Eric Miller

The Republic of Baseball

Just a business?

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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."

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