The 1930s Sports: Topics in the News

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The 1930s Sports: Topics in the News



The spectacular baseball feats of the 1920s continued into the first year of the new decade. In 1930 National League batters averaged more than .300 in hitting and slugged nearly 900 home runs. The league was led by Bill Terry (1898–1989) of the Giants, who hit more than .400. Batting was less spectacular in the American League, but the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Athletics matched National League averages. Sportswriter Ring Lardner (1885–1933) described the big hitting as "B'rer Rabbit Ball."

Despite the excitement of such home run spectacles, fans began to drift away from the sport known as the national pastime as the Depression deepened. In 1930, 10.1 million fans attended baseball games. By 1932 that figure had dropped to 8.1 million, and by 1933, there were only 6.3 million paying fans. Players' salaries fell as a result, with weaker clubs selling off talent to stay afloat. The 1930s saw the rise of the farm system. Richer clubs could afford to hire a great many young players, developing their talents in the lower leagues. They could unload surplus players or rent out ballparks to Negro League clubs. Radio eased the pressure on baseball clubs by allowing them to take in money from advertisers and broadcast sponsors. But only an improvement in the economy brought fans back to the ballparks.

The St. Louis Cardinals was the most colorful team of the mid-1930s. The filthy uniforms and tough reputation of the team's players earned them the nickname "The Gashouse Gang." Using older players like Pepper Martin (1904–1965) and young stars like Dizzy Dean (1911–1974), who won thirty games and saved seven, the Cardinals put together legendary season in 1934 and won the World Series by defeating Detroit in a dramatic seven-game series. In game five of the World Series, Dean was knocked out. Popular myth recalls a newspaper headline: "X-RAYS OF DEAN'S HEAD SHOW NOTHING."

The New York Yankees, however, was the dominant team of the decade. The team won four consecutive world championships between 1936 and 1939. The star player in the early 1930s was Babe Ruth (1895–1948). Ruth quit the Yankees in 1934, leaving the spotlight to Lou Gehrig (1903–1941), one of the most famous players of all time. By 1936 the full-time centerfielder was Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999), then aged twenty-one. Their excellent farm system meant that the Yankees ended the decade in all-conquering form.

Although the Depression had an impact on professional baseball, as America's favorite sport baseball was in no danger of going bankrupt. The Depression, however, nearly put an end to organized black baseball. (In the 1930s, professional baseball remained segregated, with black players barred from playing in the major leagues.) Despite financial problems, the Negro National League (NNL) was more exciting than ever. Many baseball immortals played in the NNL. The Pittsburgh Crawfords, for example, included Satchel Paige (1907–1982), Cool Papa Bell (1903–1991), and Judy Johnson (1899–1989).

Baseball's Hall of Fame

In 1936 the first inductees to baseball's Hall of Fame were chosen by the Baseball Writers Association of America and a committee of veterans. Players chosen in the 1930s were:

Ty Cobb
Honus Wagner
Babe Ruth
Christy Mathewson
Walter Johnson

Cy Young
Tris Speaker
Napoleon Lajoie
Morgan G. Bulkely
Ban Johnson
Connie Mack
John McGraw
George Wright

Grover Cleveland
Alexander Cartwright
Henry Chadwick

Cap Anson
Eddie Collins
Charles Cominsky
Candy Cummings
Buck Ewing
Lou Gehrig
Wee Willie Keeler
Charles Radbourn
George Sisler
Albert G. Spalding


The American Basketball League (ABL) collapsed during the Depression, and the college game became the dominant form of basketball in the 1930s. College doubleheaders, played at Madison Square Garden, were a big draw. Promoted by Ned Irish (1905–1982), the first games took place on December 29, 1934, attracting a crowd of more than 16,000. The game sped up when the center jump after every basket was eliminated. Semipro leagues also did well, with company teams taking on college players after graduation. The ABL re-formed in 1933, and the National Basketball League (NBL) formed in 1937 from thirteen Midwest Industrial League teams. The NBL recruited college players and based itself on college rules. It was the basis for the Basketball Association of America, founded in 1949–50. Still, in the 1930s collegiate and company teams dominated the sport.

Among the few professional teams that survived the Depression were the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Visitations. The original Celtics had won around 90 percent of their games in the 1920s, and a new squad formed in 1931. Abe Saperstein's (1903–1966) Globetrotters were called "Harlem" because of the all-black squad, but were based in Chicago. In the 1930s they were a match for any other professional team.

The top professional basketball teams of the 1930s were the New York Rens and the Sphas (named for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). Based at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, the all-black Rens had only seven players. Yet they were the best team between 1932 and 1936, with a record of 473-49. Their best winning streak was eighty-eight games in a row. The Rens were famous for their stamina, never calling time-outs themselves. As well as six-footers, the Rens' best lineup included Fats Jenkins (1898–1968), who was only five feet six inches tall. The other top team of the decade was the Sphas. Coach Eddie Gottlieb (1898–1979) led them to seven titles in thirteen years. The Broadwood Hotel, where they played, held dances after the games.


In the 1930s, boxing was the second most popular sport after baseball. Even in the depths of the Depression, fans would find the money to see their heroes fight. Radio cut into ringside profits, but tickets for the big fights still sold out quickly. Stars such as Joe Louis (1914–1981) became national heroes. A big part of the popularity of boxing was the gambling that went with it.

German Max Schmeling (1905–) took the heavyweight title in 1930 after Jack Sharkey (1902–1994) seemed to throw a below-the-belt punch. After Sharkey regained the title on points in 1932, sportswriters said that Schmeling had won the title lying down and lost it standing up. Italian Primo Carnera (1906–1967) became champion in 1933 after a series of fixed fights. But by 1934 the title was legitimately in the hands of Max Baer (1909–1959). African American boxer Joe Louis and Schmeling eventually met in the ring for the first time in June 1936. Schmeling knocked out the American in twelve rounds. Their second meeting took place at Yankee Stadium on June 23, 1938. By that time Louis had been champion for a year. The grudge match was more than just a fight for a boxing title: Schmeling had joined the German Nazi Party, while Louis had come to symbolize freedom and democracy. Schmeling went down for the third and last time on two minutes and forty seconds. He had managed to throw just two punches. Louis won the title, and for the next twelve years he dominated the sport. He gave up the title when he retired in 1949.

Although the heavyweight title drew the most attention, there was dramatic action in lighter divisions as well. Light heavyweights such as John Henry Lewis (1914–1974) gave up their titles to compete with heavyweight stars. Billy Conn (1917–1993), one of the best light heavyweights of the 1930s, went on to fight Joe Louis (1914–1981), almost relieving him of the heavyweight title in 1941. Meanwhile the middleweight division was in turmoil. Seven fighters had a claim to the suspect National Boxing Association (NBA) title between 1933 and 1939. The New York boxing title was held for most of the decade by Fred Apostoli (1914–1973). Jimmy McLarnin (1907–) and former lightweight Barney Ross (1907–1967) shook up the welterweight division in the 1930s. McLarnin had killed a boxer named Pancho Villa (1901–1925) in a match in 1925, and his hard-hitting style won him the welterweight crown in 1933. Ross took the title in 1934, only to have McLarnin beat him the following year. Ross regained the title from McLarnin in 1935 and held onto it until 1938. Among the lightweights, Tony Canzoneri, Lou Ambers, Henry Armstrong, and Ross exchanged the title over the course of the decade.


After a Yale University player was killed in 1931, reformers called for changes to college football. The college game had become semiprofessional and was corrupted by press coverage and money. In fact, college football began to reform itself. The University of Chicago withdrew funding from its football program and dropped it altogether in 1939. In 1937, Notre Dame decided that the University of Pittsburgh was a professional team and dropped it from the schedule. This forced Pitt to reform. It stopped paying players and scaled down its training program. Pittsburgh coach Jock Sutherland (1889–1948) left the college game and moved to the openly professional National Football League (NFL).

For most fans in the 1930s the college game was the only football that really counted. In 1934 the Chicago Tribune's Arch Ward (1896–1955) set up the first all-star game, where the best college players would play the NFL's Chicago Bears. That first all-star game ended in a 0-0 tie. Other post-season bowl games began in the 1930s, including the Orange Bowl (1935), the Sugar Bowl (1935), the Sun Bowl (1936), the Cotton Bowl (1937), and the Blue-Gray Game (1938), not to mention the long forgotten Ice Bowl, Rhumba Bowl, and Tobacco Bowl.

Professional football, which began in the 1920s, continued to develop in the 1930s. In 1930, the NFL champion was the team with the best record. But in 1933 a championship game decided the title between Eastern and Western division winners. The first Pro Bowl took place in 1938 between all-stars from throughout the league and NFL champions the New York Giants. The NFL began to make play more offensive. A rule change allowed the ball to be thrown as far forward as possible, rather than just five yards behind the defensive line. Meanwhile the single wing gave way to the T-formation. Sid Luckman (1916–1998) of the Chicago Bears became the NFL's first T-formation quarterback in 1939.

Sports on Television

The first televised sports event was the English Derby in 1931. But 1939 saw several live televised sports broadcasts.

May 17The first college baseball game, between Princeton and Columbia.
June 1First heavyweight boxing match, between Lou Nova and Max Baer.
August 9First tennis match, between the Eastern Grass Court Championships.
September 26First major league baseball game, between the Dodgers and the Reds.
September 30First college football game, between Fordham and Wyoming.

In both college and pro football, the game became more open and exciting. In the 1920s there were a limited number of plays, few passes, and players played both offense and defense. Sammy Baugh (1914–), the quarterback at Texas Christian University, proved that the pass attack could work in the mid-1930s. He shocked a superior Santa Clara team and beat Marquette in the Cotton Bowl in 1936. In 1937, his rookie year in the NFL, Baugh led the Washington Redskins to the Eastern Division title. He broke all the passing records up to that time. Don Hutson (1913–1997), who played with the Green Bay Packers from 1935 to 1945, made the wide receiver a crucial part of the game. For speed and catching ability, nobody could match Hutson.


Many private country clubs lost money and closed during the Depression, but the number of golf courses in the nation actually grew during the decade. Through the Works Progress Administration (WPA; a government spending program), the federal government built nearly two hundred new public courses in the 1930s. The new courses were well designed and kept in better shape than previous public courses had been. The Augusta National opened at Augusta, Georgia, in 1934 and became the home of the Masters tournament. Miniature golf was also popular in the 1930s. In 1930 Chattanooga, Tennessee, hosted the first national open miniature golf championship, but by 1940 the miniature golf craze was over.

The golfing sensation of the 1920s, Bobby Jones (1902–1971), retired in 1930 after winning the Grand Slam. Fans were looking for someone to replace him. Gene Sarazen (1901–1999) came from behind to win the U.S. Open in 1932 at the age of twenty. But Sarazen's long career was also inconsistent. Lawson Little Jr. (1910–1968), who won the U.S. and British Open events in both 1934 and 1935, was not the fans' favorite. Similarly Ralph Guldahl (1912–1987), who won the U.S. Open in 1937 and 1938, always seemed cold and distant. Only when Sam Snead (1912–2002) and Byron Nelson (1912–) appeared at the end of the decade did any golfers gain public attention and affection that rivalled that of Bobby Jones.

The Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) held thirty-three tournaments in 1933. The total winnings for the whole season came to $135,000. Johnny Revolta (1911–1991) won $10,000 that year. Two hundred other pros split the rest. Amateurs competed with, and often beat, the pros. Women golfers, who were all amateur, could hit in the low 70s. Virginia Van Wie (1909–1997) won three consecutive amateur titles between 1932 and 1934.


Horse racing had always been popular in the United States, but in the 1920s and 1930s it vied with boxing to be the second most popular sport after baseball. The Marx Brothers' film A Day at the Races (1937) and stories of Damon Runyon (1884–1946) are evidence that horse racing had captured the popular imagination. The popularity of the horse racing was also boosted in the 1930s when boxing was rocked by a series of fight-fixing rumors.

The Triple Crown (a trio of victories in the three major horse races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes) of 1930 went to Gallant Fox, a three-year-old ridden by Earl Sande (1898–1968). In the Belmont Stakes he faced tough competition from Whichone. The Dwyer and the Arlington Classic also went to Gallant Fox, and by the end of the season he was the top-winning racehorse. He was finally beaten by Jim Dandy at the muddy Saratoga Springs track. There were two more Triple Crown winners during the decade: Omaha in 1935 and War Admiral in 1937.

One of the best-loved horses of the 1930s and beyond was Seabiscuit. When he first began racing in 1935, Seabiscuit was not considered much of a threat in any contest. Described unkindly as "phlegmatic," he was undersized and the wrong shape for a thoroughbred. When he took to the Pimlico track on November 1, 1938, he went up against War Admiral, 1937's Triple Crown winner. Seabiscuit was an outside bet at best. But Seabiscuit managed to pull out a full-length lead. In the home stretch War Admiral led by a nose until Seabiscuit broke away to win by three lengths. Sportswriters called it the race of the decade.


Ninety percent of hockey players in the 1930s were Canadian, but the decade saw the game grow more popular in the United States. National Hockey League (NHL) teams in Boston, New York, and Detroit all helped build the organized league. In 1928 the New York Rangers were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, and they almost did it again in 1930. The Chicago Black Hawks won in 1934, thanks to playmaker Harold "Mush" March (1918–) and goaltender Charlie Gardiner (1904–1934). The Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup a second time in 1938.

Hockey rules changed in 1930 to allow forward passing in all zones. (From the 1933–1934 season only three players were allowed in the defensive zone.) But as the game became faster, it also became more violent. Unprotected heads were whacked with sticks, and fistfights were common. Goalie Clint Benedict (1894–1976) broke his nose three times and designed a protective leather mask. He rarely wore the mask, however, because he didn't want to be thought a coward.

As the 1930s went on, hockey franchises reduced in number from ten to seven. The schedule covered forty-eight games. Players became faster, more nimble skaters, and stick handling improved. Amateur hockey also became popular in the United States in the 1930s.

The biggest hockey star of the decade was Howie "Stratford Streak" Morenz (1902–1937). Playing for the Montreal Canadiens, Morenz won two consecutive Hart Trophies as the league's Most Valuable Player. In 1936 he was traded mid-season from Chicago to the New York Rangers. In decline, he returned to the Canadiens in 1937, only to be badly injured during a game. While hospitalized with a broken leg, Morenz suffered a nervous breakdown and died of heart failure at the age of thirty-four. Future Hall of Famers whose careers began in the 1930s include: Syl Apps, Frank Boucher, Eddie Shore, Earl Siebert, Babe Siebert, Art Coulter, Charlie Lonacher, Dave Schriner, Toe Blake, and Tiny Thompson.


The 1932 Winter and Summer Olympic Games helped raise the national spirit during the depths of the Depression. The Winter Games were held at Lake Placid, New York. Americans did well, winning six gold, three silver, and two bronze medals. For the first time in a Winter Games, the U.S. team won more medals than any other nation. Canada won the ice hockey gold medal for the fourth consecutive time.

The 1932 Summer Olympics took place in Los Angeles. Now considered the greatest woman athlete of all time, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson (1911–1956) broke records in the javelin and in the eighty-meter hurdles. She was bumped down to silver in the high jump after diving over the bar on her gold medal attempt. American women won half of the track and field medals on offer. American men also dominated. Eddie Tolan (1909–1967) beat fellow American Ralph Metcalfe (1910–1978) to set a 100-meter world record. In the pool, Clarence "Buster" Crabbe (1908–1983), later to star as Flash Gordon in the movies, won gold in the 400-meter freestyle.

The 1936 Winter Games, held at Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany, saw few American successes. The lone gold medal went to the two-man bobsled. As Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party strengthened its grip on the country, political events overshadowed this low-key Winter Games. The Summer Games of 1936 have become famous for the way the Nazis used them for propaganda. By 1936, German Jews had been stripped of their citizenship and civil rights. Germany was building a war machine that would eventually engulf most of Europe. But having offered the Games to Germany in 1931, the Olympic committee allowed them to go ahead. Hitler decided to use the games to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan (white) race. Many observers, including American swimmer Eleanor Holm (1913–), were charmed by high-ranking Nazis such as Hermann Goering (1893–1946).

But Hitler's plan to show the world his brilliant Aryan athletes achieved only mixed success. Black American athletes won eight gold, three silver, and two bronze medals in track and field. Sprinter Jesse Owens (1913–1980) won four golds. But although popular myth states that Hitler snubbed Owens, it was not the case. It was Cornelius Johnson (1913–1946), the high-jump gold medal winner, whom Hitler ignored on the podium. Germans won 101 of the medals, with the United States in second place with 57. Despite his distaste for the success of black athletes during the games, Hitler gained the sports field victory he wanted.


As in many other sports, 1930 marked the end of a golden age in tennis. American Bill Tilden (1893–1953) and French player Suzanne Lenglen (1899–1938) dominated the game in the 1920s. In the 1930s tennis increased in popularity, but disputes over amateur and professional status raged. By 1939 it was almost impossible to tell the difference between amateur and professional players. Many players turned professional to avoid falling foul of the rules governing amateur play.

Soccer: The Immigrant Game

Soccer had very few American fans in the 1930s. Teams were mostly made up of English and Scottish immigrants. Leagues were drawn up along ethnic lines, such as the German American Football Association. Despite reaching the semifinals in the first World Cup in 1930, the U.S. team was hardly mentioned in the sports pages. By the end of the decade, soccer was beginning to find a following in colleges, including Ivy League schools. But the game's main problem in the 1930s was that immigrant athletes wanted to be accepted into American society, so most of them played baseball or football rather than soccer.

Tennis had always been an upper middle-class game, and not much had changed by the 1930s. The United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) worked to make tennis a game for everyone. Young people were encouraged to play by a Junior Davis Cup program for boys (1935), and a Junior Wightman Cup for girls (1938). African Americans, however, were not welcome. They played under the American Tennis Association (ATA).

The U.S., British, Australian, and French Open tennis tournaments dominated international tennis. American Donald Budge (1915–2000) won all four titles in 1938. His Grand Slam was all the more impressive since the ball had become harder and faster that year. Women's tennis changed too. As the international game became more demanding, women wore Bermuda shorts and other more athletic clothing. They served overhead, while Alice Marble (1913–1990) began the power-serve and volley game.

Since its primary paying audience was not badly hurt by the Depression, neither was the sport of tennis. Bill Tilden (1893–1953), Don Budge (1915–2000), and others drew huge crowds to their professional games at Forest Hills and Madison Square Garden. Helen Wills Moody (1905–1998) was nearing the end of her career when she won Wimbledon in 1935. Budge's five set match against Baron Gottfried von Cramm at the 1937 Wimbledon championship was one of the greatest of all time. Budge came back from being down 4-1 in the final set to win after seven match points. The United States also won the Davis Cup international team tournament that year for the first time in a decade.


Of all sports, track and field was the most integrated in the 1930s. White colleges sought black athletes knowing they could not win without them. Jesse Owens (1913–1980) went to Ohio State University, Eddie Tolan (1909–1967) went to the University of Michigan, and Ralph Metcalfe (1910–1978) went to Marquette University. Blacks still suffered racism in colleges and at track meetings, but the success of Owens and others advanced the cause of African Americans in other sports.

Paavo Nurmi (1897–1973) of Finland dominated the popular mile race in the 1920s, but the 1930s belonged to Glenn Cunningham (1910–1988) and Bill Bonthron (1912–1983). In the Princeton Invitation Meet of that year, Cunningham ran 4:06.7 for a mile. Races between Cunningham and Bonthron drew record crowds. "Galloping Glenn" was one of the best-known American athletes of the decade.

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The 1930s Sports: Topics in the News

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The 1930s Sports: Topics in the News