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A St. Louis tradition: Even in tough times, the future always shines bright on Opening Day

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2009 - Opening Day: April 15, 1930 A spirited and steadfast crowd of 14,000 turned out for the Opening Day slugfest between the St. Louis Cardinals and the visiting Chicago Cubs that first spring after the stock market headed south in the fall of 1929.

Yes, that morning’s Globe-Democrat had delivered its daily dose of more bad news, standard fare in the early days of the still-gathering economic storm that would come to be known as the Great Depression:

DESPONDENT REAL ESTATE DEALER KILLS HIMSELF

The banner headline screamed for attention above the desperate tale related in the newspaper’s “EXTRA FINAL” edition that also announced the failing of four more banks in southern Illinois, an inquiry into the “do-nothing” policy of the state’s securities commissioner and suspected embezzlement at the Frisco Railroad. But tucked amid the financial din was this front-page bright: “Cubs and Cardinals Open Season Today with Usual Frills.”

The weather promised to be iffy at Sportsman’s Park, the city’s ballyard on North Grand. “SHOWERS TODAY, COOLER TOMORROW,” warned the weather box. Also uncertain was the Cardinals pitching. Charles “Gabby” Street, the team’s new manager, still hadn’t decided on his starter: Would it be ranking hurler Sylvester Johnson? Spitballer Clarence Mitchell? Or, Flint Rhem, back from the minors?

No matter that the Cubs were the National League champs last season. That was then and this was now. A clean slate. A fresh start. The Cards were in first place today.

St. Louis was a team of contenders -- ready to go – in a 154-game endurance race that would stretch through the summer and into the fall, eventually bringing home the National League pennant.

Mayor Victor Miller had promised to throw out the first pitch that Opening Day and to lead the parade to center field where Old Glory would be hoisted in traditional pre-game ceremonies. The stands were to be “gaily decorated and the park flooded with music.”

“I am not saying that we will win the pennant, but we have a good team and will figure in the race. I expect to see our pitchers do some great work,’’ Street told the Globe-Democrat.

In the end, the pre-game parade was canceled due to the weather, and Street went with Rhem who “had nothing to deceive Chicago’s murderers’ row,” the paper reported the next day.

The game was a “dogfight” played out on a rain-chilled afternoon. But the Cards would hang in for 12 hits, losing by just one run, 9-8. The fans in the open sections of the stadium held their seats despite a fifth-inning shower. The Knot-Hole gang, represented by 1,500 boys, chanted “we wanna homer’’ and “can de ump.” And the music between innings “hit the spot.”

In Detroit, meantime, the city’s American Leaguers – the St. Louis Browns – also started the season in the minus column, losing to the Tigers, 6-3.

Despite the nation’s economic gloom, an estimated 250,000 Americans watched the national pastime on that April day in 1930 in stadiums across the East and Midwest. President Herbert Hoover had opened the season the day before in Washington, throwing out the first pitch in the Senators’ 4-3 loss to Boston. The president’s throw shot past an umpire and had to be headed off by a Red Sox player.

“As was the case last year, his arm seemed strong, but his control was a bit off,” reported the Associated Press.

Some would say the same about his fiscal policies.

Opening Day: April 17, 1934

OLD COPERNICUS, OR WHOEVER IT WAS THAT FIGURED OUT THERE WERE 365 DAYS IN THE YEAR, MADE AN AWFUL BOBBLE. THERE ARE ONLY 154 DAYS IN THE YEAR, AND THIS IS THE FIRST OF THEM. RING OUT, WILD TURNSTILES.

— W.H. James in “Reflections from The Sidelines,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 17, 1934

Five years into the Great Depression, times were tough and getting tougher. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were beginning to take shape, but the nation was still reeling from an unemployment rate above 20 percent – and harrowing images of bread lines and refugees from the Dust Bowl.

Just 7,500 “cash customers” and couple of thousand Knot-Hole boys – who got in free – were on hand at Sportsman’s Park to see the Cardinals usher in the 1934 season by trouncing the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-1.

Nevertheless, it was a flag-raising, festive affair, with “Hizzoner” Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann and a drummer leading the band of Cardinals onto the field.

Dickmann, a leftie, threw the first pitch and then turned the mound over to the Cards star, Dizzy Dean who gave up just six hits. Joe “Ducky” Medwick, playing right field, homered and hit two singles, and third baseman Pepper Martin doubled twice.

Managed by Frankie Frisch, this 1934 team – the legendary Gashouse Gang -- would captivate St. Louisans with their antics and scrappy play, snatching the National League pennant from the favored New York Giants and the World Series from the Detroit Tigers.

Attendance at Cardinals games would drop to just 325,000 that year, down from more than a half-million at the start of the Depression in 1930. It was the same story across the Major Leagues, with attendance down 40 percent until after the end of World War II.

Still, sports writer Grantland Rice summed up the feeling of many on that Opening Day in 1934, in a column headlined, “Start of Baseball Campaigns, Panacea for Troubles of Man.’’

“Baseball means something more than a few hundred or a few thousand players, young and old, struggling for pennants and for pay. … It means a chance for many of these millions to lose and forget the drabness of their lives for two hours of an afternoon, in the speed, the action and the skill of stars, surrounded by the vocal cataclysm of packed stands,” Rice wrote.

“Baseball’s stage is set above green turf, beneath a blue sky, and there is no set or certain end to any act or any scene.’’

Opening Day: April 6, 2009

It is the first spring after the economic meltdown of 2008, and attendance at the nation’s ballparks this season is expected to take a slide.

“We’re in an economic downturn that’s the worst since the Great Depression,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig recently told the Associated Press. “None of us have ever lived through what’s going on. Any normal person would have to be concerned.’’

And so it goes. Through prosperity or bust, in peacetime and in war. Winter is always followed by spring – and Opening Day in St. Louis.

The field today will be ready-to-play green. The sea of fans, a loyal red. Wainwright on the mound, Pujols on first. The outfield looks solid. You can’t see Wall Street from here.

There is no set or certain end to any act or any scene …  hey, we’re in first place today.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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