St. Louis Cardinals and the Economic Crisis

A look at how the Great Depression affected fan attendance. Are hard times ahead?

The St. Louis Cardinals front office is projecting a downward turn in attendance for the upcoming 2009 season. Some economists' claim that the economy is the worst it has been since the Great Depression. Admittedly, I am far from being an expert on the economy. I don't know nearly as much about the Dow Jones as I do about Chipper Jones. That being said, I thought it might be interesting to look at attendance trends during the years leading up to the Great Depression as well as the years when the country was stuck in the most difficult economic times in its history.

Most historians agree that the Depression started when the stock market crashed in October of 1929 so for the sake of this piece, we will consider the start of the crisis pertaining to baseball as the 1930 season with the 1939 season being the last season considered. The United States government began heavy military spend in 1940 gearing up for the US's inevitable entrance into World War II. This has been recognized as the beginning of the recovery of the American economy.

To measure how much the Depression affected the economic conditions of baseball, I first looked at attendance figures of the previous five years. During the years of 1925-1929, the average American League team drew 589,901 fans while its' National League counterparts averaged 609,770 fans. During the time span of 1930-1939, the American League teams experienced a drop in attendance of nearly 16% to an average attendance of 496,389 fans during the decade. Over in the National League, attendance fell around 15% to an average attendance of 515,848 fans.

In St. Louis at that time, the city was fortunate to have two major league teams. The Browns were struggling with attendance before the Depression and attendance was horrendous during the thirties. In the previous five years, the team averaged 322,991 per season. The team drew the most fans in 1925 when 462,898 fans watched the Browns. During the time of the Depression, the Browns' attendance fell to an average of only 118,407 fans yearly. That is a decrease of nearly 37%.

In terms of wins and losses, the Browns did lose over 100 games in both 1937 and 1939.

So how much did the tough times affect the pride of the city, the Cardinals? During the previous five years leading up to 1930, the team averaged 596,837 fans yearly. Interestingly in 1929, the team drew only 399,887 fans after drawing its' highest total during that time, 761,574, the previous year. Over the next 10 years, the Cardinals would draw 405,411 a decline of nearly 32%.

On the field, the Cardinals won five pennants between 1926 and 1934 along with bringing home the World Series trophy in 1926, 1931, and 1934.

I decided to look at other Midwest cities during that time to see how they compare. Chicago, which like St. Louis had two teams at the time, seems like the perfect city to look at. The White Sox averaged 615,588 fans attendance declined 33 % to 410,993 average fans. Across town, the Cubs were averaging over a million fans a year. But with the crumbling of the stock market, the turnstiles at Wrigley Field slowed as well. The baby bears attendance dropped 17% to a yearly average of 879,166 fans. From 1929-1938, the Cubs won four pennants but came up short in each World Series. Unfortunately for the city, the team still has won only one World Championship since that time.

Another National League Central city was playing games during this period, the Cincinnati Reds. Over the time frame from 1925-1929, the team averaged 473,120 fans. During the time of the Depression, the team averaged 444,605 fans or a decrease of only six percent.

So what does all this mean? In simple terms, the Cardinals' front office is probably justified in its projections. In 2008, more than 3.4 million fans passed through the gates of Busch Stadium III, the fourth best mark in all of baseball. The team is projecting less than three million or about a 13% decrease. With an average ticket price of over $29, that could end up being around $13 million in lost revenue if projections are justified.

According to projections Brian Walton's blog, "the Cardinal Nation", the Cardinals payroll forecasts to be about $91 million. That is a decrease of $8.6 million or about nine percent. So ownership is projecting a loss of revenue of $13 million but its only dropping payroll $8.6. Now, I am not justifying the payroll decrease, I am just pointing out the numbers.

Like, I said, I am neither an economist nor am I a mathematician like my colleague here at the Birdhouse, Brian Walton. But as the country faces hard economic times, I thought it might be interesting to look at Depression era teams were faced with and trends that teams like the Cardinals might be considering.

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