Surdam, David George, and Michael J. Haupert. The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball during the Roaring Twenties. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Pp. 405. Epilogue, appendixes, notes, tables and bibliography. $45 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
At first blush, it seems easy to define what influenced major league baseball during the 1920s: Babe Ruth, who shook the game to its core by popularizing the home run, and Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who grabbed the game’s owners by their lapels and laid down the law.
However, the decade that bridged the gap between the Black Sox scandal and the Great Depression was not quite that simple. It was a prosperous, yet complex period. The New York Yankees became the dominant franchise in baseball. The Philadelphia Athletics, gutted by Connie Mack after the 1914 season, arose like a phoenix from baseball’s ashes and returned to prominence, while the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs would emerge as powers during the latter half of the 1920s. The New York Giants, winners of four straight pennants from 1921 to 1924, would recede slightly, while the Boston Red Sox, Boston Braves and Philadelphia Phillies became bottom feeders in their respective leagues.
There was money to be made and lost. And despite the dominant personalities of Ruth and Landis, a ledger sheet contained the bottom line.
David George Surdam and Michael J. Haupert examine major-league baseball through an economic prism in The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball during the Roaring Twenties. They write in a straightforward style, but do not bog the reader down with mountains of economic facts and figures. Certainly, the authors use numbers to describe the economic upswing of the 1920s, but they echo the sentiments of James Hart, owner of the Chicago Colts (the franchise now known as the Cubs), who observed in the early 1900s that baseball was “an antagonistic business from start to finish,” (p. 2).
That philosophy continued into the Roaring Twenties. The majors had sixteen owners who were interested in their own survival and profitability, yet each magnate’s success was dependent upon the other fifteen.
Surdam and Haupert devote chapters to gambling, the financial ledgers of the teams, competitive balance, the running salary battles between players and owners, and the impact of the minor leagues. They also write about ethnic diversity and the Negro Leagues during the 1920s.
Numbers fascinate Surdam, a professor of economics at Northern Iowa University who earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago in 1994. His dissertation had nothing to do with baseball — “Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War” — but his fascination for numbers in baseball was deeply rooted from playing board games such as Strat-O-Matic and APBA as a teen.
“I owned APBA but didn’t find it as stimulating as Strat-O-Matic,” Surdam wrote in an email, rekindling a debate among baby boomers who played the rival baseball board games during the 1960s and 1970s.
Surdam’s senior thesis as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon in 1979 was “Baseball Run Production.” Using regression analysis, Surdam demonstrated that slugging average and on-base percentage explained between ninety and ninety-five percent of all run production. He was compiling information from the New York Yankees’ financial records that were housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he was introduced to Haupert, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who wrote the chapter on the Negro Leagues in The Age of Ruth and Landis. Haupert, an expert on Negro League finances, also calculated rates of profitability for the Yankees along with his Wisconsin-La Crosse colleague, Kenneth Winter. Those findings appear in his collaboration with Surdam.
Surdam has written several books blending sports and money, including Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL during the 1950s, in 2013; and Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats: How Baseball Outlasted the Great Depression, in 2011.
The chapter in The Age of Ruth and Landis addressing the financial side of baseball is drawn from a congressional investigation of baseball in 1951, when owners were ordered to submit teams’ financial records from 1920 to 1950. According to the figures released, the National and American leagues reported almost $20 million in profits from 1920 to 1930 (p. 73). Seven of the eight American League teams showed a profit during the decade, but three NL teams made “modest profits” while the other five made more profits than any other AL team besides the Yankees (p. 74).
The numbers are fascinating. The Yankees’ net income during the 1920s was $8.5 million, while the Cardinals benefited from their farm system to collect $6 million. What helped the owners was the slashing of profit taxes and capital gains. The percentage of income rates had been 77 percent in 1918, but declined to 73 percent by 1919, 58 percent in 1922, 43.5 in 1923 and 25 percent in 1925. Capital gains rates had dropped to 12.5 percent in 1921, and the corporate tax rate varied between 10 percent to 13.5 percent during the 1920s (p. 75).
Competitive balance during the 1920s was surprisingly even, despite the Yankees winning six AL pennants while the Giants won four NL titles. Eleven of the sixteen major-league teams won pennants from 1919 to 1929, and the St. Louis Browns came up one game short of winning the AL title in 1922.
The chapter that described the tension between owners and players in salary battles should sound familiar, although today’s baseball players have the luxury of free agency and arbitration to boost their annual incomes. The authors present a nice summary of baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to his team until that franchise decided to trade or release him. They note that owners “proved blatant” in using their powers derived from the reserve clause in “manifestly unfair ways” (p. 205). Then, as now, owners preferred when their players were content, or as the authors suggest, “docile” (p. 216).
Compared to other workers in the United States, baseball players who made more than $2,500 per season were paid more than typical American laborers during the 1920s. Players knew that attendance was rising during the 1920s and that owners were paying top dollar for the best minor-league prospects, but the owners “were pleading poverty” (p. 224). Babe Ruth would become the standard for measuring salaries, but even the authors concede that while the Bambino drew crowds and helped boost salaries for other players, his peak salary of $80,000 “was likely to have fallen short” of his market value (p. 236).
Haupert’s chapter on the Negro Leagues provides the fascinating — and indeed, in retrospect, cold-blooded — tactic by franchise owners of using discrimination as a powerful weapon, giving the owners of black baseball clubs their own version of the reserve clause (p. 259). The avenues open to talented black players were limited; they were not welcome in the organized major leagues and even in the minor leagues, which had been segregated since the 1880s. Therefore, the owners of Negro Leagues clubs held a huge advantage over their players.
Haupert was able to compare the profits of the Yankees with the Hilldale Daisies, one of the more successful black franchises during the 1920s. Unlike the Yankees, who operated in a structured league, Hilldale prospered in an environment “much closer” (p. 263) to a free market. Using cash basis figures, Haupert showed that the club not only turned a profit, but that its return on investment also surpassed the stock market.
Surdam and Haupert use 25 different tables as convenient visuals for readers, drawing deeply from the Yankees’ financial records, population figures, the public’s personal consumption and recreation, and the economic indicators in the United States from 1916 to 1930. The Age of Ruth and Landis contains meticulous footnotes for each of its fourteen chapters, and its bibliography includes archival sources form the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the New York Public Library and the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia.
Other sources include books, scholarly journals, minutes of congressional hearings and documents that can be found at various baseball internet sites. The authors rely on some of the top baseball historians, including Harold Seymour, John Thorn, Pete Palmer and Lyle Spatz. Surdam references his own research through nine entries in the bibliography, while Haupert contributes eight.
Surdam and Haupert provide a readable examination of an explosive period of growth — on the field and in the box office — in major league baseball. While they use statistics liberally and cite a volume of economic figures and trends for the 1920s, the reader will not be overwhelmed. Statistics are the bread and butter for baseball historians; Surdam and Haupert are merely using a different set of numbers, substituting GNP for RBI. Babe Ruth and Kenesaw Mountain Landis were giants during the 1920s, but in this book, one can almost hear the metallic clang that represents net, gross, and the bottom line.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.