Sociology of the MLB Player: 1940by Steve Treder
July 12, 2005
If you’re like me, you’re a habitué of used bookstores. There are treasures to be found in those places amid the stacks of junk, and the searching is half the fun.
I struck gold in the used bookstore in the village of Cooperstown when I was there last month. (It's called Willis Monie Books; on the same side of the street as the Hall of Fame, a couple of blocks down. It’s jammed-to-overflowing, spectacularly disorganized, and a great place to lose an hour or three.) Among the things I discovered there was something I simply had to buy, to add to my library of antique baseball books: a copy of the very first edition of The Sporting News’ Baseball Register, from 1940. (I won’t tell you how much I paid for it, because if I did my wife might find out.)
Worth every penny, though. Not simply for its stats, but also for the elements that were intended to convey just what type of person each player was. This book, and the other earliest versions of The Baseball Register, included information regarding not only each player’s date and place of birth (as remains standard in player registers), but also his marital status, his college educational status, his hobbies and his “nationality.”
I don’t know how the Register editors compiled this data, but my guess is that they had TSN reporters present a questionnaire to each prospective book subject. Given this, we must take the factual precision of this information with a grain of salt.
There’s no reason to doubt that birthplaces are accurate. But we know that lots of players lied about their birth years in that era; a quick comparison of the presented birth years of any 10 or 12 players at random from the 1940 Register will almost always reveal at least one discrepancy with the birth years in a modern resource such as Baseball Reference.
And more generally, the information on college attendance and graduation, marital status and “nationality” (which we would today term as “heritage” or “ethnicity”) must certainly be taken as self-reported and unverified. Anyone experienced in social research (I’ll out myself here as a long-ago sociology Ph.D. candidate) knows that self-reported data in subjects such as these is quite unreliable, for a variety of reasons, including both inclinations of subjects to fib (or simply be mistaken) and the inability of recorders to verify. (Ted Williams, for example, whom we know to have been of partly Mexican heritage, identified himself as Welsh-French.)
Undoubtedly, these Baseball Register inquiries were no kind of scientifically objective inquiry but much more of a fan-magazine-eager kind of collection. In general, I think we should consider this information to be simply:
- What players were willing to say about themselves
- Whether it was true or not
Let’s explore it, and see what we can make of what sort of guys comprised the major-league baseball playing population of 1940.
Where were most MLB players of that era born? Here are the top 10 states:
1. California (33 players, 12% of total)
2T. Illinois (20, 7.0%)
2T. North Carolina (20, 7.0%)
4. Texas (19, 6.7%)
5. New York (17, 6.0%)
6. Pennsylvania (16, 5.6%)
7T. Missouri (14, 5%)
7T. Ohio (14, 5%)
9. New Jersey (10, 4%)
10T. Alabama (9, 3%)
10T. Massachusetts (9, 3%)
Of the 285 players listed in the book, only five were born outside the U.S.: three Canadians (Jeff Heath, George Selkirk, and Joe Krakauskas), one Mexican (Mel Almada), and one Norwegian (Art Jorgens).
I was surprised to find so many Californians; the Golden State was still only the eighth most populous in the 1940 census. And the average age (as of January 1, 1940) of the ballplayers in the Register was 29, meaning that their average birth year was 1910—California was just the 12th most populous state in 1910.
I organized the 48 U.S. states into four regions, to see how those break down (the listing of states I put into each region is in the References and Resources section below):
1. South (109 players, 39% of total)
2. Midwest (77, 28%)
3. Northeast (57, 20%)
4. West (37, 13%)
Very interesting: even though California had contributed many more players than any other state, only four players were from anyplace else in the West. The South was by far the best represented region of the country.
The 1940 Register also listed 55 managers and coaches. (Their average age was 45; youngest, Monty Stratton at 27; oldest, Connie Mack at 77.) Pennsylvania was the most frequent state of birth among them; two were born outside the U.S. (Jimmy Austin from Wales, and Mike Gonzalez from Cuba). By region, they broke out this way:
1T. Midwest (19, 36%)
1T. Northeast (19, 36%)
3. South (9, 17%)
4. West (6, 11%)
So even though 39% of the players in 1940 were from the South, only 17% of their managers and coaches were born in that region.
Seventy-nine percent of the players identified themselves as married. Twenty percent described themselves as single, while 1% (two players: Eric McNair and Les Scarsella) were widowers. Interestingly, “divorced” was never mentioned.
The average age of the married players was 29, and their average age when married was 23. The average age of the single players was 27.
Among the managers and coaches, 88% said they were married, 6% single, and 6% widowers. Their average age at marriage was 28.
Eighty-three players, or 29%, reported having attended college. Of these, 35 said they had graduated (42% of those attending college, and 12% of the total player population). The school with the most graduates was the University of North Carolina, with three (Johnny Peacock, Lew Riggs, and Burgess Whitehead). One player checked in with post-graduate work: Billy Sullivan, Notre Dame Law Class of 1928—on the other hand, if Sullivan’s entry is to be believed, he graduated from Columbia University (of Portland, Oregon) at the age of 12, and from Notre Dame University Law School at the age of 16. Could be true, I suppose, but consider me just a teeny bit skeptical.
The managers and coaches were a bit more likely than the players to be college-educated, with 39% reporting that they'd attended, and 20% reporting that they'd received a diploma. Two reported grad school: Muddy Ruel at Washington University Law, and the extraordinary Moe Berg, at Columbia Law as well as one year at the University of Paris.
Hunting, fishing and golf. Any questions?
Okay, it isn’t quite as simple as that, but almost. These three pursuits, in some combination or other, dominated the list of hobbies by players and managers/coaches alike.
Two hundred forty-five players listed at least one hobby, and of those, 119 (49%) named hunting as their favorite pastime. The second-most listed primary hobby was golf (22%), and third was fishing (9%). No other activity was named as the favorite by more than 2% of the players.
A second hobby was indicated by 184 players, and 43% of them named fishing. Then came hunting (16%), golf (8%), and bowling (7%). Seventy-nine players listed a third hobby, and the top three were, you guessed it: golf (29%), hunting (14%), and fishing (8%). Then came bowling (6%) and ice skating (5%).
Overall, among all hobbies listed, far and away the top three were hunting (listed by 57% of players), fishing (38%) and golf (33%). No other hobby was indicated by more than 7% of the players.
Managers and coaches weren’t much different; their top three hobbies were hunting (35%), golf (28%) and fishing (20%), with bowling a distant fourth at 11%.
A few players, managers and coaches did deviate from the huntin’-fishin’-golfin’ norm and identify more unusual hobbies. Among the ones I found most interesting:
Attending trials in U.S. courts: Red Corriden
Aviation: Lefty Gomez
Banking: Muddy Ruel
Cigars: Jimmie Dykes
Coaching basketball: Red Rolfe
Collecting pipes: Bob Weiland
Fast cars: Bob Feller
Imitating radio stars: Bobo Newsom
Interior decorating: Roy Hughes
Languages: Moe Berg
Law: Muddy Ruel
Magic tricks: Joe Kuhel
Managing professional boxers: Pepper Martin
Painting sea and landscapes in oil: Dick Errickson
Pigeon racing: Tony Giuliani
Playing accordion: Oscar Melillo
Playing soccer: Jimmie Wilson
Puttering around house: Gene Desautels
Raising shrubbery: Johnny Lanning
Refereeing basketball: Don Gutteridge
Singing and dancing: Buddy Hassett
Theater first-nighter: Rick Ferrell
Seventy different specific combinations of “nationality” were self-identified by 283 players. The most common component was Irish, listed in some manner as either a primary or secondary heritage by 103 (36%) of the players. Next came German (31%), English (25%) and Scotch (17%).
Fifteen players (5%) identified themselves as Italian, but interestingly, no player identified himself as mixed Italian in any manner. This group of Italians, though small, was quite prominent, including two future Hall of Famers (Joe DiMaggio and Ernie Lombardi) and several other stars (Dolph Camilli, Frank Crosetti, Gus Mancuso, Tony Cuccinello, Cookie Lavagetto, and Zeke Bonura).
Among the other players who listed only a single “nationality,” by far the most frequent was German, with 50 players (18%). Also frequently named were English (9%) and Irish (7%). Twelve players (4%) identified themselves as simply American.
Managers and coaches weren’t significantly different, with the most common single “nationalities” being German (23%) and Irish (17%); 8% of managers and coaches called themselves American.
Four players (Morrie Arnovich, Harry Danning, Harry Eisenstat, and Hank Greenberg) and one coach (Moe Berg) identified their "nationality" as Jewish. One player (Bob Johnson) identified himself as full-blooded Indian (what we would today term "Native American"), and four others (Ben Chapman, Pepper Martin, John Whitehead, and Rudy York) indicated some Indian ancestry.
Several things are striking about this topic. The first, certainly, is that the issue itself was seen as relevant and important enough to be recorded and presented in the Baseball Register. Second, and related, is the choice of the term "nationality;" apparently in 1940, the U.S. was still enough of a recent-immigrant nation that this term seemed natural and appropriate. I also have the 1949 and 1952 Baseball Registers in my library; in 1949 “nationality” was still being used, but by 1952 the term had been replaced with “ancestry.” By the 1957 edition of the Register, the listing had disappeared altogether.
Third, of course, is that while in 1940 painstaking distinctions were made among the dozens of combinations of German-Irish-English-Scotch heritage, overwhelmingly the population of baseball players was of Northern European heritage. Seventy-seven percent of players called themselves primarily German, English, Irish, Scotch, Dutch or French. Major-league baseball in 1940 wasn’t only a white bastion, it was a community in which Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans were distinct minorities, and players of Spanish or Latin American heritage were almost completely absent.
Breakout by Region
Looking at players only (not managers and coaches), let’s break it down by region of birth. The nationality referred to here is that indicated by each player as his primary nationality, whether alone or in combination with another; for example, “English-X” includes each player who identified himself as either “English” or “English-Irish,” “English-German” and so on. Thus each player is counted once and only once.
Region Nationality % Married Hobby 1 % Hobby 2 % Hobby 3 % College % SOUTH English-X 25% 82% Hunting 61% Fishing 47% Golf 41% Attended 36% (N = 109) Scotch-X 19% Golf 22% Hunting 25% Hunting 19% Graduate 13% Irish-X 18% Fishing 9% Golf 7% Fishing 9% German-X 18% Bridge 9% MIDWEST German-X 42% 83% Hunting 53% Fishing 42% Golf 26% Attended 22% (N = 77) Irish-X 12% Golf 10% Hunting 6% Hunting 17% Graduate 6% Scotch-X 12% Fishing 5% Golf 6% Bowling 9% NORTHEAST German-X 25% 73% Golf 35% Fishing 34% Bowling 21% Attended 30% (N = 57) English-X 18% Hunting 27% Bowling 11% Ice skating 21% Graduate 21% Irish-X 16% Fishing 8% Hunting 9% WEST Italian 22% 75% Hunting 34% Fishing 52% Golf 25% Attended 24% (N = 37) Scotch-X 19% Golf 29% Hunting 16% Hunting 13% Graduate 11% German-X 16% Fishing 14% Golf 8% Fishing 13%Players from the Midwest tended to be of German descent, and players from the West were frequently Italian. Beyond that, the representation of nationalities by region doesn’t suggest a particular pattern. The Southerners and Midwesterners were slightly more likely to be married than their counterparts from the coasts.
While players from all of the regions were enthusiasts of the hunting-fishing-golfing triad, there were noticeable regional differences. In the Northeast, golf was more prominent and hunting significantly less so. Also in the Northeast, bowling and ice skating had more prominence than elsewhere.
Players from the South were the most likely to have attended college, but they had a significantly lower proportion of college graduates than the Northeast. The Midwesterners were the least likely to have attended or graduated.
Breakout by “Nationality”
Nationality Region % Married Hobby 1 % Hobby 2 % Hobby 3 % College % GERMAN-X Midwest 45% 85% Hunting 45% Fishing 43% Golf 21% Attended 35% (N = 71) South 24% Golf 27% Hunting 10% Hunting 17% Graduate 13% East 23% Fishing 7% Bowling 10% Fishing 8% West 8% Movies 7% Bowling 8% ENGLISH-X South 59% 74% Hunting 59% Fishing 50% Golf 44% Attended 39% (N = 46) Northeast 22% Golf 20% Golf 11% Hunting 11% Graduate 15% Midwest 11% West 7% IRISH-X South 48% 81% Hunting 51% Fishing 47% Golf 42% Attended 19% (N = 42) Midwest 21% Golf 20% Hunting 13% Hunting 8% Graduate 12% Northeast 21% Fishing 10% Golf 10% Fishing 8% West 10% SCOTCH-X South 49% 80% Hunting 48% Fishing 44% Golf 29% Attended 27% (N = 41) Midwest 22% Golf 27% Hunting 40% Hunting 14% Graduate 12% West 17% Fishing 9% Golf 4% Northeast 10% ITALIAN West 53% 60% Hunting 33% Fishing 33% Golf 67% Attended 27% (N = 15) South 27% Golf 27% Golf 22% Graduate 0% Midwest 13% Fishing 20% Hunting 22% Northeast 7% DUTCH-X South 46% 77% Hunting 64% Fishing 63% Golf 50% Attended 38% (N = 13) Northeast 31% Fishing 9% Hunting 13% Fishing 50% Graduate 15% Midwest 15% West 8% AMERICAN South 58% 75% Hunting 50% Hunting 40% Attended 33% (N = 12) Midwest 42% Golf 25% Fishing 40% Graduate 17% Northeast 0% West 0%The Germans, the only group predominantly from the Midwest, were slightly more likely to be married than anyone else. Although it’s a very small sample, it’s interesting to note that the Italians were significantly the least likely.
It’s also interesting to see that the Italians were predominantly from the West—indeed, all of those Westerner Italians were not only from California, but from the San Francisco Bay Area. Only one Italian (Tony Cuccinello) was from the Northeast, which surprised me.
Those players who identified themselves as Americans were entirely from the South and Midwest. Included among them were two future Hall of Famers, both with the New York Giants: Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott.
The profile of hobbies by nationality shows a pattern of remarkable conformity. The Italians seemed slightly less likely to hunt, but only slightly. It would certainly appear that in general, there was a strong cultural pattern among these ballplayers, regardless of ethnic heritage, to pursue a common range of leisure activities.
The Irish were less likely than anyone else to have attended college, but they graduated at about the same rate as everyone else. The Italians, on the other hand, were close to as likely as anyone else to attend college, but none among them had graduated.
Major-league baseball in 1940 was played primarily by young men from the South and Midwest. The few that came from the West were very disproportionately Californians, and the Californians were bolstered by a high percentage of players from the San Francisco Bay Area, many of them of Italian heritage.
Players from all regions and backgrounds were very likely to be married, or at least identify themselves that way. No one admitted to being divorced.
Nearly three-quarters of ballplayers in 1940 had no college education, and of those who had attended college, fewer than half had graduated.
These ballplayers, mostly in their late 20s (and of course, athletes by profession), very predominantly pursued three physical outdoor, man’s-man hobbies: hunting, fishing and golf. There would appear to have been a strong degree of cultural conformity in this regard.
Major-league players in 1940 were also very homogeneous racially and ethnically. All but five were born in the United States, and among the Americans, more than three-quarters identified themselves as having primarily some form of Northern European heritage. There was a small handful of Italian-Americans, and everyone else was a tiny minority. Players of color were, of course, entirely excluded.
In a few weeks I’ll perform a similar analysis of the 1952 Baseball Register, and we’ll see how things might have changed in a dozen years.
References and Resources
I divided each player's state of birth into regions on the following basis:
Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana
Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota
California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado
New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, Maine
The average MLB player in 1940 was born in about 1910. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, three of these regions had about the same overall population (Midwest 30.2 million, South 28.9 million, and Northeast 26.1 million), while the West was significantly less populated (6.5 million, with California representing more than one-third).
Many thanks to reader Steve Checkosky, who reminded me of the name of the wonderful Willis Monie Books shop in Cooperstown.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.