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.