How the 1920s transformed American sports into today’s billion-dollar business

By the 1920s, American sport had become big business, a billion-dollar industry with “stars” created by the media and represented by professional agents and promoters.

One of the pioneers of this new industry was radio revolutionary David Sarnoff, a young executive at the fledgling Radio Corporation of America, RCA. In the summer of 1921, Sarnoff had RCA broadcast, exclusively and for the first time, a live sporting event. Working with George “Tex” Rickard, the nation’s top boxing promoter and president of New York’s Madison Square Garden, Sarnoff set up a ringside microphone for the heavyweight championship bout between famed slugger Jack Dempsey and the French challenger Georges Carpentier. About 400,000 listeners heard the detailed account of Dempsey’s knockout victory over the handsome French war hero. Sarnoff predicted that modern radios, affordable to most consumers, had the potential to transform society, and they did.

Professional boxing in New York State was dead, and Rickard and Dempsey revived it, turning it into a multimillion-dollar business centered in Rickard’s offices in Madison Square Garden. They’ve done heavyweight championship fights, battles once held in front of rowdy, all-male crowds in Western mining towns, in urban spectacles staged in large metropolitan arenas, with poolside seating. ring reserved for the rich and the notables, men and women. “One could barely survive without the other,” New York Times reporter James Dawson wrote of the partnership that gave boxing “a hitherto unknown tone and richness.”

Police at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ, an arena built for the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier on July 2, 1921. Bain News Service photo, now at the Library of Congress.

Tex Rickard’s new Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue became Dempsey’s home base, but the menacing fighter overtook the arena as the sports sections of radio and newspapers turned athletes into celebrities internationally with enormous success. Rickard staged Dempsey’s greatest fights – against Gene Tunney, Jack Sharkey and Argentine Luis Firpo, the “wild bull of the pampas” – in huge open-air stadiums in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, some of which were able to accommodate more than 100,000 spectators. Five of Dempsey’s fights in the 1920s were million dollar gates; there was no other until the Ali-Frazier era in the early seventies.

Dempsey’s controversial “long count” fight against Tunney at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1927 drew the biggest fight crowd ever. And fifty million Americans, along with boxing fans in fifty-seven other countries, listened to it on Sarnoff’s National Broadcasting Company, NBC, the world’s first national radio network.

Time magazine claimed that the award-winning fights attracted large audiences because “by watching them, civilized people are vicariously purged of their primitive inclination”.

People were drawn to Babe Ruth for the same vicarious accomplishment. In 1919, the Boston Red Sox sold Ruth’s contract to the Yankees. Fans came to see the Bambino swinging for the seats, but his bad boy ways – drinking prodigiously and ignoring nightly curfews imposed by Yankee management – ​​made him even more popular. White-collar workers fearful of flouting authority and scolding their bosses could take secret pleasure in Ruth’s insubordination.

American sports
George Herman (Babe) Ruth, Big League Chewing Gum card by Goudey Gum Co., 1933, now at the Library of Congress.

The New York Daily News, America’s premier tabloid, tapped into this renewed interest in grassroots sports. From the early 1920s, the increase in the standard of living and the reduction of the working week freed up Saturday afternoons and Sundays for leisure. The sports section of American newspapers has grown tremendously.

By 1927, major New York newspapers devoted between 40 and 60 percent of their local coverage to sports, with the Sunday sports section often running to as many as twelve pages. The journalists who made New York the sports writing capital of the world were the elite of their newspapers and became the highest paid reporters in New York daily newspapers. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice made more than $100,000 a year in 1920s money, more than the Yankees paid Babe Ruth and more than President Coolidge’s annual salary.

Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News pioneered what has come to be known as “participatory journalism”, stepping into the ring with Jack Dempsey at the champion’s training camp. Less than an hour after being knocked out by Dempsey, Gallico was writing his article for the newspaper. Writers like Gallico and Damon Runyon have created drama for every heavyweight championship fight, every World Series, every major college football game and turned athletes like Ruth, Dempsey and golfer Bobby Jones into “Golden People” – jazz age sports legends. These sports heroes sold newspapers, just as newspapers sold them.

american sports
Bobby Jones, Atlanta, Ga., a 1921 glass negative in the National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, courtesy of Herbert A. French.

New York Daily News publisher Joseph Patterson has developed a new approach to baseball coverage. He commissioned sportswriter Marshall Hunt to cover Babe Ruth twelve months a year, chronicling her off-season barnstorming tours, vaudeville concerts, workouts, trips to hospitals to visit sick children and her stormy married life. . And although Hunt never mentioned it, he also followed Ruth to gambling dens and brothels. Ruth’s sexual exploits with women were kept out of the news by Hunt and other obliging reporters. Either way, he was the most famous and high profile baseball player in history, and one of the most photographed figures of the decade.

People flocked to the polo fields, which the Yankees leased from the New York Giants, to watch Babe break all existing home run records. The Yankees broke all major league attendance records, attracting over a million home fans – more than double what the Giants brought. A bigger stadium was needed, so flamboyant team owner Jacob Ruppert built Yankee Stadium in 284 days. on the site of a former lumber yard in the Bronx.

On opening day, April 18, 1923, Ruth christened the new park with a three-point shot into the short “porch” of right field, to the delight of a standing crowd of 62,000. Soon the stadium was dubbed “the house that Ruth built”.

With the emergence of Ruth, a new kind of fan began to come to the ballpark – “the fan” as one sportswriter put it, “who didn’t know where first base was but had heard of Ruth and wanted to see him hit a home run.” And people learned all about him from the stories written by his own ghostwriters syndicate.

American sports
“Babe Ruth never misses a thing,” shows George Herman “Babe” Ruth holding a monkey, “Mike,” at the St. Louis Zoological Park, October 10, 1928. Library of Congress photo.

In 1921, the year Ruth hit 59 homers, he hired America’s first-ever sports agent, Christy Walsh. A self-proclaimed “happy hustler,” Walsh arrived in New York with the idea of ​​forming a syndicate of sportswriters to write stories for famous athletes. Walsh couldn’t believe Ruth was “free”, unsigned by a major union. During Ruth’s first year with Walsh, her newspaper earnings grew from $500 to $15,000. Walsh estimated that his syndicate’s total production for sixteen seasons would have covered over 5,600 solid newspaper pages. In the winter of 1925, Babe entrusted her finances and all her affairs to Walsh.

Christy Walsh was to Babe Ruth what Tex Rickard was to Jack Dempsey. Rickard’s central idea, the idea that made him the greatest boxing promoter of all time, was that every fight should be a story, a drama heightened by a rash of publicity. “We have to dramatize this one for the newspaper guys,” he told Dempsey in a pre-fight meeting, “take it easy on the other guy.”

Few sports fanatics know that in the 1920s, the “golden age of sport”, promoters, athletes, radio revolutionaries and journalists combined their energies, talents and gift for dramatization to create modern mass sports, a new and permanent thing. on the American stage.

This story first appeared in The Conversation on December 23, 2014. The Conversation is a community of more than 135,400 scholars and researchers from 4,192 institutions.

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