At Home on the Road

From the time the first professional baseball teams called their cities home, team owners were ready to take them on the road.

These “barnstorming” tours played an important part in the development of the National Pastime – even though their history was not nearly as well documented as that of the major leagues. That history remains alive today at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The first formal barnstorming tour took likely took place in 1860 when the Brooklyn Excelsior, a talented amateur team of the time, played games around the state of New York. As the years passed and leagues become more prevalent, only preseason and postseason barnstorming was allowed. And by the 1880s, postseason barnstorming became the norm.

Over the years, various barnstorming teams have included all-women (Bloomer Girls), bearded men (House of David), multi-ethnic (All Nations) and African-American (Indianapolis Clowns), but the inclusion of big leaguers into this mix has been not without some hardship the other groups didn’t have to endure.

With the birth of the modern World Series in 1903 came a more proprietary view of players regarding barnstorming by team owners. The opening salvo in this tug of war came prior to the 1910 season when all new player contracts included the clause:

“The party of the second part (the player) will not be permitted at any time, either during the playing season or before the commencement or after the close thereof, to participate in any exhibition baseball games, indoor baseball, basketball, or football, except that the consent of the party of the first part (the club) has first been secured in writing.”

Hall of Fame executive Ban Johnson, the American League president at the time, was quoted as saying, “It doesn’t look good for a professional baseball player to be beaten by an amateur or a semi-professional. It discredits the league players, and if they are defeated causes remarks to be made about their inability to beat a town nine.

“Now an owner is not going to stop the player from earning a little extra money in a legitimate way after the season is over, but the owner has a right to protect the good name of his club. Barnstorming doesn’t help baseball. Now, when the new clause is thoroughly understood, it will be a benefit to the game and the players as well.”

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune at the time understood the criticism from players who resent any attempt to curtail their earning power during the winter, but also sympathized with the owners’ plight.

“President (Barney) Dreyfuss of the world’s champions asked his men to give up the ‘barnstorming’ trip which a squad of them was planning after the (World Series). He was liable to wake up some morning and read about $70,000 worth of players being beaten by some $7 team. Of course it would be the “Pittsburg world’s champions” who were trimmed, even if (Honus) Wagner, (George) Gibson, (Fred) Clarke, (Tommy) Leach, and a few other real world’s champions were absent. If some of Dreyfuss’ players had planned barnstorming under the name of “Invincibles” of “Carnegies,” Barney probably would have had no objection. But that would not have been worth while. Only by jeopardizing the baseball reputation which Dreyfuss had spent many thousands of dollars to build up could his players fool the public into attending their mediocre exhibition game. Therein lies the objection.”

In 1916, Baseball Players’ Fraternity President David L. Fultz takes a stand for his brethren, stating, “The fraternity cannot recognize the right of organized baseball to fine players for taking part in games after the season is over and after their contracts have expired. The players have, of course, no right to represent any club with the consent of its owner, but as long as they trade upon their own personal reputations they are clearly within their rights.

“The relation of player to magnate is purely contractual and gives no basis for the principle of paternalism, which the magnates now attempt to inject into it.”

In arguably the most infamous case of barnstormers being penalized, New York Yankees teammates Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel and Bill Piercy, coming off an American League pennant in 1921, were fined their World Series shares and suspended until May 20 of the 1922 season by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Landis for participating in exhibition games following the ’21 Fall Classic.

Ruth and the others had defied Section 8B of Article 4 of the Major League code, which took effect the previous February: “Both teams that contest in the world’s series are required to disband immediately after its close and the members thereof are forbidden to participate as individuals or as a team in exhibition games during the year in which that world’s championship was decided.”

Landis, who was still dealing with the unsavory aspects of the Black Sox Scandal, made it crystal clear who baseball’s boss was.

“I did not write the rule against barnstorming, but I am the enforcement officer of that rule and I am a stickler for obedience in such cases. To violate the rule is to challenge the authority of the Commissioner. Disregarding the personal side of entirely, this case resolves itself into the question of who is the biggest man in baseball, the Commissioner or the player who makes the most home runs. It may have to be decided whether one man is bigger than baseball.”

After a barnstorming game in Elmira, N.Y. on Oct. 17, 1921, Ruth said, “I am not in any fight to see who is the greatest man in baseball. Meusel, Piercy and I think we are doing something in the interest of baseball. I do not see why we are singled out when other big players, members of second and third place clubs in the world’s series money, are permitted to play post-season games. I am out to earn an honest dollar, and at the same time give baseball fans an opportunity to see the big players in action.”

A column written by Grantland Rice, one of the sportswriting’s all-time greats and the 1966 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, in June 1922 made no doubt as to where he stood on the matter.

“There can be no reason worth offering for opposing barnstorming efforts after the baseball season has closed on the part of individual players. To say that the member of a championship team can’t take part in any exhibition while the others can is one of the most brainless rules ever put forward by any organization.

“Putting a penalty upon successful endeavor is a new way to go about things. A star player, for example, is given to understand that by hustling to win a flag he is making money for his club owner, but is losing money for himself. A club owner willing to endorse this proposition should call in a surgeon to remove a mental kink.”

The barnstorming rule in which Ruth was suspended was removed by July 1922, but forced players on a World Series team to obtain the consent of the club president and then gain the permission of the commissioner before joining a tour. Also, players were not allowed to participate in exhibition games past Oct. 31, and no more than three players from any one club were allowed to play on a single team in an exhibition game.

Eventually, this led to popular tours with Ruth and Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig – as the Bustin’ Babes and Larrupin’ Lous – in the mid-1920s.

“Baseball gives the player every possible protection during the regular season,” Harridge said. “The players are provided with the best of everything – food, hotels, railroads and playing fields. And then, as soon as the season ends, many of them immediately rush off to play exhibition games on poor fields, with poor accommodations and without proper supervision.

“Injuries are apt to result and often do. In many cases, antics of ‘wildcat’ promoters, whose interest naturally is not in baseball, but in their personal pocketbooks, give the game a bad name. The magnate has an undeniable property right in the player’s career, which the player, by barnstorming, places in jeopardy without any compensation for the magnate.”

Harridge’s pleas gathered no momentum, though, and over the next 20 years baseball had what might be considered its Golden Age of barnstorming. Touring teams led by such future Hall of Famers as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson highlighted this era.

By the 1950s, however, barnstorming tours were falling victim to the proliferation of radio and television coverage of the game. Where once cities and towns with no major league teams were excited for these exhibition games, the novelty had now worn off thanks to advances in technology.

By then, however, history had already been written. The seeds that grew into America’s National Pastime had been sewn – in part – by the men and women who took baseball all around North America for almost a century.

Their story lives on as long as baseball continues to flourish.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Barnstorming Timeline

  • 1860: Brooklyn Excelsior tour NY state
  • Red Stockings and Athletics tour Great Britian
  • 1875: Blondes vs. Brunettes, first female barnstorming tour
  • 1878: New Bedford, MA team pulls out of International League to barnstorm
  • 1888-89: Albert Spalding takes Major Leaguers on world tour
  • c.1890s: Bloomer Girls teams begin touring
  • 1913-14: New York Giants and Chicago White Sox tour the world
  • 1915: First House of David barnstorming tours
  • 1921: Babe Ruth and Yankees barnstorm, violating MLB rules
  • 1927: Bustin’ Babes and Larrupin’ Lous tour America
  • 1929: Kansas City Monarchs tour with portable lighting system
  • 1931-1935: Pete Alexander pitches for and manages a House of David team
  • 1934: Major Leaguers with Babe Ruth tour Japan
  • 1946: Bob Feller’s All-Stars tour against Satchel Paige’s Negro All-Stars
  • 1962: Willie Mays-led tour cancelled after four games
  • 1986-present: Bi-annual Major League All-Stars vs. Japanese All-Stars in Japan
  • 1994-1997: Colorado Silver Bullets womens team tour against men
  • 2010: Los Angeles Dodgers go to Taiwan in goodwill tour

1966 BBWAA Career Excellence Award Winner Grantland Rice

1966 BBWAA Career Excellence Award Winner Grantland Rice