Company Sports Teams and the Early Industrialization of Youngstown, Ohio

by John Baechly

Early Industrialization in Youngstown

In the early 20th century, Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley changed from a farming and agricultural community to an industrialized one.  Youngstown's population increased from 45,000 in the early 1900's to 170,000 at the start of the Great Depression.  This population expansion not only occurred in the city of Youngstown but also in the suburbs such as Boardman, Coitsville, Lowellville, and Struthers.  This large population increase resulted from the rapid growth of the steel industry.  The steel industry was growing so rapidly that mill owners did not have enough people to work at their mills; therefore, they turned to immigrants for help.  These immigrants, whom came from northern, southern, and eastern European countries, were used to provide the backbreaking labor that was needed to run the steel mills.  They came to Youngstown because they thought that it would provide them with freedom, economic opportunities, and "streets paved with gold" (Blue et al. 99).  They tended to locate in neighborhoods with people of the same ethnic background.  They believed that this would help alleviate discrimination and preserve their ethnic cultures and values.  Since they could not afford to buy an auto, they had to walk to work.  This forced many of the immigrants to live within a one-mile radius of the steel mills.  The largest concentration of immigrants moved into East Youngstown, where Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company was located.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company in the Early 1900's

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company was started in 1900 by two local investors, James A. Campbell and George D. Wick.  This steel mill became one of the largest independently owned steel companies in the United States.  By 1920, its resources totaled over one hundred million dollars.   "The key to its success was its entry into the burgeoning market for sheet, tinplate, and pipe made from steel for use in autos, and pipes in the booming oil fields of the southwestern United States" (Blue et al. 94).  James Campbell also added to the success of this steel mill when he vertically integrated it.  This meant that Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company purchased iron and coal fields, and railroad cars on which its raw materials were hauled.  This vertical integration ensured that Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company would be able to purchase its raw materials at cost and ship its products at a very low price.  This also gave Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company a competitive advantage over other steel mills that were not vertically integrated.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company's success did not come without difficulties.  It was very hot and polluted inside the mills, and the working conditions were very dangerous and hazardous.  The company had very careless policies with respect to their workers.  They ignored workers' safety and had little financial incentive to make the workplace safe.  In fact, it was very common for someone to be injured or killed at the mill every month.  The workers were just considered numbers.  The company's products were considered more valuable than the workers were because the workers could easily be replaced.  The work was very hard, exhausting, and strenuous.  The steelworkers worked twelve hours a day seven days a week.  They even worked twenty-four hours straight every other Sunday.  They were usually paid around five hundred dollars a year.  This was far below the poverty level.  Workers not only had to put up with poor working conditions, but they also had to put up with discrimination from their foremen.  They were discriminated against because they were members of a particular ethnic group.  Furthermore, President Woodrow Wilson enacted a wage and price control during World War I.  This meant that workers were not allowed to receive a raise during this period.  After this wage and price control was lifted, steel orders rose drastically.  The steel orders tripled, but the workers' wages did not increase.

This failure to increase workers' wages and the poor working conditions caused the steelworkers at Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube to go on strike.  This was a very violent and costly strike.  It caused a riot in the business district of East Youngstown.  Angry strikers set buildings on fire, looted and smashed streetcars.  When all was said and done, three people died, over one hundred people were injured, and $1.5 million worth of property was damaged.  The workers did; however, get a 10 percent wage increase.  Their wage increased from 19.5 cents an hour to 22.5 cents an hour.  The mill owners and the general public did not blame this strike and rioting on the working conditions.  They blamed it on the drunkenness of the strikers, the influence of the Bolsheviks, and the IWW.  For further information see Steel Strike. Although the mill owners did not publicly blame the strike on poor working conditions, they realized that they needed to change their attitudes toward their workers.  They also recognized that they needed to undertake a human relation's approach toward their workers rather than expecting their workers to accept the difficulties of the job.  They did this by setting up an industrial relations department.

Sports at the Workplace

If companies wanted to reduce their workers' complaints, they knew that they had to improve their industrial relationship with their workers.  They realized that a good industrial relationship would help to create a "happy, loyal workforce that would be punctual, efficient, and hardworking" (Pesavento 45).  They also knew that a good industrial relationship would help to curtail union activity in their company.  Offering their workers housing and free classes in English and citizenship were some things that companies did in order to improve their industrial relationship with their employees.  For further information on other recreational activities see Briar-Hill Reference Book.

Another thing that they did was establish company owned sports teams because they knew that these teams would greatly benefit their workers.  Some of the athletic teams that companies owned or sponsored were football, cycling, track and field, target shooting, bowling, and baseball. They realized that sports would make their workers healthier and more productive.  Moreover, they thought that exercise would help their workers build resistance to potentially fatal diseases. They also believed that these sports teams would show their workers that they deeply cared for them.  Companies owned and sponsored both blue-collar and white-collar sports teams.

Two Chicago entrepreneurs, John V. Farwell and Marschall Field, were the first businessmen to own and sponsor white-collar company sports teams.  Their teams consisted solely of men.  They considered sports an activity that would keep men away from saloons, gamblers and loose women.  They also thought that sports would teach their workers values such as "thrift, sobriety, virtue, and hard work" (Pesavento 55).  In turn, this would produce reliable, cooperative, and self-sacrificing employees.  Furthermore, they knew that sports teams would promote morale, advertise their company's name, publicize a positive image of a city, and help to maintain their company's social stability.  George Pullman was the first businessman to establish blue-collar company sports team.  He believed that sports would help attract workers to his company, provide an alternative to immoral amusements, and gain his company a positive public image.

Andrew Carnegie, president of U. S. Steel, was another person who believed that leisure activities such as sports influenced workers' mental, physical, and moral development.  He also thought that sports were recreational activities that crossed class, racial, and ethnic boundaries; thus he set up sports teams at U. S. Steel.  This company owned and sponsored both men and women's sports teams; however, there were no coed teams.  Mr. Carnegie also believed that company sports teams would benefit society because they promoted "American values, taught workers new virtues, and developed higher standards of character for workers" (Pesavento 62).  Furthermore, sports teams gave workers a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess, strength, courage, and self-discipline.  Athletic contests became so competitive that workers received a bonus for playing, were excused from doing work at the mills during their sport's season, and were recruited from far away places.

Athletic contests also allowed workers to publicize the labor union movement, and work issues such as the eight-hour workday.  Furthermore, they gave workers an opportunity to make friends, gain a sense of belonging, and enjoy themselves without their boss looking over their shoulder.  By the middle of the 20th century companies realized that sports teams would increase their profits and improve their workers' attitudes; therefore, most companies owned or sponsored sports teams.  In fact, 210 of the 400 largest manufacturing companies owned or sponsored a sports team. Some companies that owned or sponsored sports teams were Pennsylvania Railroad, National Cash Register, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.


Blue, Frederick, William D. Jenkins, H. William Lawson, and Joan M. Reedy.   Mahoning Memories: A History of Youngstown and Mahoning County.  Virginia Beach, Virginia: The Donning Co, 1995.
Pesavento, Wilma J.  "Sport and Recreation in the Pullman Experiment, 1880-1900." Journal of Sport History. 9 (1982): 38-62.

The photograph above shows the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company league playing a baseball game.  In this league, teams from steel mills all over the Mahoning Valley played against each other.  Departments within a particular steel mill also played each other.  For example, workers from the finishing department would play workers from the blast furnace.  Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company provided the teams in their league with their own equipment, coaches, and fields.  The teams played at Campbell Park, which was only one-fourth of a mile away from Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.  This meant that the workers not only had to work in a very polluted and unsafe environment, but that they also had to play in this type of environment.  When one examines this representation, he or she gets the impression that this photograph was taken from center field.  The center fielder is the object that is closest to the photographer.  The mills and the baseball field are the most dominant objects in this representation.  The size and position of these objects indicates that they were very important things in the lives of the players.

In the background, one can see the massive steel mills and the fog and smoke coming from these mills.  This was a reminder to the players that after the game was over they would have to return to the mill and work in the horrible working conditions.  In the distance, one can see the workers' houses.  One can also see the all dirt infield and the worn out outfield in the foreground.  There are also about thirty spectators standing along the right field fence.  If the photographer had taken the photo from behind home plate, one would not be able to see the massive steel mills.  Although one would not be able to see the steel mills, he or she would be able to see the scoreboard and the other athletic fields.  If the frame were smaller, one would not be able to see the steel mill and all the players in the field.  The smaller frame would allow one to get a closer look at the expressions on the players' and umpires' faces.  If the frame were larger, one would be able to see more of the mills and workers' houses.  I believe the audience for this photograph was the local community and the steelworkers.  I also believe that this was a public relations photograph.  The photographer probably took this photograph because he wanted to show the local community that Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company cared about their workers, and that a team that plays together can work together.