Big League Baseball's Current Position
To better probe or explore the possible future of big league baseball, it is necessary to have some sense of the development of the game at its highest level. The history of big league baseball is almost infinite, offering countless different angles from which to explore the game’s evolution over the past century or more. It would be impossible, and not particularly useful, to probe all of those angles here. Nonetheless, of particular relevance is MLB’s dominant role in organized baseball today. This reality informs a great deal about big league baseball, its economic strength, and its current good fortunes. Moreover, understanding how MLB reached its current status provides valuable insight, and an important foundation, for understanding what its future might look like.
MLB was not always such a hugely dominant force in baseball, even in the United States. For much of the twentieth century, and throughout all of baseball’s nineteenth century, MLB competed with various minor leagues, the Negro Leagues, barnstormers, leagues outside the United States, and other forms of what, in 2014, Scott Simkus termed “Outsider Baseball” for status, the best players, and revenue.
Today, barnstorming is almost nonexistent, and nearly all professional teams are affiliated with a big league club. A few independent leagues and teams exist, such as the St. Paul Saints and the Wichita Wingnuts, but these represent a very small proportion of the professional players in the United States. Additionally, even most international tournaments, most notably the WBC, are now, in one form or another, run by MLB. Leagues in countries outside the United States—for example, in Japan and Korea—are not part of MLB, but in many parts of the world where baseball is strong, such as the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, the best players are quickly funneled to MLB teams.
Thus, MLB is an increasingly dominant hegemon on the American and the global baseball scene. That hegemony affects almost every pitch that is thrown in the United States, from youth baseball all the way up to the World Series. It is a product of a confluence of events largely outside the realm of baseball, including such developments as the civil rights movement and population shifts following World War II. MLB’s domination of the sport was not inevitable, but that is what has happened over the past fifty or sixty years. Just as it was not inevitable, it is also not irreversible. Other developments that extend beyond baseball, such as increased globalization, the rise of China as an economic power, and even the ubiquitous nature of social media, may begin to erode MLB’s hegemony in the coming decades.
No league in any major sport enjoys a similar position to MLB either domestically or internationally. While the NFL and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are extremely popular multi-billion-dollar industries with lucrative contracts for players largely funded by cable providers and strong Internet strategies, they do not monopolize all of organized football and basketball in the United States the way MLB does for baseball. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) enjoys a close relationship with the NFL and the NBA, but it is independent of those professional organizations. Although college basketball and football function essentially as minor leagues for the NBA and the NFL, respectively, they are not affiliated with those professional leagues. College baseball is becoming more popular in the United States, but it has not yet come close to the level of popularity enjoyed by college football or basketball. Moreover, college does not function as the minor or developmental league in baseball the way it does in other major sports, not least because of the extensive minor league system in baseball.
College teams, in any sport, have goals that are independent from those of professional sports. They need to generate revenue, keep their alumni donor bases happy, and win games in a way that does not apply to affiliated minor league teams. Similarly, college sports teams enjoy a loyal and constantly renewing fan base that is different from those of minor league teams. These different incentives ensure the independence of NCAA sports from the NFL or the NBA. Additionally, if the NCAA were ever to substantially change its football and basketball policies—for example, by offering fewer scholarships—it would create problems for the NFL and the NBA that these two leagues are currently unequipped to address.
MLB’s role in global baseball is greater than that of any comparable institution in any other sport. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is very important as a governing body in international soccer, but it does not play a leadership role in any individual countries. The NBA promotes its product overseas, but it does not organize international basketball. Football remains much more uniquely American than baseball and has a very small global footprint. Cricket has no global governing body that is largely the product of one country. Of course, individual baseball leagues exist in such places as Japan, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, but (with the exception of Cuba) MLB has strong ties with these leagues.
Additionally, not least because baseball has not been an Olympic sport for years, MLB organizes and sets the rules for the world’s premiere international baseball tournament, the WBC.
This stronghold is particularly notable given that MLB itself is a relatively new entity. For most of the twentieth century, the American and the National Leagues were separate organizations that made their own policies. For example, during the twentieth century, each league had its own umpires and even played under slightly different sets of rules. The most well-known rule difference was that the AL played with a designated hitter, while the NL did not.22 A lesser-known rule difference was that if a league or a division ended in a tie, a one-game play-off was used in the AL, but a best-of-three format was used in the NL. There were other differences between the leagues as well. For example, the AL embraced the power game more quickly than the NL beginning in the 1920s. The NL, however, integrated more quickly than the AL.
For most of the twentieth century, player movement between the leagues was slightly less common as well. All of these variations contributed to a more competitive relationship between the two leagues. All-Star Games, for example, were taken much more seriously by everybody involved. For many years, the AL, because it was formed after the NL, was seen as something of an upstart league. Most glaringly, in 1904, the NL champion New York Giants refused to play the AL champion Boston Red Sox in what would have been the second World Series, because they viewed the AL as an inferior league. One of the legacies of this dynamic is that until the last few decades, writers and baseball people would, with decreasing frequency, refer to the NL as the “senior circuit” and the AL as the “junior circuit.”
Until the two leagues merged in 2000, much of the governing power lay with the leagues themselves. The consolidation of power had been moving toward less separation between the two leagues, as such issues as negotiating collective-bargaining agreements between owners and players required collaboration between the two leagues, but this union was not finalized until 2000. Since 2000, MLB has become a much bigger brand, with the three initials being strongly identified with big league baseball. Even during the 1970s through the 1990s, although the initials were used as a kind of shorthand in writing, MLB was rarely pronounced as such. This prominence has changed over the course of the past fifteen years primarily because of MLB’s efforts to brand big league baseball with those three letters and the success of MLBAM products.
Has Big League Baseball Survived?
Before asking the question of whether big league baseball will survive, it is worth probing the assumption that big league baseball has, in fact, survived so far. Regardless of the answer, baseball has unquestionably changed an enormous amount, not just in the years when Selig was commissioner but in the years before his tenure as well.
Over the past seventy-five years, big league baseball has evolved from a business located in only ten cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, played by white people, with only a few teams having anything approaching a farm system. Moreover, the big leagues competed with the Pacific Coast League (PCL), the Negro Leagues, and off-season barnstormers for attention, players, and revenue. The business was not particularly lucrative, as players often had to work in the off-season to make ends meet, thousands of tickets for almost every game went unsold, television contracts were still in the future, and owners often had to sell their best players after a few years.
The institution has transformed a great deal over the years, but some constants have emerged. Big league baseball still represents the best baseball around. It has always been dominated by the United States, American money, and American players. Since the late nineteenth century, it has consistently consolidated its hegemony to become a larger and wealthier business with each passing decade. The coming decades, however, could usher in changes for big league baseball.