Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 15, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.
Most fans today know about the Baseball Writers’ Association of America because of its role in award voting. From the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and other awards at the end of each season to Hall of Fame elections, eligible members of the BBWAA are the people who select the most prestigious honors in the game.
These beat reporters, columnists, and sports editors provide the BBWAA with its highest visibility— and sometimes the most controversy—every year when the ballots are turned in and award winners are announced. Arguing over the Hall of Fame election has become its own cottage industry on the Internet; no baseball discussion stirs up more passion among fans of a historical bent than who deserves to be inducted into Cooperstown.
But the baseball writers wouldn’t be in a position to cast those important votes if they weren’t able to show up at the ballpark and do their jobs every day. And that’s where the BBWAA comes in. The organization’s primary purpose, the reason why it was created and why it still exists today, is far more mundane than award voting: It was formed to ensure the media can perform their duties without unnecessary interference.
In this modern era of spacious press boxes with Wi-Fi access, multiple televisions, and cafeterias, when beat reporters are asked to do a 24/7/365 job covering every aspect of a 9 billion-dollar-per-year professional industry, it’s hard to imagine a time when writers had no guarantee of finding a reserved seat to cover the game.
But at the turn of the twentieth century, when baseball’s popularity was reaching a fever pitch, even entering the ballpark was a luxury that could not be taken for granted. A handful of teams set aside space for the press, but more often than not, a writer could expect to find someone else—maybe a local politician, a police officer, or some other dignitary—sitting in his seat when he arrived.
The issue came to a head in October 1908, when the Chicago Cubs met the New York Giants in a tiebreaker to decide the National League pennant. This was the replay of the infamous “Merkle Game,” when rookie Fred Merkle failed to touch second base on a game-winning hit in the ninth inning and a Giants win was wiped from the books. More than 30,000 fans crammed into the Polo Grounds to watch the rematch, a one-game playoff to determine who would go to the World Series. Cubs pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown called it “as close to a lunatic asylum as any place I’ve ever been.”
Fighting the boisterous crowd that day was Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald, the most well-known sportswriter of his era, who had made his name by accurately predicting the Chicago White Sox’s World Series upset over the 116-win Cubs two years before. When Fullerton arrived at the Polo Grounds, he found the theater actor Louis Mann in his usual spot. Giants owner John T. Brush and Manager John McGraw always seemed to make sure that New York celebrities had a pass to big games.
Fullerton demanded that Mann find another seat, but the actor refused. An appeal to the ballpark ushers also proved fruitless. So with the game about to begin, Fullerton promptly sat on Mann’s lap and set up his portable typewriter. Eventually, the frustrated writer moved to the aisle and found a box to sit on. He watched the rest of the game there as the Cubs won 4–2 with Mordecai Brown outdueling Christy Mathewson.
The media encountered similar mistreatment during the World Series between the Cubs and Detroit Tigers a week later. A visiting writer at Chicago’s West Side Grounds was assigned to a seat behind a large pole at the back of the grandstand; he strained his neck trying to cover the game with an obstructed view. For Tigers’ home games at Bennett Park, some writers were forced to climb a ladder to the roof of the first-base pavilion to watch. It didn’t help that Detroit was experiencing its first snowstorm of the winter during the Series.
On the morning of Game 5, a group of writers met at the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit to discuss their grievances. They decided to form the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and take their case to baseball’s governing National Commission at the annual Winter Meetings. Both the American League and National League supported the new organization from the beginning and quickly established measures to improve working conditions for the press.
There were 23 writers present at the initial BBWAA meeting, including such luminaries as Paul Shannon (Boston Post), Ed Bang (Cleveland Press), and Sid Mercer (New York Evening Globe). Joe S. Jackson of the Detroit Free Press was elected chairman, while Irving “Sy” Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune was appointed secretary and Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe treasurer. Dues were a dollar apiece.
One baseball writer who wasn’t present at the meeting but who was voted as an honorary member by her male counterparts was Ina Eloise Young. The 27-year-old from Colorado garnered national attention after she was named sports editor of her hometown Trinidad Chronicle-News, which tried to capitalize on the publicity by sending her to the 1908 World Series.
Before Game 2 in Chicago, Tim Murnane spotted Young in the press area and engaged her in conversation; she won him over with her baseball expertise. He wrote in his syndicated column: “Miss Young proved an excellent scorer, was familiar with every inside play, and surprised me with the knowledge of the game.” Young was given a BBWAA button that would get her into any Major League ballpark. She later worked for the Denver Post and Fort Worth Record before retiring from sportswriting in 1912. Over the next hundred years, few other women were granted entry into the BBWAA, but in 2012, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle was voted in as the organization’s first female president.
Today, the BBWAA’s fights are less about press box conditions than about who can be in those press boxes.
One of the biggest points of contention early in the twenty-first century was whether to begin admitting Internet-based baseball writers to the organization (they were admitted beginning in 2007). The BBWAA also negotiates frequently with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association about access to players before and after games; the league and its teams have often tried to restrict who can enter the clubhouse and how long they can be in there. In 1978, Melissa Ludtke of Sports Illustrated had to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court to end Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s discriminatory edict banning female reporters from equal access to the clubhouse.
And of course, the BBWAA continues to tinker with who among its membership should be allowed to vote for the Hall of Fame, which it likes to call “the ultimate privilege.” In 2015, after an outcry of public criticism, the BBWAA decided to remove from Hall of Fame eligibility any voters who had not actively covered baseball for at least 10 years.
The move was applauded by many baseball fans who want to see their favorite modern writers get a chance to decide on the Hall of Fame inductees and honor the best players of all time. Now, if the scribes could only figure out how to elect the sport’s greatest home-run hitter.