June 19, 2013
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Deja Vu All Over Again
Baseball is in danger, everyone agrees. Player salaries are skyrocketing while revenues—and soon, perhaps, teams—are contracting. Operating losses in the smaller-market cities can no longer be papered over with hope that a greater fool can be found to purchase the franchise at a price greater than the current fool paid. Before offering a way out of the present tangle, let’s review for a moment just how we got here.
There was much woe and lamentation in the seventies that the game was dying. Commentators bemoaned the sluggish play by roving mercenaries who had no loyalty to the teams or their fans; the players’ rampant abuse of controlled substances and the all-too-common consort with criminals; the inept and fractious ownership. But baseball bounced back in the next decade to reclaim its place as the national pastime: new heroes, spirited competition, and booming prosperity gave birth to dreams of expansion, both within the major leagues and around the world.
And then came the nineties, when management, suddenly frightened that they had ceded control to the players, sought to restore baseball’s profitability by “running the game like a business”: they looked for ways to clamp down on salaries, reorganize the leagues to favor the big-market cities, and make real-estate fortunes from their ballparks. As we rolled into a new century, baseball was still struggling recapture fans’ loyalty after the debacle of the nineties.
If I haven’t made myself clear, this worrisome chain of events describes the game of the nineteenth century. Yes, we’ve seen it all before. And yes, those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. But no, the sky is not falling—baseball is such a great game that neither the owners nor the players can kill it. After some necessary carnage, market forces will prevail.
Herewith, the century-old cautionary sketch. Gambling, drunkenness, and game-fixing (“hippodroming”) killed the first professional league, the player-led National Association, in 1875. The National League was born the following year, as an attempt to exert the control of capital over labor. Free agency was in practice until 1879, when the reserve clause came into being to restrict the practice termed “revolving”: players’ movement from team to team in search of higher wages.
The prosperity of the National League in the 1880s gave rise to three rivals in eight years—the American Association, the Union Association, and the Players League. Optimism and faith in the gospel of baseball was unbounded, and in 1888-89, Albert Spalding led his Chicago White Stockings and an all-star team of other big-leaguers on a global tour. Although the world proved not yet ready for the brotherhood of baseball, that would be only a matter of time, baseball magnates believed.
Salaries rose, revenues fell, and the major league owners tried to impose a salary cap (owner John Brush’s “clasification plan”). The players revolted, but their Brotherhood, the Players League of 1890, failed. The following year, the American Association died. The National League absorbed four of the abandoned franchises and, with no interleague competition, proceeded to dampen all the enthusiasm that had been built up in the previous decade, which had given rise to the World Series, had given DeWolf Hopper an oratory piece for the ages in “Casey at the Bat,” and had brought slugging back into the game with bruisers like Roger Connor and Dan Brouthers.
The 1890s were ruinous financially. The owners succeeded in establishing hidden interlocking ownerships to consolidate power, reduce salaries, and minimize risk. The caliber of play suffered and attendance declined year by year. Interest in college football was exploding, and there was this new game called basketball.
Baseball was in mortal peril. But out in the west, a former sportswriter named Ban Johnson, who had taken control of a bush league, had big ideas. By 1900 his minor circuit, renamed the American League, was poised to save major-league baseball from itself.
The past is prologue. Baseball in the twenty-first century will endure some hard times. Franchises will fail, or relocate, or relocate only to fail again. Reliance upon ever spiraling revenues from television, real-estate, and capital-gain speculation—the forces that blew the baseball bubble up—will make it burst, as it did in the 1890s. But the elements of salvation are already in place, and have been for a hundred years: the international movement, spearheaded by Spalding and now carried forward by the Olympics and the rapidly increasing skill in Asia … and the minor leagues, where the business of baseball still has a human scale and a connection to the spirit of play.