Crafting the National Pastime's Image: The History of Major League Baseball Public Relations

Article excerpt

William Hulbort went: to the door of his hotel room, locked it, put the key in his pocket, and explained to his astonished guests that he wished "to make it impossible for any of you to go out until I have finished what I have to say to you."1 Hulbert, owner of the Chicago White Stockings, then outlined to the owners of the other major clubs of professional baseball players how they could turn the game of baseball into a profitable business. As they formed the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NL) on 2 February 1876, these owners established a method for organizing the business operations of Major League Baseball (MLB) that has lasted until today. Hulbert's partner Albert Spalding explained this system in the following manner: "Like every other form of business enterprise, Base Ball depends for results upon two interdependent divisions, tho one to have absolute control and direction of the system, and the other to engage - always under the executive branch - in the actual work of production." Spalding argued that just because the players were the actual entertainment "producers" did not mean that they should actually manage the entertainment itself.2

When discussing MLB's business system, most historians focus on the industry's labor or political relations, or on individual MLB officials.3 Conversely, this study examined how MLB officials used public relations to provide this system with legitimacy. This analysis suggested that: 1) MLB officials used public relations-type strategies decades before the term "public relations" was coined; 2) those strategies were designed to promote baseball as the national pastime and to advocate the team ownership business system; and 3) the industry's owners and their relationship with the sports media and the external environment had an impact on the institutionalization and use of the public relations function.

The study of MLB public relations warrants scholarly review for several reasons. Few studies on public relations in business history literature exist, and the histories of many industries and corporations are incomplete because their programs to craft an image for their businesses have not been investigated or evaluated.4 Those studies that do examine the impact of public relations on the corporate image often focus on managers of the function such as Arthur Page (AT&T) and Paul W. Garrett (General Motors).5 This study acknowledged that most practitioners do not have the ear of top management and that many public relations professionals implement communications tactics in an effort to develop and maintain an image rather than help upper management establish new policies. Therefore, this study focused more on the public relations strategies used by MLB officials rather than individual public relations practitioners.

This study also acknowledged that the public relations field did not develop in a progressive fashion; that is, constantly evolving toward a higher ideal of becoming a management function. Rather, a longitudinal study of MLB public relations history shows the uneven maturation of the function within the industry, as well as how MLB officials consistently used the function as an image-building and image-maintenance device. The purpose behind the MLB industry's initial and continued use of public relations was to promote baseball as the national pastime and to ensure and maintain support for the owner-managed organizational system. This indicates that, in at least one industry, public relations was developed not to "maintain mutually beneficial relationships,"6 "establish and maintain mutual lines of communication,"7 or to "serve both the organization and the public interest"8 as some commentators who have defined the field have suggested, but to advance the corporate interest.

Definition of Public Relations

The standard, normative definition of public relations as a function that builds and manages relationships with key publics fails to fully explain how Major League Baseball officials used the function. …

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