Wednesday, June 30, 2010

$11,000 Beauty or Lemon?

The rookie pitcher, called a "phenom" by the press, took the mound for the first time in a Major League uniform and hoped he could prove that he was worth the record-breaking price his team paid for him. No, this isn't another blog about Stephen Strasburg. This situation took place over 100 years ago when the New York Giants signed Minor League pitcher Rube Marquard of the Indianapolis Browns for $11,000. The previous contract record was $10,000 for Mike "King" Kelly who was a proven Major League ballplayer so the Giants manager John McGraw turned some heads by taking a chance on the young lefty. Marquard and McGraw attempted to leverage this hype and celebrity status throughout the pitcher's lifetime, at times without strict attention to truth. The results ranged from complete humiliation to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Marquard came to the Giants during the heated pennant race with Chicago in 1908 and had only thrown a few pitches before the Cubs came to town, just 2 1/2 games back. McGraw tried to intimidate the opposition by having Marquard warm up and walk to the diamond as if he were going to pitch but at the last minute substituted another pitcher who secretly had been warming up. McGraw tried the trick for both games with Chicago and both times his strategy failed. The Cubs beat the Giants 4-3 and 2-1. Giants' fans were growing restless and the following day when Fred Merkle's mistake led to a tie game rather than a Giant win the fans were riotous.

McGraw needed to get the fans' minds off of the Merkle disaster as soon as possible. He turned to his star rookie, the "$11,000 Beauty" as the press called him, to start a game just two days later. The decision was made primarily for public relations and not strategy since the Cincinnati team hit well off of left-handed pitchers. Marquard shared his fear with teammate Christy Mathewson just before taking the mound. According to Mathewson, Marquard said the fans, "were all thinking that McGraw had paid $11,000 for me and now they were to find out whether he had gotten stuck, whether he had picked up a golden brick with the plating on it very thin. I was wondering, myself, whether I would make good." No one had to wonder for long. Mathewson reports "the official scorer got writer's cramp trying to keep track of the hits and runs" and Marquard was taken out in the fifth inning.

The "$11,000 Beauty" became the "$11,00 Lemon" overnight. For the next two years Marquard worked on his confidence and fundamentals. He won just nine games in two years. In 1911 Marquard won 24 games and, finally, the affection of the Giants' fans. Their love grew stronger the following year when he won 19 straight games (a single-season record that still stands today). Marquard used his baseball success to propel himself to celebrity status. He endorsed products, appeared on Broadway and made a silent movie. Long after his baseball career ended Rube still seemed to know the power of public relations and a good story. Marquard's selection for the Hall of Fame in 1971 is often debated. Many argue it had more to do with his captivating tales in the book The Glory of Their Times than statistics. Several of the details about his life in the book have been questioned and proven incorrect.

Sharing moving (and maybe untrue) stories about his life at a crucial time was not a new approach for Marquard. When John McGraw first signed the young pitcher and brought him to New York, the rookie thought he should write a note of introduction to the fans. Larry Mansch reprinted the letter in his book Rube Marquard. While the embellished tales in The Glory of Their Times ultimately paid off and possibly led to his election to the Hall of Fame, the initial hype of Marquard's arrival in New York and McGraw's intimidation tactics backfired.

I personally am not very good at creating the hype for myself like Marquard did. I'm not sure yet if that is good or bad. I know that I have missed out on opportunities that have gone to others who are better at selling themselves. Self-promotion is something I respect when done honestly. Marquard seemed to skirt the line on that. I actually find his own words insightful although I'm not sure he learned from them. In his 1908 letter, Marquard wrote,
"Only once did I try 'living high.' That was after I had begun pitching professional ball. I got the idea I ought to tog myself out in gay raiment, so I took the money I got for pitching and bought a gorgeous suit of clothes. It was a florid cast of countenance, and it made itself heard in the dark, it was so loud. To match it I had a pair of yellow shoes that sneezed like a man with hay fever when I walked. I thought I was the best dressed man in the country till my friends saw me, and then I heard so many things about my appearance that I shook the duds forever."
I have no idea if the story of the suit is true or if Marquard made it up in order to seem more down to earth and less like a high-paid ballplayer. Either way, he seems like a man who would often wear whatever "suit" he needed to wear in order to get ahead. I am more comfortable in my own clothes even if they don't get heard in the dark or sneeze like a man with hay fever. But, this way I'll probably never get in the hall of fame. I suppose there's a balance somewhere in the middle?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

That's The Way It Goes

The man who sat at a telegraph machine fanning himself in a hot, stuffy room overlooking a baseball field in New York in 1887 illustrates how popular baseball was at the time and how far businesses were willing to go to capitalize on its popularity. Telegraph operators relayed scores by inning to newspapers and pool rooms across the country where fans would hungrily lap up the information about their home team (or the team on which they had placed a bet). The competition between telegraph companies, Baltimore and Ohio and Western Union, was fierce. Clubs signed a contract with one company, giving them the sole rights to wire the information about games from their field for the season. The demand for baseball was so high, however, that sometimes the company that lost the contract still found a creative way to follow the game and wire scores to paying customers.

A July 1887 New York Times article tells of a Baltimore and Ohio telegraph operator working outside a ballpark that was under contract with Western Union. The operator did not let that stop him from wiring scores. He had rented a room in the spring which overlooked the field for $5 a month and had telegraph wires run to the room. It must have seemed like the perfect plan, that is until the buds appeared on the giant willow tree that stood between the room and the field. The tree that, according to the operator, "has the heaviest foliage I ever saw on any tree" blocked home plate and the infield. Fortunately he could still "obtain a fair view of the outfield."

The operator did not let this obstacle keep from reporting the score, inning by inning. Instead of relying on sight, he used sound, just as one receives information on a telegraph. After each play he waited to hear the reaction of the crowd to determine what happened on the field. He learned to interpret the silence, cheers, groans and gasps nearly perfectly. He reported, "That's the way it goes and I haven't been deceived by these signs three times this season. When the game is concluded I telegraph the total runs, base hits and errors, and unscrewing my machine, make tracks for home and make my dinner."

I love the juxtaposition of intelligence and stupidity in this story because, well, I guess I can relate to it. I have my "blonde" moments. There's something very human about a guy who took a gutsy and creative action of renting the room, rigging the machine and was then fooled by his own short-sightedness of not thinking about the tree that would obviously get leaves in the summer. I love that he didn't let his error stop him, he still persisted. He used his other senses and knowledge of the game to get the information he needed. I often say I may not be (insert various adjectives), but I'm resourceful. That's this guy! Finally, I love that at the end of the day he didn't beat himself up about what may have gone wrong. Sometimes I take myself and my actions way too seriously and I just need to relax, say "that's the way it goes" make tracks for home and make my dinner. Can you relate to the operator too or am I the only one that sometimes overlooks simple things, like trees getting leaves?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Red Dye Faded From The Stockings

"As integral to the game as are the red stitches that keep a baseball from unraveling" is how author Stephen D. Guschov describes the Cincinnati Red Stockings' legacy. In 1869 the Cincinnati Baseball Club employed Harry Wright, his brother George and eight other players to form the first official professional baseball team. Prior to this team, clubs often split the gate receipts with players or paid top performers a salary off the record. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first team to announce that all of its players were receiving a salary with the highest ($1,400) going to George Wright. The team of professionals completed 57 games during the 1869 season without a single loss. Despite their success on the field, the team was not financially successful and when the winning streak was broken in their second season fans and investors began to withdraw their support. After two seasons and less than ten losses (cumulative!) the Cincinnati ball club decided to abandon their decision and moved forward with a team consisting solely of amateur players.

The fall of the Red Stockings began in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870 when the Atlantics handed Cincinnati their first loss since becoming a professional team. The New York Times called the game "The Most Exciting Game on Record." By this point, Cincinnati had won approximately 92 games in a row. At the bottom of the 9th inning the Atlantics and the Red Stockings were tied at 5. The umpire declared the game a tie and the Atlantics began to exit the field to get changed. The Red Stockings were not, however, willing to settle with a tie. They petitioned the umpires to let the game continue into extra innings. The fans agreed, wanting a decision. They ran onto the field in an attempt to keep the Atlantics from leaving and "for a time confusion reigned supreme". Finally, the umpires declared that the game would continue. If the Atlantics didn't return to the field, the win would go to Cincinnati. Unfortunately for Harry Wright and his team, the Atlantics returned to play and went on to score three more runs to the Red Stockings' two. The final score was Brooklyn Atlantics 8, Cincinnati Red Stockings 7.

This loss shocked all of baseball. The unbeatable had been beaten. The team finished the season with no more than seven loses but this record was unacceptable to the Cincinnati fans (or cranks as they were called) and investors who expected perfection. Guschov writes, "Anything less was unacceptable. Defeat had meant dishonor to the Queen City cranks. The Red dye was fading from the stockings, and the Hose had begun to run."

The Cincinnati Base Ball Club, which barely broke even when the team was undefeated, suffered as attendance dropped. They reportedly sold pieces of lumber from the ballpark in order to stay afloat. When the Club decided it could no longer support the professional players of Harry Wright's team, its president A.P.C. Bonte released a notice stating this and added that the Club felt paying "large salaries" created jealousy and extravagance which led to problems in the team which worked against the team's success. Other teams were not convinced and were happy to bring the deserted Red Stockings players to their cities. Harry and George Wright packed up their signature red socks and moved to Boston to form the Boston Red Stockings.

Looking back it seems ridiculous that a club would abandon its team after two amazing winning seasons like those of the Red Stockings but I can't argue with Bonte's statement, "You can wave the Star Spangled Banner and talk about the glory of the Red Stockings, and the nine that meets with no defeat, but you must put your hands in your pockets and pay the bills. You can't run the club on glory." So where did the plan go wrong?

In my job I train nonprofits on how to create a solid plan before starting a project and we use Peter F. Drucker's The Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool as a guide. I doubt that the members of the Cincinnati Baseball Club considered anything close to Drucker's five questions before deciding to hire an entire staff of professional players, or when they decided to abandon their entire team. Here are some thoughts I had when looking at the Red Stockings' situation through the lens of Drucker's questions.

Question 1 What Is Our Mission? - was the Club's mission to win games or earn money?, did they identify this from the beginning and plan accordingly?

Question 2 Who Is Our Customer? - did they know enough about the fans and investors?, did the fans and investors in Cincinnati know enough about baseball?

Question 3 What Does the Customer Value? - did they value the game, winning, or making a profit?

Question 4 What Are Our Results? - were they measuring their success simply in wins or in profit? if in profit why did they not make adjustments between 1869 and 1870 since they barely broke even in the first season?

Question 5 What Is Our Plan? - did they have a plan on how to make the team successful financially? were their expectations realistic both on the field and off?

The lesson learned from the Red Stockings is just what Bonte said, you can't run a club - or any business on glory. It takes more than a good idea, passion, fame and even talent to make something a successful venture. Careful planning and assessment is crucial.

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