Sports in the 1940’s
Sports and War.
World War II shaped sports in the 1940s, as it did all of American culture. The sports world did its best to maintain business as usual, but all organized games and contests were disrupted after 7 December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the disruption continued until well after the end of the war in August 1945. Able-bodied men were expected to serve in the military, and most qualified professional athletes answered the call. Early in 1941 sports stars inducted into the armed forces included baseball player Hank Greenberg and football players Dave Smulker and Chuck Gelatka. By 1945, 509 active major league baseball players had served, some two hundred colleges had disbanded their football teams because players went to war, and four thousand boxers, including five world champions, had joined the military. With the affirmation of President Roosevelt’s “green light,” urging baseball to continue during wartime as long as eligible players did not avoid the draft, organized sports carried on but with tight budgets and a shortage of players. Still, sports events provided a welcome diversion that boosted the morale of the nation.
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No event in the sports world of the 1940s was as important as the breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball in April 1947. When Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the long process of integrating professional sports was begun. Even though Joe Louis had been heavyweight boxing champion since 1937 and Sugar Ray Robinson had won the welterweight title in 1946—both of them regarded as the best fighters of the day if not of the century—boxing did not carry the social significance baseball did. By the end of the 1940s, a handful of blacks played in the major leagues, and they were among the sport’s finest players. In football and basketball, college teams integrated before the pros. When Chuck Cooper from Duquesne University joined the Boston Celtics in 1950 to become the first black professional basketball player, games were canceled in protest. College football teams that included blacks were forced to call off games in mid-decade, especially in the South. Charles Pierce was the first black to play against a southern team, when Harvard, Pierce’s team, played the University of Virginia in 1947.
Just as the wartime labor shortage gave women opportunities to work at traditional men’s jobs in defense plants, the shortage of men on the playing fields briefly gave women athletes a chance to play in the spot-light. With the threat of canceling the 1943 baseball season looming before the major league owners, Philip Wrigley of the Chicago Cubs and Branch Rickey, the managerial genius of the Brooklyn Dodgers, created the All-American Girls Baseball League, which enjoyed surprising, though brief, success. Women made lasting gains in the world of golf, due to the achievements of two spectacular stars, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson and Patty Berg, and women’s tennis began to attract attention at the end of the decade when Gussie Moran brought sex appeal to the courts.
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Professional sports took the first steps toward becoming big business after World War II. In the early 1940s professional sports were still reeling financially from the Depression. Professional basketball was unorganized, and players averaged only about $50 per week, playing 150 games a season. While attendance at baseball games dropped during the war, only 1943 was a disastrous year, and even then twelve of the sixteen major league teams reported profits. In 1947 players negotiated a minimum salary for the first time ($5,500 per year), and the owners agreed to establish the first players’ pension fund. In the postwar years, as it became possible for teams to travel more and as television began providing revenue to teams, salaries soared. Saint Louis Cardinal star Stan Musial was making $50,000 per year by 1950, and he got a 70 percent raise the next year. Before the war professional football players earned an average of $150 per game; by 1949 their salaries had increased to an average of $5,000 per season. In the individual sports the best athletes were paid well, and those who did not quite measure up struggled. Joe Louis routinely earned six-figure purses for his fights, and champions in the lower weight classes earned $30,000 or more for championship matches, depending on the draw. Jockeys Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, and Ted Atkinson earned upward of $70,000 per year. Professional golf was bolstered by Fred Corcoran and his management of the Professional Golfers’ Association tour that in 1946 included thirty tournaments with total prizes of $750,000, the winner getting about $12,000 per tournament. Professional tennis became a lucrative business for the handful of players who toured with Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs, and other champions. Kramer was guaranteed $50,000 against a share of ticket sales in 1947 for an eighty-nine-match international tour that brought revenues of $383,000.
Big-time sports changed rapidly with the prosperity that followed World War II. Major sports formed new professional organizations; new money and talent poured into the sports world; television transformed sports from organized games into organized entertainment. Auto racing, football, basketball, and golf established players’ organizations after the war. Oversight commissions regulated each sport, setting standards of equipment, rules of play, and business practices, with the authority to negotiate labor contracts and enter into other business agreements for concessions and the licensing of rights. After the war, television changed the face of American sports. In 1946 broadcast revenues to major league baseball from television were $1 million. Six years later broadcast income had jumped to $5 million, and it was only beginning. With television came the merchandising of sports to attract revenue from sources other than ticket sales. Sports was quickly becoming a business of making heroes who could be used to sell goods to their fans. The idealists’ voices were lost in the din of hustlers hawking products, and yet, despite all obstacles, sports continued to produce great athletes whose achievements awed and delighted fans. It was still a grand time.
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