (Post-season barnstorming saw many series between Negro League players and Major League Players.)

But as times changed, baseball changed with it, and exhibitions were played less and less and are effectively non-existent now.

Tri-Cornered Baseball Game – 1944 Dodgers - Yankees - Giants.

Michael Haupert, co-chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball Research Committee, and a Professor of Economics, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, hypothesizes several factors affected these games:

“First, the switch from rail to air travel, which made it less convenient to stop at a site between, say, Chicago and Cleveland on an off-day to play a money-making exhibition game – since the team did not have to pay the players anything extra. Second, the player’s union. As it grew in strength it was able to eliminate these games – one of the last to go was the Hall of Fame game played in Cooperstown – and in the bargaining process, this would have been a cheap thing for the owners to give up as part of any bargain. Third, the rise of television likely decreased the demand for tickets, decreasing the profitability. Fourth, as player salaries rose, the cost of an injured player also rose,” said Haupert.

“And finally, fewer off-days due to more games and fewer double headers left fewer opportunities to squeeze exhibition games into the regular season,” said Haupert.

One of the most unusual exhibitions was a “game” played on June 26, 1944 at the Polo Grounds: the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants played each other in a contest to raise war bonds.

According to a SABR article by Michael Huber, a math professor at Muhlenberg College, and Rachel Hamelers, the college’s Science Research Librarian, a War Loans Sports Committee was developing events to sell War Bonds. One of these was baseball’s ultimate subway series, also known as the “Tri-Cornered Game,” with each fan buying a War Bond as a ticket. There were 40,000 unreserved tickets at $25 each, the bond maturity value; 5,809 reserved seats in the lower stands, each costing a $100 bond, and 3,796 box seats for $1,000 bonds each. That added up to 49,605 fans who spent more than $5 million.

The day before the game, The New York Times reported, “The jig-saw puzzle of working out this procedure baffled the best minds of the game until they called upon a mathematics professor at Columbia University, Paul A. Smith. Without scratching his head more than a few hundred times the professor came up with the following layout, which calls for eighteen half-innings to be played…”

According to a UPI story, Smith had to use a slide rule while creating the system.

This round-robin format had each team come to bat six times. Each team batted three times against each of the other two teams’ defenses.

The final score was the Dodgers 5, the Yankees 1, and the Giants 0.

The Dodgers and Yankees were in the visitors’ dugout, while the Giants, as the home team, were lodged in their usual space.

The three New York clubs were missing many of their best players because of the war, and the rosters had unusual participants: the Dodgers had Brooklyn native Tommy Brown, who was 16 (he didn’t play in this contest) and the Giants started their 41-year-old manager Mel Ott in right field. He played one inning and recorded one putout.

Seventy years after the game, Brooklyn pitcher Ralph Branca recalled, “We got a great crowd. For the players in the game, what was happening was very strange: three teams playing in one nine-inning game. But you couldn’t beat the cause.”

“Maybe the craziest thing about the game was we [the Dodgers] left before it was over,” said Branca. “We won and we weren’t there to see it finish” because Brooklyn had to catch a train to Chicago for a June 28 doubleheader.

But when it comes to exhibitions, Chicago native and long-time Cubs fan Howard Goodman pointed out that “Chicago is the home of the greatest exhibition baseball game of them all. It was the Chicago Tribune that started the All-Star Game as part of the World’s Fair of 1933. It was supposed to be a one-time event, but it was such a hit, we’ve had (an All-Star game) ever since.”

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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