Game of the Century

Babe Ruth, Al Simmons, and Earl Averill.
Photo from
Every July the best players in Major League Baseball meet for the annual clash between the National League and the American League in the All-Star Game. After a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic last year, next Tuesday’s game promises to be just as exciting as many of the 90 such matchups which have preceded it.

The mid-summer classic has featured some of the most memorable moments in baseball history: Reggie Jackson crushing a towering home run at Tiger Stadium, Carl Hubbell striking out five future Hall of Famers in a row at the Polo Grounds, and Pete Rose barreling into Illinois native Ray Fosse at Riverfront Stadium. Fans missed the annual gathering of baseball’s best in 2020 which has become such a part of the summer landscape – a run which goes all the way back to the first MLB All-Star game in Chicago in 1933.

Initially the first all-star game was conceived as something of a sideshow. In 1933 Chicago was hosting the Century of Progress International Exposition, better known as the world’s fair, which celebrated the centennial of the city’s founding. The months-long event would need a constant series of innovations and new attractions in order to avoid growing stale over time.

The fair would feature a presidential visit, the latest scientific advances, the much-heralded arrival of the Union Pacific’s Zephyr train after a record-breaking overnight dash from Denver to Chicago. Even with all this excitement, the fair still needed something else. Chicago’s newly-elected mayor, Edward Kelly, thought some sort of attention-grabbing sports exhibition was just the thing. But what?

For ideas he turned to Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. Ward was a Kankakee County native who had worked as publicist for the legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne before going into journalism, first with a Rockford paper and then the Tribune.

Ward came up with a masterpiece. He suggested a baseball game which would feature the greatest stars in both the National League and the American League competing against each other. A game made up of nothing but stars: an all star game.

The idea couldn’t have come along at a better time. Baseball was in deep trouble going into the summer of 1933. While game itself had never been more popular, organized professional baseball was struggling to survive the Great Depression. In the minors, individual teams, and whole leagues, were folding. Attendance was plummeting at Major League games, down by as much as 40 percent by 1933, and nothing seemed to be working in bringing fans back to the ballparks. Perhaps an exhibition of the game’s greatest stars would reignite some interest in the national pastime and draw an even bigger crowd to Chicago for the fair.

Arch Ward 
Mayor Kelly thought it was worth a shot, others were not so sure. Ward first had to persuade Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, with Ward finally swaying him by offering to have any financial losses deducted from his paycheck. Next he had to persuade team owners and the two league presidents, who were desperate for any new idea that might bring fans back to the game. Finally he got the approval of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the former federal judge who served as MLB’s first commissioner – well known in Chicago for banning from the game the eight disgraced players connected to the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Ward threw all the resources of the Tribune into promoting the game, printing an endless number of stories and encouraging fans to vote for their favorite players to be part of the roster. More than 50 newspapers nationwide joined in the effort, printing ballots and helping fans vote for the teams. Not surprisingly, New York’s Babe Ruth was the leading vote getter.

The big day finally arrived, July 6, 1933, and the game was instantly a success. More than 47,000 fans packed into Comiskey Park on the South Side to see the American League take on the National League.

In keeping with the Century of Progress theme, the Tribune christened the contest the “Game of the Century,” and the accumulation of talent on the field certainly made the description accurate. Ruth, returning to Chicago after his famous ‘called shot’ on the North Side in the previous year’s World Series, joined legends of the American League like Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia A’s, fellow Yankee Lou Gehrig, hometown favorite Al Simmons of the White Sox and Detroit’s Charlie Gehringer.

Across the field were the National League stars: Gabby Hartnett of the Cubs, Hubbell of the New York Giants, Frankie Frisch of the Cardinals and Chuck Klein of the Phillies. Managing each squad were two of the game’s best: the New York Giants’ John McGraw for the National League and Philadelphia Athletics skipper Connie Mack in his customary business suit in the American League dugout. Even the umpires were top-tier. Two of them, Bill Klem and Bill McGowan would go on to the Hall of Fame, joining twenty of the players and five of the coaches.

As is the custom today, American League players wore their teams’ home uniform since the game was played in an American League park. But the NL stars wore a specially-made National League uniform. They would switch to individual team jerseys the following year. Because each league used a slightly different ball, a regulation American League ball was used for the first half of the game, and the second half of the game was played with a National League ball. Umpires also rotated positions after the halfway point.

Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez started for the American League with Cardinals star Bill Hallahan on the mound for the National League. The game’s first batter was Cardinals third baseman Pepper Martin, who led off by grounding out to Washington Senators shortstop Joe Cronin. The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the 2nd when Gomez singled to drive in White Sox third baseman Jimmy Dykes with the game’s first run. An inning later, following a walk to Gehringer, Ruth crushed the first All-Star Game home run to deep right field giving the AL a 3-0 lead.

The National League got on the board in the top of the 6th when Martin drove in the Cubs’ Lon Warneke with a groundout. Frisch came up next and belted a solo home run to right to make the score 3-2. The American League added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning on a base hit by Cleveland’s Earl Averill, which drove in Cronin for a 4-2 American League lead.

Pitchers dominated the rest of the way, helped along by some sterling defense from Ruth who made a great catch against the right field wall to stop a National League rally in the top of the 8th. With the 4-2 victory the AL secured its first All-Star Game win.

The game had been wildly successful, beyond anyone’s imagination. It was quickly resolved that the game should become an annual tradition. The next year’s matchup at New York’s Polo Grounds featured Hubbell’s heroics in front of a crowd of more than 48,000, and led to another American League win. One year later the 1935 All-Star Game in Cleveland would draw 69,812 fans, a record which stood until 1981.

In 1949 the All-Star Game was finally opened to all the best baseball players as Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella joined Cleveland’s Larry Doby as the first African-American MLB all-stars.

Before the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, 1945 had been the only MLB season without an all-star game as it was cancelled because of travel restrictions in place due to World War II. The game was so popular that in four seasons between 1959 and 1962 there were two all-star games played each season. MLB has experimented with changes to the game to enhance its popularity further, including letting fans choose not only the rosters but the starting lineup, adding a home run derby and awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the league which wins the All-Star Game.

1937 All-Stars  Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey,
Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg
The game would return to Illinois six more times, including the 50th anniversary contest played at Comiskey in 1983. Chicago’s Wrigley Field is tied with Boston’s Fenway Park and Anaheim’s Angel Stadium as the active ballpark which has hosted the most mid-summer classics, each with three.

Arch Ward continued to write for the Tribune until he died at his home in Chicago in July 1955. His funeral was held on the same day as that year’s MLB All-Star Game in Milwaukee. By then the game was so popular that fans cast a record six million ballots to select the teams.