Baseball as a Business, a Historical Perspective

While baseball coverage has evolved over time, some old themes persist. (via Public Domain)

As the offseason has unfolded in all its frustrating sluggishness, I’ve noticed a particular sentiment being expressed a lot: that professional baseball has reached a point where it has become too much and too shamelessly a business, which exists solely to create profits for owners. I’m always interested in the collective experiences of fandom, and this experience—the love of the sport and concurrent disgust for the greed that underpins its existence—is so fraught with emotional and political stakes, has so much complexity and inherent contradiction, I was compelled to plumb its historical depths.

I knew that fans and observers must have had similar feelings over the past few decades, what with frequent labor interruptions, collusion, and steroid scandals. But I found myself wondering just how long baseball fans have wished that the sport they love could be separated from the cold realities of big business—whether this was a relatively modern development, or, rather, a link connecting generations of fans.

So I looked back into professional baseball’s early history, from the late 19th century onwards, scouring newspapers for the freshest, hottest takes on the business of baseball. What I found was that concerns about the business of baseball very familiar to those expressed by fans and writers today have been around quite literally since the game became professional in the latter decades of the 19th century. Here I will share with you some of the most interesting and entertaining of these past takes, as well as the historical contexts that prompted their writing. Whether their familiarity is comforting or disheartening, I will leave to you to determine for yourself—but either way, there is wisdom to be gained here, despite the century that separates us from these writers.

“Our Irrational Game”
Date: September 11, 1870

What was going on: At the time this editorial was published in The New York Times, baseball was only a few decades removed from its inception— but growing rapidly. The National Association of Base Ball Players, the game’s primary governing body, had recently shed its founding principles of amateurism in the face of the game’s profitable reality, allowing for players to be paid and for clubs to declare themselves professional in 1869. There was a large and annually increasing number of competitive clubs, and a yet larger number of fans hungry for competition.

Therein lay the problem. The system in place for determining the United States championship involved defeating the incumbent champion in a best-of-three series. While this method of determining the champion was straightforward enough when there had been only a handful of competitive teams in the field, as the number of clubs skyrocketed, the waters of competition became rather more muddied. In 1870, several different teams  claimed to be the United States baseball champions—an obviously unsatisfying state of affairs for fans, who always seek definitive statements on where their team stands, as well as for proprietors of these teams, whose claims to championship and general credibility were constantly being called into question.

With the competitive complexities and growing need for professional regulation, the following spring would see the professional players consolidated under the banner of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players—the first professional sports league in North America.

The take: The writer of this column begins by considering baseball to be a game that is “in many respects worthy of encouragement,” citing its worth as an incentive for exercise and time outdoors in “a community by far too much given to sedentary occupations and dyspepsia” —a sentiment I’d be much inclined to agree with in reference to the present day. “Our merchants and lawyers and over-worked clerks, after their day of harassing mental labor, would derive more advantage from a brisk game of base-ball than from the favorite drive on the road with its accompaniments of dust and dissipation.” Once again I’m inclined to agree. (I am extremely frightened by cars.)

But for this writer, whatever good qualities the practice of baseball might have were overshadowed by the turn toward championship-oriented spectatorship and professionalism, this perceived to be a distinctly American flaw: “It is one of the defects of our national character that no sooner do we get hold of a good thing of this sort, than we proceed to make it hurtful by excess.” Recreational baseball, the writer argues, is something wholly good for the body and spirit; professional baseball, though, transforms this great social good into something which “[a]t its best… is an excuse for gambling; at its worst, a device for viler ‘jockeying’ and swindling than ever disgraced the turf.”

Moreover, the writer argues, professional baseball has become so physically injurious that it has lost even the benefit of being considered healthy exercise: “Fatal accidents on the ball-field have been so common of late as to hardly excite remark, and maiming is the rule and not the exception among members of first-class clubs.”

One can only hope this is hyperbole. A quick look at Baseball Reference lists only three players in the major or minor leagues who have ever died while active in baseball due to on-field accidents. That list, however, only goes back to 1871, so perhaps the publication of this article led to a drastic reduction in the number of on-field deaths. In any case, this at least is a point at which modern fans will diverge from the perspective of this editorial—while baseball players experience injury rather more frequently than your average professional, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s commonplace to see baseball players killed or “maimed.”

For these reasons, then, the writer concludes that the only solution to the problem of professional baseball is cultural change. The writer argues that it is morally imperative for journalists and fans to stop treating baseball as though it were transcendent, or important, or anything less than repugnant, and for American society at large to take a good long look at where its priorities lie: “It seems time, therefore, that we should ask ourselves what is to be gained by giving to the business of ball-tossing the consideration and importance which seem ludicrously disproportionate to the subject, and are well calculated to seduce the unthinking into a profitless pursuit.”

The writer notes that one can read, immediately alongside coverage of crime, murder and war, “that John Smith has been expelled from the Pipkinsville B.B. Club for getting drunk, and then, next day, that he has been reinstated, apparently for the same reason, and that the fact has been matter for public rejoicing” — a dissonance that is at best strange, and at worst disgusting in some intangible way. One gets the feeling that these things shouldn’t be placed beside each other: that when real-world calamities are occurring, it is odd and distasteful to act like a morally questionable for-profit sport is of paramount importance. “We are tempted to suspect,” the piece concludes, “that we have been worshiping a very senseless idol.”

“The Baseball Season”
Date: October 12, 1904

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

What was going on: The American League was formed in 1901, an alternative and competitive major league to the National League, which had for the past decade held a monopoly over professional baseball. The owners of the National League, perhaps understandably, were enraged by this threat to their enterprise. Over the next few years, the bitter struggle for major league baseball supremacy between the two leagues would continue, not healed even by their collaboration on what is now considered the first modern World Series in 1903—a best-of-nine series between the pennant-winning Boston Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates.

There would be no World Series in 1904. The ownership of the National League’s New York Giants, which had been firmly in control of the pennant race for almost the entire season, took a stand in the months leading up to October: They would not play in a World Series. Their reasoning here was that the American League’s New York Highlanders, a direct rival for income and attention, seemed likely to win the pennant. The Giants owners didn’t want to give the Highlanders any kind of legitimacy by engaging in a contest against them. They wanted the Highlanders to disappear.

But the American League pennant race ended up coming down to the very last series of the season, with the Highlanders playing the Boston Americans for the American League title. The Americans came out victorious, thus dispensing with the reason for the Giants’ stand against the World Series.

And yet the Giants chose not to play the World Series anyway. The Americans were outraged, and baseball fans, who had made the previous year’s World Series a rousing success in terms of ticket sales, were yet more outraged, feeling they had been robbed of the competition the entire season had been leading up to.

The take: This is another editorial from The New York Times. This time, though, the editorial isn’t addressing a perceived cultural issue. Rather, it is addressing specific complaints—namely, specific complaints from readers, who had apparently been complaining about the column’s lack of baseball coverage. “A correspondent chides us,” the piece begins, “for our neglect of baseball, saying that it is ‘the grandest American sport,’ and demanding to know why we comment rather upon golf and tennis.”

The reasoning for this, the writer says, is simple: Golf and tennis are popular sports, but baseball, though popular, cannot be justly called a sport in its current state, beholden as it is to the whims of profit-hungry owners: “[E]xcepting college baseball and the spontaneous and sporadic game that occasionally occur in the vacant lots of the city or upon rural greens, is simply a professional encounter of mercenaries.” Like the writer of the editorial from 34 years previous, this writer is convinced that the switch from amateur to professional, the increases in possible profit margins and the concurrently increasing profit-making ownership schemes, have distanced the game from itself, transforming it into something base, less worthy of discussion than other actual sports.

The writer here does concede that watching contemporary baseball could be wildly entertaining: “Even the fan who hoots the players for whom he yelled last year and may be yelling next presents a pathetic perversion of local patriotism as well as a curious psychological study.” The editorial notes, too, the excitement of the down-to-the-wire American League pennant race. But, ultimately, the cancelled World Series was a reminder that for all the entertainment a baseball season could provide, it was all centered around profits in the end. Which, to the writer, disqualifies baseball from being considered a sport. “Professional baseball is no longer a game,” the writer concludes. “It is only a gladiatorial show.”

“Disorganized Baseball”
Date: January 1, 1927

What was going on: Rogers Hornsby’s St. Louis Cardinals had finished a disappointing fourth in the league in 1925, despite Hornsby’s absurd .403/.489/.756 MVP season. Though the following season saw Hornsby post a relatively pedestrian .317/.388/.468 line, he was still the team’s most valuable player—as well as the manager—and led the Cardinals to not only their first NL pennant, but their first World Series victory of the modern era in a dramatic seven-game series against the Yankees. He got the last out of the game by applying a tag to Babe Ruth, who for some reason had attempted to steal second. Hornsby, who had played his entire career in St. Louis, was a hero.

But Cardinals owner Sam Breadon didn’t take the same view of things. Hornsby, for all his talent, had a fiery temper that he was not inclined to restrain. His attitude had caused problems between him and Branch Rickey, whose managerial position Hornsby had assumed in the middle of the 1925 season, and Breadon was tired of dealing with his antics. So when Hornsby attempted to renegotiate his contract after the World Series victory, asking for three years at $50,000 per, Breadon countered only with one year at the same value, hoping that Hornsby would find the suggestion insulting and turn it down. Sure enough, Hornsby was outraged, leaving the door open for Breadon to pull off a trade he had long been plotting. Hornsby went to the New York Giants in exchange for Frankie Frisch, and the St. Louis fans, not to mention Hornsby himself, were blindsided—and, after that, furious.

The take: This is another editorial from a New York publication—I am not sure why the New York writers were so prone to delightfully dramatic turns of phrase, but so it goes. Published in The Independent right as 1927 began, the article first recounts the joy and ceremony of the St. Louis World Series victory, in a paragraph that is too good for me not to reproduce in full here:

Less than three months ago Mr. Rogers Hornsby piloted the St. Louis Cardinals to the first World’s Championship in all their long and lurid history. The delirious citizenry of that fair metropolis carried him around the walls of the fortress and presented him with the keys of the city, while all the fountains ran with wine and all the local poets smote their sounding lyres.

Of course, this state of bliss was relatively short-lived—Hornsby was traded on December 20. But it is less the ruin of the city’s joy that the writer of this piece is concerned with. Rather, the writer questions the morality of players’ lack of agency in whether and where they might be traded. Hornsby, after all, was violently opposed to the trade, but there was simply nothing he could do about it: “He may adore St. Louis and loathe New York, but if he plays baseball at all during the coming season, he must do so as a keen and loyal representative of New York.”

“It would be hard to conceive of anything more grotesque and more ridiculous,” the writer continues, “than our habit of referring to professional baseball as a ‘sport’… It is a business—and nothing else.” We are laboring under a delusion, the author suggests, if we think that the practice of professional baseball points to any higher principles. The piece notes the Black Sox scandal as an example of professional baseball’s lack of ethics—which, for the writer, is even more reprehensible in sport than in normal life: “In baseball ethics, it is and should be something worse, for it violates another and fundamental ethic—that players under all circumstances to play honestly to win.”

What separates this piece from the two that preceded it, though, is that this writer seems resigned to the state of professional baseball. In this view, it is less that baseball must be discouraged, or changed, but that fans need to alter their perspective on the sport—not imbuing it with transcendence, or holding it up as a pillar of American values, but taking it at face value. “With all the skill and brilliance of professional baseball,” the writer concludes, “it is still a money-making institution, run for profit… Let us take it for what it is, without any feeling of patriotism for the local team and without too blind a faith in the individuals who make up the organization.” Which, to my mind, is a healthy attitude for fans in any era.

References and Resources

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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6 years ago

I know this is tangential to the article-which by the way I think is fascinating, but I have heard that John McGraw purposely added the pitcher, Jimmy Ring in that trade so Frisch could not claim he was traded straight up for the great Rogers Hornsby. Do you know if that is true?

87 Cards
6 years ago
Reply to  bobr

I recall reading in Lee Lowenfish’s Seymour-Medal book Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentlemen (pretend I italicized the title) that Mr. Rickey wanted Ring in the deal to balance the exchange–Mr. Rickey thought Hornsby’s versatility was more valuable than Frisch’s.

Four years earlier, Ring had won 18 games for a last-place Phillies team (a dead-ball 1972 Steve Carlton if-you-will). while leading the NL in walks-issued for four consecutive years. Perhaps Mr. Rickey believed a change-of-scenery would put Ring back around the plate. It didn’t; Ring never won a game for the Cards; did a 4-17 back for the Phillies the following year and was done with MLB at age 33.

6 years ago

really enjoy reading about the 19th/early 20th century game and original accounts from that time period. In my own research, I found a great editorial from a local NJ paper in 1867 which begins “Since base ball has attained the dignity of being our ‘national game,’ it has become a ponderous and elaborate affair.” And ends with “In its preposterous form as our ‘great national game,’ it is very costly, very laborious, and not altogether safe for soul or body. It is not an amusement, but a useless and yet pretentious strife.” thanks for this article!

Las Vegas Wildcards
6 years ago

Yes, thankfully, baseball is a business. Because if it wasn’t, it would be at the same level of sports like curling. But unlike other business ventures, pro sports franchises will always have something more. The connection between the team and community, is something other business operations cannot replicate.

6 years ago

Thanks for helping ground the reader in historical context. Editorials haven’t gotten any less reactionary. 😉

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

I always find it amusing that people will decry baseball as being a business. As if, for example, the movies are an eleemosynary institution. They charge to get into the games and they pay the players; that by itself makes it a business. But doctors get paid too; that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate what they do.