Breaking the Slump|
Baseball in the Depression Era
by Charles C. Alexander
Columbia University Press, 2002 | Buy the book
Hoyt might have added that the temptations awaiting healthy, well-paid young men away from home half the time frequently produced marital discord. In the summer of 1931, the wife of Hoyt's old Yankees teammate Joe Dugan (recently released by Detroit) sued in a New York court for separate maintenance, on the grounds that "Jumping Joe" drank, gambled, and chased other women. Hoyt took the stand to say that the bad behavior was about fifty–fifty between husband and wife, but Dorothy Pyle Hoyt testified in support of the charges against Dugan, after which she herself left for Reno for six weeks to establish residence so she could file for divorce from Hoyt under Nevada law.
Although the national divorce rate in the 1930s was far below what it would be within another generation (in part because unless one could afford to go to Reno, a divorce was harder to obtain), quite a lot of disharmonious domestic news made its way into the baseball press. Besides Hoyt and Dugan, such other luminaries as Lefty Gomez, Paul Derringer, Ben Chapman, and Jimmie Foxx had their marital difficulties publicized.
To be sure, club officials and baseball writers usually cooperated to keep really messy stuff from becoming public. As Dick Bartell described players' relations with the press in his day, "You could confide in a writer. . . . They weren't looking for scandal or gossip to print. Players' private lives were not considered fair game. The press was concerned with the game and what happened on the field. That was their beat." [Dick Bartell and Norman L. Macht, Rowdy Richard (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic, 1987), p. 156.] What Bartell neglected to add was that with teams usually paying the expenses of writers on road trips, the scribes weren't likely to do a great deal of derogatory reporting about what players said or did.
Yet "baseball Annies" ("groupies," in a later generation's argot) had long been and still were a source of trouble. In June 1933, about a year after Billy Jurges was wounded in his Chicago hotel room in a struggle with a former woman friend, another young woman, named Lillian Eloise Mitchell, brought suit for $50,000 in a Chicago court against Cleveland first baseman Harley Boss. Mitchell claimed that following a party in a Cleveland hotel room earlier that season, Boss had torn her clothes and assaulted her. Boss countersued for slander, and in July a Chicago jury believed his version of what had happened: that Mitchell had gone to his room; he kissed her; she told him, "My time is valuable"; and, apparently not wanting to be rushed, he showed her the door. [Sporting News, June 8, 1933, p. 8; Sporting News, July 13, 1933, p. 6.]
Harley Boss (who couldn't hit big-league pitching and was back in the minors by 1934) no doubt would have fit the last of three types of players with whom Willis Johnson, traveling secretary of the St. Louis Browns, said he had to deal. One type was the quiet, frugal men who tended to business and gave no trouble. Then there were the chronic complainers who expected special favors, such as loans from Johnson when they came up short on road trips. The third and most vexatious type consisted of fun lovers who'd never outgrown their boyhoods.
According to Billy Rogell, Rudy York, from a little town in Alabama, was an incorrigible fun lover. "I roomed with this goddamn Rudy York," Rogell reminisced. "He was the silliest bastard I ever met in my life." York was like "a lot of these southern boys -- goddamn, they got up there, they'd go crazy....Allnight long that goddamn phone was ringing. He knew every whore in New York." Charley Gehringer, who later also roomed with York, remembered that several times York set mattresses on fire by going to sleep with his cigarette still burning. [Richard Bak, Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), p. 274.]
York also was a heavy drinker (who died at fifty-six), as were many other ballplayers. Of course, after 1933 liquor was legally available in all forms in every big-league city. Prohibition had never kept ballplayers who really wanted to drink from doing so, although they couldn't do it in public places. "They didn't have cocktail parties or beer in the clubhouse," Joe Cronin recalled of Prohibition days. "A lot of players were not drinking at all. Of course if a guy wanted to find it, he found it." The Washington Post's Shirley Povich remembered that "there were all kinds of speakeasies in Washington. As many as you liked....Ontheroad, if you couldn't find a drink yourself you could always ask the bell captain. He could always find you a drink." [William B. Mead, Two Spectacular Seasons: 1930 -- The Year the Hitters Ran Wild; 1968 -- The Year the Pitchers Took Revenge (New York: Macmillan, 1990), p. 72. Shirley Povich, a sports reporter and columnist for the Washington Post for half a century, was once mistakenly listed in a volume of Notable American Women.]
If drinking among ballplayers was common, tobacco use in some form was almost universal. Although cigarettes had long been ruefully referred to as "coffin nails," as yet medical researchers hadn't found (or really looked for) a link between cigarette smoking and cardiopulmonary diseases. With cigarettes shrewdly marketed as symbols of both sophisticated, graceful living and rugged, manly activity (as well as functioning as seemingly essential props in motion pictures), taking up smoking became a rite of passage for young men and an acceptable indulgence for an increasing number of women.
Ballplayers smoked as much as and maybe even more than people in the general population, with cigars and pipes apparently favored by older players, managers, and coaches, and cigarettes the weed of choice for younger athletes. Players smoked before, after, and often during games -- although under directives in force throughout Organized Baseball they weren't supposed to smoke in uniform within view of people in the stands. So Joe DiMaggio ducked into the runway behind the dugout to have a cigarette (and half a cup of coffee) nearly every half-inning. When Goose Goslin drove home Mickey Cochrane with the deciding run in the 1935 World Series, winning pitcher Tommy Bridges, similarly concealed, was pulling on a cigarette. That Series prompted advertisements in newspapers and magazines across the country professing that "19 of 22 of the Tigers smoke Camels," as well as testimonials from various Detroit players that Camels "don't get my wind" and "never upset my nerves." [For example, New York Times, October 7, 1935, p. 14.]
Many players also continued to load up with chewing tobacco (more leaf-cut than plug-cut by the 1930s) whenever they took the field. Chewing was probably more common among players from rural and small-town backgrounds than among city boys, but the image of a tough-looking competitor with a big cud in his cheek was so familiar that many American boys grew up convinced that serious baseball playing and tobacco chewing went together. In truth, spitting tobacco juice -- spitting in general -- had long been (and would long continue to be) basic to baseball's uniquely stylized movement.
This essay is reprinted from the book, Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era by Charles C. Alexander.
Copyright © 2002 by Charles C. Alexander. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.