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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Dance Swing Versus Baseball

From the upcoming book, July 2023 release: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music, by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing.

Matt's books are on Amazon.

George Sisler, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, October 1924, baseball stars of the Browns, Yankees and Tigers, respectively. None topped Louis Armstrong, jazz superstar on a dance boat, for a season's draw in St. Louis. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

St. Louis hosted two epic draws of American entertainment in summer 1920, with one a baseball player, the other a dance boat.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth was superstar of the New York Yankees, swatting an ungodly 54 homeruns, almost doubling his previous record. The St. Louis Cardinals had Hornsby, the Browns had Sisler, but the Yankees had Ruth. Average attendance of a big-league game in St. Louis was about 5,000 at Sportsman’s Park, but 104,000 paid for six Yankees games. Two Sundays with The Babe brought record crowds of 27,500 then 30,000. He blasted balls out of the park in batting practice, bouncing off Grand Avenue, shattering windows with kids in pursuit. Ruth hit .376 that season and ripped Browns pitching, launching three homers at Sportsman’s Park to thrill locals.

Steamer Saint Paul at St. Louis, circa 1920, carrying thousands of excursionists on the Mississippi River. Photograph by Charles Trefts. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri

For river fun, Steamer Saint Paul registered one million excursionists at St. Louis in 1920, once again, according to company data. By comparison the Cardinals and Browns drew 746,000 combined, including those Yankees numbers.
Louis Armstrong was the Babe Ruth of dance swing, keying his boat’s victory in the metro. Louie was slugger on cornet for Fate Marable’s Metropolitan Jaz-E-Saz Band aboard the Saint Paul. In baseball only the Yankees drew better than the steamboat, 1.3 million fans at home in New York. The Yanks’ gate doubled after acquiring Ruth from the Red Sox.

The Saint Paul usually hauled full capacity at St. Louis, about 5,000 people, and its hull dragged local shallows like the notorious Chain of Rocks. The huge boat creaked and shook, striking river bottom in strong currents. No matter, the crowds came, thronging day and night for excursions.

The Saint Paul plied the metro market four months with Marable’s band, from May until September, working landings from the Piasa Bluffs at Alton down to Jefferson Barracks, below St. Louis. The Jaz-E-Saz musicians and Babe Ruth’s Yankees finished their St. Louis season on the same day, Sept. 21, 1920. Marable and his players switched over to Steamer Capitol, newbie of the Streckfus Line, and headed down the Mississippi, ultimately bound for Louisiana. Joyous mobs met the Capitol at Chester, Cape Girardeau, Cairo and Paducah, places where the name Fate Marable stood like Sisler and Hornsby. Everybody had heard of the New Orleans band below St. Louis, especially the cornet player, Armstrong.

Marable later said people were “completely amazed at our type of music,” speaking with St. Louis writer Beulah Schacht in a rare interview. “It was an entirely different music than the ragtime which preceded it or the swing which followed… I have played ragtime, jazz time and swing, and I believe that the Dixieland style of jazz gives a man the best chance to play what’s in him.”

Joe Oliver’s Creole Band in Chicago, circa 1923. From left, standing: King Oliver, cornet, and Bill Johnson, bass. Seated from left: Baby Dodd, drums, Sam Dutrey, trombone, Louis Armstrong, cornet, Johnny Dodds, clarinet, and Lil Hardin—Mrs. Louis Armstrong—on piano. Courtesy of the New York Public Library