Friday, February 26, 2016

On Being a Baseball Team Owner - the Wrong Stuff

 In his book, The New York Giants Baseball Club, James Hardy wrote that the major problem with late 19th century baseball club owners was their failure to understand that while they may have owned the club, the team really belonged to the fans.  The concept was most likely far too subtle for what were effectively a group of small businessmen who operated, if not nationwide, at least across a large area of the country.  It was, after all, their money that built the ballparks which fans paid as little as a quarter to enter, to watch players who the owners also paid.  Yet the wise magnate recognized that the cranks willingness to put down that quarter was, in fact, the final determination of the owner's success or failure, at least financially.  Unlike today's game with multiple revenue streams, 19th century owners were at the mercy of one solitary spring that could dry up quickly in the space of one drought of wins.  It was not a business for the financially faint of heart.

Cover of the Players' League Guide for the League's One and Only Season

In spite of these obvious warning signs, however, the profits of the late 1880's and the limited upfront capital outlays along with the beginning of the Players' League War, attracted people totally unsuited for club ownership.  Such owners had the potential to destroy major league baseball in a specific locale.  A case in point is the three lead owners of Brooklyn's Players' League franchise, Wendell Goodwin, Edward Linton and George Chauncey, with Goodwin and Chauncey going on to become minority owners in the team that is known to history as the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The story of the Players' League has been well told in appropriate detail by Harold Seymour, David Voigt and others so what follows is a brief summary.  The seeds of the conflict were sown during the profitable late 1880's when the owners foolishly tried to control player salaries beyond any reasonable level.  In an attempt to better their lot, the players formed the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, a union led by John Montgomery Ward, a star player and, very unlikely for the time, a college graduate and attorney.

Prior to the 1889 season while Ward was out of the country on Alexander Spalding's world baseball tour, National League owners led by John Brush arbitrarily imposed a salary scale from $500 to $2500 based upon five different classifications of playing ability.  Not surprisingly the players were furious and considered boycotting the season which was about to begin.  Upon Ward's return, however, he convinced the players to honor their 1889 contracts while he worked on a radical, more permanent solution.  The result was the formation of the Players' League, which as the name implies gave the players an ownership role designed to facilitate more equitable long term treatment.  Each of the eight clubs were governed by an eight man board chosen equally by the players and those who were variously called contributors, investors and ultimately capitalists, in other words those with money to build the ballpark, hire the players and operate the ball club.

John T. Brush

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately in the long run, investors weren't hard to come by.  As often happens in any business, a run of profitable years highlighted the rewards and downplayed the financial risks.  The local Brooklyn club had not only won the 1889 American Association championship on the field, but at the box office as well, more than sufficient incentive for a group of investors led by the three men, none of whom had any business being in the baseball business, to invest in the formation of the Brooklyn Players' League club.  Chauncey was the only one with a baseball background, having played for the Excelsior Club at the end of that organization's baseball playing days around 1870.  His playing career now long behind him, Chauncey, reportedly a "never failing booster of Brooklyn," was a broker in his family's real estate business.  Earning his living in real estate, Chauncey had a vested interest in anything that increased or expanded the value of property in the then independent city of Brooklyn.

Unlike Chauncey who was born in Brooklyn and never left, both Linton and Goodwin were native New Englanders.  Linton's father had been the associate editor of "The Liberator," the abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison.  Supposedly the younger Linton escaped from Charleston on the last boat in April of 1861, enlisted in the 11th Massachusetts and after the war founded the Unexcelled Fireworks Company in Brooklyn.  Linton's description of his company as "unexcelled," suggests he wasn't troubled by excessive modesty.  Severely injured in a fire at his factory, Linton sold the company and began developing real estate in the less than picturesquely named village of New Lots.  Absorbed into Brooklyn in 1886, the area became Brooklyn's 26th Ward with the more seemly, but geographically unhelpful name of East New York.  Supposedly in 1890, the time of the Brotherhood War, Linton "literally owned half of East New York."  Perhaps not surprisingly for a real estate developer, Linton reportedly had "no trouble promoting himself or his causes" with a reputation of being "rather contentious and difficult at times," offending someone on almost a daily basis.

One of the challenges facing Linton's development efforts was East New York's relatively remote location.  Helping overcome that obstacle beginning in 1888 was Wendell Goodwin, an executive of the Kings County Elevated Railroad which ran only one line, but "one of the most lucrative in Brooklyn," In 1891, the line carried almost 1.6 million passengers at a profit of $278,000 or about $5.5 million today.  So with lead owners who were a real estate broker, a developer of East New York and a transportation executive, could there be any doubt where their new ball park would be located?  Certainly not some place convenient to the fans, but in East New York, of course, generating more traffic for the subway line and hopefully increasing local real estate values.  Taking no chances the three new magnates not only located the park in East New York, but built it on land owned by one of their real estate companies insuring rental income from their baseball investment regardless of the profitability of the team itself.

Brooklyn Player's League Club Team Picture 

In the end the location of the team's grounds may not have made much difference in the ultimate results, at least on the field.  Both clubs were successful with Charles Byrne's team winning the National League pennant and the Players' League club coming in a respectable third under the on the field leadership of Ward himself.  At the box office, however, it was another story with both clubs losing money, a common experience in 1890 which made peace look very attractive to all concerned except the players.  Ultimately the negotiations in cities like Brooklyn with two competing clubs took the form of a club by club settlement.  Not surprisingly given the Eastern Park magnates' agenda, their major priority was for the consolidated club to play its games in East New York, so much so that they promised to put $30,000 into the new venture.  What is surprising is that Charles Byrne who had made very few bad decisions as Brooklyn president, agreed in the end to take the money and desert much more accessible south Brooklyn.  Even at more than a 100 years distance, it's a hard decision to understand.  At an National League owners meeting almost ten years later, Charles Ebbets and Ferdinand Abell cited the Eastern Park move as evidence of their willingness to put National League interests before their own.suggesting their may have been outside pressure.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 4, 1893 depicting the upcoming pennant race, but perhaps also capturing the difficulty for Charles Byrne of making Eastern Park work financially

Even surrender on the ballpark issue wasn't enough for Edward Linton who got an injunction to hold up the deal until he got what he wanted - to be bought out.  Given his personality and Linton's future financial problems that was probably a blessing in disguise.  Even so, not only did Byrne make a bad decision in agreeing to go to Eastern Park, but he never realized the promised benefits as only $22,000 of the $30,000 investment was ever paid.  Furthermore, Goodwin, Chauncey and the other investors refused to put any more money into the club, understandably infuriating Ferdinand Abell who had to keep covering losses including rent payments to the minority partners real estate company. The experience may have contributed to his supposed refusal to put in additional funds during the American League war, a decade in the future which caused major problems for the Brooklyn teams of the early 20th century.  Brazenly both Goodwin and Chauncey denied that they were unwilling to cooperate, Goodwin was clearly bluffing since like Linton, he too ran into financial difficulties and had to make an assignment for the benefit of his creditors.

Ferdinand Abell - Majority Owner and Unofficial Banker of the 1890's Brooklyn Teams

The Brooklyn team finally got rid of their unhelpful partners in late 1897 when Chauncey, acting as trustee for the minority shareholders, sold the entire interest to Charles Ebbets, who only a few weeks later would become club president upon the death of Charles Byrne.  Although Chauncey doesn't seemed to have contributed much to major league baseball in Brooklyn, he and Ebbets became good friends with the former named as one of the trustees of a bequest from Ebbets' will to organize a memorial dinner on the Brooklyn magnate's birth anniversary, something Chauncey did until his own death a few years later.  Having sold his interest, the Brooklyn real estate broker could do no further damage to major league baseball in Brooklyn.  The problem with the Brooklyn Players' League owners was perhaps just as much in "their stars" as in "themselves." A few years after the Players' League war,  the Eagle wrote that Linton promoted the team, "not that he was particularly interested in the sport,but it accomplished his end."  Too many owners of that ilk would have killed major league baseball before it could be fully developed as a national business.

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