Baseball, TV, and Race in Postwar New York

Liam Donahue

30 April 2018

“Not until the 1950s, when a critical mass of households first owned televisions, did TV [baseball] games become a regular thing. Once they did, advertisers began paying for commercials to be shown on broadcasts, and the ad money launched baseball on a meteoric rise.”–H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States since 1945, Pp. 75.

In 1946, Phil Shevlin, a native of Long Island, went to Brooklyn to visit his aunt and uncle. He was 10 years old. Phil remembers seeing a curious sight: a whole bunch of people were crowded around a storefront, “and there was this little tiny TV set, and they were showing a [baseball] game. And everybody was standing there, looking, with their face pressed against the window. That was my first experience ever seeing a television.”[1] The incident Phil is describing, while it may seem mundane, was actually representative of an important crossroads in American cultural history in the 1950s. Television was just beginning to proliferate in the late 1940s in America, and Baseball would also soon be carried live on TV. Phil had caught these two cultural features at the very beginning of their intersection. Of similar importance to this memory of Phil’s is the time and place it took place in. Jackie Robinson, the second baseman who broke baseball’s color barrier, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and 1946 was the year before his debut season. H.W. Brands discusses these things, but condenses them all to a single page (75) of his book American Dreams: the United States since 1945. Phil Shevlin’s experiences supplement Brands’ quick skim over these topics, giving them an immediacy and a sense of life and detail that can only be obtained through a firsthand account.

Phil Shevlin was born in 1936. He grew up in the town of St. James, on Long Island, where he played a lot of sandlot baseball. He moved to Carlisle in 1954. In 1955, after high school, he joined the Army as a Military Policeman, specializing in transportation. He spent time driving officers back and forth between Washington and the Army War College. Later that same year, Phil went overseas to Paris, where he worked as chauffeur to a two-star General, the Chief of Intelligence at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. He still lives in Carlisle today, working at the information desk in Dickinson College’s Kline Athletic Center.

Baseball had been growing steadily in popularity since the beginning of the 20th century, however its popularity was transformed significantly through broadcast media. The first game was broadcast in 1939, as a test.[2] By the late forties and early fifties, “radio and TV stations could afford to pay large sums for the privilege of broadcasting games.”[3] Phil remembers listening to radio broadcasts of games, albeit on a slight delay due to the way the radio station received updates about the game. “You got the radio games from a far city, but it was on ticker tape to the station, and then you heard the ticker tape in the background and the guy was announcing what happened.” Phil watched baseball as much as he could, and he also played countless sandlot games with his friends.[4] Baseball was as popular as ever, yet there was another side to the coin. TV broadcasts of games, some thought, were actually taking fans away from the stadiums. “Television,” it was feared, would “consume baseball.”[5] Phil, despite the many sandlot games he played with friends, also vicariously watched baseball on TV “whenever [he] could, as much as possible,” even though at first he “only got the NYC area games on TV, and Philadelphia.”[6] Ticket sales were hurt, however ad revenue from TV more than made up for it. “For instance, the Dodgers’ income from radio and television in 1955 exceeded their player payroll by more than $250,000…interest, as opposed to attendance, never flagged.”[7]

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A well-attended baseball game in the 1950s. TV would impact that. Courtesy of Gopgle Images.

Phil’s family got a TV in 1947, well before most American households did. They were the first family in their town to get one.[8] The TV was “[t]he number one consumer item of the 1950s…in 1947, fourteen thousand families had one, by 1957, ten million families had one.”[9] Phil’s family was one of those fourteen thousand. Luckily, his father had connections. “My dad worked in a hardware store that sold TVs,” he explained, “and I dunno how he afforded it but he got a TV.”[10] Television in Phil’s hometown of St. James, Long island, had “sort of just blossomed in the fifties… you knew who had TV because they had to have an antenna, and by the fifties everybody had an antenna, unless they didn’t have any money.”[11] An item such as this was not a small purchase for a middle class family in the 1950s. Phil remembers that, “they were an expensive item to a family that didn’t have a whole lot of money, but [retailers] made things achievable, different stores…they had to get their merchandise out, so they made credit plans, things of that nature.”[12] Just as TV sucked people away from attending baseball games, it also took people indoors away from other outdoor pursuits. TV “provided a way to spend more leisure time than middle-class families were used to having in the much more Spartan existence of the 1930s and 1940s.”[13] Phil observed this very phenomenon play out, although he noticed a split in who was most affected by it. Some, it was apparent, were spending more of their leisure time indoors. “The kid’s didn’t, the older people [did],” he said. “On the weekends, you didn’t see them travelling around like they did before. A lot of them, especially in New York City, you’d see them walking all over. Once TV came along, it cut that down. But the kids were still outside playing sandlot ball.”[14]  

A family in the 1950s, gathered around their TV set. Courtesy of Google Images.

Race was a hot button issue for baseball around the time that Phil saw his first TV in Brooklyn in 1946. Baseball had been segregated since its beginning, yet the prominence of black men fighting and dying for the United States in the Second World War brought the issue to a head. “Many critics complained of the hypocrisy of requiring black men to fight and die in a war against European racism but denying them the opportunity to play ‘the national pastime.’”[15] Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey took note of this growing sentiment, and was “convinced of the ability of black ballplayers, their potential gate attraction, and the injustice of their exclusion from major league baseball.”[16] Rickey decided, in secret, to sign Robinson to play for the 1947 Dodgers. Phil, close as he was to Brooklyn, got the Dodgers on TV. He saw Robinson’s first game, saw baseball’s color barrier come down in real time. “I was off sick [from school] that day,” he grinned. “Fortunately we had the T.V. to watch baseball. It was opening day of the ’47 season.”[17] But Phil also got the chance to go to a Dodger’s game and see Robinson play firsthand. Sometimes, things could get rough. Opposing players “gave him a hard time…he was playing second base, and whenever they slid into second base, the spikes [cleats] were always flying, they’d have their feet up in the air. He got hit with a lot of pitches.”[18] On singing with the Dodgers, Branch Rickey had “extracted from Robinson a promise not to respond to the abuse for his first three years.”[19] After this period was over, Robinson started responding to hecklers, “angrily confront[ing] opposing players who taunted him.”[20] Off the field, he advocated for the NAACP, and fought hard against the continued presence of racism in American society.

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Jackie Robinson, in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. Courtesy of gettyimages.com

Brands flies through all of this on one page of American Dreams, during his chapter on “the golden age of the middle class.”[22] He mentions that “not until the 1950s, when a critical mass of houses first owned televisions, did TV games first become a regular thing.”[23] Phil, watching Jackie play in 1947 from the comfort of his home, was on the cutting edge of the phenomenon Brands describes. TV, Brands writes, “launched baseball on a meteoric rise.”[24] This rise was helped by people like Phil who watched the games on TV, providing the Brooklyn Dodgers with their surplus discussed earlier, despite declining ticket sales. The integration of baseball is described by Brands, who sums up the Dodgers as facing “considerable hostility before eventually being accepted.”[25] Phil’s firsthand witnessing of this hostility adds flavor to Brands’ abbreviation.

On that day in Brooklyn in 1946 when Phil Shevlin saw his first TV, though he may not have been aware of it, he was witnessing the beginning of a larger shift in postwar American culture. Baseball’s collision with TV would shape the direction the game took, a transition that started even earlier than H.W. Brands mentions. Phil had the good fortune to be one of the first in his area to get a television, and his memories of watching the neighborhood fill up with them at the same time as more people were drawn indoors, as well as of watching baseball on TV right as games started to be televised give his remarks a depth and insight that expand nicely on what Brands covers quickly in his book. Similarly, his experience of watching Jackie Robinson break the color barrier helps bring a milestone in American social and cultural history to life.

 

[1] Interview in person at Kline center, 2 April 2018

[2] H. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 (New York, Penguin Books, 2010). 75.

[3] White, G. Edward. “The Decline of the National Pastime.” In Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953, 316-30. Princeton University Press, 1996. [JSTOR]. Accessed 4/28/18. 324.

[4] Interview 2 April 2018

[5] William Marshall, “Chapter 21: Baseball then and Now” In Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951 (Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 1999): pp 426-440. 428. [JSTOR] Accessed 4/29/18.

[6] Interview 2 April 2018.

[7] William 429.

[8] Interview 2 April 2018.

[9]  John Robert Greene. “Comfort and Crisis: The 1950s.” In America in the Sixties, 1-19. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2010. [JSTOR]. Accessed 3/29/18. 2.

[10] Interview 2 April 2018.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Greene 2.

[14] Interview 2 April 2018.

[15] “Robinson, Jackie” American National Biography (http://www.anb.org). Accessed 4/29/18.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Interview 2 April 2018.

[18] Ibid.

[19] American National Biography

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Brands 68.

[23] Ibid 75.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

Selected Transcript:

April 2, 2018 at the Kline Center

Question: You said you watched Jackie Robinson’s First game on TV?

Answer: His first game, it was in April 1947

Q: Where on TV?

A: I watched it at home, Long island, St. James N. Y.

Q: So you guys had a TV at that point?

A: we did.

Q: Did the neighbors have a TV as well?

A; No, we were one of the first in our town to have one, my dad worked in a hardware store that sold TVs, and I dunno how he afforded it but he got a TV. I was off sick that day (JR gameday), I would miss a lot of school, but fortunately we had the TV to watch Baseball. It was opening day of the ’47 season.

Q: you said earlier [a day before, in conversation] that you only got the local games, right?

A: Oh, yeah, they wouldn’t bring any…even on the radio, you got the radio games from a far city, but it was on ticker tape to the station, and then you heard the ticker tape in the background and the guy was announcing what happened…but we only got the NYC area games on TV, and Philadelphia. We got the Philadelphia games.

Q: as time went on in the 50’s, did you experience other families in your area getting TVs as it became more and more prevalent?

A: Oh yeah, it sort of just blossomed in the fifties, like I said we got ours in ’47…In the fiftes, you knew who had TV because they had to have an antenna, and by the 50s everybody had an antenna, unless they didn’t have any money…TVs weren’t expensive…they were an expensive item to a family that didn’t have a whole lot of money, but they made things achievable, different stores…they had to get their merchandise out, so they made credit plans, things of that nature.

I remember the first time I saw a baseball game on television was when I was visiting my uncle and aunt who lived in Brooklyn, and we were going to Madison square garden to see a hockey game, and they had a sporting goods chain in NY called Davega Sporting Goods, and…there was a whole crowd of people standing around the storefront, at night, and there was this little tiny TV set, and they were showing a game. And everybody was standing there, looking, with their face pressed against the window. That was my first experience ever seeing a television. That was probably 1946. I’ll bet it wasn’t more than a ten inch screen, if that. Our first [TV] was a seven inch. Then we had a round set, it had a round screen. That was the one I saw Jackie play on.

Q: You mentioned [a day previously] that you played baseball outside with your friends. As TV grew in popularity, did you notice people spending more time indoors?

A: Yes. The kids didn’t, the older people [did]. On the weekends, you didn’t see them travelling around like they did before. A lot of them, especially in New York City, you’d see them walking all over. Once TV came along, it cut that down. But the kids were still outside playing sandlot ball.

Q: Let’s transition to the culture of the fifties. Do you remember things such as Mcdonald’s, Disneyland, in their early stages?

A: Didn’t have any of that. We didn’t have McDonald’s [in St. James] when I was growing up, didn’t have one when I graduated high school. I know when I came to Carlisle [in 1954] there were no fast food restaurants, we had one but it wasn’t a chain or a conglomerate…We had a place in Mount Holly, called Woody’s Barbeque. I worked there [in the late fifties]. The cars drove up, and the [workers] would come out and take their orders…the food would come out and the [worker] would put the tray on the car window.

Q: Let’s talk about baseball. You saw Jackie Robinson play?

A: That was in ’47. His first season.

Q: was that before or after the team accepted him?

A: Oh, they accepted him in the first year, but it took awhile. When [Team captain] Peewee Reese put his arm around him on the field, that had a big impact.

Q: Do you know if that had the same impact on the fans as well,?

A: Probably some. NYC was a hodgepodge of nationalities, so you didn’t know who he might have offended, but it goes back…I can remember here in Carlisle we had a bus station on Pitt street, and it still had black only water fountains, restrooms for blacks and for whites. I went to military police school in Georgia, right outside of Agusta, and they had signs on the grass…colored not allowed. That was really bad down there, it didn’t start changing until the sixties.

Q: The game you saw Jackie play in…

A: I remember it was a night game. What a feeling to walk from the dark streets, through the turnstile, and there was the field, all lit up like daytime…beautiful. It’s a great feeling.

Q: Was there any violence towards Jackie?

A: they gave him a hard time…He was playing second base, and whenever they slid into second base, the spikes were always flying, they’d have their feet up in the air. He got hit with a lot of pitches. On Jackie Robinson Day, every player wears #42.

They tracked him quite awhile before they signed him and picked him to be the first guy to break the color barrier. He took a lot of heat [at college] where he played football. He was a good football player. He handled himself well as an athlete.

 


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