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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