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Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary

Author(s):Lomax, Michael E
Reviewer(s):Haupert, Michael

Michael E. Lomax, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003. xxvi + 222 pp. $19.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8156-0786-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Haupert, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.

Michael Lomax has written an interesting and enlightening early history of Negro baseball in America. He has made good use of primary sources, and has exhaustively researched newspaper accounts of games, business transactions and contemporary events to fill in the gaps. Anyone with an interest in the Negro leagues, nineteenth century baseball or black-white business relations in general at the turn of the twentieth century would do well to read Black Baseball Entrepreneurs. The thorough endnotes and exhaustive bibliography alone are worth the read.

Lomax lays out his story in nine chapters, roughly chronologically. He begins with an overview of entrepreneurship and the rise of black baseball, and argues that it was a form of social organization that morphed into a commercial one. He then follows the rise and decline of several prominent black clubs from the late 1880s into the beginning of the twentieth century, ending his study before the rise of the Negro Leagues, the more formal institution with which most baseball fans are familiar.

He formulates a theory for the rise of black baseball as a business, setting up his story with an interesting demographic background of black ballplayers, the formation of the National Association of Base Ball Players, and the exclusion of blacks from the league. Lomax explains why excluding blacks was justified on political grounds. He then goes on to use the Pythians, a Philadelphia-area black ball club, as a mirror of late nineteenth century African-American politics, focusing on the mulatto ownership of the club and their active political agenda.

As he lays out a social history of the emergence of black professional baseball, Lomax forms a theory about how and why it was commercialized. He notes that the efforts of black teams to compete with white teams were consistent with the ideology of Booker T. Washington, which had its roots in antebellum America. This was the belief that blacks should not seek to isolate themselves in separate businesses and institutions catering and marketing only to blacks, but should advance themselves via free market competition in the larger market. For that reason the black teams sought initially to join white leagues, and when that failed, they took to barnstorming against white and black clubs, rather than form their own leagues.

He cites racism as an explanation for the unhappy fate of many black clubs. While I don’t doubt this was a factor, he hasn?*?t done much to support his claim. Much stronger is his argument that race relations had a significant impact on the development of the game. Lomax argues that mulattoes were in a better position to organize professional black baseball clubs because of their disproportionate wealth holdings and their better contacts and relationships with white businessmen. This leads to his conclusion that whites were a necessary part of the evolution of black baseball as a business both in terms of ownership of teams, business contacts for challenge matches, and access to suitable ballparks for scheduling matches.

In general, Lomax argues that the origins of black baseball were an effort by the African-American community to establish itself at a time when race relations were in a state of flux. In part this was a means for blacks to demonstrate their abilities and capabilities to whites. It was also partly due to the mulatto organizers’ attempts to use baseball as a method by which they could socialize and maintain their “elite” lifestyle. It was a statement by a generation of African-Americans who made it clear that in spite of their exclusion from mainstream America, they would develop their own institutions, baseball being one of them.

Overall the book is more a social history of the emergence of black professional baseball than an economic explanation. Lomax is not an economist, and it shows in more than one spot. He has access to some revenue data for various teams over the years, which he repeatedly mistakes for profit data. For example, he notes that $2208 in ticket revenue plus a side bet of $500 would mean “the winner could realize a profit of $2708″ (p. 150). This, of course, is total revenue, not profit. Even when he acknowledges that revenues are not the same as profits, he interprets them incorrectly. This is the case when he notes the average revenue earned by the Cuban Giants in 1886 fell to $217.50 per game, which he then interprets as evidence that the club operated at a loss (p. 59). While this may be true, it is unconvincing, since he provides neither data nor anecdotal evidence to indicate any costs. He naively assumes that revenue could decrease but costs would not.

Lomax also makes some assumptions that seem reasonable, but are not helpful in telling his story. For example, when the demand for the services of players heats up and he observes them moving from one team to another, he reasonably assumes player salaries are increasing. However, with no salary data whatsoever, he then proceeds to try and estimate the impact on profits. One example he cites is the practice of J.M. Bright, owner of the Cuban Giants, who “encouraged black players to jump their contracts, no doubt at great expense. Paying higher salaries substantially reduced any profit Bright might have realized” (p 113). Two problems are immediately evident in this. First, salary is only one of the variables determining a player?*?s choice of employer. Among those non-pecuniary variables are the quality and quantity of the travel schedule — very important for barnstorming teams like the black teams of the nineteenth century; the likelihood of collecting the promised pay — an especially important factor in the unstable environment that characterized nineteenth-century Negro baseball; and the quality of the other players on the team. Second, Lomax ignores the possibility that a higher payroll would result in a better team, which might then increase gate revenue.

These shortcomings are not serious enough to detract from the overall fine work Lomax does in outlining the early history of black baseball. I only cite them in the interest of indicating that this is a valuable social history, but not as much an economic history. In that regard, much work is left to be done by the economist who is willing to spend as much time and effort in the archives as Lomax has done.

Michael Lomax (assistant professor in the Department of Physical Education and Sports Studies at the University of Georgia) has written an engaging and well documented history of the early Negro baseball leagues. While it will add little to our economic understanding of this period of professional baseball, it does much to establish the social parameters and historical underpinnings within which these leagues evolved. In that regard, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs succeeds and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this under-researched and poorly understood area of American history.

Michael Haupert is currently working on economic histories of the New York Yankees and the Hilldale club of the Negro National League.

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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII