Yesterday, my students participated in the Northern Region History Fair at NIU in DeKalb. This is one of my student’s projects. It is by an eighth grade boy, and I must say, I was impressed by his marriage of history and sport! He advanced, along with 21 more of my students, to the Illinois state history fair on May 7. Click on the picture to enlarge.
Ernie Banks was a true pioneer. Ernie helped paved the way for many African-American players in the Chicago Cubs organization. He also transformed the game. His quick swing through the batting zone allowed him to generate a lot of power. Before him, shortstop was seen as a defensive position filled with light hitting players. After Ernie’s career ended in the early 1970s, it would another ten years before another “power hitting shortstop” came along in Cal Ripken and more than ten years after that when Alex Rodriguez came along.
Born into poverty in Dallas, Texas in 1931, Ernie Banks was one of 12 children in his family.
“I enjoyed growing up in Dallas. Everything was within walking distance: the school I went to, the YMCA, my friends in the neighborhood, the park I played baseball on. Everybody knew everybody and kept everybody in line.”
Sports soon became his life. He was a three sport athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He played football, basketball, and track at the school. He never played baseball in high school.
However, sports did not make Ernie who he was. He was deeply religious and that side of him came directly from his mother’s influence. For a poor person, Banks said, “Your word is your bond. Things like that kind of stuck in my mind. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” And it was playing on his church softball team that his athletic skills were discovered first by Kansas City Monarchs Scout Bill Blair. Banks would begin his baseball career in 1950 with the Amarillo Colts. He did not play for them long as Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil swayed Ernie to the Kansas City Monarchs later that same year. He wound up being drafted and serving in Germany during the Korean War.
Upon his release in 1953, Ernie returned to the Monarchs. Later that fall, his contract was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He would be the first African-American to play for the team.
The shock of moving to a segregated city like Chicago was not lost on Banks. He said the following of the differences:
“You’ve got a lot of players from the South and very few blacks. It was not as multicultured as I had anticipated. They had a few players from Puerto Rico and from Latin American countries, but most of the players were from the South and West.”
Banks lived on the south side of town throughout most of the 50s before moving to the West Chesterfield neighborhood in the late 50s.
When Ernie stepped onto the field in 1953, there were only 20 other African-Americans on 7 other teams. But more than that, Ernie represented a new kind of player with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays – all three were players who combined speed with power. They revolutionized the game. And for Ernie, he revolutionized the shortstop position.
As a Cub, slugger Ralph Kiner took a liking to Ernie from the start. The two would often talk hitting and Ernie credits Kiner with helping Ernie to refine his own swing with quick wrists in order to see the ball deep in to the zone and to just react. Ernie Banks hit 40 home runs in a season in four consecutive years from 1957-1960. The 6’1” 185 lb. shortstop won two NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. One person quipped that without Ernie, the last placed Cubs “would have finished in Albuquerque.”
Everywhere Ernie went as a ballplayer, his race followed him. Ernie spoke eloquently of the dichotomy of his being an African-American pioneer in baseball:
“Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will. If a man doesn’t like me because I am black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere, but I’m not going to let him change my life […] As black athletes, if we speak on various issues, or wear our hair in certain ways, we are considered militant, in opposition to The Establishment, which put us in a position of being opposed to what gives us our livelihood. If we don’t speak up about racial issues, political matters, or the organization itself, we are called Uncle Toms.”
He knew he could not please everybody. So, Ernie was just himself.
In 1962, injuries began to take their toll on Ernie. He moved from shortstop to third base to left field before finally settling on a new position. For the last 9 years of his career he played first base.
Ernie never played in the post season. For 19 years he tried, for 19 years he never made it, but it was not for a lack of trying. The closest “Mr. Cub” came to the post season was in the legendary 1969 season where the Cubs blew a 10 game lead to the Mets in August and September. Along with the Ron Santo and Billy Williams, the trio endeared themselves to Cub fans everywhere.
As a pioneer of the position, Ernie was also a pioneer because of his attitude. His most well known saying is, “Let’s Play Two!” meaning to play a double-header. Throughout Chicago, Ernie’s positive mental attitude never wavered throughout his life. As great of baseball player as he was, he was even more of a gentleman. Everyone he met, he felt it was his duty to say something nice to them, to encourage them.
Playing baseball during a time of segregation did not leave Ernie bitter. He stayed at different hotels, rode different buses, lived in a different part of town, but it not did deter him from having positive attitude toward other human beings. Ernie said,
“There are certain things that you have to fight for, not by looting or burning, but by letting society know that you will demand your rights and will use every legal means to get them. I don’t agree with the guys that say in order to find pride in your blackness you have to hate everything that is white. That’s just plain wrong. We shouldn’t hate anybody. If you want to get a good job, or get into business, you’ve got to live with other people including the white ones.”
Ernie was an 11 time All-Star who played in 13 All Star games (some years they played two All-Star games a year) who finished with 512 Home Runs. His 500th home run turned into the one of the great calls in baseball television history.
In 1977, Ernie made into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
After his playing career ended, Ernie continued to be the face of the Cubs. He gave often to charities in the Chicago area and was a face in the community. He appeared at many baseball card conventions, Cub games, and Cubs Conventions. He became a mentor to many Cub players over the years including the current team.
The last time I saw him in person was at the Chicago Cubs Convention in 2014. When I heard he was not going to be attending the Convention of a week ago, I wondered about his health. I hoped that everything was alright. He passed away yesterday at age 83.
Most people will remember him for his infectious attitude and how he had a kind word for everyone. That he did do. However, the mark he left on the game is just as important as the mark he left off the field in transforming the game in the 1950s and 1960s. For every person that he ever touched with his smile and attitude, he touched just as many with his play. He made it possible for a power hitter to play shortstop. Ernie made it possible for Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Derek Jeter to transform shortstop from a defensive position into an offensive one. And he made it possible for an African-American player to be the face of a franchise in Chicago.
In 2013, Ernie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. It is the highest award a citizen can earn in this country.
Ernie Block Quotes
Timothy J. Gilfoyle. “From Wrigley Field to Outer Space: Interviews with Ernie Banks and Mae Jemison.” Chicago History Magazine. Winter, 1988-89.
Lew Freedman (2007). African-American Pioneers. Greenwood Press: Westport Connecticut.
Baseball and history tend to go together. This blog is no different. As a practicing teacher whose students participate in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Student Historian Program (aka History Fair) and National History Day, I steer some reluctant kids towards baseball topics. It has worked and has changed lives. One of my most successful students did three baseball exhibits, two research papers, and one hockey exhibit over six years in route to six superior ribbons at the state history fair. He is now a sophomore in the honors program at Northern Illinois University and his work as a junior in high school can be read here. He spoke at a conference with me last fall and talked about how doing these projects made him a better student.
Choosing a baseball topic for a history fair project has many advantages. First, the use of newspapers and interviews as primary sources are great tools for any historian. Learning how to find information through these early accounts are exactly what historians do in researching any topic. Second, it teaches verb usage. Most of these accounts use verbs in the active tense. This creates a text that is more exciting, easy to read, and most importantly, makes the subject and writing come alive.
A third reason for using baseball as a history fair topic is that it teaches structure. Students learn how to organize information. They can organize their paper, board, website, or document chronologically, thematically, and statistically. With the plethora of sports statistic sites like Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, and Fan Graphs, it is easy for the student to acquire information and data to help prove their thesis. Whether it is numeric data, hitting charts, or hitting zones, the images can be to cover a year, career, and any significant data stream the user requires or inputs.
The fourth, and maybe the most important, reason for choosing a baseball related topic is that the player or event showcases a change in American society that is reflected on the diamond. From the use of defense and pitching with Tinkers to Evers to Chance to the cheating and gambling industry of the White Sox Scandal to the creation of the Negro Leagues by Rube Foster, the history of baseball in Illinois shows the history of change in Illinois. One of the key aspects of grading any history fair project is can the student(s) show how their topic changed history. A baseball topic clearly does that using evidence over time.
Fifth, and most importantly for the student, it is fun. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw a student get excited about learning history by doing their history fair project about a baseball topic. Once that happens, the student is hooked and puts all their efforts into creating a product of which they are proud.
As a teacher who is retiring in the next 5-8 years, when I look back at all the successful baseball projects my students created, I get a little misty because the topics were monumental events or personalities in the game. Students assembled projects on Mordecai Three Finger Brown, Albert Spalding, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the 1906 World Series, Rube Foster, Baseball in Rockford in the 1800s, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ron Santo, Bill Veeck, Margaret Donahue, 1937 Wrigley Field Changes, the 1907 – 1908 Cubs, The Rockford Peaches, The Chicago American Giants, Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, and the first All-Star Game put together by Arch Ward.
With this year’s topics already selected, several students chose baseball topics for their websites or papers with Margaret Donahue being the most popular. The regional history fair is not until February 28, 2015. However, I have already started to cull some new topics and information for 2016 and will introduce a couple of new baseball topics.
First will be how baseball stadiums influence their teams. The focus will be on the old West Side Grounds and its mammoth 500 feet to center field design, the 1937 Wrigley Field changes, the old Comiskey Park, the Cell, and the new changes to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if any student picks the topic or even just focuses in on one stadium (I would recommend the West Side Grounds). In fact, I might prefer they pick just one stadium so they can go more in detail.
The second topic is a little more adult. Charles Radbourn was a pitcher for the Providence Grays in the 1880s. In 1884, he won 59 games as a starting pitcher. His prodigious events and life are chronicled in the spectacular book Fifty-Nine in ‘84 – Old Hoss Radbourn and Bare-Handed Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. I was also able to find some newspaper articles supplied by the Bloomington Pentagraph, Radbourn’s hometown in central Illinois. Combined with some PDF journal articles and the afore-mentioned websites, a student will not have any trouble finding information.
Here is your warning – Doing “Old Hoss” as a topic is reserved for the more mature student as “Old Hoss” lead quite a saucy life, and that is putting it mildly. I first became aware of the topic because I love baseball and I love Twitter. There is a Twitter account named @OldHossRadbourn, which I find hysterical at times. The account looks at modern day baseball through the eyes of “Old Hoss.” Needless to say, he does find their commitment and achievements lacking and paling in comparison to his. He was baseball’s first Ironman and his endurance, be it out of greed, stupidity, or pure genius, set one baseball record that will most likely never be broken. In reflecting on modern day baseball, Twitter’s @OldHossRadbourn does pinpoint the changes in the game and the changes in American society over the past 130 years. Those changes are essential to what a history fair project can do; it is just seen through the eyes of baseball.
“Someone like Midge is an inspiration. It’s a thrill to learn more about her history.“ – Cubs President Tom Ricketts.[i]
For the better part of forty years, Margaret “Midge” Donahue changed the business of baseball through her actions. Miss Donahue was one of Major League’s baseball’s first female executives. Working alongside, William Veeck, Sr., and later the Wrigley family, Margaret transformed the crowd that came to see a game at Wrigley Field. Miss Donahue’s unique perspective on how fans should be able to see a game changed the clientele and business of baseball. Her actions still are effecting how executives run baseball clubs today.
The 1920s were a boom time for the United States economy. New inventions like the radio transformed how people could track their favorite sports teams. Women’s role in society greatly changed to new appliances which made house work easier and created more leisure time for the American family. In the workforce, most women worked in jobs that today would be thought of stereotypes – teacher, secretary, and nurses.
It was into this world that Margaret Donahue entered. Originally from rural Huntley, Margaret worked in a laundry during World War I and lost her job to a man at the war’s conclusion. To get back into the work force, Margaret placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune. She got eighteen offers, but she took the first offer place. She was hired by then Chicago Cubs President, William Veeck, Sr. to be a stenographer.[ii] Margaret said,
“I declined the job (but William Veeck) offered me far more than what I was making (at a laundry supply company) and persuaded me to take it. At the end of the season, I tried to quit again but he countered by making my hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I stayed.”[iii]
Margaret quickly worked her way up the company ladder. She moved from stenographer to handling ticket receipts, checking the receipts against the turnstile counts, and paying visiting clubs.[iv] In the 1920s, baseball had a few women in positions of power.[v] A few were owners who inherited the team from their late husbands or fathers.
In 1926, Veeck shocked the baseball world by appointing Margaret Executive Secretary of the Chicago Cubs. The Board of Directors of the franchise approved her appointment. Veeck said of Margaret’s talents: “We feel that in Miss Donahue we have added a real asset to our club organization.” [vi]
In 1929, Margaret transformed the economic landscape of baseball three times. First, she came up with the idea of season tickets. Donahue got the idea after watching people save seats for their friends and families. Her niece later said, ““She was upset because they’d save tickets, people didn’t show up and that was a waste.” The season tickets plan was a huge success! The Cubs lead the National League in attendance in 1929 drawing 1.4 million fans.[vii] Fans rushed to get tickets to fill up the stadium by reserving seats. Today, season tickets are one of the main sources of income along with media revenue for ball clubs.
Margaret continued her unique vision to create a livelier ballpark to attend. She began selling regular game tickets using Western Union. This meant that fans could be assured of a ticket to the game without having to come to the ballpark to be guaranteed of getting a ticket.
The third aspect that Margaret always worked hard for was the children. She got Veeck to sell reduced prices for tickets for children.[viii] Earlier in 1919, Veeck had come up with the idea of Ladies Days to increase the attendance of women to the ballpark. Combined with Veeck’s idea, Margaret changed who saw baseball games. Baseball was now more of a family affair. Margaret always said, “I was trained by Mr. Veeck to do my best to make customers leave the ballpark happy, no matter what happens.”[ix] Author Paul Dickson said of the changes, “Teams like the Dodgers are worth $2 billion because people like Midge and the Veecks determined that the ballpark is for families. Before them, baseball parks were filled with men in white shirts.” [x]
In 1929, the Cubs had a great season reaching the World Series before losing 4 games to one to the Philadelphia Athletics. It was also the year of the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite the hard times, the Cubs thrived in the 1930s thanks in part to the crowds that filled Wrigley Field because of the ticket changes Margaret and Mr. Veeck made. The Cubs would make three more appearances in the World Series in the 1930s.
In 1933, Mr. Veeck passed away suddenly. She helped to run the team after the death of William Veeck, Sr.[xi] Under the Wrigley family she continued her duties.[xii] Chicago Baseball Museum executive director David Fletcher said, “They should have made (Donahue) the club president in the 1930s. If they did that, they (the Cubs) probably would have avoided their downfall.” [xiii]
Veeck’s son, William Veeck, Jr., who later would own the Indians and White Sox, learned a lot from Margaret. He said in his autobiography, “(Donahue is) as astute a baseball operator as ever came down the pike. She has forgotten more baseball in her 40 years with the Cubs than most of the so-called magnates will ever know.”[xiv] Before the 1937 season, the Cubs and Veeck, Jr. planted ivy on the outfield wall and built the now iconic bleachers. But on the field, the Cubs started to decline with their play on the field. Margaret said,
“I believe we fell behind the parade because we didn’t go into the farm business soon enough. Late in the ’30s, when others were developing their players, we were still trying to buy them. And we also refused to pay bonuses until recently.”
Now working for the Wrigley family, the Cubs and Margaret worked to continue to provide a great product for fans to come and see. Playing baseball under the lights became popular for many team in the Great Depression. It was one way that fans could work during the day and then attend a night game and not miss any work during the day. So, before World War II, Margaret ad other Cubs executives attended a White Sox night game to see how lights affected the quality of the product baseball.[xv] After the attack at Pearl Harbor, President William Wrigley donated the metal frames for the lights to help the war effort.
Margaret continued working for the Cubs through 1958. When she retired she was given a golden pass to attend any National League Game free of charge. Her greatest accomplishment, according to her nieces, was how she made the ballpark a family place.[xvi] Current Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts said, “Some of those ideas that came from her made her doubly remarkable. Her story is an inspiration. And the fact that she accomplished what she did almost 100 years ago makes it truly remarkable and impressive.” [xvii]
Margaret Donahue’s life is an inspiration. As a woman, she succeeded in an era when men dominated the business and the sport. Her ideas about season tickets and how the ballpark should be a place for more than just men is still having a huge effect on the business of baseball today. Baseball is now played in stadiums that dwarf those of the 1920s and 1930s. Filling up those stadiums are families. That is how Margaret Donahue saw what baseball could be, a place where the family could have a good time watching a game. She was decades ahead of her time. In the summer of 2014, the Chicago Cubs donated over $1 million to a park to be named in Margaret’s honor.[xviii] Now, her achievements are noticed and put on a display for a whole new generation.
[i] Owens, John. “Pioneering Female Exec Midge Donahue to Be Honored. “ Chicago Tribune. May 2, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-pioneering-cubs-female-exec-midge-donahue-to-be-honored-20140502-story.html.
[ii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). “Margaret Donahue: First Lady of the Front Office.” Accessed Online at: http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/margaret-donahue-first-lady-front-office. October 15, 2014.
[iii] “New Cubs Secretary.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Dec 14, 1926; pg. 23.
[v] “Baseball Men Beware! Women Prove They Can Run a Team.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Apr 20, 1941; pg. B3.
[vi] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at: http://www.chicagobaseballmuseum.org/files/CBM-Margaret-Donahue-baseballs-first-female-executive-20130702.pdf.
[vii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:
[viii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.
[ix] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at: http://www.chicagobaseballmuseum.org/files/CBM-Margaret-Donahue-baseballs-first-female-executive-20130702.pdf.
[xi] Vaughan, Irving. “CUBS TAKE TIME IN SELECTING NEW PRESIDENT: May Not Decide on Veeck Successor.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 10, 1933; pg. 23.
[xii] “Wrigley, Entire Staff Re-elected at Cub Meeting.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Jan 13, 1938; pg. 19.
[xiii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:
[xiv] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.
[xv] Prell, Edward. “Cub Officials See Sox Play Under Lights.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Aug 15, 1939; pg. 15.
[xvii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:
[xviii] Owens, John. (2013). “Aunt Midge – A Wrigley Field Innovator.” Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-pioneering-cubs-female-exec-midge-donahue-to-be-honored-20140502-story.html.
The other day in class, a student asked me why I became an historian. It was hard to answer. In fact, all I could come up with was, “I don’t think it was any one thing, but a series of events pushing me to becoming an historian.” And I think that it is different for every historian. Looking back at my life, five things influenced me into loving history: the context of my life, television, some wonderful professors, my family, and some great books and authors.
The Context of My Life
Being born in 1963, some of first memories are of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Beatles. Every day, my family would gather round the television at 5:30 p.m. to watch Walter Conkrite do the CBS Evening News. The images I saw still impact me today. I am a very visual teacher in that students examine a lot of images like political cartoons and images. For me, the images of Vietnam have been seared into my brain. They do not haunt me, but I will always remember the images I saw like “Napalm Girl,” “Shell Shocked-Soldier,” and Eddie Adams’ “The Assassination.” I introduce them to my students along with other images from that era including the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Bull Connor, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. The era is ripe with stark images of the events.
Add in my own personal fascination with the Beatles, and everything about them. When older, I began researching them and finding out information about them. They were my favorite band up until I was a junior in high school. That fascination would continue when I began listening to Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush, and Pearl Jam – my other favorite bands. I always researched every artist. I still do today. I dig into their past and find out who influenced them, why they picked up an instrument, and how they got in the record business. It is always interesting to me.
You wouldn’t think that TV as a medium would influence an historian in the pre-cable days, but the show I would always watch when I came home from school was “Hogan’s Heroes.” I know it sounds corny, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted to learn more about what was happening on each episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” I would always use an encyclopedia to find out about something mentioned on Hogan’s Heroes whether it was the Gestapo or the city of Hamburg or some member of the Nazi hierarchy. It really piqued my interest in World War II. I remember there was a kid in my class named Larry Weaver whose dad served in World War II. His dad had brought back/mailed stuff from his service and I always thought those artifacts, including a Luger and a Nazi flag, were the coolest things!
When I went to college in 1982 to Western Illinois University, I had the great honor of learning under Larry Balsamo and the late Darrel Dykstra. Both were quite different in their teaching styles and I think I liked that about them. Larry Balsamo was very energetic, always had a story to tell, and he loved the little details he found interesting that no one else did. His Civil War and Reconstruction class is my all-time favorite class. It was hard if you had Larry not to love history because he did so much.
Darrel Dykstra was the opposite of Larry Balsamo. He was quiet, reserved, and meticulous when I learned about Middle East History. His attention to detail and material were some of my favorite of college including a book we had to read called “Guests of the Sheik.”
Fifteen years later, I had the pleasure of taking a class in grad school at NIU with the late Jordan Schwarz. Dr. Schwarz was a huge Cubs fan, but he taught me a lot about writing history. After the class ended, I played golf with him several times and all we talked about was the Cubs…nothing else. I have enough Andy Pafko stories to last me a lifetime.
Another professor who had a huge impact on my career was Bruce Field, now at South Carolina. Bruce engaged me to write the proper lesson plan (he would later speak at my wedding as he was friends with my wife before I met my wife). Later, Carla Shaw of NIU tapped into my creative side to get me to create my own teaching models/style for history. She had a huge influence on how I teach. Later, she would be my initial doctoral adviser before her retirement. She Skyped into my oral defense. I was really touched.
My older brother Mark had some influence on me when it comes to being an historian. He is five and half years older but he always used to have models he constructed of the space program. There used to be models of a Saturn V rocket, the lunar lander and the capsules on his shelf. I found them so interesting. I tended to build model battleships/aircraft carriers. But when he left for college in 1976, I had the bedroom to myself and one of the first things I did was to research the space program including each astronaut and Apollo mission.
My parents probably had the biggest role in me becoming an historian. In the early 1970s, they bought a set of encyclopedias and a set of World Book Year Books. They would keep adding the Year Books until I graduated. I found them fascinating and even read them throughout college. Having moved several times in my youth and young adulthood, the yearbooks were like my best friends as I read them constantly to find out what happened before I had memories, and to gather more data about what events I did remember from my youth. As I sit here and watch some football, I also remember using the yearbooks to look back at who won sports championships in those years.
Books on History
Beginning when I was in 5th grade and through my late 40s, I read a lot. It was not until 8th grade that I read my first historically tinged book. It was in 8th grade history class with Kent Crear at Polo Junior High School that I read “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren and it was stunning! Today, it is still one of my favorite books of all time ( I never did see the Sean Penn movie as I thought there was no way it could match the book). I think the book that got me hooked on history was “Ordeal By Fire (1st Edition)” by James McPherson. I read it when I was junior in college (1984) and I found it totally fascinating. Up to that point in my life, I loved short stories, science fiction, and 19th century literature. From that point on, it was all history for the next few years (along with Science Fiction). Today, I like Doris Kearns Goodwin and her writing style, Michael Beschloss is good, too, along with John Eisenhower, and I can read about the New Deal by Jordan Schwarz anytime.
Thinking about it, I could add baseball cards, being a Cubs and Bears fan, but whatever I get interested in, I learn the history about it. I know these things are what made made me an historian, but what keeps me an historian are the students that I teach. I still enjoy learning about history and sharing it with them. I don’t really consider it teaching, just sharing what I enjoy about the past and how I found it and experience it. In the present, my wife and I rarely plan a vacation unless it involves a historical site or two. In fact, that is my plan for this summer. I plan on going down to Nauvoo to see some Mormon history, over to Hannibal for Mark Twain, and then on to Kansas City for some Negro League Museum stuff. It is who I am. It is what I do. It is what I enjoy.
A recent spate of signings this spring continues a trend that began happening in baseball a few years ago. Young players are being signed in their second year in the big leagues to extended contracts. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals and Evan Longoria of the Rays were two of the first to ink their name on a dotted line to what were deemed as team-friendly deals. On the other hand, the players signings voided any attempts at arbitration and extended the original five-year length of a major league contract. Recent signings have been by Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. Both players knowingly signed their contracts to focus on just playing baseball. Rizzo signed for an additional 7 years and $41 million with escalators and incentives. Goldschmidt signed for five years and $32 million. While Rizzo’s contract was based on less than a 140 game sample, Goldschmidt had almost 2 years under his belt. For Goldschmidt, the signing bought him a release from the pressure and he is having an all-star type year as is Rizzo. But Goldschmidt has not put up these type of numbers before. Rizzo, meanwhile, is on page to hit 40 homers and drive in 110 runs. These players are just two players that might signal a death in free agency as we know it. The test will come when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, who are both in their second year, either reach arbitration or ink similar type deals to keep the players in the fold during their peak years.
Free Agency began shortly after Curt Flood‘s ill-fated lawsuit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. However, shortly thereafter, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first free agents in 1975. At the time, the average salary for a professional baseball player was less than $30,000 a year. 4 years later, Nolan Ryan signed a 4 year $4.4 million contract with the Astros. One year later, Dave Winfield was making $2.5 million. By the end of the 1980s, Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett inked a 3 year $9 million contract.
The 1990s saw an unchecked growth in free agency and a rise in steroid use. I, for one, think the two go hand-in-hand as players looked for any advantage to get that big free agent deal. In 1996, Albert (aka Joey) Belle, signed a deal worth over $11 million a year with the White Sox. It took a while for the White Sox to get out from under the deal. On December 10, 2000, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10 year $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. That deal would be torn up in 2007 when he signed a new deal for pretty close to the same numbers with the Yankees.
In response, five events in the 2000s changed how baseball executives looked at free agency.
1. Steroids – The Mitchell Report (2007) took away any competitive edge steroid and amphetamine users had in the game. Now, if a players risked using them, they also risked suspension of major dollars. The heydays of the 1990s of McGwire, Sosa, and others grooving mammoth home runs was going to be over. There were now too many dollars at stake. Home runs plummeted after the Mitchell Report from a high of over 5600 in 2000 to a low 4552 in 2011.
2. Moneyball – In the early 2000s, the price of competition had created big market teams that could afford to go after high cost free agents and those that could not. Most notably, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane stood out by finding other ways to win by focusing on Sabermetrics like on base and slugging percentages taking on more value than batting average and runs batted in. The resulting book by Michael Lewis highilghted Beane’s methods in evaluating and drafting talent. For teams that did not have cathedrals for ballparks to bring in the much needed cash, Moneyball became another way to compete between the lines with the large market teams.
3. Youth Movement – In the wake of the Mitchell Report, the players got younger as youth was valued more and more. They had fresher legs after all and more strength. In the steroid era, it wasn’t unusual for a player to hit 40 homers at age 36. Alex Rodriguez is now that age, along with many other greats of the 2000s and they are now shells of the players they were in their prime. Steroids were not the only drug that shaped baseball. For years, amphetamines had just as much an influence in the game for players in a grinding 162 game schedule, especially for those who played day games after night games. The need for younger players who could sustain their strength through a season was needed. The Tampa Bay Rays (GM Andrew Friedman) and the Washington Nationals (GM Mike Rizzo) began the trend of signing players to keep them in their prime years (27-30 years of age). The Cubs recently have done the same with Stalin Castro in addition to Anthony Rizzo. For all three teams, they were trying to build teams by developing talent. For Friedman, signing Longoria was the foundation for the franchise as was Ryan Zimmerman for the Nationals. For the Cubs, they refer to the term “core pieces.”
4. The Market Changed – In recent years, many teams have begun to shy away from long-term free agent deals. When players hit free agency for the first time, they are usually in their late 20s. To sign them to a long-term deal is not seen as financially sound anymore. Case in point, Alfonso Soriano. His $18-19 million a year contract was seen as an albatross hanging over the franchise when Theo Epstein too over the team. Unexpectedly, Soriano was seen as not living up to his contract. Then last year, he slugged over 30 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Soriano’s contract with the Cubs has been up and down as has Alex Rodriquez’s when he has been healthy. Most General Managers now view a signing as paying for future performance.
In the past, while the GMs hoped they were paying for future performance, but in reality, the contract was roll of the dice. Today’s market signings lock up their “future” stars through their prime years and a little beyond. The two winters signing of Albert Pujols for ten years will test those “old” assumptions in the coming years. However, the signing of Josh Hamilton might be a new market force. Hamilton’s contract lasts only for five years but his production is already bringing that contract into question just based on the staggering amount of dollars involved even if only for five years.
5. The Branch Rickey Effect – Most people know Branch Rickey cemented his place in history by signing Jackie Robinson. What most people don’t know is that Rickey set up what is today the minor league system in the late 1920s. Rickey’s belief was that by using a farm system that developed players, a team could be competitive indefinitely. The St. Louis Cardinals have not deviated from that philosophy in the 80 years since.
In today’s market, that development of players now includes foreign markets in the Dominican, Japan, Korea, and Venezuela as well as others all over the world. Scouting, whether it be by sabermetrics or old school scouts, or as Cubs Pro Scouting Director Joe Bohringer calls for, a mixture of both, has taken on a new dimension of finding the latest talent at the cheapest price all over the globe. While Rickey did not mine Latin America for players as it is done today, his followers are doing so in his shadow of the minor league system. Why waste $250 million when you get the same production by investing a few million and develop that talent. In fact, for $250 million, you can get 50 or more players rather than just one player. In addition, teams are now pouring money into scouting as well as player development to avoid that large loss of production and dollars via free agency.
Free Agent Trends for the Future: Free Agency, most likely, is not dead. But it is changing. Role players are becoming more in demand. Specialists like a “loogy” (left handed reliever) garner more attention because they fit a certain niche. The team’s need is dictating what teams spend their dollars on. If they can bring up a player like the Orioles did with Manny Machado last fall, teams will. The Pujols, A-Rod, and Soriano contracts are warnings of the dangers of long-term contracts. As the dollars increase for free agents, some teams just will step out of the way, while other GMs and owners will step up, some foolishly. While the Rizzos and Goldschmidts contemplate their deals, for GMs, the contemplation is smaller and less risky.
In the end, I think Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will set the future role of free agency as they will reach the market at the ripe old ages of 25 and 26. They would still not have reached their prime years of 27-30. That, to me, is unfathomable what they could bring on the open market. Will they be the first $30 million a year players? On the other hand, they might be the outliers rather than the norm. Their GMs will do everything they can to not let them get to the open market.