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Inning 2: The Market for Pro Sports

(Part 2 of 3)


B. I Don't Care If I Ever Get Back

Nineteenth century Americans could have spent their extra time and money on anything. Why did so many choose baseball?

Four reasons:

  • The Industrial Revolution changed the way people worked and played.

  • Baseball was an outlet for the tensions and anxieties caused by rapid change.

  • Baseball helped to create a common American identity.

  • Going to a ballgame was fun.

The Industrial Revolution changed the way people worked and played.

Cabinetmaker

Cabinetmaker, 1807.
Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the world was a far less productive place. The way people worked—the tools they used, the way they organized tasks—changed very little from one generation to the next.

Life was slower. The sun and the seasons governed the pace of work. There were no whistles or timeclocks to signal the start of a job or the end of lunch.

Workplaces were smaller, and the relationship between bosses and workers was more personal. Young apprentices and journeymen learned their craft from master artisans. More often than not, they lived under the same roof and ate their meals at the same table. And most markets were local. Buyers and sellers almost always lived within a day's walk of one another.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and life changed forever. Production shifted from small workshops to large factories, and the demands of mass production forced workers to adjust the rhythms of their lives to the clock.

Historian Benjamin Rader describes the transformation:

"Masters, journeymen, and apprentices no longer worked side-by-side nor were their relationships any longer governed by custom; the factory substituted rigid discipline for the casual work patterns of an earlier era."
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Lathe press room of the McCormick Factory

The factory system required a sharp division of labor and greater specialization. Production was divided into a series of simple, repetitive tasks. (Lathe and press room, McCormick Reaper Works, 1885).
Courtesy of State Historical Society of Wisconsin, McCormick-IHC Collection.

The factory system required a sharp division of labor and a greater degree of specialization. Production was divided into a series of simple, repetitive tasks. Instead of learning to make an entire table from start to finish, a factory worker might spend the day running a machine that shaped only the table legs.

Office work changed, too. A typical office in the early 1800s was a small operation, staffed by a handful of clerks who had the opportunity to learn every aspect of a business. A clerkship in the right office was considered a steppingstone to business success.

Student Bank

The Industrial Revolution also helped to create a new class of white-collar professionals— managers, accountants, attorneys, and engineers. (Student bank, Boston English High School, 1892).
Photo courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Department.

But by 1850 economic growth and industrial expansion had created the need for more office workers. Offices grew in size, and office work, like factory work, became much more specialized. Clerks gave way to office specialists— bookkeepers and stenographers—who worked at narrowly defined tasks.

The Industrial Revolution also helped to create a new class of white-collar professionals— managers, accountants, attorneys, engineers. But as Benjamin Rader points out, "much of the work was sedentary, routine, and lacking a capacity to offer intrinsic satisfaction."

What does this have to do with baseball? More than you might think.

Opening Day, 1874

The division of labor on the baseball field resembled the division of labor in the factories and offices where fans worked. Each player had a specialized job: pitcher, catcher, infielder, outfielder.
Courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Department.

The structure of baseball reflected many of the changes that were transforming every aspect of 19th century American life. In many ways, baseball was the factory system—or the modern office—on green grass.

The hierarchy of owners, managers, and players was very much like the pecking order at the factories or offices where fans spent their working days. There was also a division of labor and a degree of specialization on the playing field—pitcher, catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field, center field, and right field—that resembled the division of labor in a factory or office. In short, baseball had a connection to the way fans lived and worked.
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Baseball was an outlet for the tensions and anxieties caused by rapid change.

Nineteenth century Americans worried that urban, industrial life was driving them indoors, isolating them from nature, making their bodies soft, and setting their nerves on edge.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman
Photo courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Writing for The Atlantic Monthly in 1858—more than a century before the phrase "couch potato" would enter the language—Oliver Wendell Holmes lamented that "our Atlantic cities" were home to so many "stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth."

That same year, poet Walt Whitman held out the hope that baseball might counter the effects of living in crowded cities and working at sedentary jobs:

"I see great things in baseball. It's our game—the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us."

Baseball appealed to harried city dwellers because it offered them a way to unwind and regain their bearings. Fans could spend the afternoon sitting around an enclosed urban meadow—a place with green grass and no time clock.

 

Playing ball in a tenement alley

Playing ball in a tenement alley, 1909.
Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, courtesy of George Eastman House.



Baseball helped to create a common American identity.

Nineteenth century American cities threw together migrants from the American countryside and immigrants from around the globe. They crowded together in strange, new surroundings and they often competed for the same jobs. The only thing they really had in common was the desire for a "better life."

Italian family looking for lost baggage

Italian immigrant family looking for lost baggage, 1905.
Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, courtesy of George Eastman House.

 

Baseball helped to ease the anxieties and tensions of urban life by giving everyone a common frame of reference. Cheering for the home team brought strangers together, gave them a sense of community, and helped them to forge an identity as citizens of a new city and a new country. Cultural differences and class lines blurred at the ballpark.

In a 1912 article, "Baseball and the National Life," H. Addington Bruce observed: "The spectator at a ballgame is no longer a statesman, lawyer, broker, doctor, merchant, or artisan, but just a plain every-day man, with a heart full of fraternity and good will to all his fellow-men—except perhaps the umpire. The oftener he sits in grand stand or 'bleachers,' the broader, kindlier, better man and citizen he must tend to become."

Going to a ballgame was fun.

Women fans at Fenway

Sox fans enjoying an afternoon at the ballpark. Fenway Park, Boston, 1940s.
Photograph by Leslie Jones, courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Department.

One more thing: A game doesn't become "The National Pastime" just because it reminds people of work or because it helps to make them model citizens. When you get right down to it, baseball thrived because fans derived utility from "consuming" it. A day at the ballpark gave them what they were looking for—fun, excitement, and relaxation.
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