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Capitalism will save pro baseball

I am now officially sick and tired of hearing about how the pending players’ strike is going to kill Major League Baseball. The general manager of the Cincinnati franchise took some heat for a statement in which he basically argued that a players’ strike would be the 9/11 of baseball. Dave Campbell of ESPN also invoked 9/11 in describing the consequences of a player strike. For you incurably hysterical types out there, let me offer the following words of reason:

Pro baseball will survive because it is played in a capitalist country.

As long as there are athletes who want to play, and entrepreneurs who are willing to organize it, professional baseball will exist in some form. There has not been a lack of either of these elements in the United States since the 1870s. Every time I have made this claim, among family, coworkers, students, etc., it has been met with howls of derision. The counter-arguments boil down to:

(1) what about the fans? the game is for the fans; what if the fans get fed up and leave? and:
(2) baseball has now gotten itself into problems that are unprecedented in its history, and it cannot possibly hope to survive, as the deck is stacked against it. Both these claims are lacking in merit, as we shall see.

If you look at MLB’s attendance history (which of course I did), you will see that there is NO evidence that past strikes have had a long-term impact on baseball attendance. None. In 1972, a strike cut about ten games off the front of the season. Attendance per game dipped in 1972 — but attendance was higher in 1973 than it was in 1971, and has not since fallen below 1973 levels. A similar pattern emerged around the longer 1981 strike — attendance was higher in 1982 than in 1980, and grew from 1982 into the 1990s.

In 1994, the players again struck, this time in August, and the season came to an abrupt end. This time, it looks like baseball paid a price — attendance in 1993 peaked at 30,979 fans per game, and has not risen to that level since the strike. But 1993 is a poor year to use as a baseline, because two new teams joined the National League that year, and first-year expansion teams draw exceptionally well. One of those teams, the Colorado Rockies, set an attendance record that still stands. If you use 1992 as the baseline, or just throw those expansion teams’ totals out of the league average for 1993, baseball had fully recovered its attendance base within about two seasons of the end of the strike.

But let’s suppose the doomsayers are right, and baseball loses half its fan base. Let’s say MLB attendance falls from 30,000 per game to 15,000 per game as a result of the pending strike. Can we put that into some historical context?

There used to be a time that insufferable sportswriters called the “golden era” in MLB history. Roughly defined as the years 1947-57, these are the seasons that sportswriters like Roger Kahn, in hushed and reverent tones, describe as the greatest ever. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle played during part or all of The Golden Era. Baseball was the only well-established pro sport. Baseball was The National Pastime, a huge part of our popular culture. Right?

Well, guess what? The average major league paid attendance during The Golden Era was 14,010 per game. Yes, baseball is in danger, the doomsayers tell us, of having its attendance fall all the way back to … essentially what it was during The Golden Era, when baseball was allegedly pure as the driven snow and beloved by all Americans.

What about those organized labor problems? Look, these issues are as old as baseball. The threat of the union striking is nothing compared to what players used to do when they didn’t like the way the owners treated them — they used to FORM RIVAL LEAGUES! The Federal League, to name just one, played in 1914-15; future Hall of Famers like Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Joe Tinker and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown defected to the upstart league. The Federal League didn’t last, but it was a major wakeup call for the AL and NL. The AL itself started as a rebel league too, except that it survived. If the pampered players of today had the cojones to pull off something like THAT, the owners would have a lot more to fear than they do in Donald Fehr, the morose players’ union chairman.

So rest easy, fans. Baseball is here to stay. How do I know this? Because capitalism is alive and well.

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