SBJ/January 28 - February 3, 2002/Opinion

MLB owners get a failing grade from prof

How about this for an opinion? "Baseball has survived in spite of the collective stupidity of its owners over the last hundred years."

Those are the words of David Bohmer, who just this month inaugurated and is now teaching a course called "Baseball as History and Literature" at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Although his course does not focus on the business side of baseball, he says you can't understand why the game became what it is today unless you talk about the money.

Bohmer, whose primary job is director of DePauw's Center for Contemporary Media, can back up his assessment of the owners' stewardship of the national pastime with plenty of evidence.

Bohmer

He starts with their extremely short-sighted decisions at the opening of the last century that he says ultimately led to the Black Sox World Series cheating scandal in 1919. Even though the established owners were facing both competition from the new Federal League and players who felt they were grossly underpaid (which in turn led to obvious gambling by players trying to supplement their meager incomes), the owners nevertheless cut player salaries when team revenues shot up after World War I ended. The owners, in a sense, actually bought themselves the scandal.

Bohmer's students will also learn this semester about the owners' odd tendency to resist changes that later proved to increase their revenue. Take radio as an example. The owners resisted broadcasting their games even after this new medium was well established because they feared that on cloudy days fans would rather listen to a game on the radio than risk a rainout. Or worse, the fans might not come to any game at all. It wasn't until the Cincinnati Reds began broadcasting games without harm to the gate receipts that the rest of baseball went along.

It was pretty much the same thing with night games. Even though it was pretty obvious that most fans couldn't go to the stadium during the day because they were working, the owners did not want to invest in lights. Some argued that baseball was meant to be played in the sunshine, but finally Larry MacPhail in Cincinnati put up the lights. When the crowds immediately filled the stadium at night, suddenly the owners forgot their purity-of-the-game argument (except at Wrigley Field) as their revenues swelled.

Integration of baseball was a huge social issue, but it was the money rather than moral suasion that finally integrated the game. The vote among the owners was 15-1 against Branch Rickey when he wanted to put Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers' roster in 1947. Rickey's guess that he could draw fans from the popular Negro leagues proved correct when immediately after he started playing Robinson he noticed the home game crowds were larger, and the crowds on the road were, too.

Probably the most bottom-line oriented owner and greatest promoter of the game at the time, Bill Veeck, noticed the same thing. He promptly signed Larry Doby to Cleveland. By 1948 with both Doby and Satchel Paige in the lineup, Cleveland won the pennant and that year drew a near record 2.6 million fans to watch them play.

Even so, despite the lure of greater revenues with integrated teams, many owners were slow to act in their own economic interests. It took 12 years before all teams were integrated, with Boston being the last to sign a black player in 1959.

Bohmer, who is a passionate fan and as a youth once harbored dreams of managing a team before entering the business world, is particularly blunt about how the owners were outfoxed by Marvin Miller. Against 24 team owners, one man, players' union chief Marvin Miller, not only single-handedly dismantled the infamous reserve clause, he got the owners to go along with limited free agency.

As Bohmer says, "Any student of economics 101 knows that if you decrease the supply, the price goes up. Yet the owners agreed to limit the number of free agents every year, thereby increasing the value of each." He concludes, "The owners had collectively and unanimously agreed to the one thing that has led to the incredible escalation of player salaries ever since."

Now, in 2002, baseball claims it is faced with overwhelming economic woes. What lessons does history provide the current crop of owners to help them find a way out of their troubles? I asked Bohmer, who holds a Ph.D. in history, if the owners show any signs of having learned from their past. His answer was very economical: "No."

I'm pretty sure he can back up his conclusion.

Bruce Collins is an attorney and writer from Greensboro, Md.

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