The Game of the Century
It’s All-Star Game week and the festivities were held in Los Angeles, where over the past couple of days the Dodgers played host to the “best players in MLB.”
Major League Baseball’s first All-Star Game was held on July 6, 1933 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The brainchild of a determined sports editor, the event was designed to bolster the sport and to improve its reputation during the darkest years of the Great Depression. The original intention was for it to be a one-time event, and it was labeled at the time “The Game of the Century.”
Between 1930 and 1933, attendance at baseball games, which had skyrocketed in the 1920s, decreased by 40 percent – and the average player’s salary decreased by 25 percent. Box seats were abandoned for the bleachers, which cost only 50 cents; and the result was many teams experimenting with discounts and other innovations, including free admission for women, grocery giveaways, and the very first night games in baseball history.
But the most enduring promotional event to emerge during this period was the All-Star Game, and it was actually conceived by several people with no intrinsic connection to baseball.
In 1933, a World’s Fair was held in Chicago, and it was called “The Century of Progress International Exposition” – designed to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the city. Chicago mayor Edward Kelly approached Colonel Robert McCormick, the publisher of the renowned Chicago Tribune, about holding a major athletic competition in conjunction with the international exposition.
(Original Caption) Connie Mack and John McGraw choosing for first up in the All Stars Game at Comisky Park in Chicago. (Getty images)
McCormick turned to his sports editor, Arch Ward, to figure out what kind of major athletic competition would be a fitting event for the exposition; and given that Chicago was already by then a significant baseball town, Ward proposed a one-time baseball “Game of the Century” pitting the crème de la crème of the American League against the same from the National League – at Comiskey Park.
The added twist, however, was how the players would be chosen. They wouldn’t be chosen by the leagues or by team ownership or by team front offices – they would be voted on by baseball fans.
Ward was so certain the game would be a hit he told McCormick to take any losses out of his own paycheck.
Ward was asked to present his idea to the AL and the NL, including to the league presidents and to some team owners, and he argued for the game proceeds to be donated to a charity for retired players – in order to demonstrate to the country that MLB wasn’t “embracing a culture of decadence” while the rest of the nation was reeling from the effects of the Depression.
The first person he consulted was American League President Will Harridge.
Legend has it that Ward was prepared to drop the whole scheme if he couldn’t get Harridge’s approval. But to Ward’s delight, Harridge not only approved, he promised to recommend it to the eight American League club owners. The following day, Ward explained the plan to William E. Veeck, president of the Chicago Cubs. Veeck loved the idea and promised to lobby for the game with the other National League owners. A call by Ward to National League President John Heydler also elicited a promise to discuss the proposed game with those owners.
On May 9th, 1933, at a special meeting in Cleveland, the American League owners enthusiastically voted in favor of the game and chose July 6th as the date. However, a few days later, Ward received a telegram from Heydler informing him that three NL owners – the Giants’ Charles Stoneham, the Braves’ Charles Adams, and the Cardinals’ Sam Breadon – had turned down the idea.
Breadon based his opposition on the fear that any future games, as this one was doing, would be forced to donate the proceeds to charity. Stoneham and Adams opposed the idea because of the selected date. The Giants and Braves were scheduled to play a doubleheader in Boston on July 5th, making it impossible for any chosen players to be in Chicago in time to play on July 6th.
Breadon dropped his opposition after Ward convinced him that other cities, including St. Louis, could benefit by hosting a future All-Star Game. The only obstacle remaining was the July 5th Giants-Braves doubleheader. After National League owners persuaded Heydler to postpone that doubleheader, a contract was signed by Ward, representing the Tribune, Heydler, and Harridge.
Ward’s lobbying also won over the then MLB commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and the game was indeed set for July 6, 1933.
(Original Caption) USA: Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis: baseball Czar of the 1920s. (Getty Images)
Ward printed many a column in the Tribune leading up to the “Game of the Century,” hyping the game and encouraging the public to participate.
But by now, you’re probably wondering how the fan voting was supposed to occur, in an era prior to digital voting. Almost everyone probably still remembers going to the ballpark and receiving paper ballots that had names with punch holes that you could punch through – and then you handed your ballot to an usher or put it in a ballot box as you exited the ballpark. There were a few other means of voting prior to computerized voting as well; but I do remember thinking to myself “how do fans who don’t actually get to games vote?”
So then, what happened back in 1933? 55 newspapers throughout the country agreed to help the Tribune, and they printed “Game of the Century” ballots. Fans cast several hundred thousand votes for their favorite players, with Babe Ruth drawing 100,000 votes. Also among those elected to the game’s roster by the fans were Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig.
Chicago White Sox outfielder Al Simmons, tied with Washington manager-shortstop Joe Cronin for the league lead in batting, got the most votes, 346,291. Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Chuck Klein, the National League’s leading hitter, was its leading vote getter, with 342,283. And yes, Joe Cronin made the “Game of the Century,” as well.
Chicago, Illinois, USA - Group photo of players in the American League All-Star game in 1933. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images)
The final rosters, 18 players per league, were determined by a combination of the fans’ votes and the selections of the respective managers. The players would not be paid for participating, but would benefit indirectly by the net receipts of $46,506 the game raised for the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America.
The two most honored managers in the game, one from each league, were selected to lead their respective teams. John McGraw had stepped down in June 1932 after 30 years at the helm of the New York Giants, but the National League called him out of retirement to manage this one game. The American League gave the managerial honors to Connie Mack, who had led the Athletics since the league’s birth.
The regular season would resume the following day, although the owners had agreed that if the “Game of the Century” was rained out, they would cancel the next day’s schedule and play it then. That precaution proved unnecessary, however; the weather was perfect and though the country was struggling through the worst economic crisis in its history, every seat was filled.
For all sections of the park, patrons had been allowed to buy only four tickets, and there was no standing room. All seats were priced at the same rates as for regular-season games at Comiskey Park, and because they played the game under “World Series rules,” no spectators would be allowed on the field. The crowd of 47,595 conducted itself in an exemplary manner, as if each fan knew he or she was witnessing something special.
The American League stars won the game, 4-2, but both sides offered strong pitching, solid hitting, and near-flawless defense. Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig’s drop of Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Dick Bartell’s foul pop-up in the fifth inning was the game’s only error.
Babe Ruth, 38 years old and nearing the end of his career, provided the AL’s margin of victory with the first home run in an All-Star game competition, a third-inning two-run blast. It came off National League starter Bill Hallahan of St. Louis and at that point in the game, it increased the American League’s lead to 3-0.
At the first All-Star game between the American and National Leagues, held in Chicago's Comiskey Park, Babe Ruth #3 homers in the third inning with one on, giving the A.L. a 3-0 lead, with the Americans winning, 4-2. Lou Gehrig #4 stands to the left, with the White Sox batboy McBride in the center on July 6, 1933. (Photo Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Now here’s a stunning fact that in 2022 would be an absolute game changer:
To help familiarize themselves with the other league, both teams used the other’s baseball during batting practice to acclimate themselves with the different ball constructions. An American League ball, reputed to be livelier, would be used for the first 4 ½ innings, before the teams switched to the thicker-covered National League ball for the remaining 4 ½ innings.
At 1:15 P.M., home-plate umpire Bill Dinneen of the American League called “Play Ball!” and Cardinals third baseman Pepper Martin stepped in as baseball history’s very first All-Star batter.
Some of the matchups were unprecedented – and for many of the players, this was their very first time ever meeting and playing against their counterparts from the other league.
This was way back in the day before interleague play. It was also in the era prior to free agency for MLB players. Many or most players stayed with the club that had originally recruited them to the minor leagues for their entire career. Unless a player was subject to a trade, in many cases he stayed with one club for the life of his playing days. Hence, just about the only way to face your opponents in the other league was to reach the World Series; which, of course, many players never did.
The “Game of the Century” proved so popular that its organizers held another midsummer classic the following year. Since then, it’s become an annual fixture of the MLB season (though it was skipped in 1945 due to wartime travel restrictions and in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions).
Additionally featured events during the week of the All-Star game such as the Homerun Derby and the MLB Futures Game have been added along the way, as well, to turn the midsummer classic into a fan-centric, days-long celebration of the game of baseball.
*Many of the facts cited herein were sourced from “This Day in History: July 6,” The History Channel ; and from SABR’s “July 6, 1933: A Dream Realized: Comiskey Park hosts first All-Star Game; Babe Ruth homers” by Lyle Spatz.