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A Day In Wrigley Field History: April 24, 1919

With this game, we get a look into baseball's distant past, thanks to an old-time writer who was in attendance.

SDN-063316, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

The defending National League champion Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-1 on this day, the first game of the 1919 season.

The result of the game is less important than three other things about this day that I discovered while looking for a suitable game to remember from this first post-World War I season (which was shortened to 140 games):

  • It was the first year of Wrigley ownership of the team, as Charlie Weeghman had been forced out and William Wrigley, as the largest remaining stockholder, took over as team president
  • Despite being much later in April than we open baseball seasons today, it was still quite cold
  • A remarkable story comparing 1919 baseball to 1870 baseball appeared in the Tribune

Here's how Walter Eckersall of the Tribune described the weather and the bundled-up fans (estimated to be about 8,000):

Wearing fur overcoats and carrying robes on their arms, the crowd which attended the frigid opening at the Cubs' park yesterday reminded one more of a football struggle between the leading college elevens. That the winter wraps were needed was shown shortly after the game started, when coat collars were turned up and robes were tucked snugly around trim feet and ankles.

When the floral pieces were presented and the umpires and captains held their conference in regard to ground rules at the home plate, the hungry fans showed their impatience for action. They did not give a rap about the extra settings.

"Give him the flowers and let's play ball," shouted one when Alexander was about to be presented with a bouquet.

It wasn't just the sensibilities of the 1919 fan, either; the Tribune's weather box for the next day indicated the temperature never got above 38 degrees that afternoon (for comparison, today the average high temp for April 24 is 63). The paper's James Crusinberry added:

It was so cold that there was danger in presenting American beauties to President and Manager Fred Mitchell of the north side warriors and to Grover Alexander, who just got back in time from the Rhine to pitch the first ball. The roses were rushed to the plate for presentation and rushed back to the steam heat in the office without material damage.

What I found most interesting in looking things up about this game was an article written in the Tribune by T.Z. Cowles, who had been sports editor for the paper nearly 50 years earlier, from 1868-1875. Cowles, who was born in 1845 and served in the Civil War before getting into newspapering, was writing about the comparison between the baseball he knew in 1870 and the game of 1919. Unlike many older men today who wax poetic about how much better the game was when they were younger, Cowles wrote, in a flowery style that passed from the newspaper scene long before:

Some there are who insist the game as it was played forty-nine years ago was every bit as good as it is today. But it was not so. Watching yesterday's set-to between the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates brought to my mind in strong relief the immense progress toward scientific accuracy of play that has been made in the last half century.

In one department only -- that of batting -- is there anything near equality. But it is to be remembered that batting conditions then and now are wide apart. In the old time period the pitching was for the batters a soft snap compared with the slab service of today.

Then the pitcher was restricted to a straight arm swing. He could not deliver the ball with his hand as high as his hip, and he was forbidden even the slightest approach to the underhand throw. The criterion for good pitching was ability to get the ball over the plate at the proper height; for the batter could require either a low ball (between knee and hip) or a high ball (between hip and shoulder).

There were no curves, no inshoots, no downshoots, no cutting the corners of the plate, no fadeaway ball of the type used so successfully by Christy Mathewson.

Cowles went on to describe many aspects of the game that had changed in his view to the better and concluded:

One thing is for certain: the fans of today are getting a much better grade of baseball for their money than their predecessors of long ago ever got.

Smart man, that T.Z. Cowles. I'd say the same is true of baseball today, compared to the game of 50 years ago.