Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats


Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats

How Baseball Outlasted the Great Depression

David George Surdam

446 pages
3 appendixes


October 2013


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eBook (EPUB)

August 2021


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June 2011


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eBook (PDF)

June 2011


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About the Book

Organized baseball has survived its share of difficult times, and never was the state of the game more imperiled than during the Great Depression. Or was it? Remarkably, during the economic upheavals of the Depression none of the sixteen Major League Baseball teams folded or moved. In this economist’s look at the sport as a business between 1929 and 1941, David George Surdam argues that although it was a very tough decade for baseball, the downturn didn’t happen immediately. The 1930 season, after the stock market crash, had record attendance. But by 1931 attendance began to fall rapidly, plummeting 40 percent by 1933.

To adjust, teams reduced expenses by cutting coaches and hiring player-managers. While even the best players, such as Babe Ruth, were forced to take pay cuts, most players continued to earn the same pay in terms of purchasing power. Off the field, owners devised innovative solutions to keep the game afloat, including the development of the Minor League farm system, night baseball, and the first radio broadcasts to diversify teams’ income sources.

Using research from primary documents, Surdam analyzes how the economic structure and operations side of Major League Baseball during the Depression took a beating but managed to endure, albeit changed by the societal forces of its time.

Author Bio

David George Surdam is an associate professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of Run to Glory and Profits (Nebraska, 2013) and The Postwar Yankees: Baseball’s Golden Age Revisited (Nebraska, 2008).


“Surdam’s book represents the best and probably the only solid study of major-league baseball’s economic situation during the Depression.”—Dorothy Seymour Mills, New York Journal of Books

“With the American economy struggling, major-league baseball attendance falling for the fourth consecutive year and the Los Angeles Dodgers in bankruptcy, David George Surdam’s Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats about the game's Depression-era troubles is certainly timely. Mr. Surdam, who teaches economics at the University of Northern Iowa, comes to his task armed with a fan's enthusiasm, an economist's tool kit and a certain dissatisfaction with previous analyses—including my own—of the evolution of the baseball business.”—Henry D. Fetter, Wall Street Journal

Table of Contents

List of Tables 



Prologue: Clash of Titans

Part 1: The Financial Side of the Game

1. The American Economy and the State of Baseball Profits  

2. Why Did Profits Collapse? The Revenue Side

3. Why Did Profits Collapse? Player Salaries and Other Expenses

4. Farm Systems

Conclusion of Economic Side

Part 2: The Game on the Field

5. Competitive Balance

6. Player Movement

Part 3: Using League Rules to Aid in the Recovery

7. Helping the Indigent

8. Manipulating the Schedule to Increase Revenue

Part 4: Innovations to Boost Attendance and Profits    

9. Radio and Baseball

10. Baseball Under the Lights

11. Other Innovations

12. How Effective Were the Innovations?

13. The Inept and the Restless: Franchise Relocation

Epilogue: The End of an Era

Appendix 1: Radio and Sunday Ball's Effect on Attendance

Appendix 2: Dramatis Personae

Appendix of Tables


Bibliography  Index

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