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Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats

How Baseball Outlasted the Great Depression

David George Surdam

Publication Year: 2011

Organized baseball has survived its share of difficult times, and never was the state of the game more imperiled than during the Great Depression. Or was it? Remarkably, during the economic upheavals of the Depression none of the sixteen Major League Baseball teams folded or moved. In this economist’s look at the sport as a business between 1929 and 1941, David George Surdam argues that although it was a very tough decade for baseball, the downturn didn’t happen immediately. The 1930 season, after the stock market crash, had record attendance. But by 1931 attendance began to fall rapidly, plummeting 40 percent by 1933. To adjust, teams reduced expenses by cutting coaches and hiring player-managers. While even the best players, such as Babe Ruth, were forced to take pay cuts, most players continued to earn the same pay in terms of purchasing power. Baseball remained a great way to make a living. Revenue sharing helped the teams in small markets but not necessarily at the expense of big-city teams. Off the field, owners devised innovative solutions to keep the game afloat, including the development of the Minor League farm system, night baseball, and the first radio broadcasts to diversify teams’ income sources. Using research from primary documents, Surdam analyzes how the economic structure and operations side of Major League Baseball during the Depression took a beating but managed to endure, albeit changed by the societal forces of its time.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xxv

You own a baseball team during the 1930s. Your customers are facing declining incomes. In addition, the consumer price index is falling. In the words of the old American Express ads, “What will you do?” Before you decide, consider that you also possess both price-setting (monopoly) power for your product and single-employer (monopsony) bargaining power over your primary...

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Prologue: Clash of Titans

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pp. 1-3

Two of baseball’s most famous teams arrived at Yankee Stadium on September 9, 1928 for a four-game series that began with a doubleheader. The Philadelphia Athletics, managed by Connie Mack, held a one-half game lead over the New York Yankees. While many writers and fans have since...

Part: 1. The Financial Side of the Game

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1. The American Economy and the State of Baseball Profits

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pp. 7-26

Major League Baseball was not immune to the effects of economic fluctuations. We can presume that economic activity affected the demand for baseball games, although the relationship was not always obvious. Baseball owners faced a severe economic crisis after the 1929 season. Some contemporary observers felt that the economic downturn and the accompanying unemployment might initially boost baseball attendance, as fans would have...

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2. Why Did Profits Collapse?: The Revenue Side

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pp. 27-57

Why did the owners of baseball teams suffer losses between 1931 and 1935? Was there such a sharp decrease in demand and revenues that owners simply could not adjust their costs quickly enough to maintain or restore profits? Gate revenue was affected by the number of attendees and ticket prices. Was falling attendance the main culprit? A reduction in attendees would...

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3. Why Did Profits Collapse?: Player Salaries and Other Expenses

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pp. 59-94

Owners saw their profits plummet during the early years of the 1930s. It is certain that revenues fell in both nominal and real terms. Profits were sure to fall if owners did not reduce expenses commensurately. How quickly did owners adjust their player salaries and other expenses in response...

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4. Farm Systems

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pp. 95-107

One development during the 1930s may have raised Major League expenses: the burgeoning farm system. Major League owners began buying or subsidizing Minor League teams in the 1920s. The owners had previously purchased players from Minor League teams, sometimes in open bidding and sometimes through fixed prices via a draft of Minor League talent. Owners could...

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Conclusion of Economic Side

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pp. 109

Increases in real other expenses appear to have been a major cause of the Major League owners’ inability to regain the profit levels of 1929–30 by 1939–40, despite increases in real operating revenue. Real payrolls increased, but lagged behind real other expenses. In the National League, an arms race between five clubs spurred spending on acquiring players that reduced...

Part 2. The Game on the Field

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5. Competitive Balance

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pp. 113-129

Competitive balance may well be the most contentious issue in professional baseball. The current era features wealthy teams, such as the New York Yankees, which seem able to alleviate all their weaknesses by buying the appropriate free agents. Fans have long bemoaned free agency as a vehicle that helps the rich. Middle-aged fans of today, though, can remember baseball’s so-called “Golden Era” of the immediate postwar period (1946–64). Mickey...

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6. Player Movement

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pp. 131-155

How did the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Chicago Cubs achieve winning records year after year? Why did other teams, such as the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Braves, seem to flounder forever? Did winning teams succeed because they had some prescient ability to sign the best rookie players, or did they buy and trade for stars from downtrodden clubs? What was the pattern of player movement in an era without...

Part 3. Using League Rules to Aid in the Recovery

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7. Helping the Indigent

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pp. 159-168

Some owners were trying desperately to keep their clubs out of bankruptcy during the 1930s. One method of helping teams in small cities survive was through cross-subsidization, which was typically achieved through revenue sharing. Both leagues had gate-sharing rules. Did such rules provide much succor for struggling teams? Many people believe gate...

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8. Manipulating the Schedule to Increase Revenue

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pp. 169-194

Fans often take scheduling for granted. At the beginning of the season, they may glance at a schedule to see when the most desirable opponents will come to town. College football and basketball fans pay attention to strength-of-schedule rankings, since not all team schedules are created equal...

Part 4. Innovations to Boost Attendance and Profits

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9. Radio and Baseball

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pp. 197-217

Cheap newspapers had been the new mass medium of the nineteenth century. Baseball owners gradually reached a mutually beneficial accommodation with the medium. During the 1920s a new mass medium arose: radio. By the end of the Depression era another mass medium, television, threatened to supplant radio. Baseball owners were...

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10. Baseball Under the Lights

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pp. 219-245

Baseball’s other technological challenge dealt with electric lights. While poets and the occasional baseball commissioner rhapsodized about baseball under the sun, daytime was not always a convenient time for fans. Encroaching darkness also wreaked havoc upon lengthy games, creating conduct unbecoming to the game as players employed delaying or hurry-up...

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11. Other Innovations

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pp. 247-277

The owners considered many proposals in addition to radio and electric lighting to lure more fans through the turnstiles. To help the owners, The Sporting News was quick to publicize other proposed innovations. The editor wrote, “if the magnates are barren of ideas, The Sporting News suggests that they read ‘The Voice of the Fan’ column in this publication each week...

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12. How Effective Were the Innovations?

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pp. 279-284

Baseball owners tried several innovations to boost attendance. In the case of night ball and radio broadcasts, they initiated innovations well after the trough of the economic downturn. Sunday baseball, while not an innovation, was coveted by the five clubs prohibited from playing at home on Sundays before 1929. How did owners ascertain...

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13. The Inept and the Restless: Franchise Relocation

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pp. 285-300

Baseball owners tried several innovations to boost attendance. In the case of night ball and radio broadcasts, they initiated innovations well after the trough of the economic downturn. Sunday baseball, while not an innovation, was coveted by the five clubs prohibited from playing at home on Sundays before 1929. How did owners ascertain...

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Epilogue: The End of an Era

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pp. 301-305

I end with Donald Barnes’ dramatic bid to relocate his team to Los Angeles. Although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may not have been the sole reason he was unable to effect the relocation, the attack began another round of upheaval for Major League Baseball. Uncle Sam drafted many...

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Appendix 1: Radio and Sunday Ball’s Effect on Attendance

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pp. 307-308

In the cases of radio, Sunday ball, and night ball, the benefits were varied and enmeshed with other factors. To help sort out the effects for radio and Sunday, I ran regression equations covering the seasons between 1929 and 1941. There were 208 observations, one for each year for each of the sixteen teams. I looked at each team’s win-loss record, whether a team shared a city with another club, whether a team had night ball, whether a team had Sunday ball...

Appendix 2: Dramatis Personae

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pp. 309-313

Appendix of Tables

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pp. 315-352


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pp. 353-398


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pp. 399-403


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pp. 405-417

E-ISBN-13: 9780803235953
E-ISBN-10: 080323595X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803234826
Print-ISBN-10: 0803234821

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 38 tables
Publication Year: 2011