Here’s a list of home attendance for Babe Ruth’s teams during his 22-year MLB career, with the year followed by the average attendance, the total attendance, and the number of games Ruth played in that season:
Total home attendance was 17,959,826. This divided by 22 gives an average attendance of 816,356 per year. Ruth played 16.25 seasons worth of games over his 22 years, based on MLB’s 154-game schedule that was standard during his career.
So, multiplying the per-season average of 816,356 by 16.25 equals 13,265,781, as the figure for total attendance at his home games. (By the way, Ruth’s first game was on 7/11/1914; his last game was on 5/30/1935.)
If you generously figure that road attendance for his games equaled attendance by Red Sox, Yankees and Braves fans, that means about 26.5 million people watched Ruth pitch, hit and field. (This doesn’t count World Series games.)
Compare this to the Yankees’ 3 million plus home attendance numbers for the past 14 years or so, and total average annual attendance of probably 6 million. For that matter, average annual home attendance for N.L. and A.L. teams has been at least 2 million since the late ’80s, so the typical everyday player plays before 4 million people or more each year.
Which means that a relatively unexceptional player who stays in MLB for a decade or more, Jack Wilson for example, in a 12-year career in which Wilson was not a full-time player for his last several years, plays before about double the number of fans that Ruth played before.
If you look at attendance numbers for baseball games before night games, before tv, before World War II ended, before the rise of computers and the service economy, you notice that a team very rarely drew even a million fans at home in a season. The Yankees’ peak attendance before 1946 was the 1,289,422 who came to the Polo Grounds to see Ruth and his teammates in 1920. In 1946, attendance throughout MLB spiked sharply, up nearly double from WWII levels. It makes sense that before 1946, people did not have the leisure time or money to go to games, especially, again, with most games played during weekdays.
When thinking of Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and other stars of pre-WWII, pre-integration MLB, it’s easy to imagine them playing before packed crowds, but this wasn’t the case, aside from a few special occasions and presumably some weekend games. In a more industrial economy, and given the Depression in the ’30s, many fans were probably either too tired from work or too impoverished to even go to weekend games.
To list some examples of games covered elsewhere on this blog: the Ernie Shore “perfect” game in which he retired 27 men in a row after Babe Ruth got ejected was the first game of a doubleheader, but attendance was apparently just 16,158.
Attendance for the Addie Joss perfect game in Cleveland in 1908, which came near the end of a tight pennant race, was 10,598.
Only 10,267 saw Cy Young’s perfect game on Thursday, May 5, 1904, despite the promise of “a classic pitcher’s duel between Boston’s already legendary Cy Young and Philadelphia ace Rube Waddell.”
And, only about 1,000 people watched the New York Giants finish up their exhibition series with the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore on April 13, 1914, with a 3-2 win over Babe Ruth pitching for the Orioles.