Apr 12, 2011

Opening Day Then and Now

It was a lot of fun reading the account of 1911's opening day at Shibe Park from the following day's New York Times. Obviously, baseball was a very different game then, but the experience of opening day sounded both familiar and a little strange at times.

The Weather
Well, even with global warming, you didn't expect early April weather to change that much in 100 years, did you? In 1911, "it was a cold, bleak, unseasonal day for the National sport." I've been lucky enough to attend more than my share of home openers in Philadelphia, and for about 93% of them, the weather has been some combination of cold, bleak, and unseasonal, despite the perfect image of bright sunshine and green grass that all baseball fans hold in their head for opening day.

Baseball teams and fans loved America then, and they love it now. Every Phillies opener in recent memory has featured a giant American flag that covers most of the outfield during the national anthem, along with some sort of military representation (like a color guard or flyover). It's nice, but I think I prefer the previous century's version:

Promptly at 2:30 Kendle's First Regiment Band formed four abreast at the plate and started for the flag pole. Both teams, twenty-one in each squad, assembled in company front at the plate and followed the playing band across the field. The big crowd stood on its feet and cheered frantically as the procession moved to extreme centre field. The flag-raising was of short duration*.

There was not a hitch in the arrangements. When the two teams arrived at the flag pole, Capts. Davis and Chase stepped from the ranks and seized the long halyards. Firmly and steadily they drew the bunting to the top of the tall shaft, when by a quick and dexterous jerk, Chase unloosened the Stars and Stripes to the stiff southeast breeze, and while the band played the "Star-Spangled Banner" hundreds of diminutive flags fell from the mother flag. The crowd jumped to its feet and uncovered and sang to the accompaniment of the band. Then the band and teams returned to the shadow of the grand stand. Again, the players received the plaudits of the assembled thousands.
Presentation of Awards
Second baseman Eddie Collins, "champion base runner of the American League," was presented with an automobile. They still give out cars as awards to players today, but they're generally some GM car (MLB sponsors) given at a world series or all-star game to an MVP. After a brief speech from Collins, "the machine was sent on a trial spin around the field."

First Pitch
In 1911, "Director of Public Safety Clay," who had previously presented Collins with his car, threw out the ceremonial first pitch from the owner's box in the upper pavilion. He threw it to the umpire, who delivered it to the starting pitcher for game use (in Washington that same day, President Taft threw out the first pitch; he was the first president to do so). These days, of course, first pitches are thrown from the field by either a team legend, celebrity, or local honoree. They keep the ball, which is never used in the game.

18,000 fans "witnessed the game" on opening day in 1911 (Shibe Park at the time held about 20,000). Over 45,000 fans filled Citizens Bank Park for this year's Phillies opener. The article doesn't specify, but no doubt the 1911 fans were more nattily dressed, as more formal clothes at the game were very much in vogue, and major league baseball had not yet invented merchandising.

Philadelphia Baseball Fans
They're the greatest in the world now, and it sounds like they were a stand-up bunch a century ago. Despite the miserable weather, "the attendance was a personal tribute to the holders of the world's title and a testimonial to the affection with which the great pastime is held by the average American."

* I'm glad the writer included this detail, because I was wondering if it took a long time to raise the flag. I don't want to seem too sarcastic, though, because I really do love this vintage sports writing.

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