Ballplayers on Stage

Baseball, Melodrama, and Theatrical Celebrity in the Deadball Era

  • Author(s): Stern, Travis
  • Series: Sports & Popular Culture
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2024-07-03
  • Status: Available in Hardcover
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Since before the turn of the twentieth century, baseball greats have captivated audiences both on the diamond and the stage. Gracing the world of melodrama with their theatrical presence during the offseason, their forays into professional theater opened a portal between two distinct worlds of performance and entertainment that would shape the future of both.

In Ballplayers on Stage, Travis Stern explores the relationship between professional baseball and professional theater in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, he argues that examining theater from this era helps us better understand baseball’s development and its transformation from a strictly working-class attraction to an entertainment that attracted interest from America’s emerging middle class. Baseball players’ theatrical productions drew audiences from the baseball world, and in turn their performances on the diamond began to attract middle-class crowds. But how did the on-field persona of those players as heroes or villains contribute to their image in the theater, and vice versa?

To explore these questions, Stern examines case studies of five representative players from baseball’s pre–Babe Ruth “deadball” era: Cap Anson, Mike “King” Kelly, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, and Rube Waddell, with a concluding study of Babe Ruth himself. While one draw of theatrical performance was the additional profit it promised the players during the off-season, the stage also offered these men an opportunity to take a more active role in shaping their public image. Thus, Ballplayers on Stage not only offers a historical study of baseball, theater, and the relationship between the two; it also shares insight into the creation of celebrity in early twentieth-century America. This unique book will interest American history scholars, baseball fans, and theater enthusiasts alike.

TRAVIS STERN is an Associate Professor of Theater Arts at Bradley University and earned his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.