Monday, July 20, 2009

Hot Stove League 1933-34 Part 2

In the midst of our "Great Recession", we should be glad that things, so far, aren't as bad as during the Great Depression of the 1930s. For comparison, we could note that professional sports today are not nearly as bad off as the most popular sport of the Great Depression, big league baseball. However one thing today is much worse: the economic ignorance of the public.

For illustration of this ignorance, I point to the "vulgar Keynesian" notion that consumer spending drives the economy expressed in the absolutely absurd blog post of Washington Redskin Chris Cooley entitled, "Albert Stimulates" which renowned hot air dispenser Jim Rome gushed about . Cooley wrote a tour de force of banality with gems like: "NFL players and new NFL contracts are an fantastic way to stimulate the economy." and "Oh, and lets not forget our friendly car and home taxes - over [$]30,000 a year for me, fun times." Cooley actually celebrates the fact that half of his earnings are eaten by taxes!

Here are the wonders Cooley tells us the big salaries of professional athletes are doing for the economy: "Cars, houses, clothes, food, women, jewelry and all of it at a rapid pace." Lost on Cooley is that the money spent "lavishly" by athletes does nothing special for the economy. "Let's also consider what the market needs for any type of a bottom, or a rebound. Well I guess I can't consider myself enough of an expert to start to explain that but, I'm thinking if we could get someone to stop selling off all their shit and start buying back in I think we would have a start." Again, apparently lost on our oracle of the gridiron is that if someone is selling, someone else must be buying, "So if I was receiving a enormous contract this year I may figure it would be a great time to buy some 50 -75 percent off stock." For him to buy, someone must be selling off.

Cooley sums up his assault on clear thinking, "Huge contracts for athletes mean one thing. Shit tons of money will be poured back into our country. You think these guys are slow play investors who will sit on their money like a goose. Absolutely not, their money is being spent, no questions asked."

A far cry from economic ignorance illustrated by the pompous Chris Cooley, was the good sense displayed by sportswriters, team owners, and baseball players of the 1930s. While the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt had largely bought into the fallacious idea that consumer spending drives the economy (this in spite of the fact that FDR actually campaigned against the outrageous spending of the Hoover administration which had also bought into the spending driven economy), many Americans, including baseball players and owners, understood that cutting costs, making sacrifices, and providing a better goods and services were the only way to survive the hard times.

Baseball actually faced financial difficulties, "A man can't go to a baseball game when he hasn't any money." said Commissioner Kennesaw M. Landis in 1933. Fortunately, while much of the rest of the economy was being regimented under the NRA's Blue Eagle (ala Mussolini's fascist program in Italy) to regulate wages (keep them artificially high) and production, baseball teams could be thankful that they remained free to cut costs and run their business without the interference of NRA bureaucrats.

With regard to salaries the great John J. McGraw said, "Salaries must come down...owners are losing too much money." Come down they did. Sid Keener of the St. Louis Times Dispatch reported that average salaries were down to about $7500 (about a 25% drop), still only a little lower than the peak salary for a great of an earlier time, Christy Mathewson, who made only $10,000. Salary cuts also caused something that may surprise today's sports fan. There was actual concern as to whether playing baseball was a better deal than some other line of work. But Cardinal GM Branch Rickey said that even at a salary like $6500, a player should be able to save $5000 a year. So after only a handful of seasons a player could have a nice nest egg set aside; Rickey said that the Cards had more men than they could use willing to play baseball. Superstar Dizzy Dean's wife told how she refused a wedding ring until after they had a house paid for "free and clear". In contrast, apparently following the Chris Cooley school of profligate spending, 60% of NBA players are broke in five years making salaries that dwarf those of 1930s baseball players.

Also to save money, rosters were cut from 25 players to 23; the eventual champions of 1934, the "Gashouse Gang" St. Louis Cardinals only carried 21 players for most of the season. Also to save salary cash, the 1930s saw many player-managers, who had little help running the club: Frankie Frisch of the Cardinals, Bill Terry of the 1933 champion New York Giants, Charley Grimm of the Cubs, Jimmy Wilson of the Phillies and Pie Traynor of the Pirates among others. Contrast to FDR and his "Brain Trust". Babe Ruth actually made more money in 1934 doing radio broadcasts sponsored by Quaker Oats than from his baseball salary. The Boston Red Sox for 1934 became the first team to offer profit-sharing with players to inspire them to win and thus draw more paid attendance. Most players understood the need to cut salaries. "Pepper" Martin of the Cardinals said, "Shucks, no one's interested in what they're paying want to know what kind-a year I'm going to give 'em...Pep'll be hustling, giving his best and trying all the time." I wonder if Chris Cooley and the spoiled brats of modern sports could say the same after taking a pay cut.

Owners also debated the merits of radio broadcasting. Some, like the Cubs and Pirates, allowed the broadcast of their games by radio while others did not, thinking radio broadcasts lost more business than they brought in. Owners hoped that the resumption of alcohol sales with the repeal of prohibition in 1933 would also boost business. Night baseball was considered (and vetoed) between 1933 and 1934 to allow more people to make it to the ballpark without interference with work hours. Another change, perhaps to enliven fan excitement, was the National League's adoption of the American League's livelier baseball.

The 1934 season was still a tight situation for baseball despite the cost cutting. In the Pittsburgh Press, Chester L. Smith made a series of suggestions to stem the tide of red ink: replace the male concession vendors with pretty girls, replace the megaphone announcer in many parks (like Sportman's Park in St. Louis) with a public address system, put all games on the radio, and sell beer at the ball park.

The major leagues survived the Great Depression without any direct help from the New Deal by attempting to run their businesses more frugally and offer a more entertaining product. Fortunately, owners were not hampered in their efforts by the kind blithe ignorance that had infected the government at that time and that now infects practically our whole populace.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hot Stove League 1933-34 Part 1

Tuesday night's All-Star game featured zero home runs and a brisk pace by modern standards, ending in two and a half hours. The winning tally in a 4-3 contest was manufactured by a hustling triple and an opposite field sacrifice fly. Here is the round tripper-free scoring summary:

Top 1st: American
- M. Teixeira reached on fielder's choice, D. Jeter scored, J. Mauer to second on first baseman A. Pujols' fielding error
- J. Hamilton grounded into fielder's choice, J. Mauer scored, M. Teixeira to third, J. Bay out at second

Bot 2nd: National
- Y. Molina singled to center, D. Wright scored, S. Victorino to third, S. Victorino scored, Y. Molina to second on center fielder J. Hamilton's throwing error
- P. Fielder ground rule double to left, Y. Molina scored

Top 5th: American
- J. Mauer doubled to left, D. Jeter scored

Top 8th: American
- A. Jones hit sacrifice fly to deep right, C. Granderson scored

With the top active home run clouters mostly absent from the all-star showcase, perhaps a new era of baseball is emerging, harkening back, if not to the Dead Ball era, at least to the relatively less lively ball of the National League 1920-1933.

Baseball history has the neat dividing line between the pre-1920 Dead Ball era and the Live Ball era which has prevailed ever since. Few are aware, however, that the ball of the National League from 1920 to 1933 was by no means a dead ball, but was merely a "livelier" ball.

The Great Depression perhaps influenced the National League in 1934 to adopt a new onion "stabilized" to the vivacious sphere used in the American League. The reasoning was reminiscent of that used to market sports to non-fans in modern sports. Scoring, scoring, scoring and more scoring was thought to bring in ladies and children. De-emphasized would be the subtleties that true fans loved: the stolen base, the hit and run, the double stretched into a triple. Why bother trying to squeeze out extra bases risking an out when the mighty swoop of a home run will score a runner from first as well as from third?

John E. Wray of the St. Louis Post Dispatch used the terminology of the time to deride the new ball's effect on the game:

"The new deal baseball would act like the New Deal dollar is supposed to---it would stimulate business...It is the prevailing belief that the public worships at the shrine of the Big Wallop...As regards the Knot Hole Gang [kids in St. Louis who watched the game through knot holes in the wall around Sportsman's Park] and the free ladies' day patronage, this is true. With many of these the climax of the game is...a knock over the wall. Whether the lively ball or the batter's prowess accomplishes this doesn't concern them. But the old "die hard" boys who like to see a run EARNED will never be reconciled to seeing a tally gained by intelligence and planning offset by a rubber-cored wallop over the roofs."

Damon Runyon wrote this in the New York American after two games in the 1934 season: "At the rate of 13 or so a day, there may be 2,000 homers hit by the end of the season, making the game more and more a matter of slug and run home."

"The introduction of the lively ball to the National League has meant a decided new deal for batters. A check of 45 regular players shows they made at total net gain of 1,227 points in their batting averages over their 1933 rate at a corresponding date. That's not recovery, it's pure inflation." wrote Caswell Adams in the New York Herald Tribune on June 20, 1934. By July 24, Sid Keener declared in the St. Louis Star Times, "Mr. Lively Baseball is all the pitchers complain about. The National League has increased its batting average from .266 in 1933 to .282 in 1934."

Like the New Deal, the new lively ball did not revive the fortunes of baseball or the general economy. "There's red ink on many baseball ledgers where red ink never went before. More money's in circulation than in the past two years. Why aren't baseball clubs getting their share of it?" opined Chester L. Smith of the Pittsburgh Press.

Whether it was due to juiced players, a juiced ball or deflated pitching, the late era from the mid-nineties to mid-aughts has been just what Damon Runyon described as a matter of "slug and run home". As a lover of the older game of speed and strategy, I was turned off by this era of home run "inflation". This was also an era of Fed credit-induced bubbles, first in tech stocks then in real estate. As increased frugality in our personal economies becomes more prevalent in this era of popped bubbles, hopefully the new crop of All-Stars will signal a new modesty in power hitting. We all scrap for a living and sacrifice some luxuries; hopefully ball players will scrap for extra bases and make more sacrifice flies for winning runs as in last night's game.