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Imbalanced Economics in MLB: The 1950s

Much has been written and talked about in the past several years about the uneven economic conditions in major league baseball. We use terms like the “Evil Empire” and “big markets/small markets” to describe what generally is being accepted as an imbalance in the competitiveness of the sport. I use the term “rich and poor markets rather than large and small to describe the growing gap between the top tier teams and the lower ones. If you go back to the early 1990s you see an eventual progression towards spending tons of money to win the World Series, or at least to make it into the post season. However, there is a precedent for all of this. Fans may have forgotten, or may not be aware, of the disparity in MLB play during the late forties and throughout the fifties, culminating in major moves of some of the old franchises and the eventual expansion of both leagues. This disparity was alarming the parties running the sport and practically ruined the financial ground that baseball existed on. Here is a brief story of that era.

After World War II, the American public appeared to be hungry for entertainment, and especially sports. Our post-war economy exploded like a water balloon, giving citizens all over the country discretionary income that they had not had before. Wartime shortages and rationing had made Americans hungry to consume those things they had not been allowed to have or experience during the war, so it was only logical that the “national pastime”, baseball, would be a big recipient of the attention. Players also returning from service, like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and the like, were now back and anxious to assume their careers. Science was to also contribute to the desire of baseball soon by offering up a new venue to watch it, television. All of this would renew the fascination of fans with their national sport. Or so it seemed.

The teams that were to benefit the most from the renewed eagerness towards baseball would be the ones who would gain the most: the New York City ball clubs, of course. At the time there were three, with the Yankees, Giants, and the Dodgers all bidding for fans and support from one very large city. Even though New York was the largest city in a growing and thriving country, there were only so many fans that would go out and support their teams. This was an oncoming dilemma for the owners of the existing franchises, and they would eventually take drastic action because of it. Also in those days major league baseball was only played in a handful of cities. Since the turn of the Twentieth Century, there had been only eight teams in each league, and Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had two teams each, one in each league. This made it much more difficult for most baseball fans in the United States to actually experience a “live” ballgame, let alone root for one or another franchise. This would also soon change, but mostly out of the growing economic problems with the sport. Thus, baseball in the late 1940s was a small, closely-knit, exclusive society bent on keeping the status quo. The crowds were satisfactory, the quality of baseball returned to a high level, and everything seemed grand and golden in the sport.

Starting in 1947, the dominance of the three New York teams began, with Brooklyn and the New York Yankees playing for the big prize. This would be an ongoing rivalry between these two teams for most of the following decade and a half, with most of the victories going to the Yanks. DiMaggio was back in the fold, players like Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto would join him, and a very strong pitching staff was being built. This was also the year of Jackie Robinson, breaking the unspoken color barrier and exciting a whole new generation of baseball fans in Brooklyn. He would be joined by the likes of players such as Carl Furillo, PeeWee Reese and aging stars like Arky Vaughan and Dixie Walker. Not to be outdone, the crosstown rival Giants would include the talent of Johnny Mize, Bobby Thomson and the strong pitching of Larry Jansen, but they would be joined soon by other great players. The Yankees won the series that year, as they would for many of the next twelve years. Although the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves won their respective pennants in 1948, the two New York teams would play for the ultimate prize again in 1949. Meanwhile, most of the other franchises were enviously plugging away, trying to keep their budgets down and trying to put some kind of a competitive club on the field. With few exceptions, it was becoming more and more difficult. It was becoming obvious that young players wanted to play in the biggest and most exciting arena in major sports. Players were more and more anxious to sign for the three New York clubs and be showcased on the national scene. Such was the eventual demise of the old guard. It became more and more likely that some of the other market teams were going to lose their clubs, whether it be by threatened moves by their owners or a hopefully unlikely shrinking of the sport by liquidating some of the lesser stable teams. This would no doubt be avoided if at all possible. The successful play on the field continued for the New Yorkers.

In 1950, the Yankees made it two in a row when they dismantled a surprising underdog Phillies bunch. The Philadelphia Phillies had never won a World Series and were probably chosen by many fans to play the role of the underdog. The Yankees were putting together a true dynasty and would not be denied. To take the place of a DiMaggio reaching the end of his career they had found the powerful bat of Mickey Mantle. The pitching staff was stronger than ever and would set records in series play for scoreless innings in a row and other stats. In 1951 the Yankees won again, beating their rival Giants. The Giants were now showcasing the likes of Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and were trying to stay competitive with a proven Dodgers club. Brooklyn, however, overtook the one year run of the Giants and won the pennant in the Senior Circuit in 1952. For the third time, they met and lost to the Yankees in the World Series. The American League champs had now won four championships in a row, tying the feat accomplished by the Joe McCarthy-led Yankees of an earlier era.

Would the Yankees win five in a row? The answer was to be a resounding “yes” when, again, they met the Dodgers in post season play and defeated them in 1953, four games to two. The rosters were memorably filled with names that people would remember through the ages: joining Robinson, Reese and Furillo on the Dodgers would be Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider. In the bullpen would be Erskine, Podres, Roe and Newcombe. On the Yankees side, Berra, Rizzuto and Mantle would be joined by Billy Martin, Bauer, McDougald, and Woodling. The arms of Ford, Raschi, Lopat, Reynolds, later Larsen and Turley would continue to haunt National League teams, as well as American League ones. Five World Series victories in order are still a record that may be almost impossible today to top or tie due to free agency and the number of franchises. It is a remarkable record and has given Yankee fans a history to be proud of.

The following year, those Yanks were beaten out by one of the most prolific teams of history, still winning 103 games but coming in way behind the Cleveland Indians, who finished with 111 victories. Still, the city of New York was represented in the series by the New York Giants, their last hurrah in the Big Apple. The Giants defeated the Indians, giving the city of New York another in a long string of championships which would not end there. The following year the rivalry of the Dodgers and Yankees was renewed, with, finally, the Dodgers winning their first World Championship. It was to be short-lived, though, as the following year the two teams met yet again and the Yankees prevailed. That was to be their last meeting in the post season as two New York city teams. For years the management teams of the Giants and of the Dodgers had been crying the financial blues, claiming that their decrepit, falling-apart stadiums were losing them potential millions. It had been asked by the teams of the city leaders to build new parks for their clubs. The requests had gone nowhere. The end of an era was soon to be at hand.

During the winter of 1952, the owners of the Boston Braves had decided to move the team to another, more interesting, climate. They decided to move to Milwaukee, starting a period of movement in baseball that saw several of the sixteen original franchises pick up and leave. Next, in the American League, the St. Louis Browns left and set their feet down in Baltimore, choosing to call themselves the Orioles after a long famous former National League powerhouse of the previous century (remember that the Yankees franchise had also been originally the Balt. Orioles). Next came the Philadelphia Athletics, who moved to Kansas City, and then finally came the dreaded call of the bluff from Giants’ and Dodgers’ ownership, and the subsequent move out to the West Coast. Suddenly, baseball was vibrant again. The hated moves brought new cash to baseball, the nation now had new cities to claim fans in, and attendance seemed to provide the reason why the moves were needed. The Yankees continued to win pennants, although losing a few more series’ than in the past. Imagine that the Yanks won, from 1947 to 1964, a total of fifteen pennants, only being beaten out for the American League crown by two franchises, Cleveland and Chicago, in three different seasons. What an amazing run. It makes the latest runs by the Atlanta Braves and the Yankees look rather small. All in all, the city of New York celebrated World Championships twelve times in less than twenty years. How is that for being spoiled with success?

In the world of major league baseball today, there is much to talk about when concerning the lack of competitiveness. Teams like the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees, and possibly the Mets, Cards and Braves in the National League, have larger markets, bigger sources of income and revenue, and huge followings across the country in merchandising. Small, or “poor”, market teams such as Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay are way behind in these categories. They have jokingly been referred to as possible farm teams for the richer teams. That may be so. There are other contributing factors to the uneven financial levels and successes of some clubs, such as poor management and sad venues to play in. Recently, the Montreal Expos moved to Washington D.C. for those reasons, and it will be interesting to see if they succeed longterm, since that city has failed twice with two Senators franchises in the past. Also, it is strange that no one is complaining openly about the disparity in the American League, especially the East, when two teams, Boston and New York, have what seems to be a death-lock on the division and the other three, Tampa, Baltimore and Toronto, seem incapable of catching them, although Toronto is trying. We hear and see poorer market teams such as Oakland and Minnesota competing for post-season play, but not winning any championships. It will be interesting to observe what the future will bring; more of the same or some final and eventual changes that will bring the good old days back. We can only wait!

About Jeffery Swanson