Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Third Major League

"It will be the best season the national game has ever had." That was the prediction of Players' League Secretary Frank Brunell in his letter to the players at the start of the 1890 season. I'm pretty sure he was eating those words by the end of the season. Though I guess it was the best season the Players' League ever saw, since it was their only one.

The Players' League grew out of the National League's Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, led by John Montgomery Ward. By the close of the 1889 season, the members of the Brotherhood were becoming increasingly disgruntled by the way owners were buying and selling players and determining their salaries. Rather than strike, as the rumors were hinting, Ward envisioned a different way of business altogether. He secured enough financial backing, many star players and the legal standing to form the third major league in time for the Players League to join National League and the American Association for the start of the 1890 season.

Throughout the season the baseball world became more focused on the competition between the leagues than what was happening on the field. In cities with teams from each league, the games were intentionally scheduled to conflict and each league inflated their attendance records in an effort to declare victory. The truth was that overall attendance was lower this year than it had been the previous year, despite having three leagues to choose from. Still, the Players' League often drew more fans than their rivals. The American Association and National League (NL) were losing money as a result of this low attendance and Albert Spalding, the head of the NL, was determined to fight till the death of the Players' League. The new league was also on shaky ground financially. Its financial backers, who were unaware of the NL's financial woes got nervous and folded to Spalding despite Ward's objections. By the end of the 1890 season the Players' League was defunct. This move meant that the owners again had the power and players were simply employees, setting the stage for all future sports leagues to be designed the same way.

The story of the Players' League captures the eternal struggle of management and labor but it also reminds me not to get so caught up in a fight that I forget what I am fighting for. It seems to me that the joy of the game was lost in 1890 as everyone was focused on the business of the leagues. I have a tendency to do the same when I feel wronged. I should learn from the failure of the Players' League, and remember to take time to enjoy the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd while I'm continuing to fight for my beliefs.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kelly Now Catching for Boston

In the early days of baseball the rules were constantly being modified and better defined. I bet Mike “King” Kelly’s name came up quite often in the meetings. Kelly saw rules more like suggestions and frequently identified loopholes.

During the late 1800’s games were played with just one umpire and Kelly took full advantage of this fact. Though he was lauded for his baserunning, he didn't always touch all of the bases if the umpire was distracted by watching the ball. In his autobiography Kelly describes one such incident when he was on second and a Chicago teammate came to bat, “We needed the run badly, and I was also very tired in the bargain. So I started to run to third, but cut across the diamond in my haste, and making a long slide, reached the home plate before the ball arrived.”

It wasn't that Kelly didn't know the rules of the game, he knew them very well. He knew them so well he often used them to his advantage, identifying loopholes at strategic moments in the game. While playing for Boston he was the team captain. At the time, to make a player substitution the captain announced the change to the umpire at any point in the game. During one game Kelly was seated on the bench and a foul ball was popped up in his direction with no chance of being caught by a player on the field. Thinking quickly, Kelly announced “Kelly now catching for Boston” and caught the ball for the third and final out. The substitution rule was changed by the following season.

We can thank Kelly for forcing baseball to close the loopholes and do a better job of defining and enforcing its rules. This is something that I think of as a parent of two preteen girls. I learned that my husband and I need to to clearly state the house rules, even writing them down and maybe having everyone in the house sign a contract. We can’t leave any room for loopholes. Trust me, they’re looking for them. Also it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more umpires on the field so when I turn my back someone else can keep an eye on them!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

He Took the Gilt off the Gingerbread

He may not look like my type but I would have liked Henry Chadwick. I'm a rule follower and believe in rules being clearly defined and fairly enforced and Chadwick did this for baseball. But what is most impressive to me was his foresight to start recording and reporting statistics starting in the 1860's. Chadwick created the newspaper box score which allowed fans to judge players' performances fairly. Though the exact calculations and reporting formats have changed a bit over the years baseball fans are still obsessed with statistics.

Chadwick knew that recording and analyzing this data was the only fair way to determine which players were truly the best and not just crowd favorites. In the Beadle's Dime Baseball Player for 1867 he stated that "Many a dashing general player has 'all the gilt taken off the gingerbread,' as the saying is, by these matter-of-fact figures given at the close of the season."

Once the data was collected and analyzed he also knew in order to increase Baseball's popularity it needed to be publicized. As a journalist himself, Chadwick used his connections to convince first the New York Times and then other papers to start reporting baseball results. Alan Schwartz, in The Numbers Guide: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, called Chadwick "baseball's greatest evangelist, a preacher from the pulpit of numbers."

This data collection, analysis and publication is one key to Baseball's success. It is why America celebrates even though the top performer at the plate last year only had success 36.5% of the time. In my role as Training Coordinator for the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania we use what baseball did with statistics as an example of what organizations need to do in order to identify and promote realistic performance standards for human service programs. Too bad Community Action didn't have a Henry Chadwick.
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