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Baseball, money, and meaning

Unlearned Hand, who just finished watching the 1950s episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball miniseries, has a question:

It really is a shame how the money has corrupted baseball. I have no doubt that this is equally true of other sports, but am I so wrong in thinking that baseball really used to mean something in this country? Something special?

The answer to the question is Yes, but the implication is that this is no longer the case. I’d argue that’s very much not so, as anyone who watched the 2001 World Series would attest. Attendance figures bear that out as well – take a look at the yearly attendance and average league attendance for the Braves, Cubs, and Yankees, and observe that average attendance in 2002 was nearly triple that of 1952, and with twice as many teams to boot. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – there’s never been a better time than now to be a baseball fan.

As for money, well, the entire history of professional baseball is all about money. Entire leagues, including the Federal League, whose unsuccessful 1915 lawsuit against Major League Baseball gave rise to its antitrust exemption, were formed in response to team owners’ penurious practices. High profile players frequently held out, from Home Run Baker (who jumped to the Federal League in 1915 after playing on the pennant-winning A’s team) to Babe Ruth (who justified getting paid more than President Hoover in 1930 with the immortal line “I had a better year than he did”) to Joe DiMaggio (who got hate mail from parents of GIs in 1942 after he demanded that his salary not be cut following his storied 1941 season) to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale (who held out together in 1966), sometimes for entire seasons, in order to be paid what they thought they were worth.

As it happens, by the way, one side effect of the Yankees’ dominance in the 1950s was reduced attendance among other American League teams. The minor leagues also declined, with only 38 teams in existence in 1957.

I loved Ken Burns’ miniseries, and I loved The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and many other things about baseball’s history, but they all paint the past with excessively bright colors. To paraphrase a famous baseball fan, the good old days weren’t always good, and today’s a lot better than it seems.

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11 Comments

  1. Chris Quinones says:

    An excellent history of the business of baseball is Lords of the Realm, by John Helyar (who’s also one of the authors of Barbarians at the Gate). It’s out of print but used copies are available at Amazon (though I’d go to ABE myself).

  2. William Hughes says:

    I find it interesting that owners were afraid to put games first on radio, then later on television, since it was thought that the attendance would drop. The truth is that baseball became more popular because of the technology, which is why, for example, the St. Louis Cardinals have such a large following outside of the immediate vicinity. (Ironically, this was brought up during last night’s Astros-Cardinals telecast since Houston was a Cardinals affiliate for many years). Now, you don’t even need a radio or a television to listen to or see a baseball game, thanks to the Internet, not to mention actually get tickets to an out of town game. The technological advances also led to night games, which meant that more people could actually get to a game, which in turn led to larger stadiums. Highlander Park (the original home of the New York Highlanders, later known as the Yankees) did not hold more than 15,000, while the original Yankee Stadium could hold more than 65,000.

    What makes baseball of the “Golden Age” (which I define as 1920 – 1957) mythic was the media that was developing during this time. The great baseball newspaper reporters really became prevalent with the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth, the rise in home runs via the livelier baseball and the Jazz Age in general. The Great Depression and World War II gave rise to the radio broadcasters, while the post-war era gave rise to televised baseball (thanks not only to local games, but the Game of the Week).

    If you notice before the post-war era, there were not a lot of people that actually could go to a major league baseball game. That is why the minor leagues became so popular before the early 1950s. The thrill of baseball is for me more about imagination than reality, where you always hear stories about a kid sneaking a radio into a classroom to hear a World Series game or tuning a radio at night to hear a game from hundreds of miles away (I confess to doing this with the Baltimore Orioles. Many a late night I would wake up to the dulcet tones of Larry King.). You never hear this about any other sport.

    I could go on all night about this topic, but I have to go to work tomorrow. My final thought is this: Baseball is about the past, present, and future. That is why it is almost always a great time to be a fan.

  3. Dud says:

    My Uncle Frank took me to Yankee Stadium in 1948 and I have been a Yankee fan ever since. I have lived the DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Howard, Rizzuto and Horace Clarke years. I just love it and to me it is America, the good, bad and otherwise. Since I am not perfect, the game made up of imperfect people will reflect the times. My only complaint is George Steinbrenner.

  4. Dud says:

    My Uncle Frank took me to Yankee Stadium in 1948 and I have been a Yankee fan ever since. I have lived the DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Howard, Rizzuto and Horace Clarke years. I just love it and to me it is America, the good, bad and otherwise. Since I am not perfect, the game made up of imperfect people will reflect the times. My only complaint is George Steinbrenner.

  5. Chris Quinones says:

    William, just to nitpick: Yankee Stadium opened in 1923. The first night game was in Cincinnati in I think 1935 (just looked it up and I was right — boy, I’m good!). Yankee Stadium held its first night game in 1946.

    BTW, did you know that Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter was the first-ever night game at Ebbets Field (1938)?

  6. Rick says:

    Of late, Bob Uecker’s been having Gorman Thomas sit in during the middle innings of at least two Brewers games and kvetch. Naturally, back in Gorman’s day, they were really a team, and they used to put 24 guys in one cab after a game.

    Not like the guys today, they’re in it for the money.

    Twenty years from now I expect to hear Alex Rodriguez singing from the same hymnal.

    The Glory of Their Hindsight, indeed.

  7. William Hughes says:

    Chris, you’re right on all counts. The minor leagues experimented with night baseball before 1935. In fact, there was a General Electric commercial regarding the first night game ever played circa 1900.

  8. Andy says:

    having grown up a baseball fan since I was a kid in the 60s, I gave up being a fan for good after the 2001 season once they started talking about contraction. I remember Selig at a news conference as it appeared that the 2002 season would open and the Twins were fighting the court battles, Selig gave a news conference in which he went on and on about how the Twins delay didn’t really matter because he had moved the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970 like 4 days before the season started, and business-wise it was certainly do-able. And not one word mentioned about the thousands of hearts of fans that would be broken and the civic support and pride thrown in the curb. This is the kind of person who runs the business that depends upon our loyalty and emotion? Sorry – I don’t allow my heart to exposed to, never mind be controlled at the whim of, that kind of person such as Bud Selig. I walked away from being a baseball fan in 2002, and never looked back. And I have a feeling that I am not the only one.

  9. Rivka says:

    I’m working my way through the Burns miniseries myself – I’ve gotten as far as the Black Sox scandal. As far as I can tell from the documentary, the sins of professional baseball have always been with us. There have always been squabbles between the owners and the players. There have always been stupid publicity stunts. There have always been rowdy, obnoxious fans. There have always been fights over money, and with it, concern that money was spoiling baseball.

    And the game has always been worth it, all the same.

  10. Tom says:

    I was a huge fan from 1967 until the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. I saw some great baseball in that time. It’s true that the money issue has been around forever. What is new is that the players care more about that three millionth dollar than they do about winning.

    My other problem with today’s baseball is the steroid use. The great thing about baseball was that the past was relevant. A .300 hitter in 1920 was a good hitter, just as .300 hitters from 1950 and 1980 were good hitters. It’s hard to take Barry Bonds’ home run record (and Mark McGwire’s before that) seriously because of the steroid issue.

  11. What is new is that the players care more about that three millionth dollar than they do about winning.

    That’s a very common attitude among “old-time” players and fans. Like the complaint that “kids today” have no respect for their elders, it’s baloney. Players who don’t care about winning don’t last very long.

    My other problem with today’s baseball is the steroid use. The great thing about baseball was that the past was relevant. A .300 hitter in 1920 was a good hitter, just as .300 hitters from 1950 and 1980 were good hitters. It’s hard to take Barry Bonds’ home run record (and Mark McGwire’s before that) seriously because of the steroid issue.

    I have no idea how prevalent steroid use is, but your statement that a .300 hitter is good in any era is also false. .300 hitters were common in 1930, when the New York Giants hit .319 as a team, and they were extremely rare in 1968, when Carl Yasztremski led the American League with a .301 mark. Changes in ballparks, baseball composition, pitcher’s mounds, and strike zones – not to mention expansion and a huge influx of new talent that wasn’t around in the early days – have had vast changes on stats from season to season.

    Do you hold the fact that Mel Ott hit nearly 350 of his home runs at the Polo Grounds, where the right field foul pole was 257 feet from home plate, against him? If you don’t but you do discount Barry Bonds’ amazing seasons because some players may be taking steroids, then I’m afraid I can’t take your complaints seriously.