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In the small midwestern town where I grew up—this is back in the 1920s—there were three sports, and they followed each other across the seasons with the same natural geometry that makes the moon swell and wane. In the fall there was football, in the winter there was basketball, and in the spring and summer there was baseball. There were, of course, to be literal, other things too, such as tin-can hockey on the frozen creeks and an outburst of track in the spring, but these were extras: the basic facts of life were only three.
They made three concentric circles. The basketball involved the nearby towns. The football took in the whole midwestern area because one was interested in college football and felt state pride. The baseball was national. They called it the national game, and it was truly that. In September the Tribune hung its big tin diamond on the side of the building, and the sports editor and his helpers, working from a platform behind it, took the World Series plays off the wire and moved the mannequin players around the bases, to the groans and cheers of the crowd that filled the street. New York or Washington or even Chicago was a long way away, and hardly anyone in the crowd had ever been to such places; but every man and boy in the crowd had picked his team, knew the players and felt a sense of participation which, being imaginary, was more acute than one now feels in seeing the shadow of a sometimes torpid reality on a television tube.
But the extraordinary thing was this: the whole event, and indeed the whole annual experience from the spring-training news to this climax, was somehow filled with a spirit of amateurism, almost as much as school basketball and football. Of course the players were paid, and of course the club owners had expenses and wanted to come out with a profit, and of course this was professional sport, and yet—the feeling was that the money was only a means to an end, the end being baseball as a game. Were Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth commodities? They were heroes. Was Connie Mack a businessman? He was the general of a campaign. Baseball teams were sponsored by nobody except the public.
Somewhere along the line the accent shifted. Absurd as it may sound, professional baseball lost its amateur standing. It became a big business. This may be good or bad. On the good side it can be argued that the general level of skill in the major leagues is higher than in the older days, that competition is tougher in the teams and in the leagues, and thus that the sport has improved. One thing is sure and healthy: the baseball audience has increased many thousandfold. But, good or bad or both, the change has happened, so that today the successful ball club is as tightly organized and as attentive to financing, purchases, manufacturing, promotion and sales as the successful company dealing in washing machines or motorcars.
A few years ago Philip K. Wrigley invented his famous aphorism, "Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business and too much of a business to be a sport." As a sport, it speaks for itself—to millions every summer day. But as a business it is curiously mute. As the devil fears holy water, so does the baseball owner or general manager flinch at a request to see a balance sheet or a profit and loss statement. What, as the season opens, becomes the national game and requires the presence of the President to pitch the symbolic first ball becomes at the end of the season a very private bookkeeping matter.
SI proposes to bring this odd situation into better balance. In future issues we will have a great deal to say about baseball as a sport. In the present series we are concerned with the other half of Mr. Wrigley's definition: with the big business that baseball has become.
How big is it? Well, obviously not even in the same order of magnitude as the basic industries, but pretty big at that. Organized baseball, the eight tiers of professional baseball reaching from the major leagues to the Class D leagues, is responsible in one way or another for more than $100 million changing hands each year. This figure counts concessions, radio and television and would be a minimum: the chances are that it is considerably higher.
At least half of this amount, and probably more, is the product of big league play, and most of the remainder stems from big league activities. Not only are most of the smaller clubs (55 out of 68 in the nine top minor leagues) financially dependent these days on the big ones, either as outright fiefs or through working agreements by which they consent to sell players, but the public's interest in them—such as it is—is largely a reflection of the mania stirred up by the big league pennant races and the World Series. No one but the local sports editor and the players' relatives really cares deeply about what happens to the Class D team in Kokomo, Indiana, but a number of fans there may bleed with every blow suffered by the Cubs or Indians or some other big league team to which they have attached their loyalty. As everyone must know by now, the minor leagues are in miserable condition: the cause and possible cures will be left for a future analysis. Here we are concerned with the 16 teams that make up the major leagues and from which the whole of organized baseball suspends.
From a business standpoint, there are two ways of looking at them. One is the point of view of the owner or investor: how does one make a maximum profit in big league ball? The other point of view is that of the player: how does one go about making a financially satisfactory career in baseball? Until rather recently there was a third point of view, that of the Department of Justice. The department maintained that the major leagues, with their financial and contractual control over organized baseball, comprised a monopoly—a fact so obvious that no one made any attempt to deny it. The Supreme Court, however, removed the embarrassment by declaring that baseball is not a business in interstate commerce: a further demonstration, if any more were needed, that there really is such a thing as a curve ball.
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