War Games: The Business of Major League Baseball during World War II

By Obermeyer, Jeff | Nine, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

War Games: The Business of Major League Baseball during World War II


Obermeyer, Jeff, Nine


The 1941 winter Major League Baseball meetings in Chicago promised to be an important event. Throughout the 1941 season, Donald Barnes, the president of the American League's St. Louis Browns, laid the groundwork with his fellow owners to approve the move of his struggling franchise from St. Louis to Los Angeles for the 1942 season. Barnes accounted for everything, securing agreements and arranging to pay a fee to the Pacific Coast League for expansion into its territory. It appeared that everyone wanted the relocation to happen, and the city of Los Angeles offered the Browns a financial guarantee of five hundred thousand spectators per year, a figure nearly three times the Browns' 1941 attendance, with the city paying the difference if attendance was below that level. Even the National League St. Louis Cardinals contributed, paying the Browns two hundred thousand dollars to cover moving expenses and taking over their lease at Sportsman's Park, the stadium the two teams shared. Everything was in place for a mere formality of a vote scheduled for Monday, December 8. The events of December 7, 1941, changed all that, suddenly and forcibly dragging the United States into the war raging in Europe and Asia, and dashing Barnes's dream of bringing Major League Baseball to the west coast. (1)

The mythology of baseball is a combination of fact and fiction, fiction that sometimes stretches the truth and sometimes is a complete fabrication. Due to the game's long-standing popularity, some of its myths are embraced as facts, even in the face of contrary evidence. This is particularly evident in writings about the role of Major League Baseball during World War II, with historians consistently celebrating the game's contributions to the American war effort. However, a critical evaluation of the relationship between Major League Baseball, society, and America's leaders during World War II reveals a sport presenting an image of patriotism, but acting to maintain the status quo and protect profits.

BACKGROUND

Baseball and the Military

Baseball has long and deep associations with the military. Union soldiers took their baseball equipment on campaign during the Civil War, and the game was played by troops during and following the Spanish-American War of 1898. (2) When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the popularity of Major League Baseball was already firmly established, though the league suffered a backlash from a population that wondered why professional athletes remained safe at home playing a game while millions of men mobilized to fight and die in Europe. Despite the criticisms, the game itself remained a favorite within the military, whose leaders viewed it as a means for conditioning and teaching teamwork. (3)

Baseball at the Outbreak of World War II

Major League Baseball's attendance peaked at 10.1 million in 1930, and although the depression years reduced it as much as 40 percent, by 1940 attendance was once again on the verge of exceeding 10 million fans per season. (4) This was imperative in an industry that earned the majority of its revenue through ticket sales, which generated roughly $19.6 million in income for the league's teams in 1940. (5) Despite the popularity of the game and high attendance, profitability remained elusive, and every year during the 1930s saw a minimum of five teams reporting net operating losses. (6) This is misleading, however, as many owners also served as executives with their franchises, so even though a team lost money the owner still often received a salary. The establishment of a commissioner in 1920 helped rid the game of gambling scandals and brought stability to the business relationships between the owners, though it failed to remove baseball's greatest blemish, racial segregation. Overall, Major League Baseball remained very popular in American society, and its top players received treatment similar to that of the top stars in other entertainment industries, something many viewed as moving fans away from loyalty to specific teams and towards individual players. …

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