Historical Baseball Blurb: Frederick Kimball Stearns and the Detroit Wolverines

One of baseball’s biggest challenges over the years has been protecting competitive parity. As early as the 1880s, teams centered in larger markets (especially the east coast) were advantaged with more fans and better revenue (well, depending on how many other teams were around).

It’s easy for a fan to forget about what baseball is about. As with all things, it’s about money! I don’t say that pessimistically, and this isn’t a social commentary. Money is just a convenient tool for valuating all things in life—it’s not a materialistic thing. It’s a good measure to help us make good decisions, and it makes everything cheaper. But fans watching baseball are looking for any number of different non-money rewards. Maybe they want to see their team win, maybe they want to see a sweet changeup, maybe they want to see a circus catch in right field.

Well, most fans haven’t spent millions of dollars (or, in the case of the Dodgers, two billion dollars) buying a team. And at the end of the day, we shouldn’t expect baseball franchise owners to spend out of pocket to make a team viable, unless it’s a good long-term investment. Owners want to make money, and that’s OK. Now, fortunately, a lot of time that doesn’t move their interests out of line with the fans’. Winning teams do tend to make more money, and in any case, running a team well—that is, making cost-effective choices—should benefit everyone.

 The problem is that a New York team will obviously be way more profitable than, say, a Kansas City team. So an owner in Kansas City, if he wants to make money, is probably going to have to spend a lot less on player contracts, recruitment, development, and all the other things that make a team competitive. It’s a problem, and Major League Baseball has instituted more than a few different forms of revenue sharing over the years.

One of the first, in place during the 1880s, was a simple gate receipt split. In other words, when a game was played, the ticket sales were split between the home and visiting teams.

Ok, so keep that in mind for a moment while I tell you about the Detroit Wolverines. They played the first major league baseball game in Detroit in 1881, and were owned by a fellow named Frederick Kimball Stearns as of 1885 (it’s fortunate that they had some new management, because the 18 runs surrendered in a single inning to the Chicago White Stockings in 1883 still stands as the worst pummeling in one frame, ever).

Stearns was a man with a plan. It wasn’t a complicated plan, but those Dodgers I just mentioned are using the same one today: Spend, spend, spend. Stearns was able to take advantage of the relative fragility of early baseball, though, so rather than just shelling out for big contracts, he bought the entire Buffalo Bisons franchise—just to get at their stars.

The result was a very expensive, very good, Wolverines team. But other owners in the league had a plan. Remember the revenue sharing plan under which gate receipts were split? Owners displeased with Stearns’s spending spree succeeded in stymying him by capping the visiting team’s gate receipts revenue at $125 per game. The Wolverines would bring their stars into town, and walk away with only $125, while the home team collected the rest of the cut from all the fans who came out to see the likes of Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Hardy Richardson, and Deacon White.

Detroit had not yet become the Motor City—the Model T wouldn’t begin production until 1908, and there was no way Stearns could make the team sustainable without a larger share of the gate receipts. He sold his big-name players away to other teams.

Detroit would go on to win the National League in 1887, and beat the St. Louis Browns in a series of 15 exhibition games that was a precursor to the World Series (not to be played until 1903). By 1889, though, the team was defunct, never to be heard from again. Stearns’s dreams, as well as his wallet, had been thwarted.

It’s a fascinating story of baseball politics, and the same issues are totally relevant even today. The administration is more elaborate, the rules are stricter, and there’s more money at stake, but at the end of the day, it’s still all about the money.

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