Looking at the past to see Major League Baseball’s future

This week in North Philly Notes, Lincoln Mitchell, author of Will Big League Baseball Surivive? considers how MLB has changed since Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”

On November 23rd of this year, 90 year old former big league pitcher Ralph Branca died. Bianca was a solid pitcher, winning 88 games with a very respectable 3.79 ERA over 11 year seasons in the 1940s and 1950s. Branca, however, is mostly remembered for giving up the most famous home run in baseball history. He was the relief pitcher who gave up a three run home run to Bobby Thomson in the bottom of the 9th inning of the third and final game of a playoff series to determine the National League pennant in 1951. Even casual baseball fans have seen the clip of Thomson running the bases, Branca looking dejected and the Giants fans at the old Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan going crazy while announcer Russ Hodges keeps repeating “the Giants win the Pennant.”

That was, by any measure a great game, unless I suppose, if you were a Brooklyn Dodger fan. Thomson’s home run highlighted the Giants comeback after trailing by 4-1 in the last inning. Five future Hall of Famers, including Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, played in that game between two teams who had been rivals for over half a century. The game was further immortalized by Dom DeLillo who opened his Cold War Epic The Underworld with a fictional scene of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor and J. Edgar Hoover sitting together at that game.

Perhaps the most interesting and overlooked statistic about that game is that there were 20,000 empty seats for this most exciting and anticipated of games. Baseball fans today assume that big league baseball was always played by the best players in the world in front of full stadiums, but for much of baseball’s history that was not true. Ironically, while baseball played a bigger role in our culture then—it is hard to imagine any home run in the 21st century becoming as widely remembered as Thomson’s or known as the “shot heard ‘round the world’—it was a much smaller industry.

will-big-league-baseball-survive_smThis is significant because to understand where Major League Baseball (MLB) is going, it is essential to understand how it got to be where it is. In 1951, only a few years after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, baseball at the major league level, was still a game played entirely in the northeast and Midwest in mostly empty ballparks. Integration was still in its nascent stage as there were informal limits on the number of African-American players on each team, and Latinos with dark skin were still almost entirely excluded.

Baseball’s journey to becoming a multi-billion dollar industry with the best players from the baseball-playing world vying for lucrative spots on 30 teams in North America was a complex one. Baseball did some things well, like being ahead of the national curve on integration and adapting well to new technologies, notably the internet, but it also encountered problems such as its mishandling of the steroid crisis while poor attendance remained a problem as recently as the 1990s when baseball considered eliminating two teams.

The recently concluded season ended on a high note as the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. The final game of the World Series between the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians drew more viewers than any game in the last quarter century. Since the World Series, the major baseball story has been the efforts to renegotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the players and the owners. The most visible issues that have been raised with regards to the CBA thus far have been the possibility of adding a 26th player to big league rosters and introducing an international draft for all amateur players around the world.

These issues, however, are only very dim reflections of the bigger challenges baseball will confront in the coming decade or two. In the last 10-20 years globalization has brought more top players from everywhere in the world to MLB, but as globalization continues, many baseball loving countries, particularly those with some economic power, will chafe at this system, while MLB may realize that concentrating entirely in North America leaves many markets untapped. Similarly, new technologies and ways of consuming information will make lucrative cable contracts a thing of the past while MLB will need to find ways to more efficiently monetize its impressive advanced media products. Additionally, as fewer American children grow up playing more than one sport, fewer Americans grow into adulthood with a working knowledge of the game, raising important questions about how baseball will find the next generation of fans.

The last decade or two have been almost a perfect storm for MLB. Cable revenues have remained high while advanced media has brought in even more money. Globalization has made the best players available to American teams, while not being quite powerful enough to challenge American baseball hegemony; and there are still enough middle aged and older Americans who grew up with the game to fill stadiums and watch the postseason on television. This won’t continue and how baseball responds to these changing conditions will determine the future of this complicated and rarely fully understood American institution.

 

 

 

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