That Lively Corpse

From Wild Oats, Aug 1, 1872.

From Wild Oats, Aug 1, 1872.

Last month, Bryan Curtis of ESPN’s Grantland came up to Catskill to chat with me about baseball’s annual burial rites. His fine story, “The Dead Ball Century,” may be read here: http://goo.gl/a1RyNp. A couple of days ago I gathered with my neighbors at the Beattie-Powers Place to deliver my annual Hot Stove League talk and to gab afterwards with my baseball-loving friends. My talk reprised a good bit of my conversation with Bryan and to some degree expanded upon it. Warmed over, you might pronounce this blogpost but, I hope, sturdy like a casserole brought to a covered-dish supper.

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.

And then came the boom years, capped by home-run heroics on a scale that once seemed unimaginable.

If I haven’t made myself clear, this worrisome chain of events describes the game of a hundred years ago and more. 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.

A captain of a championship club once said: “Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to.” The man was Pete O’Brien of the Brooklyn Atlantics; the year he said this, the first known baseball death notice, was 1868.

Pete O'Brien, 1865 Atlantics.

Pete O’Brien, 1865 Atlantics.

Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing had skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.

By the 1880s pundits were forecasting the imminent demise of the game because of its extreme violence, much as we see today with professional football. “The records of our hospitals,” wrote a New York Times editorialist, “confirm the theory that fewer games of baseball have been played during the past year than were played during any single year since 1868…. Probably the time is now ripe for the revival of cricket.”

So what have been the tell-tale indicators of baseball’s looming end? Let me count the signs, in no particular order.

1. Baseball is too expensive.

In a letter to the editor of a Philadelphia newspaper on July 6, 1874, an aggrieved patron wrote: “Sir: On the Fourth, I felt rich, and I concluded to take it on the shell, no matter what the price. Well, the game–Athletic-Philadelphia–cost me nearly $2, as follows:– Entrance 50 cents, seat $1, fares 25 cents, four beers 20 cents…. If they would reduce the price to a reasonable figure, I would go out occasionally–but, it is really too heavy.” A simple Purchasing Power Calculator would say the 2014 cost of this 140-year-old ballpark excursion for a single fan, which included no food, would be $41.10.

2. Ballplayers are not as skilled today.

Baseball’s statistics, unlike those of, say track and field—are flexible, products of a particular time and place. Does anyone truly believe that players were better in 1887, when ten men hit over .400?

3. High salaries are killing baseball.

Giancarlo Stanton recently signed a contract for $325 million over 13 years. A reporter asked him if he was embarrassed to be paid so much. But in 1922, when the Yankees were paying Babe Ruth $75,000, a Michigan paper argued that baseball had birthed a “salary-frankenstein.”

4. Free agency has created too much movement of players from city to city.

Players have always moved around. But in former times it was owners trading players — treating players like chattel. Only a quarter of a century removed from the Civil War, the Milwaukee Journal warned in 1890, in a story called “The Decline in Baseball Interest”: “You cannot put [a player] up like a slave on auction block.”

5. Other sports are more appealing.

Today baseball’s rivals for fan favor are football, basketball, and soccer. But in 1892, the Boston Journal noted — in an article yet again titled “The Decline of Base Ball” — that bicycling was the true sport of the age. In 1917, the Colorado Springs Gazette argued that baseball was losing ground to trap shooting. “The modern young man takes up a sport that he can actually do,” the Gazette reported. “No longer is he to be a bench warmer.”

First man on the line,  Puck, L.M. Glackens April 2, 1913.

First man on the line, Puck, L.M. Glackens, April 2, 1913.

6. Young people today have too many electronic distractions.

This also is an old argument, dating to a time before TV, internet, iPhone, and video gaming. Silent movies were regarded as a big challenge to baseball; a scout told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1917 that people preferred nickelodeons to stadiums.

7. Baseball is too slow for the modern age.

In 1945, columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote, “I detect a sad and desperate admission that the game, itself, is outmoded.” In 1969 media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote: “Baseball is … a dying sport … just too individual a sport for our new age.” Baseball will experiment with ways to quicken the pace, but the challenge will not be to alter the essence of the game–which is one of expectation, reflection, and surprise.

The past is prologue. Baseball’s revenues and fan interest are booming right now, despite the annual eulogies, but it may still endure some hard times. Franchises may fail, or relocate, or relocate and fail. Television contracts, real-estate valuations, and capital-gain speculation—the forces that blew the baseball bubble up, might make it burst, as it did in the 1890s. But the elements of further popularity and prosperity are already in place, and have been for a hundred years: the international movement, spearheaded by Albert Spalding with his world tour in 1888-89, and now carried forward by the World Baseball Classic, and the incredibly hardy minor leagues, where the business of baseball still has a human scale and a connection to the spirit of play.

3 Comments

Excellent piece. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Gee. Isn’t there a better picture of “Peto Brine,” as (I think) he once called himself in a letter to an editor?

Sure. But I like this one. If it’s clarity you’re after, see: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/40/Champions_of_america.jpg

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