WE CAN BEGIN with the monumental truism that the economic debacle of the 1930s—what came to be known as the Great Depression—was unprecedented in its magnitude and duration, the worst thing to happen to the American people since the calamitous Civil War. Recall the familiar images of the thirties: apple sellers on street corners, lines of people outside soup kitchens, darkened factories and decaying towns, Dust Bowl sandstorms, sit-down strikes, the aimless wanderings of hitchhikers and hoboes. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, however, what also strikes us is how much smaller, in that long-ago time, were so many things in American life.
The Union itself was smaller by two states, with Alaska and Hawaii remaining under territorial governments. The 1930 census put the United States' population at 122,775,046, less than half what it would be at the end of the twentieth century. Apart from San Francisco and Los Angeles, its northeastern quadrant held the country's largest cities, led by New York, with nearly 7 million inhabitants; Chicago, with close to 3.5 million; Philadelphia, almost 2 million; and Detroit, 1.6 million. Over the next halfcentury, each of those northeastern cities—as well others such as Cleveland, St. Louis, Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Newark, and Jersey City—would experience substantial population losses at the same time that their metropolitan surroundings were mushrooming.
While professional baseball in the 1930s was played across the North