Business of Baseball Report … as of 1954

The Mutual Baseball Almanac of 1954 was a period piece that has lasted. A guide like many others, many copies have survived far longer than their paperback contemporaries, because this particular edition was bound in cloth. I wasn’t born until 1958, but this book was one of the staples of my boyhood baseball library because one of my older brothers had acquired it in his childhood, and it was passed down to me. Copies of the 1954 Mutual Almanac can be found in used bookshops by the careful seeker.

It will reward that seeker, as it’s a wonderful volume. It was co-edited by Roger Kahn, who was then the Brooklyn Dodgers’ beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, later the celebrated author of The Boys of Summer, and Al Helfer, a radio broadcaster for several teams over the years, and at that time the voice of Mutual’s “Game of the Day”. The book includes, along with the usual statistics and records, a number of interesting, well-written feature articles.

We’ll focus this time on one of these articles: “How the Big Leagues are Run,” as a window into just how different the business of major league baseball was a half-century ago. The article is uncredited, and I suspect it’s largely the work of Kahn. It’s a clear, frank, and well-written piece; if we may be prone to snicker at its moments of apparent naivete, we should bear in mind what our words may look like fifty years from now.

“How the Big Leagues are Run”

Out of countless wars for survival, out of the shattering Black Sox scandal, and out of self-defense, organized baseball has forged itself into the form it retains today. Basic have been the beliefs that the game itself must be above suspicion and that there must be unity enough to meet any outside threat.

These were wise words then, and it’s remarkable how accurately they still describe the essential equation that constitutes the professional game today.

All is not always harmony within the structure of organized ball, but considering the vast gap between the interests of a major league club and the interests of a Class D team, it is remarkable that there should be any harmony at all.

These words were written just as the long history of the largely independent minor leagues was on the verge of its demise, and failed to convey just how precarious the balance of interests was. Within a very few years, there would never again be such a thing as Class D ball, and the very diminished minor leagues that would be able to survive would be thoroughly subsidized and controlled by the majors.

The independent minors have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the past ten or so years, but they remain the faintest shadow of what they were in the early 1950s. The equilibrium between independent operators at various levels that had endured for a half-century before then has never really existed in the half-century since.

The “House Rules”

To understand the administration of baseball, it is necessary to understand the “house rules.” They are contained in five documents:

1. The Major League Agreement
2. The Major League Rules
3. The Major-Minor League Agreement
4. The Major-Minor League Rules
5. The National Association Agreement

In one way or another, this essentially still prevails. The enormous difference between what was described then and what prevails now is the issue of player labor concerns, at either the major or minor league level. The entire article, which goes into detail describing how teams might legally or illegally hire, fire, and exchange players, devotes nary a word to the interests of the players themselves, or their collectively bargained rights. The Major League Baseball Players Association did exist in 1954, but in practice it was such a trivial nonentity as to not warrant a hint of mention.

Please allow a bit of what might be digression, but a digression that places the issue in reasonable period context. The following article appeared in The Sporting News Baseball Guide of 1947, describing the origin of the MLBPA (that survives today in just a bit more robust form) that took place in 1946. It provides ample indication of the strength (or lack thereof) of the players’ union in that era:

Guild Movement Nipped in Bud

For the first time since Dave Fultz’s old Players’ Fraternity hit the skids during World War I, the major leagues were confronted with a players’ union in 1946. It was organized by Robert Murphy, a young attorney from Boston, with some experience in labor relations, who termed his organization “The American Baseball Guild.”

Murphy scored his greatest success–and eventually his biggest failure – with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the majority of whom took out Guild cards, boasting a 95 per cent membership at one time. Murphy’s Guild activity developed into a disturbing movement, almost producing a player’s strike ….

Murphy later was successful in having the players decide whether they wanted the Guild as a bargaining agent. But the election, August 20 [1946], resulted in a stunning rebuke for Murphy when the Pirates rejected the Guild by a vote of 15 to 3, with ten players not voting.

From such meager and struggling birth, would decades later emerge quite the powerhouse. But as of 1954, it hadn’t yet merited even a passing mention in the Mutual Almanac.

Compensating the Commissioner

Under the Major League Agreement, [Commissioner] Frick draws a salary of $65,000 a year.

Well, actually that was a whole hell of a lot of money in 1954. Especially when you factor in that he was, you know, an actual independent Commissioner — shockingly, without a controlling or otherwise major (you know, like familial) financial interest in one of the franchises he was charged with disciplining.

The “Indispensable” Clause

Then follows a careful enumeration of each of the major league rules, including this one:

Rule 4 allows clubs to reserve, under the reserve clause, forty players.

That’s pretty much the only mention of the reserve clause in this article, because, of course, it was utterly taken for granted as the way of the world.

So here’s another little digression, to provide some indication of the general assessment of the reserve clause in those days. Here’s an excerpt from another article in the Mutual Almanac, “A Concise History of Baseball”:

During its life the reserve clause has been a popular target for abuse. It prevents a player from selling his services to the highest bidder, a privilege most Americans enjoy. It binds a player to an organization for as long as the organization wants him, and it does not concern itself with the player’s wants. But it is indispensable to modern baseball.

Suppose there was no reserve clause. The Cardinals’ Stan Musial, after winning a batting championship, could announce that he was open to offers. Allie Reynolds, after pitching the Yankees to a world championship, could do the same. So could young Harvey Kuenn of Detroit, using his 1953 rookie-of-the-year award as ammunition.

Each year would see a realignment of stars. The Yankees, with the most money, would never lose, and under the present system — despite present appearances — they will not win forever. Washington, a poorer club, would have to content itself with players the Yankees did not want. The judgment of scouts and the teaching talents of management would mean nothing. Why, without the reserve clause, would another club develop a player for the rich Yankees to steal? The reserve clause does not challenge the Magna Carta as a concept of human freedom; it is a practical device. Baseball is a game of practicalities.

Um, would it be a cheap shot to note that following this announcement that under the competitive balance-inducing power of the reserve clause, “they will not win forever,” the Yankees would win the pennant nine of the next eleven seasons? Yeah, probably.

All right, back to the article in question …

The Leagues

Voluminous though the complete rules are, they do not cover every facet of major league operation nor is that their intention. Some matters are left to each league to decide for itself. The question of the number of night games is typical, and on so important a matter as the visiting team’s share of receipts the two leagues do not agree. The National League in 1953 increased the visitor’s take from twenty-two and a half cents per ticket to twenty-seven and a half cents, while the American League left its arrangment at an even twenty-five cents.

Actual administration of the leagues is handled by league presidents, and umpires work under them. All battles between players and umpires are settled in the league president’s office if they are violent enough to merit special attention.

We know, of course, that such matters as the number of night games, gate receipt takes, and umpire supervision are now handled by MLB rather than the individual leagues. But this paragraph still understates the degree of independence each league exercised in that era. The distressing rash of franchise shifts that had just begun and would continue over the next two decades, as well as the historic first rounds of expansion, would occur under near-complete league autonomy. The two leagues operated in those days in an independent manner that’s unthinkable today.

The Big Picture

Plainly, the administration of baseball is not simple. The body of rules and agreements is more than twice as long as the United States Constitution, and the commissioner earns more than the governor of any state. His job, while perhaps not as taxing as that of a governor, is not easy. The administration of baseball requires experts and much legal advice, and it offers headaches more than balancing the free tickets the commissioner receives.

Some critics say that baseball is not well run. But the game is alive and healthy and has public confidence. Perhaps the administrative setup might be made simpler, but baseball is reluctant to change radically a structure so successful for so long.

More than the governor of any state! Gee whiz. (Sorry.)

It is worth considering the many ways in which MLB is a much more complex and sophisticated business than it was then. It’s also worth thinking about just how much it is the same. And while there’s no plausible doubt that today baseball is as fiscally “alive and healthy” as ever, it’s also worth taking into account such issues as the quasi-extortion of municipalities to fund stadia, the very serious recent attempt at franchise contraction (and the very real possibility it may soon recur), and the essential syndicate ownership of the Expos/Nationals franchise, and ponder the extent to which the sport may have taken missteps in maintaining its worthiness of public confidence.

In a future exploration of this fertile volume, we’ll examine “How a Big League Club Operates” — including peeks at the minor league scouting reports on Duke Snider and Roy Campanella!

References & Resources
The Mutual Baseball Almanac, edited by Roger Kahn and Al Helfer, in co-operation with The Mutual Sports Staff, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954. “How the Big Leagues are Run” is on pages 67-72.

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