In Search of the Spontaneous

WAS IT ANY WONDER, then, that modern Americans were eagerly, sometimes desperately, looking for unique, spontaneous, and exciting episodes with which to spice their lives of increasingly repeatable packaged experience? The “sensationalism” of the twentieth century, while more flamboyant than that of any earlier era in American history, was not the product merely of the greed of newspaper publishers or the morbidity of public taste. Like other institutionalized vices it was a response to a human need—in this case a generalized need for sensation. This need was satisfied in several ways. The rise of popular journalism brought a new flood of interest in crime and in sports. These two staples of the democratized newspaper might look incongruous to a moralist, who would see in one the dramatic violations of the community’s laws, in the other dramatic exhibitions of obedience to rules for their own sake.

IN AMERICAN JOURNALISM a new style emphasizing the unique and the sensational had been set by the Hungarian immigrant Joseph Pulitzer, who took over the New York World in 1883. “There is room in this great and growing city,” Pulitzer announced to his readers, “for a journal that is not only cheap but bright, not only bright but large, not only large but truly democratic—dedicated to the cause of the people rather than to that of the purse potentates—devoted more to the news of the New than the Old World—that will expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses—that will battle for the people with earnest sincerity.” Pulitzer’s World, commonly considered the nation’s first modern mass-circulation daily, sold for two cents a copy and in fifteen years increased its circulation from 15,000 to 1.5 million.

Sensationalism meant a new prominence and vividness for crime, disaster, sex, scandal, and monstrosities. The journalistic approach of the old World before Pulitzer took it over was illustrated by a lead story in its last issue headlined “ELECTION OF AN EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE AMERICAN COCKER SPANIEL CLUB.” Pulitzer’s first issue, by contrast, dominated the front page with “THE DEADLY LIGHTNING,” a story of a fire in New Jersey that took six lives and destroyed a hundred thousand barrels of crude oil; another lead story described the last hours of a condemned killer, detailed his protestations of innocence, his rattling of the cell door, his refusal to see a priest, and finally his response to the reading of the death warrant. The front page also carried a companion story on an execution in Pittsburgh, with the caption “WARD M’CONKEY HANGED. SHOUTING FROM UNDER THE BLACK CAP THAT HIS EXECUTIONERS ARE MURDERERS.” In the following years Pulitzer spiced his columns—or rather filled them—with tales of abortion, sexual molestation, may-hem, and quintuple murder. He commonly added illustrations and made a map of the murder scene (“X marks the spot”) an essential part of the story.

To awaken interest and keep up circulation, Pulitzer planned stunts and crusades and sought out (or invented) public scandals. In 1885 the World, “the people’s paper,” by appealing for nickels and dimes to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, raised $100,000 from 120,000 contributions. Pulitzer’s reporter Nellie Bly (whose real name was Elizabeth Cochran) feigned insanity to get into the asylum at Blackwell’s Island and then wrote a shocking newspaper exposé (later published in her book, Ten Days in a Madhouse). Pulitzer then assigned her to beat the round-the-world record of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg. And when the World offered a free trip to Europe to the person whose guess came closest to the actual time it took Nellie Bly to circle the globe, they received nearly a million replies. Pulitzer brought her by special train from San Francisco to New York, to complete the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds.

ALONG WITH CRIME and stunts, Pulitzer gave a new prominence to sports. Sporting events had, of course, long been a staple of the press, but Pulitzer set up a whole sports department. Formerly, horse racing was reported along with the cattle news. Pulitzer proclaimed his new emphasis when he named a leading authority on horse racing as head of his sports department. Before the end of the century other dailies followed with extensive and specialized sports sections.

People who could not watch the games, much less play them, could follow sporting “news,” enjoying a suspense and elaborating a cultic lore missing elsewhere in their lives. News of horse racing, bicycle racing, walking races, roller-skating races, and boxing helped swell the World’s circulation. After the Civil War the new sport of baseball overshadowed all others and seemed providentially suited to be reported in the newspapers. Statistics accumulated in the news provided fans and reporters with a nearly inexhaustible source for “firsts” in the playing (and not merely in the outcome) of any game. The origins of baseball are clouded in myth—the most venerable legend being that the game was invented in 1839 by Abner Double-day in Cooperstown, New York, which was to become the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. By the 1840’s baseball was being played by gentlemen of leisure around New York City. But it was designed to be a democratic sport, since, unlike horse racing or polo or tennis, it could be played by amateurs with little equipment and without a specially prepared field. During the Civil War, baseball became popular behind the lines with the troops (at least with those of the North), who spread the game when they returned home. In 1865, baseball was not quite the game we know, since pitchers still used an underhand delivery, catchers caught the ball on the first bounce, and fielders did not wear gloves.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team, toured the nation and managed to remain undefeated after fifty-six contests which took them over eleven thousand miles. Teams from eight cities formed the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs in 1876, which codified the rules, planned regular schedules, and for a while dominated the baseball scene. When minor leagues were formed, they were approved under rules set by the National League. Then, over the initial opposition of the National League, the American League was formed in 1901. The two leagues made their truce and gave the national sport its twentieth-century form when they played the first World Series in 1903.

Professional baseball became one of the most highly organized national sports in history. After the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox took bribes to throw the World Series of 1919, the leagues hired their own commissioner, a federal district judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He barred the offending players and established a high standard of honesty in the game.

The transformation of the game which came in 1920 made it a greater source of statistical and spectator excitement than ever before. Popular excitement had been aroused when Babe Ruth, who was raised in a Baltimore orphanage, broke all records by hitting twenty-nine home runs for the Boston Red Sox in 1919. Discovering the dramatic appeal of the home run, the leagues then redesigned the ball to make the ball livelier, thus making it easier for a good hitter to become a home-run hitter. This new “Home-Run Game” enlarged the baseball crowds, changed the style of playing and increased the dramatic appeal. The Babe hit fifty-four home-runs in 1920, fifty-nine in 1921, and sixty in 1927. Every year the game seemed to have a wider reach. When President Herbert Hoover appeared at the 1931 World Series, he was booed, but a Cardinal rookie named Pepper Martin was cheered for his .500 Series batting average. The loyalty of citizens to their local baseball team had no parallel in earlier American sporting history. City people gathered regularly by the thousands to find excitement and suspense in a game whose sportsmanship they believed in.

Technology soon gave the game an even larger national role. In the late 1940’s, major-league games were televised. Until the 1950’s, train travel had limited the major-league teams to the eastern seaboard and to a few cities on the eastern fringe of the Middle West. It was air travel that made possible the spread of major-league baseball over the country. In 1953 the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants had moved to California by 1958, and by 1969 both major leagues had increased their clubs to twelve, making it possible for cities all over the nation to take part. A Montreal team joined the National League, and the annual Japanese All-Star Game was being broadcast live to the United States via satellite.

Other sports competed with baseball, but at least until the late twentieth century no other team game seemed to have comparable appeal. Basketball, perhaps the only major popular sport undisputably invented in the United States, was thought up in 1891 by a Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA athletic director as a bad-weather team sport to be played indoors. Football, a derivative of an English game, was first played in the Ivy League colleges in the 1870’s. It was given something like its late twentieth-century form by the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1880, and by the 1890’s crowds of fifty thousand spectators, who were loyally following the teams of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. During the early decades of the twentieth century, when football came to dominate the American college scene, it was not unheard of for the college football coach to be paid more than the college president. Football “scholarships” were more remunerative (and sometimes carried more kudos) than others.

But professional football had an independent history, developing about 1910 in the industrial and mining towns of Ohio and western Pennsylvania, including players who had begun the game on their college teams. The professional association founded in 1920 soon gave the game a federal organization and a monopolistic discipline like those of baseball. What the home run did to enliven baseball was accomplished for football by the forward pass. Football lore traces the transformation of the game from a sheer pushing match between linemen to the use of a forward pass by a Wesleyan University team against Yale in 1906. By 1970, when professional football had developed a strategy far more intricate than that of baseball, television was giving living-room spectators all over the country an intimate (and replayable) view of the game. The annual number of paid admissions at professional football matches had reached some ten million. Football became a national ritual symbolized when the Thanksgiving religious services and the meal were topped off and overshadowed by—“the Game.”

Could Americans in the twentieth century really succeed in finding in sports some relief from their increasingly packaged and repeatable experience? Even in the world of sports it was hard to keep alive the sense of spontaneity and dramatic suspense.

Baseball itself became a solemn, statistical science. The Baseball Encyclopedia, published in 1969, offered 2,335 pages of carefully tabulated statistics of nineteen thousand games, on everything from batting averages to a detailed statistical career analysis of every player who had played in the major leagues at least a hundred times, and causes of interruption of play, to pinch hits at bat, and new indices like the HR% (the number of home runs per hundred times at bat). This work was the product of Information Concepts Incorporated, which used a computerized system to build a baseball data bank. Television revenues and the growing popularity of the game had displaced the old sportsman owner by a diffused corporate ownership.

THERE WERE a few other areas, too, where Americans hoped to find a residual stock of the unrepeatable and the unpredictable. One of them was a new and widespread interest in weather and weather prediction. In a nation that every year held a smaller proportion of farmers, where fewer livelihoods depended on rainfall or frosts, where the principal form of daily transportation, the automobile, was remarkably weatherproof, where people were increasingly accustomed to central heating, air conditioning, humidifying and dehumidifying, this awakened interest in the weather-to-come was hard to account for. Was it perhaps another clue to the American’s quest for the spontaneous?

The special importance of weather forecasting for air travel did not explain the new upsurge of interest in weather data and weather prediction by city-dwelling Americans. After World War II, six hundred commercial broadcasting stations were giving regular daily (sometimes hourly and half-hourly) weather information. With television, the weather became a regular evening feature illustrated by weather maps and enlivened by the patter of performers who now made careers of their one-man vaudeville acts about the weather. In 1950, automatic telephone forecasts (Dial-the-Weather) were introduced in Cleveland and Philadelphia, and spread to other cities.

There had been many causes for the growth of an efficient national weather service. Meteorology progressed in the nineteenth century, along with other branches of the natural and physical sciences. But since meteorology depended on the collecting of simultaneous information in distant places, little could be done to develop the science and make it useful in daily life before the invention of the telegraph. In 1849 the first meteorological observations to be communicated by telegraph reached Joseph Henry, Secretary of the newly founded Smithsonian Institution, who organized a network of observers. By 1854 these Smithsonian observers were at work in thirty-one states, Canada, Nova Scotia, and Paraguay; and by the outbreak of the Civil War there were five hundred weather stations. During the war, weather observations were collected for military purposes, and when Congress created a national weather service in 1870, it was placed within the signal corps of the Army. Forecasts were sent by telegraph to weather stations, railroad stations, and the Associated Press, and copies were made and distributed to post offices, where they were received five hours after the making of the midnight predictions.

Forecasts were obviously most important for the farmer. In the early 1880’s a thirty-six-hour advance frost warning was sent to Madison, Wisconsin, which would have allowed some time to protect the ripened tobacco crop, but because a negligent telegraph operator failed to relay the information speedily, the crop was lost. In 1891 the Weather Bureau was put under civilian control in the recently established Department of Agriculture, where it improved and expanded its services. Three-day forecasts came in 1901, along with improved cold-wave and frost warnings. Enlarged services included hurricane and flood warnings, a new system to inform the public of dangers of forest fire, and warnings of severe storms to protect the operators of pleasure craft. In 1940, with the increased importance of aviation, the Weather Bureau was moved to the Department of Commerce. Then, on April 1, 1960, as a by-product of the space program, the “Tiros” weather satellite was launched into orbit, and its two TV cameras gave meteorologists for the first time a view of large-scale weather patterns.

In a world of prefabricated, packaged, predictable, repeatable experience, the fickleness and mystery of the weather had taken on a new piquancy. Efforts to make and control outdoor weather were still rudimentary. Despite the new predictive vistas opened to meteorologists, the citizen still found an element of surprise in the shining of the sun, the coming of rain or snow. Pundits had said that “Change of weather is the discourse of fools.” But now an interest in the weather was itself a tie to the past, a wistful reminder of the limits of man’s powers to make and repeat whatever experience he wished, and so a refuge of mystery and spontaneity.

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