Fungoes and free agents. Infield fly-balls and incentive clauses. Double baggers and deferred compensation. Suicide squeezes and salary arbitration. You can smell it in the April air: Spring is sprung, and baseball's back.
One of the signs of any new season is the shower of books timed for the first pitch: This year, according to Amazon.com, sixty-two baseball books appeared with a publication date around opening day.
And sure as good pitching will beat good hitting, there's always a book in the new season's line-up that bemoans the impact of money on the nation's game. Business is bad, you understand, and especially bad for baseball. It sullies innocence, turns players into mercenaries, and pits city against city -- not in the sportsman-like combat of a game but in the no-holds-barred financial struggle to attract a team.
Batting in this year's oh-the-evils-of-money slot is Burt Solomon's Where They Ain't, an account of the original Baltimore Orioles and their slide to perdition. Despite its thesis, however, Solomon's book manages to tell a fascinating story. The baseball gods love the Baltimore Orioles so much they've given the name to five different teams.
The first of those teams, the original Orioles, is Solomon's subject. This was the gang that revolutionized play under their manager "Foxy Ned" Hanlon. Between 1892 and 1898, Hanlon introduced strategies and tactics that spread throughout baseball and prevail to this day: the hit and run, the sacrifice, and the cutoff man. Led by some of the sport's most colorful characters, including Wee Willie Keeler and John McGraw, the Orioles built themselves into the dominant team at the end of the century.
But inevitably, filthy lucre wrecked those Birds, who abandoned a beery but friendly Mob Town to hot-foot it up to gold-plated Gotham. (Solomon has a knack for using -- and overusing -- the newspaperese of 1890s sportswriters.) In 1899, the Orioles' best players went with their manager Hanlon to breathe new life into a financially ailing Brooklyn club known as the "Trolley Dodgers" and run by an upstart New York City councilman named Charley Ebbets.
In 1901, a resurrected Orioles under the leadership of McGraw joined the new American League. Their tenure was short. By 1903, the Orioles had once again left for New York, to become the Highlanders -- the team that renamed itself "the Yankees" in 1908 and has occasionally been heard from in the years since. McGraw too found himself in New York, as the manager of the National League's Giants.
In their third and fourth incarnations, the Baltimore Orioles fell into the minors. An Eastern League squad lasted from 1903 until 1912, when it was replaced by the International League Orioles. It was these Orioles that first gave a professional contract to a Baltimore native, a troubled but promising left-handed pitcher named George Herman Ruth.
In 1954, major league baseball returned to Baltimore when the American League's St. Louis Browns gave up their uneven struggle to attract fans from the National League's Cardinals and became the modern Orioles. During most of the forty-five years since, the O's have been the winningest team in baseball, a distinction the franchise lost only last season to -- who else? -- the New York Yankees.
Solomon is right to be drawn to the first of these Baltimore teams. It's always hard to measure something like the contributions of Ned Hanlon's and John McGraw's Orioles, but consider this: From 1904 to 1998, the three New York descendants of the original Baltimore Orioles appeared in sixty-eight World Series. In a quarter of them, Baltimore's offspring would play each other.
In 1903, Keeler, the character at the center of Where They Ain't, was the first professional player to receive $ 10,000. That's about $ 165,000 in today's money and less than the minimum salary a rookie earns under the current agreement between owners and players.
Unsurprisingly, the first player to be offered $ 100,000 was the man who broke Keeler's record of hitting safely in forty-four consecutive games: Joe DiMaggio. Today, that deal would be worth $ 400,000, a full million short of the average major league salary now.
After his death last month at the age of eighty-four, the Yankee Clipper was memorialized by George Will as "a link in baseball's chain of understated excellence" -- which isn't bad for a man who sixty years ago was reviled by fans and sportswriters across the country. In 1938, Joltin' Joe had the temerity to demand $ 45,000 to renew his contract. When the Yankees informed DiMaggio that the great Lou Gehrig himself made just $ 41,000 that year, DiMaggio replied, "Gehrig is underpaid." He held out through most of April 1939 and was booed mercilessly in Yankee Stadium upon his return.
Of course, Keeler, Gehrig, and DiMaggio played before the advent of free agency. The modern salary king is right-handed hurler Kevin Brown, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $ 105 million over seven years. This level of major league salary is typically offered as the first exhibit in the case against big money in the big leagues: a symptom of what's wrong with professional baseball, a measure of the distance between players and the fans that support them.
But, as Joe DiMaggio learned in 1938, there's no sure way to correlate a player's intrinsic value to the game with his imputed economic value. A real market for baseball players doesn't exist. Every salary negotiation is essentially an exchange of assertions that ends in a bet. (The latest techniques of financial analysis might help assign something like fair value to ballplayers, but current salaries indicate that the major leagues are utterly unfamiliar with such techniques.)
The purists are simply wrong to think that grace and beauty can't accompany bulging bankrolls. If Renaissance art could reach its glories under the murderous Medicis, why can't baseball thrive under George Steinbrenner, Peter Angelos, Ted Turner, and Bud Selig?
We live in a time with the best baseball ever played -- to some degree, precisely because of the embrace of business. Our golden age would be impossible if baseball hadn't become big business a hundred years ago.
Despite its lamentations about the influence of money, Burt Solomon's Where They Ain't remains a worthy read, an affectionate depiction of baseball and Baltimore in the 1890s. But, with that said, let Where They Ain't be the last of its outdated style of anti-business baseball book. Certain financial excesses have undoubtedly hurt the game from time to time over the years. But the question of whether, on the whole, money has been good or bad for baseball was answered long ago. Play Ball!
Where They Ain't
The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball
Free Press, 320 pp., $ 25
Steven Slezak is a financial analyst living in Baltimore.