Lying with numbers
I am behind on my essays on obscure points of baseball history. I’m working on a piece on why baseball treats tie games the way it does, but time is short right now. So here is something to tide you over for your obscure baseball history fix.
The writer is Lewis Meacham, baseball editor of the Chicago Tribune and sometime bagman for William Hulbert, president both of the Chicago Club and of the National League. Meacham here is writing in his capacity as chief propagandist for the League.
The background is that the League is putting the squeeze on non-League clubs. Exhibitions with non-League clubs were an important revenue source. They accounted for about a quarter of the Boston Club’s income in 1877. Other NL clubs’ finances are less well documented, but it is likely that they were comparable in this regard. The finances of the outside clubs are even less well documented, but it is clear that these exhibition games were even more important for the non-League clubs.
The League decided to take advantage of its organizational unity, and instituted new rules about such games. They were prohibited on League grounds under after the regular season was over. This was done to limit the supply of games in League cities, in the hope of increasing attendance at regular season games. The non-League clubs were unhappy at losing access to these markets, but that was the least of it. The NL also required a minimum guarantee of $100 (or half the gate, whichever was greater) to play a game. Worst of all, the non-League club had to guarantee $50 if the game was cancelled for any reason other than the League club cancelling. The numbers seem comically low, but every club was constantly on the edge of financial collapse. Under this requirement, a rain-out could push a club over the brink.
There was, as you would expect, much complaining. Here is Meacham’s apologia, from the Chicago Tribune of January 27, 1878:
During the season of 1877 the Chicagos played forty-five games with the best class of non-League clubs on the grounds of the latter. The Chicago receipts from these games were $5,184.40, or an average of $115.20 per game. The expense account of the Club for the year shows the following items:
Paid railroad fares ……….. $2,977.74
Paid hotels……………………. $1,673.74
Paid carriages……………….. $ 214.61
Total traveling expenses… $4,866.09
This bill of expenses covered the absence of the Club for ninety-eight days, during which they played seventy-six games of ball. It therefore appears that the expenses made in playing each game away from home were $64.02. And here is the point made by the anti-League critics: they say: “On your own showing you get $115.20 by paying out $64.02; that’s what we have always said: you are making $51.18 off each game with us: you are living off us.”
Softly, sirs: gently a moment; the Chicago Club paid in salaries last season $179.06 for each game its team played. Add that to the expense of traveling, and you find it cost $243.08 to play each game outside of Chicago. But this doesn’t show, nor attempt to show, the whole expenses of the club. Last year it paid out for ground rent, printing, advertising, and other expenses not noted above more than the whole cost of running many of the clubs which are grumbling about the League “living off them.”
The fact is, without any word of explanation beyond what is shown by the figures, the Chicago Club last year sold for $115.20 what cost it $248.08, and repeated this forty-five times in the season, thus giving away and actual cost of $10,938.60 for a return of $5,184.40.
This is brilliant! The incautious reader could easily take from this that the League clubs were losing money every time they played an exhibition game, and were only doing it for the benefit of their non-League brethren and to advance the game. I can but stand back and admire the bullshit.
Here, by way of contrast, is a defense of the same policy from Harry Wright, from a letter dated January 25, 1878 he wrote to Henry Chadwick, which was published in the New York Clipper of February 2:
Another step was taken by the League clubs which has provoked a great deal of what seems to me unmerited abuse. I refer to the resolve passed not to play non-League games except for guarantee. I do not purpose entering into a defense of this course, for the reason that I see nothing to defend. It may be a mistake; that can only be determined by trial. The League clubs passed the vote simply to secure a uniform matter of transacting their business, and because they thought it for their interests so to do. Should the non-League clubs conclude that they and their supporters will dispense with League games this year, both classes will doubtless be the losers. What I do object to is, that the League should be charged with a desire to oppress clubs not belonging to their organization, for it seems to me to be a strictly commercial transaction. The term “arbitrary” has also been freely applied to the measure, but as non-League clubs cannot be forced by League clubs to do anything against their will, I fail to see the significance of the word as used. I have already written at greater length than I first intended, but wish to say in conclusion, that there appears to be a determination upon the part of some writers to establish a breach between the two classes of clubs; to that end much has been written that is full of misrepresentation. I think that if the practical men who officer or manage the clubs should decide for themselves upon the points apparently at issue, there would be found to be little cause for argument. It is conceded on all hands that the baseball business has not yet followed as closely the laws governing the other pursuits of man as it should. I think the late League legislation is in that direction.
This is more subtle. Wright isn’t bullshitting with numbers piled atop one another willy-nilly. His is a simple “take it or leave it” response. If we understand the League and non-League clubs to be acting as equals, then this is a reasonable response. That understanding, however, isn’t really accurate. The argument has some of the air of the pretense that a factory owner and a factory worker freely enter into a negotiated contract, and so the worker has no grounds to complain about its terms. Except that here, the factory owners have gotten together and colluded on the terms they will offer their workers. The higher-level organization of baseball was not yet well developed. At this stage, the outside clubs didn’t think of themselves (much less present themselves to the public) as “minor” compared to the “major” clubs of the National League. So Wright’s argument was pretty much unanswerable. I gave a little golf clap as I read it.