Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Professionals, Part Two

I recently posted a few excerpts from Anthony Lampe's The Background of Professional Baseball in St. Louis, which appeared in the October 1950 issue of the Missouri Historical Society's Bulletin.  One of the more interesting things Lampe wrote about was the early origin of professionalism in St. Louis, which contradicted the conventional wisdom regarding when St. Louis baseball players first started playing for pay but agreed with some of the conclusions that I've made after looking at the evidence.  However, I only shared a bit of what Lampe wrote and, since he had more to say on the subject, I'd like to share some more of his fantastic article:

A few conclusions may be drawn from the 1868 season.  Because of the great interest in the game, St. Louis was obviously destined to enter professional baseball at an early date; early in the season the Unions had actually been professionals, as their sole occupation was playing baseball.  Secondly, Chicago emerged as the natural rival of St. Louis as the key city of the midwest, which would soon challenge them on the diamond, as Eastern clubs had already done.  Thirdly, St. Louis teams lacked only a stronger managerial system to get the players in shape and keep them that way.  The desire for a strong team to represent the city was present, but for some years no organizing genius appeared to take over, partly because of the incompatibility of baseball and gambling.  As baseball grew, betting increased, and gamblers soon had control of the game.

After noting a anti-professional article that appeared in a St. Louis paper in 1870, he went on to write that "This article was undoubtedly printed in the local papers to cast reflections on professional ball players.  Because no individual had yet come forward with the will--and the capital--to bring a professional team to St. Louis, local ball fans were anti-professional, in a sort of sour-grape attitude."

The most important piece of information in Lampe's article is his conclusion that the Union club was paying its players in the late 1860s.  I agree with this conclusion and would add that the Empire club was also most likely compensating its players in some form during this period.  Lampe also believed that this experiment in professionalism was a failure.  He wrote that "When the [1868] season opened the Union Club had been determined to engage in no other work but that of baseball, but as the season progressed game attendance fell off, because of the poor showing of the team.  Lacking financial resources, the team members were forced to find some other means of employment."  The "poor showing" that he was talking about was not the overall performance of the club but rather their showing against the Eastern professional clubs that came to St. Louis in 1868 and handily defeated the best clubs in the city.

I agree that the poor showing against the Eastern professionals had a negative effect on baseball in St. Louis.  However, the reason I believe this is different than the reason that Lampe believed it.  Lampe wrote about the lack of a strong managerial system and the lack of a willful individual to shape professional baseball in St. Louis.  I believe that St. Louis had several individuals who shaped the game during the pioneer era and could be described as strong, willful managers.  Specifically, Asa Smith was a man who had an important impact on St. Louis baseball and helped evolve the game in a positive, forward manner.  Smith attempted to institute a plan to put St. Louis baseball on an even footing with the best clubs in the East but this plan floundered and died after the Unions suffered defeat upon defeat at the hands of the Eastern professionals.  In my opinion, it wasn't a lack of visionary management that doomed the first attempt at creating a professional baseball market in St. Louis.  Rather, it was the lack of success on the field that doomed the vision.  Smith wanted his Union club to compete for the national championship but they simply were not good enough to do so.  He overreached and failed.  This failure tarnished the idea of professionalism in St. Louis.

I don't believe that it was the loses themselves that brought about the failure of Asa Smith's grand plan but rather what the losses said about the plan.  There was a conflict during the pioneer era between the forces that advocated professionalism and the fans, players and clubs that were anti-professionalism.  Smith was obviously on the right side of history but that wasn't evident in 1868.  He advocate what, in St. Louis, were radical changes to the baseball landscape.  Paying players, enclosed ballparks, charging for games, competing against the best clubs in the nation, joining the NABBP, creating a state baseball association, and other innovations which, while common in the East, were new and radical in St. Louis.  There must have been forces lined up against him that fought these changes.  There must have been forces that were hoping and waiting for him to fail so that they could go back to the old way of doing things.

I believe that, in the post-war era, Smith looked at the Eastern clubs, saw how they were doing things and attempted to re-create their organization plan in St. Louis.  It was an attempt to bring St. Louis into the baseball mainstream that obviously failed.  But that failure was not a result of a lack of managerial vision.  If anything, the failure came about because Smith did not take the final, radical step needed to compete against the Eastern powers.  Like the Brown Stockings in 1875, Smith should have looked to the East and bought himself the best players he could find.  Interestingly, Brown Stockings' management was made up largely of former Union club members and they took the step that Smith did not.  They finally succeeded in setting up a professional baseball club in St. Louis where Smith, their former club member, had failed.  But the baseball world of 1875 was not the baseball world of 1868 and what was acceptable to Brown Stockings' management was just too radical for Smith and the Union club in 1868.

Smith, in 1868,  took St. Louis baseball as far as he could.  He recognized that the pioneer era was ending and the professional era was being born.  Smith attempted to bring the old, pioneer era St. Louis clubs into the new age and, in certain ways, succeeded in doing so.  The St. Louis baseball landscape was changed for better because of the work Smith did in the late 1860s.  But it would take his former club mates to create a successful professional club and it would take a German tavern owner to create business model that made professional baseball profitable in St. Louis.       

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