Baseball on the Margins in 1916

While managing the Chicago American Giants, Rube Foster feuded regularly with ABC's C.I. Taylor. (via Penale52)

While managing the Chicago American Giants, Rube Foster feuded regularly with ABC’s C.I. Taylor. (via Penale52)

In my first article here at The Hardball Times, I examined the state of major league baseball in 1916 through the experiences of Babe Ruth and sportswriter Ring Lardner. Then, as now, the lives of big leaguers were vastly different from those of men and women working in other capacities within professional baseball. Indeed, in an era before farm systems and rampant discrimination both within and outside the game, teams beyond the major leagues existed in a distinct baseball culture that also deserves consideration when examining the professional game in the United States a century ago.

While the majors were expanding their audience, and stars like Ruth and Lardner were on the verge of unprecedented fame and wealth, other segments of the professional baseball industry continued to employ a more established approach to selling their product. Independent traveling teams (which were often called “barnstormers”) like the Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, Bloomer Girls, and House of David often struggled to earn a living. Yet as they traveled by train or wagon or foot to any location where they could play for money, these barnstormers maintained a baseball tradition that was becoming increasingly elusive for big leaguers: the freedom to escape the prevailing social and work expectations of segregated, industrializing America.

That freedom had been an attraction for professional ballplayers in the U.S. for decades. Major league stars like Mike “King” Kelly in the 1880s and Rube Waddell in the early 1900s found the salaries and reputations they earned through baseball secured their liberty to drink excessively, cheat liberally, abandon their positions mid-game, and otherwise behave in ways respectable society generally found unacceptable and even repugnant.

Non-whites and women also employed the game to expand their freedoms; their standing as professionals, even in a disreputable field, enabled them to contest the additional restrictions American society placed upon them. As their access to organized baseball was unofficially extinguished during the 1880s, black players joined teams like the Cuban Giants, the first successful African-American professional team, and black entrepreneurs formed the Southern League. In the next decade, Bloomer Girl teams composed mostly of female players emerged across the nation. These nineteenth-century clubs paid minorities and women to play ball and offered them the chance to travel the nation at a time when their work options and their mobility otherwise were severely limited.

By 1916, major league owners were pursuing bigger profits by reaching out to genteel audiences and thus were growing less tolerant of players’ independence. Teams signed college players in order to market their respectability, particularly after the New York Giants and their allies in the press cultivated a heroic image of Christy Mathewson as the Christian Gentleman. Ty Cobb’s on- and off-field violence toward fellow players and fans made Kelly and Waddell’s conduct seem mild, but as the game’s top draw, he maintained a freedom to garner bad publicity few of his contemporaries shared.

Meanwhile, barnstorming players and management continued to fight not only for more income but also to control their own careers. The 1916 Colored World Series between the American Giants and the ABCs exemplified how those struggles shaped black baseball amid the discriminatory environment of that era. Before the founding of the Negro National League in 1920, the Series occurred only when two teams with sufficient drawing power could agree to mutually beneficial terms, and in 1916 the process of reaching that agreement was prolonged, bitter, and incomplete.

Giants’ manager Rube Foster and ABC’s manager C.I. Taylor both were unusually successful black entrepreneurs, and their success stoked a fierce rivalry as they competed to control the limited opportunities left for black Americans in professional baseball. They feuded through the newspapers for almost a year, raided each other’s teams for talent, and failed to agree (or to abide by the agreement) on the number of games the teams would play in the Series. After the ABCs won four games and claimed an additional forfeit victory in Game Three after Foster pulled the Giants off the field over an umpiring decision, Taylor pronounced his team champions of a best-of-nine contest. The Giants refused to concede, arguing Game Three remained incomplete and the managers had agreed to a best-of-twelve competition. The two sides never resolved the dispute, and the Series illuminated the internal power struggles that remained a persistent problem within black baseball through its remaining decades of existence.

Such fights for control on the margins of professional baseball were not always so harmful. For Maud Nelson, the pitcher/third baseman/manager/scout/co-owner of the Western Bloomer Girls in 1916, four decades of constantly reinventing herself in order to sustain a baseball career allowed her to quietly construct a more independent life than most women of her generation. When the Minneapolis Tribune mocked Nelson’s team that July with the headline “Comedy for Fans When Bloomer Girls Lose to Minneapolis Athletics,” it overlooked her development from a star young pitcher in the 1890s into a businesswoman who booked games, recruited talent, and managed her team even while still suiting up as a player. When she didn’t have her own team, Nelson played for men’s clubs or took odd jobs, but through the 1930s she continued to pursue her professional ambitions, traveling from Boston to Chicago to New Orleans to manage and promote women’s baseball.

A new barnstorming club in 1916 called the House of David, which came from a Michigan religious commune of the same name, proved that maintaining control over its own operations could be quite lucrative. Members started playing baseball as a recreational activity in 1913, but founder Benjamin Purnell (whose capitalist bent generated a community empire worth over $10 million at its peak) quickly recognized the potential financial and evangelical benefits of constructing a traveling team that could compete against major leaguers and the best local teams throughout the country.

Three years later, team manager Francis Thorpe began leading an all-star team, which soon expanded to include non-community members who agreed to at least pay lip service to the group’s ideals (and wear their signature long hair and beards) through the Upper Midwest. The team was competitive even with clubs like the New York Giants and Yankees, and it provided entertainment interludes one researcher has described as a predecessor to the routines of the Harlem Globetrotters. In its first dozen years, the barnstorming House of David generated over $125,000 (which equates to about $1.75 million in 2016) in profit, and that was before they developed a reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent barnstorming clubs.

Most barnstorming teams of this era were not so successful, and their players were fortunate to earn a living wage. At a time when Ruth earned a $3,000 annual salary and Cobb a major league-high $20,000, black professional players averaged less than $200 a month. Nelson and a few other female players built careers in the game, but for the majority of women professional baseball was a temporary opportunity.

Still, traveling professional teams regularly appeared in most regions of the country during the 1916 season, maintaining the traditions (which actually lingered into the 1950s) of baseball’s decentralized, pre-industrial past. As the big leagues were turning to steel-and-concrete stadiums, marketing firms, and eventually radio and television to maximize interest in their product, the continuing presence of barnstorming teams was an indication that professional baseball also remained an avenue of escape from the prevailing cultural expectations of early twentieth-century America.

References & Resources

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Paul Ringel is Associate Professor of History at High Point University. He is the author of Commercializing Childhood: Children's Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the ideal of the American Child, 1823-1918. His current research project is an exploration of the Royal Rooters, a group of celebrity baseball fans in early twentieth-century Boston. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRingel.
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7 years ago


What an interesting follow-up article. Thank you so much for researching, writing and sharing.

I have unused tickets from a June 10, 1941 “Baseball Game and Circus Show” for the Bushwicks vs House of David at Dexter Park that a Great Aunt from Brooklyn gave me years ago. I had never heard of either team and figured it was just two local teams and/or religious institutions having a fund raiser.

Chris Siriano
7 years ago
Reply to  Carl

We operate the House of David Baseball Museum in St. Joe Michigan and really enjoyed this story!! Find us on Facebook for more exciting history of our whiskered teams!!
GREAT job Paul!
Chris Siriano
House of David Baseball Museum
922 Main Street, St. Joe, MI

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