Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 8, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.
It ought to come as no surprise that a group of Chicago writers led the way in the formation of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1908. Most of the major innovations in baseball writing originated in the Windy City.
In 1999, Jerome Holtzman was named Major League Baseball’s first official historian by commissioner Bud Selig. Considered the dean of baseball writers after a half century working at Chicago newspapers and authoring the classic oral history of his profession,No Cheering in the Press Box, Holtzman continued a long tradition of Chicago sportswriters who had made their mark covering the National Pastime.
Without Chicago writers, there would be no All-Star Game. It was Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward who came up with the idea and helped organize the first Midsummer Classic at Comiskey Park. There would be no saves recorded by closers at the end of a game. Holtzman himself invented the statistic, which MLB later officially adopted. And there would be no pinch hitters, either. Charles Dryden, a humorist considered to be the “Mark Twain of baseball,” coined that phrase and many others still used today. Another Chicago humorist, Ring Lardner, wrote the first great baseball novel, You Know Me Al, establishing a niche genre of literature that has entertained millions of fans for more than a century.
We might not have ever known the 1919 World Series was fixed if not for the work of an intrepid Chicago journalist, Hugh Fullerton, who ignored threats to his safety and livelihood in investigating rumors of the White Sox’s corruption. That scandal led to the reorganization of baseball’s power structure and the installation of the Chicago-based federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as the game’s first commissioner in 1920.
Given all these firsts by Second City scribes, it might surprise you to learn that only a handful of Chicago writers have been honored with the prestigious J. G. Taylor Spink Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Besides Lardner, Fullerton, and Dryden—who were the first three recipients after Spink himself—there was also Warren Brown, the author credited with coining Babe Ruth’s nickname “Sultan of Swat”; John Carmichael, the longtime Chicago Daily News editor and columnist; and Edgar Munzel, who covered baseball for four decades with the Chicago Herald-Examiner and then the Sun-Times. However, it’s been more than a quarter century since Holtzman became the last Spink Award winner from Chicago in 1989.
Maybe that’s because the single most important contribution Chicago writers have played in the evolution of baseball came in the nineteenth century, when the emerging sport was in its infancy.
In the mid-1800s, the most influential figure in baseball was Henry Chadwick, a writer for the New York Clipper, Sporting Life, and other publications. The British-born journalist wrote his first baseball story in 1858, nearly two decades before the National League began, and his daily game reports were read in cities as far away as Boston and Philadelphia. He invented the box score, played a key role in codifying the modern rulebook, and helped professionalize and promote the sport when it was still just a leisurely pastime and not the national game. In 1938, Chadwick became the only writer ever inducted into the Hall of Fame for his contributions as a pioneer.
But if you haven’t read much of Chadwick’s writing, you’re not alone. As Tom Nawrocki explained in an article for SABR’s The National Pastime:
Although he churned out an amazing quantity of text, Chadwick’s works are rarely anthologized; indeed, he is seldom quoted at length. For while Henry Chadwick was peerless in his knowledge of the game, his writing can be charitably described as colorless. . . . Here is the lead for an 1877 game report under the headline “An Exciting Baseball Contest”:
“The seventh game of the series between the Boston and Brooklyn nines took place yesterday on the Union Grounds in the presence of a large crowd of spectators, considerable interest being taken in the match, owing to the position occupied by the Boston nine in the pennant race.” Chadwick then continued into his recap of the game, inning by painstaking inning. . . . He sees everything with a careful, knowledgeable eye but conveys little of the excitement or fun inherent in the game he devoted his life to.
Chadwick’s just-the-facts approach was the style, or lack thereof, that dominated sportswriting in the early days of professional baseball. As Hugh Fullerton later wrote, the coverage was “about as readable as the market reports of the steamship movements and even less interesting than the obituary column.” Because Chadwick was held in such esteem, other newspapers imitated his dry prose, which conveyed all the accurate and important information about the game, but it certainly wasn’t enjoyable to read. No one wants to work that hard just to figure out what happened on the field.
That’s where the “Chicago School” comes in. Beginning in 1887, a trio of young, hungry writers at the Daily News, the Herald, and the Inter Ocean revolutionized the fledgling sports journalism industry by turning in stories that appealed to hardcore and casual fans alike. Their daily reports on the popular Chicago White Stockings, who had won five NL championships in seven years, were amusing, relaxed, sometimes cynical, and always entertaining. In short, they made baseball fun (again)!
Consider this 1887 lead by Finley Peter Dunne, the 19-year-old Daily News reporter who would go on to become one of the most famous social and political commentators of his era:
The Chicagos lost a game yesterday by the thickness of a coat of paint. They had the game comfortably won with tallies to spare when Schock of the Washingtons went to bat in the ninth inning. He scraped a fly off the Congress street wall with a fly from his bat and won the game. The ball alighted on the top of the wall and for a short time seemed undecided whether to roll inside and let Sullivan fall over it or drop on the outside. The absence of a coat of paint, for which President Spalding is responsible, rolled it into the street.
Dunne lasted just one year on the baseball beat before moving on to bigger things, but his influence on fellow writers Charles Seymour of the Herald and Leonard Washburn of theInter Ocean was immense. Seymour and Washburn both wrote in a style “based on picturesque jargon, lively humor, and grotesque exaggeration,” as historian John Rickards Betts wrote. Seymour became well known for his dramatic storytelling, and he popularized phrases like “shutout” and “circus catch” in his writing.
Washburn was perhaps the most important of his contemporaries and the key exporter of the “Chicago School” of sports journalism. He was just beginning his career with the Inter Ocean when he died at age 25 in an 1891 train crash. But his humorous and descriptive game stories had already won over fans in every Major League city, whose newspapers often reprinted his articles. Here’s a sample of his keen observational skills and linguistic abilities from a game in 1889:
[Gus] Krock started in to pitch a swift curve but when he saw it would be hammered, he fell back on a slow drop and depended on his fielders for support, and right royally did he receive it, each of the outfielders making long running fly-catchers. . . . The “stone wall” infield has a very loose “brick” at short, and it is plain to be seen [Jimmy] Ryan is not in his latitude. His three errors today were damaging and inexcusable.
A generation later, William Phelon, the longtime editor of Baseball Magazine, paid tribute by saying: “Washburn brought the comedy portion of baseball writing to its pinnacles, and today, every press-stand is full of keen-witted, clever boys who make their stuff entertaining and interesting.”
Within a few years, every paper in the country employed reporters who had mastered the new Chicago style of writing that emphasized the personalities of baseball players and executives, oddball anecdotes, and observations about anything interesting that occurred on or off the field. The world of journalism was forever changed, as well. By the early 1890s, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World hired the first all-sports staff to cover not only baseball, but horse racing, boxing, billiards, and football, too. The competitive circulation battles between many metropolitan papers gave rise to an era that improved the overall quality of baseball writing and made fans in every city excited to read more about the games.
In New York, John Foster, Sam Crane, and O. P. Caylor were the writers who offered insight and commentary on baseball’s top stars every day. In Boston, a former National League first baseman named Tim Murnane became an even more popular figure as a columnist with the Globe for the next 30 years. In St. Louis, brothers Al and Charlie Spink founded The Sporting News, which became known as the “Bible of Baseball” for its comprehensive coverage each week.
And in Cincinnati, a sports editor named Byron Bancroft Johnson decided he had bigger aspirations than just covering ball games. He moved on from his job at the Commercial Gazette to become president of the Western League in 1893. By the turn of the twentieth century, Johnson had turned it into baseball’s top minor league and began to challenge the National League for Major League status. The former newspaperman moved his office to Chicago, renamed his circuit the American League, won a war for baseball supremacy, and changed the course of the sport forever.