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Opening Day 2012: Baseball And The Class Struggle

If you’ve been reading The Study’s wall-to-wall Opening Day coverage today, you’ve learned that today’s baseball fans are a vengeance-hungry, price-sensitive bunch. But was it always that way? What about the fans of yesteryear?

A fascinating 1990 study provides rare insight into the makeup of some of the game’s earliest fans—people who attended Cincinnati Reds games in the late 1880s. (The Reds not only fielded the greatest team ever; with roots in baseball’s first professional squad, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, they’re also the game’s oldest franchise.) Popular mythology holds that 19th-century baseball was an egalitarian pastime, but the study’s author found otherwise. Reviewing attendance records stored in the Cincinnati Historical Society, he found that the attendees of 229 Reds games from 1886 to 1888 (when the team was playing in the American Association) were no strangers to class conflict. Much of the tension came from the supposed swarm of rowdy blue-collar fans that descended on the park on Sundays. It is true that blue-collar fans were most likely to have Sunday off, and that they attended Sunday games in large numbers (the Sabbath was one of the most popular days for cheap seats—25 cents apiece). Soon, there were complaints about “unruly behavior in the stands” by so-called “twenty-five cent men,” and for a brief period in 1886, Sunday games were actually eliminated from the schedule. The author argues that these class-based complaints were misplaced: First, a more careful analysis of the data shows that blue-collar fans also attended on Mondays; and second, reviews of many notorious incidents show that uncouth behavior often originated in the pavilion sections, where middle-class fans sat. But the bad reputation of blue-collar fans stuck, and as a result, ballpark crowds were less egalitarian than we imagine today: “Reds officials attempted to discourage blue-collar fans from attending by instituting seating, pricing and scheduling policies designed to isolate and exclude them, and by blaming them unjustly for all ballpark disturbances,” the study concludes. “These policies, coupled with the economic difficulties of blue-collar workers, resulted in largely homogeneous white-collar crowds.”