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:
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
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.