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October 7, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Moneyball and Money Men

by Kevin Baker

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Kevin Baker is a novelist and historian who is currently at work on a social history of New York City baseball, to be published by Pantheon. 

I don’t know about you, but I have to hand it to anyone who can make a Hollywood hit out of a new way of analyzing baseball statistics. Even more remarkably, in a time of economic collapse, Moneyball, the story of an obscure division champion from almost a decade ago, has become something of a cultural phenomenon, leading to furious debates over its accuracy and its meaning.

Or maybe it’s not so remarkable. For all that’s been said and written about the baseball in Moneyball, its economic subtext is the same issue that dominates American political debate today. That is, how everybody else is now supposed to compensate for catastrophic decisions made by a few owners over the course of decades.

Moneyball, of course, is the amazing story of how the Oakland Athletics, a plucky, small-market team, adopted a whole new way of looking at the game and used it to go from losing the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees, to…losing the American League Division Series to the Minnesota Twins.

When it comes to the game on the field, the movie is rife with contradictions, convenient omissions, and outright inaccuracies from almost its first scene to its last, as a number of astute commentators—most notably Allen Barra, online for both The Daily Beast and Atlantic Monthly—have pointed out. For all of these annoying distortions, though, the essential point of the movie is valid: the revolution that Bill James led in sabermetrics and other statistical methods became a valuable tool in reassessing the game.

What the movie also tells us, though, is that this innovation is necessary because major-league baseball is, at its heart, “an unfair game,” in which small-market teams cannot generally compete with the payrolls of big-market teams.

This is objectively not true. Baseball today, by any fair measure, is more competitive than it has ever been, and despite the sport’s more restrictive playoff system, a larger percentage of big-league teams have made the postseason and won championships that those in the other major American sports.

More interesting, though, is Moneyball’s implication that baseball only recently became “unfair.” And why is that? Because about thirty-five years ago, ballplayers won the right to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Throughout the movie, callous players are depicted as devoid of any sense of loyalty, motivated solely by their desire to grab every last dollar on the table. Early on, Oakland general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, thinks he has a deal with another money-grubbing agent—one who just happens to be named “Scott”—only to be told over the phone that it’s been abrogated by a slightly higher offer from another team. Later, we see other players obliviously dancing and playing music in the midst of a losing streak, sulking in the batting cage, or otherwise balking at any new development that might help the team win.

Beane, on the other hand, used to be one of these uncaring money-grubbers. In fact, the central motif of his life is that he ruined himself by going for the big bucks of an excessive major-league deal, rather than getting a good education at Stanford. He vows never again to do anything “for the money”—a nice prerogative, if you can afford it.

Here is our world turned upside down. The players—or workers—are the ones spoiling everything by overvaluing themselves and refusing to turn in a good effort.

Beane/Pitt and his fictionalized amanuensis, played by Jonah Hill, are shown as working for the good of the whole organization—or society—by coming up with statistical models to cut these ballplayers down to size. A key part of this is learning how to downsize them—that is, fire or trade them as unemotionally as possible.

Learning to do the great work of firing people—without getting involved!—is threatening to become an entire movie genre, what with the release of Up in the Air a couple years ago. But Moneyball elevates this power realignment to a holy quest by the end of the movie, when John Henry, co-owner of the Boston Red Sox, woos Beane by telling him that he is a trailblazer, that “the first man through the gap”—that is, the first man coming up with some brilliant new innovation—“always gets bloodied, whether it’s in business or politics.”

Moneyball’swriters include Aaron Sorkin, which is not surprising, since this is just the sort of “new Democrat” and “third way” piffle that one had to endure throughout his hit TV show, The West Wing. At the core of these philosophies is the millenarian belief that we can find some way beyond traditional conflicts and above materialism and self-interest—strike a “grand bargain,” in which all sides will win.

In Moneyball, John Henry makes the fatal mistake of trying to bring Beane over with something so grubby as money. But at the end, a title card tells us that the Red Sox, using Beane’s “methods,” would soon win their first World Series since 1918.

This is also not true. The big-market Red Sox won thanks to a couple of key free agents—Johnny Damon and Keith Foulke—that they lured away from Beane’s A’s with, well, money, and an array of other top-dollar superstars. But we’re supposed to believe that the “gap” has indeed been breached, and that teams will now be leaner, smarter, corporate machines, improving the overall health of the sport.

A more useful question might be how it was that the A’s came to be a small-market franchise in the first place. Like the American economy’s current predicament, it didn’t happen overnight. Instead, they were reduced to that status by decades of terrible decisions made by self-interested, undercapitalized, and inept owners.

The Philadelphia Athletics, of course, were a charter member of the American League. They flourished in the early years of the 20th century, thanks mainly to the baseball acumen and connections of their owner and manager, Connie Mack. Mr. Mack never really had sufficient capital to run the team, but thanks to the first rule of the major-league cartel, the reserve clause, which tied players to the team that owned them in perpetuity, he was able to pay his men relatively little and still win championship after championship.

The moment an outsider, namely the Federal League, leapt into the competition, providing an alternative that upped salaries all over baseball, Mack felt obliged to sell or trade away his best players. His team plunged into last place, turning in some of the worst records in major-league history. Utilizing his smarts and connections again—most notably, a friendship with Jack Dunn, owner and manager of the Baltimore Orioles minor-league club—Mack was able to build another winner by the end of the 1920s…only to see it, too, succumb to outside pressures, this time the general economic collapse of the Great Depression.

Once again, Mack gutted his team, selling off his best players to owners with more capital. This time, he was unable to rebuild the A’s over the following twenty years—Jack Dunn was dead—and handed over control of the club to his squabbling sons, Roy and Earle. Roy ultimately won the power struggle, and decided to move the moribund franchise to Kansas City after the 1954 season.

This was madness. In the preceding five years, the A’s had played poor relations to the Whiz Kid Phillies, their competitors for the Philadelphia baseball dollar. But over the decades they had been far and away the more popular team in the City of Brotherly Love, and the Athletics owned the stadium, Shibe Park, that both teams played in, enabling them to draw rent from the Phils.

Philadelphia at the time was the third-largest city in the nation, with almost 2.1 million citizens, at the center of one of America’s largest and wealthiest metropolitan areas. Kansas City, by contrast, ranked twentieth in population, with just over 450,000 residents.

Nor would this change very much. Philadelphia would lose people and relative wealth over the decades that followed, but it is still the fifth-largest city, still in the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the country, with over six million people, and still the seventh-wealthiest metropolitan area.

Kansas City, meanwhile, is almost exactly the same size it was in 1954 and is now just the 37th-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., with 2.2 million people, and the 28th-wealthiest.

What happened? Who would possibly make such a decision?

A Chicago financier named Arnold Johnson, that’s who. The Macks failed to come to terms with two different syndicates of Philadelphia business leaders who wanted to keep the team where it was. They also failed to reach an agreement with either Texas oil tycoon—and future Cowboys founder—Clint Murchison or Bill Veeck, both of whom allegedly wanted to move the A’s to the much larger and wealthier market of Los Angeles.

Johnson, on the other hand, already owned a ballpark in Kansas City. He had bought it from his partners in a vending machine company, Dan Topping and Del Webb, co-owners of the Yankees, who sold him another park in New York, called Yankee Stadium. In a byzantine series of financial maneuvers, Johnson sold the land under the House That Ruth Built to the Knights of Columbus and took out mortgages on the Stadium itself…most of them from Topping and Webb.

The Yankees partners then prevailed upon the other American League owners to approve the removal of the A’s to Kansas City for 1955. Over the next five seasons, they also prevailed upon Johnson to make a flurry of deals with them for just about any player they wanted, in return for just about any player they cared to give up.

These transactions did not prove to be quite as one-sided as subsequent legend would have it. But they did enable the Yanks to secure the likes of Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, Ralph Terry, Bobby Shantz, and Ryne Duren, vital pieces in another long pennant run, while the A’s continued to languish in Kansas City.

Beyond that, even the appearance of such impropriety with business partners owning two teams in the same league was outrageous, and was seen as such by fans, sportswriters, and even some baseball executives. Veeck called the Kansas City-New York relationship an “unholy alliance,” while Hank Greenberg, then general manager of the Indians, groused that, “It must be nice to have your own farm system in the same league.”

The wider problem, though, beyond the Yankees-A’s collusion, was that Major League Baseball let teams move almost willy-nilly throughout the 1950s, with little real thought about where they were going, where they were leaving, and how it all would affect the game.

Thus, the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee, the Browns from St. Louis to Baltimore, the A’s from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and the Giants from New York to San Francisco.

All of these moves—save for the Browns going from St. Louis, the country’s eighth-largest city, to Baltimore, the country’s sixth-largest—were made by teams going from larger metropolitan areas to smaller (and usually poorer)ones. Granted, they would no longer have to share their new markets with other teams, but there was little or no consideration given to the future growth or decline of any of the cities in question and whether the organizations might fare better in some other location.

Only the Dodgers, thanks to Walter O’Malley’s business wiles in securing major additional perks for his club, such as a beautiful new ballpark and hundreds of acres of prime L.A. real estate, actually made a good deal for themselves. Within another fifteen years, every one of the other 1950s travelers was either struggling where it was or had moved on again.

The A’s were no exception. Arnold Johnson died prematurely in 1960, putting an end to the revolving door with New York, but his heirs sold the team to yet another man with a head for baseball that did not match his wallet, Charles O. Finley. A decade after their move to Missouri, the Athletics’ attendance was down to a little more than half-a-million, or nearly what it had been their last year in Philadelphia.

What was to be done? Why, move the team on to an even smaller and poorer town, of course!

By 1968, Oakland was an impoverished, crime-ridden, racially divided city, with only about three-fifths the population of Kansas City. Today it is the 47th-largest city in the U.S.—and remains impoverished, crime-ridden, and racially divided. It is also just across the bay from San Francisco and the Giants.

In other words, over the course of some 13 years, the A’s managed to move from what is still the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the country, albeit one that they shared with another team…to the eleventh-largest. Which they share with another team.

They remain there today, playing in a park that resembles the Thunderdome from that Mad Max movie with Tina Turner, despite repeated attempts to move somewhere else in the area. These have been thwarted mostly by Major League Baseball’s cartel system, which zealously guards clubs’ “rights” to their respective regions.

This continues the decades-long practices by which the ownership of the A’s and other teams spurn trying to make money through formulating thoughtful long-term strategies or attracting outside capital, preferring to rely instead on collusive and deceptive methods. Gee, whom does that remind you of?

The people who are supposed to bail out the Athletics for all these years of incompetent decision-making and reckless, Wall Street-style gambles are…all the rest of us.

It’s the fans in Oakland, who are expected to keep supporting losing teams playing in their bizarre, football-oriented stadium. It’s the fans everywhere else, who pay the extortionate ticket, concession, parking, and cable television prices that go in part to provide the wealthy owners of the A’s and other teams with revenue-sharing and luxury tax money…that they are under no obligation to use in putting a better team on the field.

It’s the taxpayers, fans or not, who are expected everywhere today to fund incredibly expensive new parks, ringed with private luxury boxes, whenever the owners manage to win enough politicians over to their side.

The players, too, while hardly suffering, have had to fend off continuing efforts by the baseball owners to break their union and once again deprive them of their rights. Because the owners, much like the people who run the rest of American finance and industry these days, are much more concerned with blocking any outside challenges to their cartels than trying to make every franchise healthy and competitive.

John Henry’s claim aside, Billy Beane was only “bloodied” by the $12.5 million offer Henry made to have him come run the Red Sox, settling instead for years of major paychecks and national recognition as a genius. While it’s all but impossible to get any real accounting of finances from a major-league team, Beane’s employers have likely made some very nice profits, too, over the intervening nine years.

It’s the team that continues to struggle. A real solution to this would not be adopting a more astute means of evaluating talent on the field—one which pretty much every other team could and has already imitated. It would be forcing the club to bring in investors with deep pockets, and/or allowing it to become the San Jose A’s. Or better yet, the Brooklyn A’s, or maybe the Boston A’s, or—dare I say it—the Philadelphia Athletics.  

I hate to see any group of fans lose their team. But in a truly capitalist system, floundering small-market teams would be encouraged to move to larger markets, and/or made to bring in partners who are ready and able to spend.  

Instead, baseball’s owners are determined to retain their insular little world, while expecting everyone else to pick up the tab. Moneyball is right. It is an unfair game.   

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