Certain barnaclelike growths of wrong assumption—that baseball is being killed by television, for example, or that the game today is a castrated version of the vigorous sport played in Ty Cobb's day—have been encrusting the body of baseball. The attempt here will be to scrape the barnacles away and look at things as they are.
Some hard truths about baseball deserve clearer recognition and appraisal:
1 The game is not declining in popularity, as some allege, but is more popular than ever.
Regularly there are reports from vague sources that football or basketball or bowling or bird watching has passed baseball in popularity. But the American Institute of Public Opinion in a survey of 1957 sports attendance discovered that 23 million different adult Americans paid their way in to see at least one baseball game last year, more than for any other sport. And nine out of 10 of these saw more than one game. Apart from the bare bones of paid attendance, there is the whole complex of Little League, Pony League, Babe Ruth League, Ban Johnson League and the rest of the recently organized boys' leagues; and the nonprofessional games played by American Legion teams, high schools, colleges. Beyond that there is the unparalleled flow of publicity, much of it spontaneous, attendant on baseball. Football and basketball are exciting, immensely popular sports, yet how mute the names of magnificent athletes like Bob Cousy and Frank Gifford sound in the public ear next to the clear and instant meaning of Mickey Mantle, or even Bobby Thomson who, except for one magic moment, has been an ordinary ballplayer. (This spring, 6½ years after he hit the famous home run that won the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants, Thomson's appearance in exhibition games in obscure cities like El Centro, Calif. aroused an excited buzz of recognition in the crowd.)
Millions of people who see no more than one or two baseball games in the flesh during the course of a year, or none at all, sit for unimaginable hours watching a gray-and-white reproduction of the game on television screens. Daily radio broadcasts bring still more millions pitch-by-pitch reports of game after game after game, month after month after month. Newspapers run thousands of miles of copy about the game played yesterday, the game to be played tomorrow, the current state of the chip in the left ankle of the new third baseman just acquired from Chicago for a left-handed pitcher and an unannounced sum of cash. Magazines devote acres of pages to photographs and words about the personalities, the controversies and the old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes conversation about the game. Books are published. Even phonograph records are made.
And the appetite for baseball is not sated. Baseball is far from being vitally necessary to Americans. It may have no great influence on our moral outlook, and probably not a great deal to do with our physical condition (except for that slightly uncertain knee, torn in a slide into second in a softball game some years back). Who wins baseball's pennant races is not so important to the baseball fan as the progress of the U.S. missile program (except, perhaps, to the 12-year-old fan). But, nonetheless, baseball permeates our existence. In its carefree, uncosmic, nonsignificant way, baseball is an integral part of the setting in which we live our lives. It is a major and undiminishing part of our general culture.
Undiminishing? Think of the Little Leagues. Think of the broadcasts. Think of the future. Like the universe in space, baseball's place in our mores is constantly expanding.
2 Major league baseball is a business, and a highly profitable business.
The old debate over whether baseball is a sport or a business is vapid. Major league baseball is, flatly, business. Efforts are being made in Congress to have a legal distinction made between the "business aspect" of baseball and the "sporting aspect." This is foolish. How can the sale of a frankfurter be called business and the sale of a ballplayer be called sport? Or, how can the negotiations of a concessions contract with the frankfurter people be utterly dissimilar to the negotiations of a player contract with a third baseman? Baseball is not "too much of a business to be a sport and too much of a sport to be a business," as Mr. Philip K. Wrigley of the Chicago Cubs (see page 80) is reported to have once said. Mr. Wrigley knows that it is a business whose product, called entertainment, is eagerly purchased by thousands daily.
Most of the time baseball is superb entertainment because it is a superb sport, conceivably the most thoroughly intriguing and satisfying sport ever devised by man. It is great fun to play; it is just as much fun to watch. William Saroyan calls it pure theater. Dr. John F. Weston, an opera lover, once rationalized his fascination for baseball by describing it as "a game of almost limitless dramatic possibility." It is the melodrama of our days, the Globe Theatre of our time, highly marketable entertainment, exciting business.
It has not always been a sound business, which may be the reason for Mr. Wrigley's comment. If Mr. Wrigley did not enjoy the sport of baseball, he would probably have sold his baseball business long since. And, of course, a few years ago, after Walter 0. Briggs of the Detroit Tigers died, leaving the bulk of his estate in trust, his executors—shrewd businessmen all—ruled that his investment in the Tigers, however valuable, was too risky to be included in a trust fund; they ordered its sale. The executors of J. Louis Comiskey's estate, which included the Chicago White Sox, also ordered a sale, but in this case Comiskey's heirs fought successfully to retain ownership. This proved a wise move financially, for despite the risk factor baseball has proved a highly lucrative enterprise. Larry MacPhail, onetime part owner of the many-time World Champion New York Yankees, can testify to this, and so can Calvin Griffith of the Washington Senators, who haven't been out of the second division since 1946. MacPhail is one kind of baseball businessman. He and Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley all saw a relatively modest investment in a ball club burgeon as the full value of their baseball property became apparent to other businessmen. Griffith is another kind. He and Horace Stoneham and Chuck Comiskey (and, in years gone by, the Macks of Philadelphia) are what is known as "old baseball people." They are members of families who have owned or held controlling interest in the same baseball club for 30 years and more. Griffith's Washington Senators were accepted as a shoestring operation (until Gabriel Murphy offered over a million dollars for a block of stock comprising about 12% of the total shares), and Stone-ham's New York Giants were felt to be in such a precarious condition that they were obliged to seek the greener pastures of San Francisco. They have other investments, of course, but the Griffiths and Stonehams (and Comiskeys and Macks) have lived in genteel comfort year in and year out from the income they derive directly from their baseball teams. This is intriguing, because these were supposed to be "poor mouth" ball clubs. Baseball makes money.
3 The game of baseball today in the major leagues is not deteriorating, as oldtimers protest, but is actually better played today than it has ever been.
There is no intent here to decry the game as it was played 40 or 50 years ago, or to imply that players of the quality of Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie would not be equally outstanding today. It is a different game today, however, and men like Ty Cobb, who were geniuses in the old game, don't like it as well. They complain, "They don't play baseball any more."
Well, this is wrong. Cobb's baseball was intensely concerned with the skills involved in getting a player on base and moving him around step by step to score a single precious run. Today's game revolves around the explosive, upsetting, runs-in-bunches nature of the home run.
The game today is more exciting to the average spectator and the average ballplayer because of the ever-present threat (or hope) of the home run. It is more demanding on the player, but it is also better played. The tactics and strategy of the game and the over-all skills of the players are far superior to those of 40 years ago.
There is a simple reason for this: the inevitable accumulation of knowledge. Casey Stengel is not necessarily a better manager than John McGraw but he knows a good deal more about baseball, just as Dr. Edward Teller knows a good deal more about physics than Michael Faraday. The things that the McGraws discovered have passed on through the years from one man to the next. As new things were learned they were added, causing new developments, approaches, techniques. Babe Ruth demonstrated that home runs were desirable. It was hard to hit homers with the old, thick-handled bottle bat. Whip bats, with thin, springy handles, soon evolved from the thick-handled bats, and everybody became a potential home-run hitter.
There is so much more concentration on knowing the game today, on perfecting technique, on improving equipment. In the old days a young player had to find out for himself how to do things. Sometimes he never learned. Today a young player is instructed from the very beginning of his career. His faults are spotted and, if possible, corrected. As a result there are more good players.
Fielding, for example, has greatly improved, partly because of improved techniques, instruction and equipment but also because of the far better playing surfaces. Gloves today are not the rudimentary protective padding of the past; they are quasi-mechanical devices that almost guarantee a fielder that if he touches the ball he'll catch it. Playing fields are meticulously groomed. A fielder is not half thinking that he might step on a stone or into a hollow. This constant of safe physical surroundings plus engineered gloves allows the fielder of today to play with a certain degree of abandon, to go all out, almost recklessly, for any batted ball. This, in turn, brings about a progressive refinement of fielding techniques, and a greater number of superior plays. Granted it is easier to field nowadays, but that does not alter the fact that, easier or not, it is better fielding. Errors are still an intrinsic part of baseball (human failure is an intrinsic part of drama), but they play a less common role in the outcome of a game. Ed Mathews making a backhand stab of a hot grounder to save the World Series is infinitely more gratifying to the baseball fan (if you can set aside partisan emotions for the moment) than Fred Snodgrass losing a World Series by dropping a fly ball.
The game is better. If Stengel, for example, could take a modern pennant winner and modern equipment and transplant them in time to, say, 1915, he'd win the pennant by 35 games.
4 The average ballplayer is not an ignorant, semi-illiterate boor, as legend has it, but rather a well-dressed, well-mannered, articulate and intelligent member of the community.
Ring Lardner wrote some pretty funny stories once about baseball players, good stories that have taken a permanent place in the gallery of American letters and which are still widely read. Unhappily, too many people who read them forget that they were written 40 years ago. Times have changed, baseball has changed and the baseball player has changed, but Lardner's raw, ignorant busher is still, for a surprising number of people, the prime source of their mental image of the modern major leaguer.
Several years ago a series of stories about Yogi Berra began to make the rounds. Most were exaggerated and many were pure fiction. Berra was made out to be a clown, stupid, ignorant, a hapless Malaprop. People, delighted with the stories, howled with laughter and only occasionally doubted the truth of them. Try to tell them that Berra, though poorly educated, awkward at expressing himself and rather shy and retiring with people he doesn't know, is nevertheless a shrewd man with sharp perception and a very keen sense of humor, and they look at you with disbelief and repeat the latest Yogi story.
This is so unfair. There are among the 400 men who play in the majors each year a few dull, unimaginative clods. There are also men of the high intelligence and character of Herb Score and Jerry Coleman and Joe Black. Most major leaguers, however, are surprisingly normal in appearance and personality. The average ballplayer has about the same degree of intelligence, education and awareness of the world about him as the average bank teller. Like the teller, he dresses neatly and talks pleasantly. He is different in that he probably knows more about baseball than the teller does about banking, and in that he has more money to spend and has traveled more. He resembles the athlete in that he is a big man, with a strong competitive instinct (ballplayers love to play cards or anything where one man wins and another loses) and possesses a handshake that could crush a stone.
5 Television, rather than the bane of baseball, is the strongest factor in baseball's present and future strength.
This is an obvious fact, too, but you will still hear baseball men argue that television is ruining the game. (They mean, of course, that it is ruining the business, but they're wrong there, too.)
Baseball is entertainment, and television is the greatest broadcaster of entertainment in the history of the world. Remember that the word broadcast is an old word, meaning to cast in all directions, the way a farmer scattered seed as he sowed a field. The field that television is sowing is still in its infancy, so far as monetary return is concerned. Pay television is inevitable; current television production costs are so high that a greater return has got to be realized. When one or another (or two together, or several) of the forms of pay television now in the experimental stage are finally accepted, adapted and installed, baseball will fly to the moon.
Just consider World Series coverage alone. The World Series is the greatest and most appealing of American sports events. It transcends baseball. Everyone, in a manner of speaking, wants to watch the World Series. It is not at all wild-eyed to imagine 20 million television sets tuned in to the World Series. At 50¢ a set the gross income would be $10 million per game. Allow baseball only 35% of that gross; $3½ million per game, or more for each game from television alone than the gate receipts, radio fee and television fee accrued by the Yankees and the Braves last fall for all seven games. And, of course, there would still be the gate receipts.
Presently, television income from the All-Star Game and the World Series is the primary source of the huge funds supporting the major league's player pension plan. Television revenue from local telecasting or from Game of the Week telecasting fees is an important part of the income received by most major league clubs. The Chicago Cubs reported a net profit on the 1957 season of $357, and revealed that television income of $100,000 was responsible for wiping out what otherwise would have been a deficit.
The minor leagues have lost all hope of independent survival because of the telecasting of major league games, but their only hope of any kind of survival—which would be by major league subsidy—also resides in television. Money is, naturally, professional baseball's lifeblood, and television is a huge blood bank.
6 The decline of the minor leagues is not a symptom of sickness in baseball, but evidence of the game's growing popularity.
The main thing to remember about the slow, steady fall of the minor leagues is the fact that it was not caused by a decline of interest in baseball. It was caused by a decline of interest in minor league baseball, and that was an inevitable result of an increase of interest in major league baseball.
For decades Americans who lived in the smaller cities and towns of the country, out of the orbit of the 10 major league cities that comprised the major leagues without change for half a century, sated their appetite for baseball by rooting for the local minor league team, or occasionally by watching local semiprofessional baseball. But in the last decade, radio broadcasts of major league games began to penetrate into these nonmajor-league towns, and then came television broadcasts. What happened?
The fan listened to major league ball on radio, watched it on television and just wasn't hungry enough to go out and watch the comparative humpty dumpties in the local park. Aggravate this situation by introducing Little League baseball (the term is used here to include all the baseball programs for youngsters currently common around the country) and you find that when the fan does go out to see baseball played in the flesh he wanders down to watch his son or nephew in the Little League, thus cutting down even further on his appetite for minor league ball.
A comparative study of sports pages illustrates the point. In 1938, say, in a fair-sized minor league town, the daily paper's sports page would include each day thorough coverage of the local minor league club. It would also have the major league standings and possibly a one-column roundup story of what happened the day before in the majors. Today's daily sports page in that minor league town not only carries the box score and at least a brief report on every major league game played the day before, but also wire-service photographs of major league play. An important series between the Braves and the Cardinals, say, will carry a banner headline and a long detailed wire-service report.
In view of this increased interest in major league ball and the colossal indifference of the major league clubs toward the deteriorating financial position of the minor leagues, it is really a tribute to the vitality of the game and to the tenacity and energy and ingenuity of the minor league executives that the minors have survived at all.
7 Expansion of the major leagues to 10 or 12 teams each is not just a matter of vote; it is a complex procedure that can come to pass only if baseball makes long-range plans now.
The Commissioner of Baseball has spoken glibly for some years now of a necessary expansion of the major leagues from two leagues to three or even four, and from 16 teams to 20 or 24 or even 32. Recently, he settled on two 12-team leagues, each divided into two six-team sections.
It's a splendid arrangement, one which would delight every baseball fan in the country if it were to become an accomplished fact. The trouble is, it won't become an accomplished fact, soon or ever, unless the commissioner or some other responsible party sees to it that hard practical planning is set down on paper now.
An existing major league franchise can be shifted from one city to another by a simple vote. But the creation of a completely new team involves a multitude of difficulties beyond mere voting. Will only one new team be added at a time, or should new teams be added only in pairs? Should any addition of teams to the majors be done only as part of a long-range development pattern, or is it all right if they come in haphazardly, as now seems likely? Should the American and National leagues work in concert on expansion, or should they engage in open and direct competition? What specific problems face a new owner? Should he be made to pay a franchise fee?
For example, a difficulty often cited as a deterrent to expansion is a supposed lack of enough players of major league quality. Baseball people favoring expansion insist that there are plenty of players. (And of course there are. It is competition between skilled teams of nearly equal strength rather than high skill alone that makes major league baseball successful.) But that is all they say. They do not take the time to recognize that the problem is not the number of players available but the distribution of them. A plan for sharing available players has got to be worked out now.
Obviously, new teams coming in could not at once be of equal strength, but a fine basis for future equality could be obtained by a real draft of existing personnel. For instance, let the 16 existing major league clubs list 25 "untouchable" players, which may include some of their brightest minor league prospects, and 15 "reserved" players, which may include some of their lesser major leaguers. Let every other player in Organized Baseball be placed in an open pool. The new clubs then proceed to draft 40 players, 25 for the major league club and 15 as the nucleus of a farm system. They cannot take any of the 25 untouchables; but they can draft, among them, a total of five of the 15 reserved players from each club; and they can draft anyone at all from the "open pool. They pay a fixed price of, say, $25,000 for every player drafted. When the draft is completed, all players except those drafted by the new clubs revert to their original status and baseball carries on.
A draft plan like this might well bring screams of protest from the pennant-winning New York Yankees and Milwaukee Braves. The idea of a Johnny-come-lately dipping his fingers into their minor league pie and carrying off the bulk of the wonderful young players they've spent so much time and money to find and train! Even the lowly Kansas City Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates could complain: "We've been trying to lift ourselves out of the cellar by developing young players, and now everything we've tried to build up is destroyed."
Even so, if expansion is to come, this plan or one like it must go into effect. A player-distribution scheme, acceptable to the future owners as well as to the owners of the present clubs, has to be worked out. It should be done now.
Another pressing problem involves finances. The monetary return from major league ball in a new city must be great enough to make the large initial investment a sound gamble; yet the initial investment must not be so large that no monetary return would warrant the risk involved. These concerns are blithely ignored. Jack Kent Cooke, the Canadian publisher who owns the Toronto Maple Leafs in the International League, would dearly love to own a major league team. A year or so ago a major league executive asked him if he'd be interested in owning a franchise in a 10-team National League. Cooke said sure, but when the executive added that the league would expect a couple of million dollars for the franchise, Cooke laughed. Avidly interested though he is, the idea of paying $2 million for what in effect would be a ninth-place team possessing neither stadium nor players left him cold.
Cooke is still the likeliest candidate for a franchise in an expanded major league, but not only does the investment have to make sense to him (and another like him if two teams are to be added at the same time), it has to make sense to a lot of other people, too. Stadiums have to be built and, while a city like Minneapolis has a major league stadium ready and waiting, most of the Torontos and Houstons and Denvers with their eyes on the majors do not. Whether the individuals and the cities involved think entry into the major leagues is worth the cost of building a stadium is a serious and provoking question, particularly in this time of recession.
That is the rub, of course, the whole question of expansion. Is it worth it? Is it worth it to the Yankees to give up valuable young players and take on added transportation costs and problems in order to play in new cities? Possibly, since the Yankees would certainly draw huge crowds (about 40% of the American League's total season attendance is at games the Yankees play), and that could make the investment practical. But what of the teams that don't draw flies on the road? What about Washington and Kansas City and the rest? And what about the Cookes? What about the players? What about the stadiums?
No amount of theorizing or idle talk is going to bring about a proper expansion of the major leagues. Someone has to demonstrate clearly and factually (and publicly) how it can be done, how much it will cost and that it will be worth the investment.
Until that time, the Commissioner of Baseball is talking about nothing but pie in the sky.
8 Baseball is not 16 separate companies, as baseball says, but one huge business corporation, owned more or less equally by 16 separate corporate individuals.
For some unclear reason, baseball shies violently away from any suggestion that it is a business entity. Perhaps the fear of government charges of monopoly keeps the individual owners from admitting this obvious truth. Of course, if the Government were bent on proving that baseball was indeed a monopoly it would not be deterred by the insistence of the owners that this vague term "baseball" is just that, a vague term.
The door to the office of the Commissioner of Baseball bears one word: BASEBALL. His letterhead bears the same word, in black-letter type: Baseball. There is no "Inc." after it, and that is significant. If Baseball were to incorporate, then it would be admitting it is a corporate individual.
But—business technicalities to one side—it is an individual, BASEBALL, on the commissioner's door, means the entire structure of major league baseball and a good deal, if not all, of minor league ball. Vast sums of money are received and distributed by this office. Myriad details relating to every major league player are handled by it. The 16 separate clubs in the major leagues are bound together by their common interest in it. The 16 clubs are 16 distinct corporations (the New York Yankees are actually a partnership rather than a corporation), each in business for itself, but they are also equal owners of this greater body. Mr. Wrigley has also said, "Baseball is the only business in which you compete with your partners."
The people of the country don't own baseball, as baseball likes to say. They buy its product, but they don't own it as they do, say, the Army and the Navy. By their vote the people have some say over the Army and the Navy, but they have nothing to say about baseball, except as their buying habits indicate. The Government doesn't own baseball. The players don't own it. The umpires don't. The sportswriters don't.
The owners of the 16 major league clubs own the business organization called Baseball. Rather than shy away from that truth, they should admit it, and indeed accept the responsibility proudly.
9 The Commissioner of Baseball is not, and has not been for about a decade now, the supreme authority over baseball.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 until his death in 1944, was often called the Czar of Baseball. He was an autocratic ruler with considerable power which he never hesitated to use. His successor, A. B. (Happy) Chandler, was occasionally referred to as the czar out of habit, but less and less frequently as time went on. Chandler was a far better commissioner than he has been given credit for, but his broad manner and flamboyant ways alienated the press, and his perhaps naive assumption that the club owners meant him to have the same power as Judge Landis alienated them.
Chandler's successor, Ford C. Frick, has never been called a czar. He has pursued a policy of wait-and-see. talk-things-over, compromise. For this he has often been severely criticized, but he has escaped the public censure that fell on Chandler because of the respect accorded him by the press, from whose ranks he rose.
Criticism of Frick is usually in the nature of a demand that he "declare" something wrong, or that he "ban" something else, or that he "pass" a new rule. That, of course, was Landis' way, but Landis, assuming power in time of crisis—major league baseball was in anarchy and on the verge of civil war in 1920, and the Black Sox Scandal was exploding into the headlines—held onto that power with both hands for the rest of his life. He exercised something very close to government by flat. This was not necessarily a good thing. When he was right, it was fine. When he was wrong, it hurt baseball. In the 1930s the owners would have very much preferred to have Landis retire, or relinquish much of his authority, but the old man had become a symbol of baseball and they did not dare to try to oust him. After he died in 1944, the owners wanted a man who could maintain Landis' symbolic stature—the good and the true, the honest and the pure—but who would be more an executive secretary than a president, a man who could bring dignity and stature to baseball publicity and also handle all the administrative details that are part of the baseball central office. They definitely did not want another policy maker. Somehow or other Happy Chandler gained the appointment. It was a poor choice. Chandler was too much the glad-handing politician to bring the desired dignity to the role, and too much the independent man of action to become the dutiful administrator of detail that baseball needed. When the time came for reappointment, no one could specify anything that Chandler had done that was grievously wrong, but his contract was not renewed. And in 1951 Ford Frick got the job.
Frick is a gentle, quiet man of considerable dignity. He is intelligent, considerate, cultured, well-educated and devoted to baseball. He understands full well that times have changed since Landis' day, that the 16 major league franchises now have huge monetary value, and that no $50,000-a-year man can tell someone else what he can or can't do with a $5 million property. Frick, though he has never said this, sees his job as an administrative one in which he prevents or punishes obvious floutings of established baseball law, as a promotional one in which he lends his person and his words to the exaltation of the game of baseball, as an advisory one in which he counsels his employers on matters in which he has specialized knowledge, and finally as a mediatory one in which he attempts to achieve a compromise when there is a pronounced difference of opinion among his employers.
But it is not an authoritarian job in which he can "declare" or "ban." The authority for the control of baseball lies entirely with the owners of the 16 major league clubs.
10 To sum up: The future of baseball, rather than being gloomy, is almost overwhelmingly bright.
The calamity howlers can't believe this. They say attendance is dropping, that the decline of the minor leagues is evidence of the decay in baseball, that it's only a matter of time before chaos envelops the game.