The Age of Ruth and Landis: The Economics of Baseball during the Roaring Twenties
Author: David G. Surdam
Published: June 1, 2018
As the 1919 World Series scandal simmered throughout the 1920 season, tight pennant races drove attendance to new peaks and presaged a decade of general prosperity for baseball. Babe Ruth shattered his own home-run record and, buoyed by a booming economy, professional sports enjoyed what sportswriters termed a “Golden Age of Sports.”
Throughout the tumultuous 1920s, Major League Baseball remained a mixture of competition and cooperation. Teams could improve by player trades, buying Minor League stars, or signing untried youths. Players and owners had their usual contentious relationship, with owners maintaining considerable control over their players. Owners adjusted the game so that the 1920s witnessed a surge in slugging and a diminution in base stealing, and they provided a better ballpark experience by both improving their stadiums and minimizing disruptions by rowdy fans. However, they hesitated to adapt to new technologies such as radio, electrical lighting, and air travel.
The Major Leagues remained an enclave for white people, while African Americans toiled in the newly established Negro Leagues, where salaries and profits were skimpy. By analyzing the economic and financial aspects of Major League Baseball, The Age of Ruth and Landis shows how baseball during the 1920s experienced both strife and prosperity, innovation and conservatism. With figures such as the incomparable Babe Ruth, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins, the decade featured an exciting brand of livelier baseball, new stadiums, and overall stability.
“In this book, one can almost hear the metallic clang that represents net, gross, and the bottom line.”—Bob D’Angelo, Sport in American History
“The characters alone make this book a must read for baseball enthusiasts.”—T. M. Marini, Choice
“A thoroughly researched account of a pivotal period in Organized Baseball, The Age of Ruth and Landis illuminates the driving forces behind changes that occurred then. Authors Surdam and Haupert, both professors of economics, delve into the fascinating, and sometimes surprising history of an era, combining human interest with hard data to explain the complexity of the sport’s evolution.”—Joan M. Thomas, Inside Game
“Surdam and Haupert make a worthy contribution to our understanding of this pivotal era of the game’s economic history.”—John Charles Bradbury, EH.net
“By analyzing the economic and financial aspects of Major League Baseball, The Age of Ruth and Landis shows how baseball during the 1920s experienced both strife and prosperity, innovation and conservatism.”—Jason Schott, Brooklyn Digest
“The well-documented book is not about the game as it was played on the field or the greats playing it, but instead focuses on the business of baseball, delving into the conflicts between cities, teams, players, and owners, and the economic success of the 16 teams that comprised the two major leagues.”—Andrew Elias, Ft. Myers Magazine
“Though it can be argued that the big money has adversely affected professional sports, the profit motive has always been a big factor in the history of baseball. This account with slugger Ruth and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the two headliners wisely follows the money.”—Robert Birnbaum, Our Man in Boston blog
“This book fills a need. It deserves a following. It brings the sensibilities of economic analysis, gently presented, to an era in the game’s history the study of which will never be exhausted.”—Steven P. Gietschier, NINE
“Two of the sport’s leading economic historians provide a perceptive, multifaceted exploration of baseball’s economics and governance in the decade after the National Commission’s collapse. And, like the Sultan of Swat, Surdam and Haupert touch all the bases.”—Trey Strecker, editor of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture
“The financial information on a Negro League team offers important new insights into the game’s economics outside Major League Baseball. An added bonus [is] the great wealth of informative, valuable tables. . . . This book [is] essential for anyone researching baseball in the 1920s. It should also appeal to the larger group of scholars and readers interested in the history of the business of baseball.”—Daniel Levitt, coauthor of In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball
“When the decade of the 1920’s started, baseball was in turmoil. The game’s championship event had just endured a scandal in which the World Series was thrown by the Chicago White Sox due to gambling. The game had been considered secondary to many other sports such as boxing and college football. Gambling was a big problem, not only because of the 1919 World Series, but also had players such as Hal Chase involved in gambling as well.
However, that decade was a smashing success for the overall business health of the sport and that success is discussed in this book by economic professors David George Surdam and Michael J. Haupert. The two main people responsible for this are mentioned in the title. Babe Ruth, who was sold from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees as the decade began, became a larger-than-life figure as he not only was a star player, he became the game’s ambassador and crowds followed him wherever he went.
The other man in the title, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, became the first commissioner of the game and took immediate action on the White Sox players who conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series. He set out on a mission to rid the game of gambling and other negative influences. He did this with an iron fist and also was one of the many officials who kept the game free of black players. That was the large stain on his otherwise worthy contributions to the economic state of the game.
While the authors are economists, there is certainly more than just business talk in the book. Every aspect of the game in the 1920’s is covered – the style of play on the field (thanks to Ruth, the home run became popular), competitive balance, player salaries, ticket prices and so much more. Of course the business aspects are covered in more detail, but there is something about everything in the game at that time.
This is not the first book that I have read about baseball in earlier times in which I had this thought, but it especially struck me that so many issues that the game has today were present at that time as well. Think the designated hitter has only been in vogue since 1973? It was proposed during that decade. Labor strife? That was present during that time as well. Revenue concerns? Yup, there were plenty in the 1920’s. Something that I thought was very interesting, and it is true today, that even the best paid players were considered by some to be “underpaid” when considering the revenue that the player brings in. When the authors made this point about Babe Ruth, I thought of modern players like Aaron Judge and Mike Trout who are extremely popular and handsomely paid, but their salaries are only a small portion of the revenues they bring to the sport.
The last interesting aspect of this book I will mention are the tables of various figures such as attendance, ticket prices and even the books of the New York Yankees in the decade. While this was only one team, those painted a decent picture of the overall health of the sport and the other tables were very informative. I normally don’t bother referring to them while reading the book, but I did that frequently with this book.
Readers who like books on the economics or business of baseball will enjoy this book very much. It isn’t too dry for those who usually shy away from the business side of the sport, so it is one that those readers might enjoy as well. Highly recommended.
I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.”—LSmith