The American Game


In 1862 William H. Cammeyer laid out the Union Grounds in eastern Brooklyn and allowed three clubs to use it for their home games, provided he was permitted to charge spectators ten cents each for admission. Other enclosed ball fields soon followed. The field owners, naturally, wanted the best possible teams in order to draw the largest crowds. They were a powerful force behind the increasing professionalization of baseball.

By the late 1860s there were three semiprofessional teams in New York and Brooklyn. In order to lure them to their fields, the owners began paying them a percentage of the gate. Cammeyer paid the Brooklyn Atlantics 60 percent of their gate receipts, less expenses, to play at his field, the money being divided among the players. It was not a large leap from owning a ballpark and paying the players a percentage of the gate to owning the team and paying the players a salary. Cammeyer took the team he formed, the ancestor of today’s Los Angeles Dodgers, into the National League when it was formed in 1876.

The year 1869 saw the first all-salaried team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The team toured the country and did not lose a single game that year. Clearly, if other teams were to compete with the Red Stockings, they would have to become professional too. The amateurs still in the game protested, but it was too late. There was good money to be made in baseball, and market forces, as they usually do in America, took over. By 1874 serious amateur baseball was history.

Having become a business, baseball, like all other businesses, had to contend thereafter with two paramount considerations: how to attract paying customers and how to divide the spoils between labor and capital.

If the business of America is business, then baseball truly is the American game. It was a business as well as a sport from the start.

To attract a larger and larger crowd, the rules of baseball slowly evolved. Hitters had been dominant in the early days, but with better balls, and better fields, the pitchers took over. In 1920, to increase the number of crowd-pleasing hits, such pitching tactics as spitballs were phased out and the livelier baseball was introduced. It worked. In 1919 the home-run total for the two leagues was 446. There were 630 the following year and 937 in 1921.

After the pitchers had again gained the upper hand in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks largely to the new specialty of relief pitching, the American League created (over the collective dead bodies of millions of baseball purists) the designated hitter in 1973. It all has worked. In 1876, the first year the National League operated, 343,750 people attended games, an average of only about 1,300 per game. In 1988 attendance at major-league games reached 53.8 million, far above that for any other team sport.

Negotiations between the owners and the players have not been smooth. In 1869 The New York Times reported that players’ salaries could be as high as twenty-five hundred dollars, an excellent wage for a young man in those days. As competition among the owners for baseball talent escalated, however, so did the wages. The owners saw their profits being threatened and did exactly what you would expect nineteenth-century businessmen under the circumstances to do: they conspired to fix prices. In 1879 they added the so-called reserve clause to the standard player’s contract, which in effect made it impossible for a player to move to another team without the consent of the owner of his present one. This not only prevented players from switching teams but worked wonders in keeping down player salaries.

Despite the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, this obvious combination in restraint of trade lasted almost a century, thanks to some of the U.S. Supreme Court’s more pixilated decisions. In 1923 Oliver Wendell Holmes simply declared baseball not to be a business, regardless of the 8,974,000 people who paid good money to watch major-league games that year. Not being a business meant the Sherman Act didn’t apply and the semiserfdom of baseball players could continue.

When the reserve clause finally fell in 1975, salaries zoomed. In 1973 the highest-paid player in baseball pulled down $250,000. In 1988 the average player earned $439,000. The owners, of course, are screaming poverty, but the operating profit of major-league baseball in 1989 was more than $200 million. Not bad for a game dreamed up on the streets of New York by some businessmen looking for exercise.