Academic journal article Nine

Did Televised Baseball Kill the "Golden Age" of the Minor Leagues? A Reassessment

Academic journal article Nine

Did Televised Baseball Kill the "Golden Age" of the Minor Leagues? A Reassessment

Article excerpt

For social critics, television is a large, brightly colored target. In the last fifty years the medium has been accused of many social maladies. Critics and many researchers say that television reduces attention span and political participation while it increases crime, delinquency, and obesity, and that it fosters perceptions of a mean and scary world. (1) Television is a frequent target because of its ubiquity and extensive use; over 98 percent of U.S. homes have a TV, and on average it runs for over seven hours a day. No medium has ever diffused so rapidly in the United States, from 0.4 percent of U.S. households in 1948 to 87.1 percent in 1960. (2)

The mass media that predated television were all radically transformed by it. From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, the motion picture industry first fought and later reached an accommodation with television. The studios became the major supplier of episodic television programming, and motion picture distribution and exhibition moved from a mass medium to a specialized or niche business. Radio went through a similar adjustment period as it became an industry appealing to an aggregation of specialized audiences rather than to the mass audience lost to television. Radio's prime time shifted from the evening hours to the morning and late afternoon "drive time." Print media made the largest adjustment as the diffusion of television essentially destroyed the market for mass appeal magazines (e.g., Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life) and evening urban newspapers. In most markets daily newspaper competition became a thing of the past.

The influence of television on pretelevision media institutions is undeniable, and that influence extended to the entertainment and leisure-time businesses increasingly supported by mass media, including baseball. As we have argued previously, television and baseball have lived in a dysfunctional relationship producing problems as well as benefits for both parties. (3) The relationship with television and all the problems it would bring started just as most baseball teams had finally reached an accommodation with radio, making radio broadcasts of home games and re-creations of road games nearly universal.

Although it would be foolish to ignore the role of television in the history and cultural legacy of baseball, there is also danger in overestimating its influence. Television's effects, for worse or for better, should be assessed within the complex historical context of both the baseball industry and major societal trends. The simplistic and inaccurate tendency to blame television for all of baseball's problems is not and has never been particularly informative.

A prime example of the "television was bad for baseball" school of criticism is the frequent accusation that television killed the golden age of the Minor Leagues. In this essay we turn our attention to the struggles of Minor League baseball from the late 1940s through the early 1960s and the implementation of the Major League Baseball-National Association (MLB-NA) subsidy plan, which still remains in effect. Specifically, we question the traditional argument that the oversaturation of MLB on television starting in the 1950s led to the sharp decline in Minor League teams and attendance during that decade. Richard Panek in his fine examination of the last year of the Waterloo Diamonds Minor League franchise presents a typical account of this received history of television's impact on the Minor Leagues: "Previously, if fans in a setting such as Waterloo wanted to see major league caliber play, they had no choice but to travel to St. Louis or Chicago. Now, suddenly, they had a choice. They could content themselves with the lower-quality though technically professional play at Municipal Stadium or, without even leaving their living rooms, they could watch Ted Williams's Boston Red Sox slug it out with Joe DiMaggio's New York Yankees, or Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers battle Stan Musial's St. …

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