- In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball by Mark L. Armour, Daniel R. Levitt
An FBI investigation into accusations that the St. Louis Cardinals organization may have engaged in the practice of industrial espionage by hacking the computer of Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow certainly provides ample evidence of how seriously baseball executives take the process of pursuing pennants and placing winning teams on the field. In the Pursuit of Pennants, baseball scholars Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt trace the evolution of winning baseball strategies from the Deadball period into the modern era of Moneyball and analytics. While the authors are sympathetic to the increasing use of analytics and sabermetrics by baseball front offices, they argue for a balanced approach between traditional scouting and reliance on statistical models. Armour and Levitt employ concepts such as wins above replacement (WAR) to evaluate talent, but they do not allow data processing to overcome their narrative, providing a well-written history of how baseball organizations have changed over time.
Armour and Levitt begin their account by focusing on individuals such as owner Barney Dreyfuss of the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Giants manager John McGraw. [End Page 107] By the 1920s, however, it was increasingly difficult for an owner or manager to coordinate all aspects of fielding a contending team, and the general manager was given the responsibility of running the club and evaluating talent. As it became more expensive for major league franchises to purchase their players from minor league teams, Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals pioneered the model of a farm system in which the parent team signed players and formed working arrangements with minor league franchises to assure a steady supply of talent at reasonable prices. The creation of a farm system also allowed major league teams to articulate a consistent approach to teaching the game—for example, instructing young recruits in the Dodger way. Teams that made successful use of the farm system, such as the New York Yankees under general manager George Weiss, had to expand their front office to include positions overseeing the farm system and scouting. Armour and Levitt, however, note that ownership remained important to the Yankees’ success, as in the 1920s and 1930s when Jacob Ruppert authorized the necessary funds to stock the farm system with talented players.
The authors believe that a key to winning baseball is how well teams adjust to changes in the game. For example, the racial integration of baseball in the post–World War II period provided a rich new source of talent. Rickey’s decision to pursue black players helped produce a dynasty for Brooklyn in the 1950s, while the reluctance of the Yankees to integrate its club finally caught up with them in the late 1960s.
The search for players, nevertheless, remained expensive, and not even the “bonus baby” rule implemented to curb excessive bonuses for prospects could prevent teams from making huge cash investments. Thus, the amateur draft was instituted to control the bidding wars and equalize competition by providing losing teams with higher draft picks. Limiting the number of players that one could sign with the amateur draft actually placed a greater emphasis on scouting and increased the size of most baseball front offices.
Similar challenges were offered by the expansion draft, as baseball added new teams in the 1960s and free agency in the 1970s, which ended the sport’s reserve system. Armour and Levitt again point out that these changes placed an even greater premium on scouting, organization, and innovation. Armour and Levitt also laud the baseball acumen of Pat Gillick, who fielded winning clubs with the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, and Philadelphia Phillies. The authors attribute his success to pursuing various sources for talent—including tapping new markets in Latin America for the Blue Jays—blending traditional and analytical approaches to the game, and pursing such intangibles as character and clubhouse chemistry.