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Much More than a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball since 1921

Author(s):Burk, Robert F.
Reviewer(s):Haupert, Michael

Published by EH.NET (January 2002)

Robert F. Burk, Much More than a Game: Players, Owners, and American

Baseball since 1921. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,

2001. xi + 372 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2592-1; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-8078-4908-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Haupert, Department of Economics, University of

Wisconsin- La Crosse.

During the Second World War federal legislation was introduced to mandate

that a minimum of ten percent of major league baseball players be amputees.

During the 1920s and 30s, when black players were barred from playing with

white players and thus formed their own leagues, they enjoyed greater freedom

of mobility and bargaining leverage than did white players. Over the past

three quarters of a century the average major league baseball player has gone

from earning approximately ninety percent of the average U.S. salary to

earning eighty times the average U.S. salary. This is just a smattering of the

type of information I was able to glean from reading Robert Burk’s history of

baseball labor relations.

Much More than a Game is the sequel to Burk’s similarly titled Never

Just a Game, a business history of professional baseball up to 1920. This

work completes the story through the 2000 baseball season. It is an excellent

overview of the often rocky and seldom dull relationship between professional

baseball players and owners. Burk takes us behind the scenes and into the

front office of major league baseball. The book is exhaustively researched

from numerous primary sources, all of which are noted in an extensive

bibliography, which should prove to be very useful to anyone interested in

pursuing research in the area of baseball business history.

Burk relies more on anecdote than detailed analysis, but offers an interesting

and engaging history nonetheless. One thing that is frustrating is the

vagueness of the footnotes. There is no clear indication of the source of some

of the detailed financial information that is presented. Footnotes are

reserved for the end of paragraphs, often referencing several sources. In some

cases, all of the sources are secondary, which often led me to wonder about

the reliability of the information.

This is but a small complaint however. Overall, Burk does a nice job of

outlining the historical origins of contemporary problems. Competitive

imbalance, one of the favorite whipping boys of the current ownership and

commissioner, is actually an old problem. However in the early days of

competitive imbalance, it was the players who paid the price. During the “low

salary era” (pre-1976) it was important for a player to be with a

first-division club for its post-season bonus pay potential. Given the

competitive imbalance, such supplementary income was not available for the

vast majority.

The animosity that colors player-owner negotiations today evolves out of

similar antagonistic relationships that have always existed, though as Burk

notes, it was the owners who held the upper hand originally. Given the history

of blatant exploitation and unethical behavior by the owners, it is little

wonder that the current players approach the bargaining table with a

no-holds-barred attitude. In fact, the more I read, the more I found myself

cheering for the players in their current efforts. I couldn’t help but think

that it might take another half century of player gains before they even the

score in the labor relations game.

Burk relates plenty of anecdotes about negotiating ploys and outright lying.

Shrouded in paternalistic jingo, the owners robbed and cheated the players

blind. They used salary cuts, demotions and blacklisting to keep player costs

under control. Among the seamier bits of chicanery owners employed was a form

of money laundering designed to short change the amount they had agreed to

provide to the players pension fund. Other examples of penurious behavior

included the owner who traded a player for a 25-pound turkey and another who

sold his own son-in-law to pay off a bank debt.

Each chapter covers roughly one decade from 1921 to 2000. The book is

especially strong in what Burk calls the inflationary era (post-1965). This

corresponds to the period when Marvin Miller took over as head of the baseball

players association, ultimately to be succeeded by Donald Fehr. In the past

thirty-five years the players have made steady, spectacular gains, leading to

an increase in average annual salaries from $16,000 to over two million

dollars. To put this in perspective, the previous half-century had seen the

average salary increase by barely $10,000. He also addresses the minor leagues

and Negro leagues, though this coverage is spotty and not as comprehensive. It

serves more as a comparison than anything else.

As I read about the historical evolution of the baseball business, I realized

that not much has really changed in the past eighty years. As early as the

1920s owners complained of the disparity between large and small market clubs.

Then as now, the owners attempted to transfer the burden of solving this

problem onto the players. In 1924 the result was a ban on incentive clauses in

player contracts as a way to prevent the wealthier clubs from putting pay

increase pressure on poorer clubs. Today, owners are attempting to implement a

salary cap. In the 1920s the gripes from owners centered on the high cost of

acquiring talent from the minor leagues. Ultimately, this led to a draft

system for acquiring players from minor league teams, and eventually was

replaced by near total vertical integration of the professional baseball

industry by the sixteen major league teams. Similar complaints are made today

about the cost of player salaries. Chief among them is the idea that large

market clubs, such as the New York Yankees, can afford to purchase all of the

best players. This complaint is hardly new. As far back as 1926 the Yankee

roster consisted of only one player (Lou Gehrig) who had not been acquired

through purchase or trade from another major league organization. Before free

agency, big market clubs held the advantage over small market clubs in player

acquisitions because they could pay higher bonuses to attract unsigned talent

and because they could afford to purchase talent directly from poorer clubs.

The only difference now is that the players, instead of the owners, receive

the cash for such transactions.

Burk concludes with some predictions for the fate of baseball in the new

century including the globalization of the sport to include international

drafts, foreign farm clubs, and perhaps even international competition on the

field. In the end, he wishes for labor peace between the players and the

owners, and hopes that for the good of the game the two sides will enter a new

era of cooperation instead of confrontation. Given the history that he so

thoroughly outlines however, this may be asking too much.

Mike Haupert is Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin – La

Crosse and Editor of the Newsletter of the Cliometric Society. He is

currently working on a number of baseball-related topics, including a

financial history of the New York Yankees.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII