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The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball during the Roaring Twenties

Author(s):Surdam, David George
Haupert, Michael G.
Reviewer(s):Bradbury, John Charles

Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

David George Surdam and Michael G. Haupert, The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball during the Roaring Twenties. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. xi + 405 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8032-9682-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Charles Bradbury, Department of Economics, Kennesaw State University.

 
David Surdam (University of Northern Iowa) and Michael Haupert (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse) have both made notable contributions to the economic history of baseball. Surdam has authored several authoritative books in the field (e.g., The Big Leagues Go to Washington (2015) and Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats (2013)). Haupert has written several articles on baseball economic history, and he is responsible for compiling an extensive database of baseball player salaries through archival research.

The Age of Ruth of Landis is what you might expect from two baseball economic historians writing about baseball during the 1920s. The book includes many facts and figures from the era, including profit and loss statements, payroll data, franchise values, host-city characteristics, and important performance statistics. It is meticulously sourced with nearly seventy pages of notes and references. Two appendices offer descriptions of the New York Yankees’ financial records and player compensation data that was painstakingly culled from paper card files in the National Baseball Hall of Fame by Haupert. In short, it is a well-documented work of history that anyone who wishes to understand the economic atmosphere of the game during this period can use as a trusted source.

Yet, the book also diverges from what you might expect. The facts and figures are there, but to understand this era, it is important to understand the stories behind the numbers. The book is dominated by prose, so much so that the reader can grasp the information without turning to the notes or tables that are relegated to the back matter. This structure makes for a more readable book, similar to the style of Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills’s book series on the early history of baseball; therefore, it remains a pleasant read for the layman with a casual interest in the economics of early baseball. The downside of this style is that it is more difficult to skim the book for hard numbers. Researchers seeking to hone in on particular aspects of history contained in the book will need to make heavy use of its thorough index and multiple bookmarks.

A lot happened in the early-twentieth century that shaped the game to be what it is today. Baseball would emerge as the national pastime, rules became standardized, and the play on the field would evolve into a game with clean pitches and home runs from its smallball origins with spitballs and shenanigans on the basepaths. On the economic side of the game, the National and American Leagues would vanquish their final corporeal competitor, the Federal League, in 1915. This not only established the leagues as a monopoly cartel, but subsequent legal decisions regarding the entrant’s challenge gave professional baseball its antitrust-exempt status that continues to insulate baseball from antitrust scrutiny. By 1920, the business and play of baseball had begun to stabilize into its current form; thus, this date is often used to denote the birth baseball’s “modern era.”

Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a subject of the title, played a major role as a key jurist in the legal decisions that established baseball’s antitrust exemption. He would also transition, with an awkward overlap, to become the heavy-handed Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 to 1944. The book also covers several other important off-field figures of the time. American League President Ban Johnson deftly led the fight against the rival Federals, which was aided by the experience of his successful challenge of the National League a few years earlier, but butted heads with Landis. Charles Comiskey, the powerful and influential owner of the Chicago White Sox — which were shamed by the 1919 World Series gambling scandal that caused the owners to recruit Landis to reestablish baseball’s credibility — supported the new commissioner even after he banned eight of his players for life. Harry Frazee owned the Boston Red Sox for only a short time, but during his tenure he managed to irritate his fellow owners and fans, stripping the team of its talent before selling it for a hefty profit as if they were they were the modern-day Miami Marlins. His most infamous transaction was the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, setting the stage for changes to the game’s business and play on the field, which were closely intertwined.

The authors record that the 1920s were a prosperous decade, but the owners were aware of competition for their customers’ growing discretionary incomes, especially from the upstart motion-picture business. And what brought fans to the ballpark? Winning! Success on the field was a key determinant to financial success then, as it is today; and losing teams could limit losses by avoiding spending too much on players that brought little in return. The owners anticipated Scully (1974) by fifty years, and Moneyball (2003) by eighty years.

Babe Ruth transformed the game on the field, becoming baseball’s answer to movie stars, switching from being one of the game’s best pitchers to being undoubtedly its best hitter. Ruth changed the way teams scored, hitting more home runs than all but one team in the major leagues in 1920 — Ruth had 54 dingers, only ten fewer than the Philadelphia Phillies. Ruth became a draw for home and visiting fans alike, which translated into dollars at the gate, making the Yankees generally more profitable than a similar investment in the stocks listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Yankee dominance raised concerns regarding competitive balance, but the limited potential remedies owners instituted, such as roster limits and revenue sharing, did not stop the growing imbalance. Yet, baseball remained financially sound, indicating that concerns over competitive balance may have been over-stressed.

Ruth and Landis were no doubt the key figures of their time in their respective roles. Though they are focal points, the breadth of the material covered in this long book makes it clear that the game was bigger than just these two men. Labor relations, minor leagues, and the Negro leagues are also covered at length. The economics of baseball are unique, if not peculiar (Neale 1964), and Surdam and Haupert make a worthy contribution to our understanding of this pivotal era of the game’s economic history.

References:

Lewis, Michael (2003). Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W.W. Norton.

Neale, Walter (1964). “The Peculiar Economics of Professional Sports.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 78: 1-14.

Scully, Gerald (1974). “Pay and Performance in Major League Baseball.” American Economic Review, 65: 915-930.

Seymour, Harold and Dorothy Seymour Mills (Various years). Baseball, New York: Oxford University Press.

 
John Charles Bradbury is Professor of Economics at Kennesaw State University and is the author of two books on the economics of baseball, The Baseball Economist and Hot Stove Economics. He wrote this review in the shadow of the actual Kennesaw Mountain.

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII