Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats


Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats

How Baseball Outlasted the Great Depression

David George Surdam

448 pages
38 tables


June 2011


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eBook (EPUB)

August 2021


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October 2013


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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. Baseball remained a great way to make a living. Revenue sharing helped the teams in small markets but not necessarily at the expense of big-city teams. 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 The Postwar Yankees: Baseball’s Golden Age Revisited (Nebraska 2008) and Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War.


“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    000  

Acknowledgments   000

Introduction      000

Prologue: Clash of Titans     000

Part 1: The Financial Side of the Game    000

1. The American Economy and the State of Baseball Profits   000  

2. Why Did Profits Collapse? The Revenue Side   000

3. Why Did Profits Collapse? Player Salaries and Other Expenses   000

4. Farm Systems   000

Conclusion of Economic Side

Part 2: The Game on the Field 000

5. Competitive Balance  000

6. Player Movement      000

Part 3: Using League Rules to Aid in the Recovery     000

7. Helping the Indigent 000

8. Manipulating the Schedule to Increase Revenue      000

Part 4: Innovations to Boost Attendance and Profits 000    

9. Radio and Baseball   000

10. Baseball Under the Lights 000

11. Other Innovations   000

12. How Effective Were the Innovations?   000

13. The Inept and the Restless: Franchise Relocation        000

Epilogue: The End of an Era   000

Appendix 1: Radio and Sunday Ball's Effect on Attendance    000

Appendix 2: Dramatis Personae 000

Appendix of Tables 000

Notes 000

Bibliography 000 

Index 000

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