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Eric Miller

The Republic of Baseball

Just a business?

There are those, writes Charles Fountain, "who see baseball as succor to the soul, a spirit that binds eras and generations." To say the least.

In early 20th-century Puerto Rico, "baseball was what fisherman thought about when they cast their lines and farmers when they harvested sugar cane," writes Larry Tye in his biography of Satchel Paige. Richard Peterson remembers true love in rough and dirty midcentury Pittsburgh:

My buddies and I played baseball every day, beginning in the cold, soggy spring, through the dog days of summer, until the chilly fall rains turned our fields of dreams into mud. With neighborhood rivalries and individual pride at stake, we played a punishing, reckless brand of baseball that often went beyond a love of the game itself …. I lived for those games and couldn't imagine what I would do with my life if I didn't play some day for the Pirates.

Peterson was in college and on his way to becoming an English professor by the time his Pirates defied history, logic, and bookies everywhere by defeating the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. As the season came to a close, the city erupted into fiesta and melted into love, more than 100,000—a sixth of its population—showing up at midnight to welcome the team back after it seized the National League pennant. "Ever see anything like this?" a New York writer asked the Pirates' Clem Labine, who had played on the Dodgers' championship team five years before. "Not like this, dad. Even Brooklyn was never like this."

Even Brooklyn. The words still sing and sting, a half-century later. New York had been to baseball what New Orleans was to jazz, the epicenter of a great national passion. In his 1994 documentary Baseball, Ken Burns, himself Brooklyn-born, beautifully captured the earthy intricacies of this allegiance, recording for posterity the language, syntax, and inflections of a trio of winsome and articulate New Yorkers—Stephen Jay Gould, Billy Crystal, and Doris Kearns Goodwin—recalling the baseball of their childhoods. Their testimonials warmly reinforce Robert E. Murphy's contention that New York was then "so dense with baseball fans that it took three teams to represent it, each of them deeply rooted and closely identified with the place in which it played." Succor to the soul indeed.

But even among its New York rivals, Brooklyn's attachment to its team stood out. Through most of the 19th century, Brooklyn, incorporated as a separate city, had cultivated a careful distance from Manhattan. Against the countervailing wisdom of the age, many wished it to stay that way. "One grew tall and became the center of most American things," writes Murphy in After Many a Summer: The Passing of the Giants and Dodgers and a Golden Age in New York Baseball. "The other grew wide and became the center of little except its own way of life and, for a while, even more than its mighty neighbor, of baseball." By the 1950s, "all the country knew that Brooklyn was the Dodgers and the Dodgers were Brooklyn," Ebbets Field the blessed site of holy union. After decades of sometimes bathetic failure, the team became a force following World War II, winning the 1955 World Series and numerous pennants. "Never had Brooklyn, intimate with baseball for more than 100 years, held a team so close to its heart," Murphy, himself a small child in the 1950s, remarks.

But Murphy's book is decidedly not memoir. It is history, and history at its best: impelled by a love that sharpens intelligence and deepens vision. His book, in fact, is hardly about the game of baseball at all—it's rather about the Dodgers and Giants, New York City, and the (losing) battle to keep them together. With piercing judgment and tart irony he renders the injustice, injury, and pain the loss of these teams inflicted not only on New York but on the nation itself.

Murphy's committed style may draw arguments, but his efforts to be scrupulously fair cannot be denied. His ample knowledge of the evidence and the historiography helps him present a richly complex story, with no simple, single villainous presence. Horace Stoneham and Walter O' Malley, owners of the Giants and Dodgers respectively, were facing considerable economic, social, and civic pressures that left them uncertain of their abilities to keep the teams financially sound. Local identities were rapidly thinning, stretched by new forms of locomotion and weakened by dreams that promised truer identities elsewhere. Baseball, "inner-city-based, incompatible with the automobile, was looking old," Murphy notes, with all major league teams struggling at the gate as the decade, year by year, revealed its goods—among them commercial jet service from the East Coast to the West, just beginning in 1958 (the year, not coincidentally, the Dodgers and Giants left town). There was certainly wonder in that. America was not just "moving again." It was moving in all kinds of ways it had never moved before. Would it take baseball with it? The answer didn't seem at all certain.

Along with granting a widespread perplexity, Murphy even finds evidence of good faith on the part of both the teams' owners and the city officials who fought to keep them in New York. What he doesn't find is enough good faith, at least not enough to justify the decisions of the owners to take the teams and run. Both teams were making money, the Dodgers loads of it—a model franchise, it seemed, the envy of the league. New York's civic leaders scrambled, often dysfunctionally, to find ways to meet O'Malley's insistent demands for a new stadium, one that could lure people beyond the borough back into town. It was not enough.

For his part, O'Malley, who had gained control of the Dodgers by 1950, claimed a profound commitment to Brooklyn. Others aren't so sure, Murphy among them. "Whether or not he actually loved Brooklyn," Murphy concludes, "he didn't care as much about improving the borough as he did about having his own ballpark, built and located to his own specifications." O'Malley's new stadium in Los Angeles would be his lasting treasure. All the treasure left in Brooklyn was memory. In his famous "obituary" of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Dick Young of the New York Daily News pronounced judgment with mordant disdain: "The cause of death was acute greed, followed by severe political complications." The Dodgers had died "the healthiest corpse in sports history."

But in those bewildering cold war days, with the nation poised, as Robert Wuthnow has put it, between promise and peril, did all of this contention about baseball, all of this upset, truly matter? It wasn't just the ordinary fans who felt deeply that it did. Perhaps the single most illuminating facet of Murphy's book is his recapturing of the language and arguments New York's leaders used as they faced what was, to them, a truly momentous situation, charged with civic import. Brooklyn congressman Emmanuel Celler forcefully contended that team owners should not see themselves as businessmen but rather as "sportsmen who were satisfied just to make a living while serving the interests of their fans." New York City Council President (and Brooklynite) Abe Stark, in a statement before the Congress, stated his view just as sharply. "It is my belief," he declared, "that a baseball franchise morally belongs to the people of a community. It is not the personal property of any individual, to be removed at the slightest whim." George V. McLaughlin—onetime New York City police commissioner, part-owner of the Dodgers, president of the Brooklyn Trust Company, and friend of O'Malley—spoke in the same way as he led a last-ditch effort to purchase the Giants from Stoneham. His not-for-profit group, he explained in a letter to Stoneham, was comprised of "public-spirited citizens."

If neither education nor government nor church nor the family nor health nor the sky nor even finance itself is safe in the market's hands, why should we give baseball over to it?

Read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and you'll find this very phrase, and phrases like it, used repeatedly. It's the old republican tongue, insisting with a conviction born of bitter experience that purely private interests were finally corrupting of the ends that humans might—must—achieve, including, above all, a significant sense of solidarity and commonwealth, a prosperity born of mutuality. Citizen Franklin started a fire company, published a newspaper, and launched a debating club. Among McLaughlin's concerns was baseball. Both men knew that such distinct yet interconnected activity was wonderfully and mysteriously necessary for the prospering of the whole. More ominously, they sensed that if these institutions, and a hundred like them, were absent, a dark expansive vacuum would emerge, to be inevitably filled by forces boasting an authority born of might, that could only degrade a citizenry into a warping dependency.

"Why was not one owner willing to stand up and say 'no' to the abandonment of New York fans?" wonders Murphy, wandering around in that void decades later. Why indeed? "It was now clear where baseball owners stood: for themselves and economic opportunity, rather than for devoted fans and a game's traditions."

This was the disturbing reality the departure of the Dodgers and Giants made clear. In its aftermath, some began to fight, in the words of Senator Estes Kefauver—another concerned citizen—to "return baseball to the American people." None fought harder than Branch Rickey; probably none cared more. Rickey, the most historically significant baseball man of the century, was the executive with the brightest mind and sharpest vision for all facets of the game, including its social context. Born in 1881, Rickey had been part-owner of the Dodgers in the 1940s while also directing its day-to-day operations (including the operation to integrate black players into the majors)—until O'Malley, who detested him, forced him out. In an appearance before Congress in the spring of 1960, Rickey starkly opined that "the major league owners need to be saved from themselves." He himself was in the midst of just such a salvation effort, the attempt to launch a new major league, the "Continental League," which would, among other things, feature the kind of revenue-sharing among its eight teams that would later make the National Football League not only rich but also admirably competitive, keeping even small-market franchises in the game. Baseball owners resoundingly resisted (and still do).

In his sprightly history of this effort, Michael Shapiro notes that Rickey "threw himself into the job with the energy of a young man who saw a higher purpose in his work." Baseball, Rickey believed, was, simply, good for the nation. Beyond that it was simply good, and should thus be preserved. But he also knew that such preservation was necessarily a civic act—hence his willingness to battle the owners in the U.S. Congress for the possibility of restoring and renewing the game. As Shapiro puts it, for Rickey "the game was a noble enterprise that the Senate was in a position to deliver to an eager nation."

The Continental League failed, never playing a game. The owners cagily co-opted Rickey's plan, deciding to permit franchise expansion for the first time in fifty-some years rather than grant the new league equal status. By this time, professional baseball was under threat for the first time from another sport, the far more disciplined, hierarchical, and entertainment-savvy NFL. Many predicted Major League Baseball's demise. But eventually it found ways to latch on to the postwar economic juggernaut and ride into the expansive consumerist future, regaining some of its popularity in the 1970s by belatedly embracing free agency, and drifting along with the neo-traditionalist turn the nation took through the '80s and '90s, in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam.

It's a story in many ways of ascent—costly ascent, as Charles Fountain's Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training makes clear. In probing the underlying workings of the political economy that sustains the major leagues, he provides striking evidence of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter was getting at when at mid-century he described capitalism as a system propelled by "creative destruction." The alliance of private capital, civic energy, and middle class affluence has certainly been creative: spring training has gone from a spare, money-losing necessity to a revenue-raising, profile-enhancing piece of promotion for town and team alike. Cities and counties throughout Florida and Arizona now vie for teams like drones in quest of the queen bee, and the golden honey of capital has flowed.

Fountain's account of the wooing of the Astros for a new spring training site in Osceola County, Florida, in the mid-1980s, at the moment the competition for mlb attention was being jacked up to a new level, is nicely illustrative. "So what do you want? asked the county. The Astros began tentatively, afraid of asking for too much. Well, how about four practice fields, they said. Done, said the county. What else?" By winter of 1985 Astros general manager Al Rosen was one satisfied man. "I don't think there is another spring training facility comparable to ours," he announced.

That judgment didn't hold up for even a decade; the facility, Fountain writes, became "quickly obsolete." Other teams and towns had seized on Osceola's example and pushed for more plush, sophisticated accommodations. Some efforts, like the misguided development of "Baseball City" in Polk County, Florida to which the Kansas City Royals had committed, flopped, and for good reason. "Had Baseball City been real," judges Fountain, "had it been supported by a local population and a local government and a business community, spring training and the Royals might have had a chance." But this "city" was, in the end, merely a brand, as vacuous as the names that now bedeck our stadiums. "Calling it 'Baseball City' … couldn't make it a community," Fountain concludes, suggesting that in this high-stakes game success requires "a high degree of coordination and cooperation among the state, the host cities, and the various civic groups"—not just "civic involvement" but "citizen involvement."

One can almost see Franklin, and a little while later, Alexis de Tocqueville, smiling. Almost. It would be comforting to imagine that even capital, in the end, must submit to what Fountain calls the "real," this solidity born of human devotion, affection, and persisting ties. But that's not quite the way it works. Just ask Brooklyn.

Yet our abiding, sentimental faith that market-driven enterprise can safeguard and nurture our most necessary ideals, practices, and institutions persists. Haven't we endured enough history by now to know better? If neither education nor government nor church nor the family nor health nor the sky nor even finance itself is safe in the market's hands—despite the vigilance of good men and women striving to make the system work for us, not merely for itself—why should we give baseball over to it?

All fans know that three words, whether spoken by villains or saints, kill the spirit of whatever sport of which they're said: It's a business. Baseball is not a business, any more than is marriage, or teaching first grade, or playing four-square. If we want to raise boys and girls who will come, like the aging Satchel Paige, to preach "the sanctity of the double steal and the blessedness of the bunt," we will find ways to preserve and protect this treasure. And chances are, if our children learn to feel the sanctity of the double steal, they'll come to know other realms of sanctity, too—and perhaps gain the courage to construct ways of guarding them.

Eric Miller is associate professor of history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His book Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch will be published by Eerdmans this spring.

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