Bob Hunter commentary: All-Star Game had a modest start in 1933

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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All-star games are as much a part of our American culture these days as chile relleno, cheese ravioli and General Tso’s chicken. It wasn’t always so.

When you see the Home Run Derby, a sideshow to last night’s baseball All-Star Game, draw a nearly full house to Citi Field in New York, and hear ESPN’s Chris Berman go over the top about “ home runs” against guys who would be embarrassed to pitch that way in Little League, it’s natural to assume that it always has been this way.

Because the All-Star Game has been around so long, most of us have a favorite memory or two of the game, usually from our childhood. But most sports have them, so most of us think they have been around forever. Surely, when the Columbus Panhandles finished the NFL’s first season in 1920, several of their players went off to the Pro Bowl, right?

Well, no. Baseball staged the first All-Star Game among the major sports in 1933. The NFL followed with its first Pro All-Star Game in 1939 (it was subsequently canceled during World War II and resurfaced as the Pro Bowl in 1950). The NHL started its All-Star Game in 1948, and the NBA joined the crowd in 1951.

In every case, the impetus sprung from baseball’s success, and when you realize how the game started, its development into the made-for-TV extravaganza we watched last night becomes all the more amazing.

Chicago celebrated its centennial in 1933 with a Century of Progress Exposition — the equivalent of a world’s fair — and the mayor thought it might be a good idea to have some kind of sports event in conjunction with it. He relayed this desire to his friend Col. Bertie McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who passed it on to his 35-year-old sports editor, Arch Ward.

If Ward had been a skeet shooter, today we might be agog over the 80th anniversary of the Chicago Skeet Classic. Instead, he proposed bringing baseball’s top stars together for what he envisioned as a one-time event that would modestly be called the “Game of the Century.”

But the baseball season had already started, the schedule was set (without a break), and team owners weren’t too keen about shutting down the league during the height of the Depression to accommodate a Chicago sportswriter and his dream.

But armed with McCormick’s willingness to have the Tribune absorb whatever losses the game might incur, Ward took his proposal down the street to American League president Will Harridge. Maybe because they were good friends, Ward somehow convinced him that this was a good idea.

Harridge agreed to put the proposal on the agenda at the next American League owners’ meeting — on May 9 in Cleveland — while Ward lobbied the National League owners himself.

It was rough going. There were lots of questions — what about the schedule, what if there were rain, what if nobody came — and on May 15, three weeks after Ward’s meeting with Harridge, NL president John Heydler polled his owners and found that the Boston Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants were against it. A blizzard of telegrams and phone calls finally flipped two votes, but the Braves wouldn’t budge. Only when Ward reportedly threatened to announce the game and then write that the Braves were responsible for killing it did Boston finally go along with it.

Either way, the game came off as planned, the weather was great, and it even sold out Comiskey Park, drawing a capacity crowd of 47,595 for what they thought was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In a way, it was. In the third inning, National League starting pitcher Bill Hallahan walked Charlie Gehringer, and 38-year-old Babe Ruth hammered a line drive into the right-field seats, thus becoming the star of a 4-2 AL victory and imbuing the game with magic that ensured it would continue forever.

Without such royal beginnings, a riveting day-before-the-game home-run derby might never have been born.

Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.

bhunter@dispatch.com

@dailyhunter

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