Baseball Writers, Big Business and Big Sport

Without baseball, there is no Buster Olney (right), and vice versa. (via Nicolas Stafford)

Without baseball, there is no Buster Olney (right), and vice versa. (via Nicolas Stafford)

The purpose of sports media has been the subject of fierce debate in recent weeks, thanks to the yearly media fervor that descends upon the sports world’s biggest event, the Super Bowl. Between the circus that is Super Bowl Media Day and the extended battle between football journalists and Marshawn Lynch, this year’s Big Game was enough to make one ask what exactly we sportswriters are doing here. What does such trivia matter? Where were football journalists on the domestic violence and concussion issues looming over the NFL in the past decade? Where were baseball journalists on the plummeting rates of African-American players in baseball over the past 20 years, or the horrible labor conditions for minor league players domestically and in Latin America?

To answer these questions, as with most relating to the history and development of the gigantic American sports industry, we have to look to baseball’s historical record. Football has surpassed baseball in popularity, but the very idea of a “national game” doesn’t exist without baseball’s explosion throughout America in the late 1800s. This explosion would not have been possible without baseball reporters, or perhaps more accurately, without the invention of the baseball reporter. In the early deployments and discussions of the baseball reporter, we can see the seeds of the same relationships that produce so much sports content and so little focusing on larger social issues.

In late 1875, as the National Association was reeling, William Hulbert was making his plans to revive the ailing circuit in the form of the National League, the same National League that has played for the last 139 years. The newspapers were an integral part of Hulbert’s plan to create a sustainable major league. From John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden:

Emulating the practice of traveling circuses and vagabond theater troupes, which, rather than pay for newsprint advertising, employed press agents to plant manufactured stories, Hulbert found his mouthpiece, by what route we cannot reconstruct, in Chicago Tribune reporter Lewis Meacham. An impecunious bachelor afflicted with chronic digestive aliments (from which he would die in 1878 at age thirty-two), Meacham had previously failed in a brush factory in Vermont, a sheep farm in Colorado, and in the proofreading department of the Chicago Times. He had been on his latest job only three months, with no prior involvement in baseball, when on October 24, 1875, he somehow came up with a plan for the National Association’s reorganization and saw it published in the Tribune.

In later articles, Meacham promised the National League would be free of the “drunken behavior” seen on previous circuits and that the “honest play” that prevailed prior to baseball’s professional era would return. He wrote that the league assured players “lucrative employment as long as they are honest and work hard.” He intimated the game would be free of the corruption that comes with gambling. It was quite the utopian vision.

Naturally, none of these things were true. “As soon as the National League’s gambling and game-fixing problems seemed to be cured,” Thorn writes, “revolving returned as an even larger problem than it had been in the late 1860s.” Free agency reigned, which led to the institution of the reserve clause in 1879. Two years prior, four players from the Louisville club were expelled for gambling on games, including star pitcher Jim Devlin. And although the National League largely succeeded in removing gambling from the ballparks themselves, it was simply pushed into bars and billiard rooms instead. But the National League had successfully established itself, in no small part thanks to the impossible promises pushed by Meacham and the Chicago Tribune.

A recession befell the country in the 1870s. The subsequent Gilded Age was an era defined by the rise of so-called captains of industry and the fall of virtually the rest of the country. Work was hard to find. In a lousy economy, shilling for Organized Baseball doesn’t sound so bad. People will do the work for cheap and they’ll line up for the privilege. At least one writer, however, had a touch of self-awareness about the role, as showcased in the March 27, 1903 issue of The Day (New London, Conn.), under the headline PRESS AGENTS’ WORK: HALCYON DAYS OF VARI-COLORED YARNS ABOUT BASEBALL, a column syndicated from the Springfield News:

It is really remarkable to note how freely the press agent will lie at this season of the year, philosophically remarks the Springfield News critic. Throughout the rest of the 12-month he is a comparatively truthful man, and once the season is well underway he is generally quite as free with his criticism of the home team as he was with his cheerful falsehoods at the opening of spring. Of course there are a very few dyed-in-the-wool baseball Annaniases whose employers keep them eternally at it all the year round, but these are not at all representative of the craft. The Connecticut league boasts of a small share of these all-the-year-around press agents, but they do not count for much.

The simon-pure press agent only consents to tell what is not so at the opening of the season. Once the fans themselves get a look at the players, then the press agent knows enough to no longer indulge in airy deceit. But during the shaping-up season he is readily pardoned for springing such stuff as this:

“Local cranks will be glad to know that Manager Flub has signed old Bill Skate — good, old, reliable Bill — who played a small portion of last season with the Greengoods team. Bill is a right good player when he keeps away from the tempting bottle, and would have batted for 378 last season but for the fact that he was hitting the cup rather freely toward the fag end of the year, and was seeing three balls every time the pitcher put one over to him. He has signed the pledge though now, and he’ll probably do a lot toward landing that rag.”

Baseball is now a multibillion dollar industry that reaches millions of fans on a yearly basis. The news value of a baseball story in 2015 can be debated, but willing eyes for these stories exist across the country. A century ago, no such claims could be made. And while baseball writers could try to camouflage their sales pitches as journalism, The Day’s parody reveals the transparency of the disguise.

But you can’t beat free publicity, and most of the men of Organized Baseball understood. There was the occasional grump who wanted the media away, such as early Chicago Cubs owner Charles W. Murphy, who once said “Baseball existed before the newspapers supported it, and it can get along without them now,” and who was noted for bribing baseball writers with the promise of a brand new suit for the right quotes in the next day’s paper. For the most part, though, the people making decisions in baseball understood what the writers were there for, like National League president Thomas J. Lynch. Lynch is quoted in the Jan. 7, 1910 Milwaukee Journal:

One reason why, in my opinion, the greatest consideration should be extended to baseball writers is this: they have made the game. The clever word painters have kindled public interest and kept it warm.

Reduce baseball writing to a dry and business-like basis and where would the crowds be? Cutdown to a few dyed-in-the-wool fans.

Changes for the better, wrought through the good work of the baseball writers, mark all departments of the game. The crowds are fairer, less biased, less partisan than twenty years ago. Good writers have taught them other teams than the home club contain players worth admiring and to be more considerate of umpires.

The game owes a great deal to the men in the press box, and I propose to give their claims the fullest possible recognition.

Among baseball men, Connie Mack can offer a unique perspective. He spent his entire life in baseball, as a player in the 1880s and later as a manager and an owner throughout the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, Mack was running a dreadful Philadelphia Athletics squad that had slid from two World Championships and three pennants from 1929-1931 to National League worst in half a decade. His frustration with Philadelphia’s media boiled over as spring training neared and rumors of turnover on the coaching staff and players holding out for bigger contracts raised club tensions.

The baseball writers should meet us 50-50. For it really is that. Baseball gave the scribes their jobs — they should work for the game, at least for their own interests… The sport writers forget that baseball is ‘big sport’ as well as ‘big business.’

Mack finally retired in 1950, at age 87, and with his retirement his role in baseball changed from manager and show-runner to ambassador for the game. In his autobiography, published chapter-by-chapter in newspaper sports sections across America, Mack showed a newfound respect for the baseball press, perhaps thanks to his new perspective from truly atop the baseball world. From the opener of Mack’s 37th chapter, as published in The Miami News:

Sports writers are the power behind the tremendous growth of our national game. We managers of teams know that we would not be what we are today if it were not for our American newspapers.

How did baseball develop from the sand-lots to the huge stadiums — from a few hundred spectators to the millions in attendance at professional games today?

My answer is: Through the gigantic force of publicity. Publicity has done for baseball what it has done and is doing for the industrial expansion of our nation. It made us “news.” It put the force of public opinion behind us. It brought the customers to us. It built us into the “big business” that we are today.

(Bold from original)

The relationship between the baseball press and the baseball establishment is a symbiotic one. The baseball reporter’s job doesn’t and couldn’t exist without the access granted by owners and executives. The owners and executives, naturally, expect something in return: free advertising and publicity, putting baseball into the minds of readers and viewers, ideally in a way that paints the league in a positive light.

Over the generations, the role of the sportswriter has evolved. Although sports remains the journalistic “toy department,” some writers have shirked the PR role to become valuable reporters and great storytellers. But today’s sports journalism grew from the seed of Lewis Meacham and the rest of the baseball writers whose job it was to, as Connie Mack put it, “make us ‘news.’”

Dr. Harry Edwards of UCLA wrote of the sports reporter’s role in his 1973 work Sociology of Sport. The sports reporter’s job, according to Edwards, is to portray major sports and the people within them as “conforming to the ideal values of society.” This is Meacham’s promise that Hulbert’s new National League would be free of gambling and corruption, and it is Lynch’s note that baseball writers have kept “warm” the public’s view of the sport. But when the people in this role are also filling the role of journalist — a role that demands objectivity and accountability — contradictions are bound to arise. Edwards continues:

Problems emerge primarily due to the fact that in the realm of sport, as is true in every other realm of societal life, there frequently exist broad discrepancies between ideal values and actual behavior. Traditionally, however, not even publicly known discrepancies in the sports sphere have received coverage by sports reporters commensurate with the significance of those discrepancies. For instance, sports reporters undoubtedly knew of the growing drug crisis in sport and the increasing intrateam tensions centering upon racial issues long before these problems were brought into public view by rebelling athletes and others. Yet, one finds virtually no mention of racism or drug abuse in sport prior to the onset of the “athletic revolution.”

The “athletic revolution” Edwards refers to took place from roughly 1965 through 1975, a decade that saw unprecedented activism from athletes and negative reporting on sports and leagues from the journalism world. In the four decades since, however, the previous status quo has returned. The PED crisis in baseball went largely uncovered with little effort from baseball journalists throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Racial issues in baseball see little coverage even as the percentage of African-American players in the game drops every year and is now lower than it was in the 1950s. What little reporting there has been on the horrendous work conditions in Latin American academies comes not from a lead reporter and a major national sports outlet, but from lefty magazines like Mother Jones. The horrible work conditions and sub-minimum wages in the minor leagues were a total non-issue until lawsuits threatened baseball’s grip on young players.

Meanwhile, baseball reporters across all platforms continue to give major league baseball the publicity it needs. It’s in the grainy pictures of the back fields that beat writers tweet out like clockwork every spring. It’s in the team-affiliated blogs and their constantly optimistic season predictions and projections. It’s in the scramble to be first and loudest with a scoop. It’s in the discourse in which banning the shift and pace of play are bigger problems for the game than its labor and race issues. Not every reporter needs to be a muckraker, but sports journalism is not fulfilling its duty if it does not cover these stories.

It can be somewhat disheartening to talk about sports in this way, especially baseball, which thrives on the mythical purity of the older game. There is a desire to believe it was all about the love of the game back in the golden era, that the game’s current dirty business-like qualities come from free agency or television or from competing with the NFL or somewhere else outside the game.

But the history is clear. Even though he may not have fully accepted the sportswriter’s role in 1936, Connie Mack was certainly right about one thing: baseball is “big business” as much as “big sport,” and this relationship applies to reporters as much as anybody else in the game. And until mainstream baseball outlets reconcile with this relationship, it will shape and color every bit of reporting they produce.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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Mark L
8 years ago

Superb article, but couldn’t the same criticisms be levelled here and at Fangraphs? Compare the number of meaningless articles about one team’s low-A prospects to the number of articles about how much those low-A prospects are paid.

8 years ago
Reply to  Mark L

I would argue that these websites have a different purpose though. They are analytical rather than reporting. No one on staff is a journalist and so they would have trouble actually chasing down the stories.

8 years ago
Reply to  Seth

“No one on staff is a journalist”

Really? ( )

Also, I disagree with your implication that reporting and analytics must be separate.

8 years ago

Got an error about halfway through. Connie Mack was never, ever in the National League. And, a semi-ditto on what Mark said. Blogs may bite a little closer to the bone, but not too much. Ironically, or something else, Craig at HBT, owned by NBC, posted this link.

Paul G.
8 years ago
Reply to  SocraticGadfly

Actually, Connie Mack played in the National League from 1886-1896, save 1890 when he was in the Players League, and he managed in the National League from 1894-1896. But, no, Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics were never in the National League.

8 years ago

Those interested in this subject should read two recent autobiographical works by two thoughtful recently (semi-)retired sportswriters: Over Time by Frank Deford, and Scribe by Bob Ryan.

Note: African-American participation in MLB is a real issue, but (a) the relevant starting figure is the ratio of black to white American (US) players, and (b) non-baseball factors such as NCAA scholarship allocations are probably very significant.

Paul G.
8 years ago

In government, there is a phenomenon known as “regulatory capture” where a regulatory agency designed to oversee an industry (or some other entity) in order to protect the public instead ends up serving the very industry instead. It makes sense: the agency officials will be interacting with the industry officials constantly, the public less often and less intimately, often the agency is being funded from money from the industry, and typically the people who best understand the industry are going to be those very same people who run the industry, making them the logical choices to be regulators.

While not a government regulatory body, the phenomenon you describe is very similar. Sports journalists spend most of their time with sports professionals, many of those journalists are former athletes, and sports indirectly pay their salary. It logically follows that said journalists would tend to have a favorable view of the sports they cover even if outright corruption is excluded from the equation.

This is nothing new. For that matter this is not something limited to sports. It is a problem that has been dogging journalism in general for as long as there have been journalists. It happens today all the time in every section of the newspaper.

The only real solution to have a wide variety of voices with a wide variety of viewpoints covering sports (or whatever) to try to keep everyone honest. Yes, some of those voices will be cranks and some of those voices will be obviously biased (as opposed to latently biased), but at least subjects are investigated from all angles. The Mother Jones of all stripes, while clearly not remotely impartial, can be quite useful in this regard. The rise of the blog that has empowered the independent journalist and news hobbyist have been a wonderful addition as well. Still, if the mainstream sources are all captured, the non-mainstream often have to make a lot of noise to be heard.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

Paul G. is correct but does not state the obvious. Sports journalism fundamentally changed with the advent of ESPN. I collect copies of The Sporting News from the 50’s through the 70’s. The issues are filled with serious and substantive sports information and opinion. The columnists are a diverse group and wrote for the serious sports fan. And most had common link with those fans. The writers, by and large, were not highly paid and had the same good and bad habits as your average fan. Think Joe Falls, Dick Young, and Bob Broeg, to name just a few. But ESPN changed it all and turned your average beat journalist into a highly paid celebrity. It is no coincidence that the two first words for the ESPN acronym are Entertainment and Sports. These two concepts are now inextricably intertwined in our culture. I guess you could say Howard Cosell and ABC’s Wide World Of Sports started it but ESPN sent it off the charts.

buck memphis
8 years ago

Journalists of all stripes missed the story on PED’s even though it was obvious and observable by even the most casual fan. They’ve also missed the boat on every issue in politics and international affairs until it reaches crisis state. The media class in the US is far too close to the subjects that they cover, both politically and socially. The lack of investigative reporting on the most pressing issues comes from culture of PR-ism that has infected every aspect of media from Hollywood to the music biz and into hard news.

8 years ago

As someone who is interested in business, politics, and baseball, I too could appreciate applying the same analytic skill and writing that fangraphs brings to the impact on BABIP to a hitter’s average to the more social aspects of the game. As a young kid and throughout college, I regularly reached into baseball’s rich and colorful history to write about racism (Jackie Robinson), great migration west (Dodgers and Giants), and labor (impact of free agency and player strikes).

Fangraphs purity in letting the numbers tell the story is something that is rarely found when discussing the various social issues of our day. Most often, commentary and analysis is focused on only one side of a particular issue.

I look forward to future fangraph articles on the current social issues facing baseball, the various opinions on how to address, and fact driven data analysis and investigative journalism from the fangraphs reporters.