Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blogging for Nothing

Part of the challenge of writing a blog for me is coming up with new material, since absolutely nothing interesting has ever happened to me. Usually I end up talking about politics, but I have a much wider range than that. I can also talk about sports.


Anyway, two of the things that I've been reading is a book called Moving With the Ball: The Migration of Professional Footballers and another book called Baseball: The Early Years. What strikes me the most is how similar the early histories of baseball and soccer are. They both started out as a nebulous grouping of children's ball games, were first codified when they became the pastime of gentlemen, flourished early on as a club sport for the petit-bourgeoisie before becoming a popular game with mass appeal, and so on and so forth. Where the histories of baseball in the United States and soccer in Europe really begin to diverge is at the formation of the first professional leagues. Soccer in Europe, as you may know, operates on a promotion-relegation system, whereby the best clubs at one level of play are promoted to the next highest level of play after every season, and the worst clubs drop at each level drop down a level. Baseball leagues in America, of course, are closed-circuit, meaning that teams compete at the same level every year regardless of their performance. The reason this is so is because unlike Europe, where the governing bodies of soccer still maintain a fair degree of clout, the governing body of baseball in America, the National Association, was severely weakened and later destroyed by the emergence of the National League and the rise of professionalism. Baseball in America was therefore allowed to evolve along monopolistic lines, whereas competition in European soccer remains comparatively well-regulated.

Up until 1992, for example, the league structure of soccer in England was managed entirely by the governing Football Association. Likewise, the National Association of Baseball Players in the United States regulated all national competition and organized a national championship that was open to any club willing to pay a piddling sum. The traditional narrative goes that the National Association was beset by all kinds of organizational problems (which is true) that the National League managed to circumvent (which is not true). For example, it is frequently argued that the closed-circuit system the National League operated on had the effect of providing greater stability than the National Associations, where teams folding before the end of the season was common. In fact, this was every bit as common an occurrence in the National League. Throughout the opening decade of the National League, the only team to consistently make any money were the Chicago Cubs. It has also been argued that the National League provided a better structure for resolving player disputes. This is also bunk; as the league's founder, William Hulbert broke away from the National Association primarily because he had poached players from other Association ball clubs. The reality is the National Association was destroyed by the ruthless business acumen of Hulbert, owner of the Chicago Cubs and founder of the National League, who was able to successfully play off nonleague teams against one another to his great advantage.

Anyway, that's your baseball history for today. Tomorrow I'll talk a little bit about the first organized baseball club in the United States, the New York Knickerbockers. Or maybe I won't. It's hard to tell.

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