Welcome back to a series of articles on doubleheaders that are related to my presentation at next month’s annual SABR national convention: “Searching for the Elusive Sunday Pitcher” (look for it on Thursday if you’re attending – and if you can’t, don’t be too surprised if it ends up as an article in Acta’s annual THT Annual book),
Last article focused on the 19th Century, when the doubleheader established itself as part of the national pastime. To recap: The doubleheader emerged first as a way to draw spectators out for holidays, but expanded from that. League competition between AA and NL made twin bills an entrenched feature in national pastime, and when the NL’s challengers folded, the doubleheader was too well-established to be killed.
These games pleased fans, and made up for rainouts. Also, teams realized that scheduling doubleheaders for when the worst teams came to town helped draw fans to otherwise uninteresting contests. By 1898-99, one-fourth of games occurred in doubleheaders.
New century, new competition
With the AL’s rise in 1901, few notable changes occurred with doubleheaders. Twin-bill doubleheaders remained a fairly steady portion of baseball for the next 30 years, as the chart below (showing the percentage of games occurring in doubleheaders) indicates:
Year NL AL FL 1900 13.71% 1901 22.46% 22.59% 1902 25.53% 20.61% 1903 29.29% 23.83% 1904 30.50% 26.52% 1905 25.81% 29.17% 1906 19.19% 21.86% 1907 30.52% 24.31% 1908 25.72% 22.19% 1909 33.82% 30.00% 1910 26.09% 23.89% 1911 23.76% 22.80% 1912 25.12% 27.79% 1913 26.77% 21.82% 1914 27.20% 26.62% 26.30% 1915 31.73% 30.92% 35.46% 1916 34.73% 24.64% 1917 34.24% 30.87% 1918 34.25% 25.20% 1919 30.47% 22.50% 1920 24.82% 23.01% 1921 23.16% 20.78% 1922 24.84% 17.80% 1923 22.37% 21.75% 1924 28.66% 28.85% 1925 26.47% 20.45% 1926 27.18% 25.00% 1927 32.41% 28.43% 1928 27.69% 29.17% 1929 30.84% 23.16%
There was a major downturn in doubleheaders in 1900, but I wouldn’t make too much of that. The worst teams usually played in the most doubleheaders, and the NL contracted their worst teams before 1900.
The NL responded to the challenge of the AL the same way they had to the AA: They played more doubleheaders. The NL set records for highest percentage of games taking place in doubleheaders five times from 1902-08.
The NL virtually played more doubleheaders than the AL. The gap was rarely significant, but it was steady, including 16 times in 17 years from 1908-24. In each of the five towns hosting squads from both leagues, the AL teams played in fewer doubleheaders from 1901-29. It was virtually a dead heat in Chicago: 491 White Sox doubleheaders vs. 493 for the Cubs, but then again the Cubs played far fewer doubleheaders than any other NL squad.
The Federal League tried to use doubleheaders to bring people to the ballpark, setting a record for most doubleheaders played in a league that lasted until the Great Depression.
More importantly, a significant development occurred in doubleheader scheduling: MLB began playing the games on one day more often than any other. That day was Saturday.
Wait – what? Saturday? I’ve always heard that Sunday was the big day for doubleheaders. It’s the day people were most likely to have off of work in the heyday of industrial America. The phrase “Sunday pitcher” referred to hurlers who worked the weekly doubleheader.
While Sundays later became the big doubleheader day, Saturday first claimed that day. It had a key advantage over Sunday in early 20th Century America: All teams could play on Saturday. Several areas still had blue laws banning Sunday baseball. Sunday ball didn’t arrive in Washington DC until 1918 and New York the following year. Boston held out until 1929, and Pennsylvania’s squads couldn’t play on the Lord’s Day at home until 1934.
As late as 1924, there were fewer doubleheaders on Sunday than any other day of the week. Meanwhile, Saturday hosted more doubleheaders than any other day 19 times from 1903-29, and had the second-most in the remaining years.
Though “only” approximately half the teams were forbidden from playing Sunday ball, some of these teams were among the leading teams to play in doubleheaders. In particular, Boston reigned supreme as the capital of twin bills.
From 1900-29, the Boston Braves played in nearly 800 doubleheaders, far more than any other team. Their town rival Red Sox paced the AL in doubleheaders, with slightly more than 600 prior to the stock market crash. The Red Sox tied the 1899 Spiders record by playing in 30 doubleheaders in 1904, and the Braves broke that with 34 in 1909.
Why Boston? Of the five towns featuring multiple MLB teams, it was the smallest, so clubs had to try harder to win over fans. The Braves were dreadful baseball in these years. People wouldn’t come out and see them, so they needed knew ways to bring out fans. They led the league in doubleheaders 13 straight times, from 1919 to 1931.
The Red Sox were initially a quality club, but fell apart themselves in the 1920s. That said, they topped the Junior Circuit in doubleheaders repeatedly even when they were a good squad.
Rather appropriately, Boston hosted MLB’s first doubleheader of the year almost every year. The two Boston teams took turns hosting a twin bill on Patriot’s Day, and as late as the 1930s there were times it was the only doubleheader in baseball prior to Memorial Day. This tradition of local holiday doubleheader lasted until around the time the Braves left for Milwaukee and it’s sense evolved into its current format of early morning game.
While spring doubleheaders remained rare, the summer doubleheader came into its own in these years. In the early century, there were times September would have nearly as many doubleheaders as June-August combined. For example, in 1905 the summer months had 82 doubleheaders while September had 78. They became increasingly spread out, with July and August especially picking up more twin bills. By 1924, July had more than September itself, which happened again in 1927 and 1928.
Detroit played in the fewest doubleheaders. Every other AL team at least tied for the league lead in doubleheaders by 1911, but the Tigers didn’t do so until after WWII. Even the Cubs, which last article noted usually played the fewest doubleheaders in the NL until WWII, played in more than Detroit.
Detroit had all the advantages the Braves lacked. They were the only team in town and thus didn’t have to worry as much about competition. What’s more, by World War I, Detroit was the most populous of the one-team towns. Lastly, the Tigers were a consistently quality team. In one of my favorite baseball trivia bits: The Tigers were the only pre-expansion team to never come in last place in the first half of the 20th Century.
In the early 20th Century, doubleheaders existed as a way for teams to attract more customers to the gate when they wanted to take an extra step in making money. Thus it shouldn’t be at all surprising that MLB played more in the Depression.
The Great Depression
The Depression made an immediate impact upon doubleheaders. In 1930, for the first time in MLB history, more doubleheaders occurred on Sunday than any other day of the week. It happened again in 1931. And in 1932. And every year for over a half-century thereafter. Previously, lingering religious sentiments prevented MLB from exploiting the best possible moneymaking day optimally, but the tightened belts of the 1930s forced teams into more creative ways to profit.
In 1930, there were nearly 50 Sunday doubleheaders in MLB, an unheard of thing for any day of the week (not including the Federal League years anyway). By 1933, there were over 100, and over three-fourths of all baseball games on Sundays that year took place in doubleheaders.
Conversely, Friday became the day teams rarely played in doubleheaders. After all, the team you played on Friday was usually the same one you faced on Saturday and Sunday, so why waste the doubleheader on the day people couldn’t get to the park?
Overall, both leagues played in more doubleheaders. The increase wasn’t dramatic, but then again the key was putting more on Sunday. That’s what could lead to a dramatically difference in gate receipts. The chart below shows what happened:
Year NL AL 1930 30.42% 25.00% 1931 41.10% 30.12% 1932 33.98% 29.27% 1933 44.34% 31.91% 1934 31.25% 32.20% 1935 37.28% 38.95% 1936 31.61% 29.77% 1937 33.39% 33.44% 1938 33.11% 33.28% 1939 33.44% 33.17% 1940 40.19% 31.02% 1941 34.41% 29.90%
The increase isn’t striking, but it is there. Every single team appeared in more doubleheaders in the 1930s than in any previous decade.
In 1931, the NL broke the record for most doubleheaders, and broke that mark two seasons later. The NL still played more doubleheaders overall, but it wasn’t as consistent as it used to be. The AL led the NL four times in five years in the bottom of the decade.
The Cubs and Tigers remained the teams least likely to play in doubleheaders. The Braves shared their twin bill kings title with the Phillies. Predictably, those two were among the worst teams in all baseball. The Braves set a new MLB record by playing in 38 doubleheaders in 1931.
In the AL, the Browns became the top doubleheader team. St. Louis, like the Braves’ Boston, really couldn’t support two teams. Both towns had been among the five largest in the US when the AL began, but by the Depression they were far smaller than Cleveland and Detroit. In 1935, when the Browns set AL all-time record low season attendance of 80,922, they achieved a new AL record of 35 doubleheaders (including 19 at home). It obviously didn’t bring in too many fans, but they were desperate.
I can’t prove it, but I assume the rise of night baseball – which of course came to MLB in the 1930s – also helped the doubleheader. It became easier to play two contests.
World War II: doubleheader zenith
World War II marks the peak in doubleheader-dom, which makes sense. Never before or since in US history has the nation directed its energies toward one goal like it did then. The land had scrap metal drives and rationing to ensure vital resources went to the war.
The same reasoning behind rationing caused a doubleheader surge. A certain amount of gas gets expended every time people come to and from the ballpark, so putting two games on at the same time allows more gas to be available for the war.
Here’s doubleheader numbers during the war:
Year NL AL 1942 40.13% 40.59% 1943 47.02% 49.59% 1944 46.55% 40.06% 1945 49.84% 48.94%
Doubleheader records fell, and fell again in these four years. The Senators set a new AL record with 36 doubleheaders in 1942. Next year, the White Sox appeared in 44, as did the 1945 Senators. In the NL, the 1943 Giants set a new NL record with 40 doubleheaders. Then the 1944 Phillies played in 44, and the 1945 Braves set the record that still stands: 46 doubleheaders in one season.
All but two of the 16 squads set franchise records for most doubleheaders in a season. Of the two that didn’t, the Cardinals just missed – their 37 in 1940 narrowly surpassed the 35 they played in both 1944 and 1945.
The Dodgers were the other team, and were the only ones who didn’t notably increase their doubleheaders. They averaged slightly under 30 doubleheaders per year during the war, with a peak at 32 in 1945. In the previous 11 years (which included a franchise-best 37 doubleheaders in 1933), they played in 28 per year.
I don’t know exactly why the Dodgers didn’t play in more doubleheaders, but it was part of a larger trend for them. In the previous 30 years, they’d been in the fewest doubleheaders in the NL only once, but from 1942-onward they became the league’s leading twin bill opponent. They were low team in the league nine times in 10 years from 1942-51. From this point onward, they replaced the Cubs as the NL’s least doubleheader-friendly squad.
It’s a shame the Dodgers (or any other NL team) didn’t have just one more doubleheader in 1945, though. Had there been just one more doubleheader, a majority of NL games that year would’ve come in twin bills.
Over 90 percent of Sunday games came in doubleheaders in each of these years, peaking at 97 percent in 1944. Doubleheaders also became more intensive all year round. May rarely had more than 25 doubleheaders in MLB before the war, but in May 1943 there were 55. April gained more than the traditional Patriots Day doubleheaders.
There have been only three times in history a pitcher started 20 games in doubleheaders – and all came in World War II. In 1943, Cliff Melton and Elmer Riddle did so, and two years later Bobo Newsom did likewise.
Back to normal: doubleheaders after the war
Doubleheaders never approached their wartime peak, and 1946 didn’t begin a decline. Rather, it was a return to peacetime normalcy. As the chart below shows, MLB continued scheduling doubleheaders at a steady clip in the years after WWII’s end:
Year NL AL 1946 37.04% 35.43% 1947 31.61% 37.56% 1948 30.69% 31.39% 1949 23.79% 28.80% 1950 31.39% 33.23% 1951 28.46% 32.74% 1952 32.04% 31.88% 1953 33.12% 31.39% 1954 27.92% 29.31% 1955 27.92% 33.01% 1956 33.17% 26.54%
One key change occurred in these years: For the first time, the AL regularly played more doubleheaders than the NL.
There was another key difference in post-WWII doubleheaders – Sunday dominated them as never before. Sunday had been the main doubleheader day since 1930, but that dominance was tempered by the lack of pre-Memorial Day doubleheaders. Upshot, from 1930-41, slightly over a third of all doubleheaders came on Sunday. The WWII increase in early season doubleheaders never fully receded, allowing for more Sunday twin bills. More times than not, a majority of all MLB doubleheaders came on Sunday.
In the 1930s, around 60 percent of all games played in Sunday came in twin bills, but from 1946-56 more than 72 percent of all Sunday games were in twin bills.
The Browns continued to host more doubleheaders than the other AL squads, and when they moved to Baltimore they continued this tradition, leading the league in doubleheaders twice in their first four seasons on the East Coast, and coming in second place another time.
The Orioles were unusual in this regard. When other teams moved, their doubleheader totals often dropped significantly. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee, they played a large number of twin bills only in their first year (a league leading 31, which included 17 in Milwaukee). Two years later, they played only eight doubleheaders at home, beginning a stretch where they played the fewest doubleheaders of any NL team three times in four years.
It’s easy to see why they did this. They set attendance records their first year in Milwaukee and didn’t need the extra enticement to draw fans. Their existence was enticement enough to the previously MLB-starved Milwaukee residents.
Ultimately, expansion would be one – but not the only – reason doubleheaders fell into decline. But that’s a story for next time. For now, I’ll just note the 1956 NL was the last time a league had more than 30 percent of its games come in doubleheaders.
In reality, though, if I had to date the end of doubleheader’s heyday precisely, I’d pick Sept. 1, 1958. On that Labor Day, every single team played in a doubleheader. That happened many times in previous years, but – unless I missed something (which is easily possible) – it’s never happened again.
By the late 1950s, doubleheaders were on the way out.
References & Resources
Research was based on big heaping gobs of Retrosheet.