Friday, March 18, 2016

By the Numbers

In writing about baseball owners of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it seems important, at least to me, to try to understand and explain club finances.  At the same time, I also recognize that mere mention of the subject can cause eyes to glaze over and abruptly end any interest in reading further.  What's important, of course, about baseball finance, is not the ledger books and green eye shades, but the insights the numbers might give us about that era of baseball. Unfortunately, prior to 1920 there's a distinct lack of reliable data, making it difficult to draw conclusions, definitive or otherwise.  As a result any hard data that does come to light is an opportunity not to be missed.  About a year ago, I had such an chance when I learned that the Robert Edwards auction house was selling the financial records of the Brooklyn Superbas for 1899 and 1900.  I was pretty sure the item was far out of my price range (it ultimately sold for over $50,000), but the people at the firm were kind enough to allow me to spend several hours taking notes and pictures.  There were well over 100 pages of ledger sheets forcing me to be selective in note taking so I made it a point to take complete notes on gate receipts for each home game since ticket sales were a crucial part of any club's financial success.

Brooklyn Superba financial records supposedly recorded by Charles Ebbets himself

To my knowledge no other financial records for the 27 plus years of Charles Ebbets' stewardship of the Brooklyn club survive or are available in any form, so it's fortuitous that these records cover an especially important time in club history and Ebbets' ownership.  When Ebbets took over the club presidency in January of 1898, he inherited a ballpark that was considered inaccessible and a club that was basically unwatchable, a deadly combination that threatened the club's very existence.  There wasn't much the new magnate could do about the roster before the season began, but he did engineer a move back to South Brooklyn, building the second incarnation of Washington Park in just about a month.  That made it far easier for people to get there, but what they saw on the field didn't encourage them to come back so Ebbets and majority owner, Ferdinand Abell opted for drastic action.

The 1899 Brooklyn Superba payroll 

Their solution was something unthinkable today, an alliance with another team in what was known as syndicate ball where one group of investors owned two teams at the same time.  Although the concept wasn't especially well thought of at the time, it wasn't against the rules and it was popular in 1899 when the league was bloated with 12 teams and the owners hadn't figured out how to deal with repeated top heavy, short-lived pennant races.  The two primary 1899 syndicates were Cleveland/St. Louis and Brooklyn/Baltimore and in both cases the ownership groups gutted one team's roster moving the best players to the city that had the potential for the highest financial returns.  In the latter case, Baltimore had the players as well as the manager while Brooklyn had the far larger population.  The net result was two clubs owned equally by Baltimore owners, Harry Von der Horst and Ned Hanlon, and Brooklyn magnates, Ebbets and Abell.  In addition to Baltimore's best players, Brooklyn also got future Hall of Famer, Ned Hanlon as manager.

Gate Receipts

Unlike the Brooklyn cranks who were focused on the on the field prospects, the owners were probably even more excited about the potential financial returns.  The Eagle speculated that average home attendance of just 4,000 would generate profits of $70,000 ($1.4 million today) while 5-6,000 would produce unthinkable six figure profits even for crowd sizes that seem ridiculously low today.  In the end the quality of the on the field product was not only successful, but probably excessively so as the team went 37-5 during May and June ending any potential pennant race before it began and probably limiting any incentive to attend late season games.  Looking at the actual attendance as recorded in the ledgers, supposedly by Ebbets himself, the excitement over the team's potential drew over 20,000 fans to the April 15th opener, something the club didn't come close to sustaining throughout the season.  The opener was one of only three games all season when total attendance reached five figures.  Even more disappointing was that average attendance not only didn't come close to the 5-6,000 figure, but didn't even reach 3,500, much less the lower number of 4,000.

The Baltimore - Brooklyn Syndicate

The poor financial return, which was even worse in 1900 when the club supposedly lost money at home, proved that syndicate ball didn't work, or at least not in Brooklyn.  More important, perhaps from an historical perspective is what these numbers suggest about the business side of the game at the beginning of the 20th century.  First is that major league baseball was basically a small business.  Total attendance of just over 252,000 at an average admission price of .50 cents generates total gate receipts of just about $126,000, a very small amount which doesn't increase that much ($2,520,000)  even with the 20 times multiplier recommended by historian Charles Alexander.  Any small business has a lot risks, those risks increase dramatically in a business almost totally dependent on one source of revenue, in this case gate receipts, subject to the whims of people who in Brooklyn couldn't even be lured by on the field excellence.  It's no wonder, that the owners spent a lot of time on what seem today like petty expenses, such as the cost of baseballs lost in the stands,

Anticipating large crowds the syndicate owners expanded the seating at Washington Park

Another impression is how few people actually saw major league baseball game in person in 1899.  It's impossible to know how many of the 252,458 admissions to Washington Park were the same people making multiple visits, but even if we assume a fan base where everyone saw five games a season that means only a little over 50,000 people from a Brooklyn with a 1900 population of 1,167,000 or about 4% of the population actually saw a baseball game that year.  That also assumes everyone who went to Washington Park was from Brooklyn.  If these figures are even relatively accurate it suggests that baseball may have been the national pastime, but at the major league level it was one very few people enjoyed in person.  To some degree it's not that surprising since all games were day games played at times only middle class workers and others with some control of their time could get to the ballpark.  Throughout this period, Sunday games, the one day most people had off, were illegal.

Mal Eason, Brooklyn pitcher (and future umpire) is arrested when Brooklyn attempts to play a Sunday game in 1906, marking one of the last attempts to play on the Sabbath until the laws were changed in 1919, New York Tribune, June 18, 1906

Although Charles Ebbets tried various ploys to play Sunday baseball, all of the attempts were thwarted by the Sabbatarians and it wasn't until 1919 that attendance at a major league game was even a realistic possibility for working people who had a quarter or so to spend.  How did baseball maintain and even expand its popularity during that 20 year period when access was so limited?  At least part of the explanation rests with the sports writers of the day who used words to paint a verbal picture for those who couldn't see for themselves.  To do that effectively meant not just providing facts in a Gradgrindesque kind of way, but using language which helped those who weren't there feel like they had been.  There were a number of well known writers such as William Cauldwell, Henry Chadwick and the Rankin brothers in the 19th century as well as the even more famous names in the Deadball Era like Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyan, but it still feels like there is work to be done in understanding how the sports writers of the period contributed to the game's development.  An important part of doing that, at least to me, is to look not just at what they did, but how they did it, because words, just like numbers, can teach us far more than their literal meaning.