The 1940s Sports: Overview
The 1940s Sports: Overview
In the early 1940s, sports organizations tried to entertain Americans. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, disruption in sports schedules could not be avoided. Most professional and college athletes were eligible for military service, and those who were qualified soon signed up. Millions of American women went to work in factories during World War II, and women athletes found themselves in demand as the shortage of male sports talent grew worse. In 1943 the entire major league baseball season was on the brink of cancellation. Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, and Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, invented the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL). The new league did not last long, but it was very popular in the absence of male baseball stars. Elsewhere, women athletes made more permanent gains. In golf, for example, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias and Patty Berg became major stars.
After the war, professional sports began to turn into big business. The hardships of the Great Depression (1930–39) were over, and attendance at sports events began to rise. Television brought increased audiences to games and extra money for advertisers. Sports also became better organized. In the early 1940s, for example, professional basketball was without a players' union. Athletes earned $50 per week and played 150 games in a season. In 1949, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was set up to organize basketball on a national level. In baseball, players negotiated a minimum salary of $5,500 per year in 1947 and persuaded the owners to set up a pension fund for retired and injured ball players.
As travel became easier with the new aircraft technology and as television spread across the country, salaries for top players shot up. By 1950, St. Louis Cardinals baseball player Stan Musial was earning almost ten times the minimum salary. In football, too, wages rose sharply. From $150 per game in 1940, football players earned an average salary of $5,000 per season in 1949. Top athletes in individual sports did even better. Champion heavyweight boxer Joe Louis commanded well over $100,000 per fight. On the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) tour, winners took home $12,000 in prize money for each tournament. In 1947, tennis star Jack Kramer signed a deal that gave him $50,000 against ticket sales for his international tour.
As sports became richer and the number of fans began to grow, racial barriers started to break down. When African American Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, he broke the color barrier in professional baseball. Within a few years, a handful of black players had become among the best in the game. In the South, blacks and whites did not play sports together, even in colleges, until late in the decade. But in most sports in the 1940s, black athletes took a greater role in what were once all-white teams.
After 1945, American sports gradually became part of the entertainment industry. New professional organizations and commissions modified the rules of play to ensure maximum entertainment value. Players became national heroes and were used by advertisers to sell goods of all kinds. Many sportswriters complained that sports and athletes had been corrupted by greed. But television and advertising money paid for better training grounds and improved facilities for fans. Between 1946 and 1952, the income major league baseball received from television rose from one million to five million dollars. Athletes delighted fans with more and more spectacular achievements. After the hardships of depression and war, American sports helped create a new, optimistic national mood.