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Business Tips from Baseball History
Bentley’s PreparedU Project is dedicated to preparing millennials for success in business and in life. This series provides insights into ways that objective can be accomplished.
Take a close look at the history of baseball and you’ll find a rich treasure of business lessons. The study of our national pastime is both fun and more instructive than you probably imagine, says Chris Beneke, associate professor of History major program at Bentley University who specializes in, among other things, sports history.
Since the birth of organized baseball in the Civil War era, the sport has been schooling us. Here are a handful of the business takeaways from baseball history:
1. Things that seem new may actually have deep roots in the past.
In the middle of the 19th century, as the Civil War came and went, baseball lost its untamed, child-centered spirit. Upwardly mobile merchants added new rules and edited out old practices that were holdovers from the kid-focused origins of the game, such as pegging runners for an out. These changes helped lend the sport respectability among adults, says Beneke, but also killed some of the game’s spontaneous pleasures.
As baseball became the game we recognize, it also evolved into a competitive business. Entrepreneurs enclosed formerly open fields and sold tickets to games, teams began acquiring players from distant regions to boost their chances, and the focus of the sport shifted from healthful recreation to winning at all costs. Players began demanding (what their contemporaries considered) exorbitant salaries. It was in the midst of these developments that the first permanent major league — the National League — was born in 1876.
2. In business, as in baseball, anticipate some irrational demands.
Although some of the many rules adopted by early baseball pioneers were the products of accident or circumstance, we stick by them today. It doesn’t matter if they have no clear purpose — we consider them part of the now long-established game.
Take the mysterious dirt strip that sometimes runs between home plate and the pitcher’s mound. It’s probably a relic of the age when teams played on cricket fields which centered on a pitch, says Beneke, but that’s no matter.
“People become attached to changes that have been fixed over time,” he says. “Sometimes new systems or ideas are ignored because people are used to old ones, even if there’s no longer a good reason for them.”
Moreover, says Beneke, we shouldn’t be in too big of a hurry to eliminate seemingly illogical traditions and practices, especially if people have an emotional attachment to them.
Sometimes it’s best to leave the dirt strip alone.
3. Benefits are seldom accrued without costs
In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in the modern major leagues. Here we have a celebrated advance in the baseball business, a racist barrier overcome. But there was an unintended consequence, Beneke notes — the newly emergent Negro Leagues immediately started to crumble.
“The attention turned to Robinson and those businesses began to lose their core market. Black baseball unraveled within a few years,” says Beneke. “Many black fans were okay with that because wanted to see African-American players in the American and National Leagues. But there were some severe costs involved.”
The lesson here is that decisions in the business world can bring sweeping change — positive and negative — to society, he says.
“That kind of loss occurs all the time. Growing industrial efficiency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lowered the price of consumer goods and substantially improved America’s material comforts. But the adoption of mass production and assembly line techniques also meant that fewer people were needed to make things. Longstanding craft industries just disappeared, and so did the jobs and the skills that were integral to them.”
Beneke says the consequences of certain advances often surprise us. “You really don’t know,” he says. “When a change is made, it’s always hard to measure the full reach of the impact. There are always incalculable and unknowable costs.”
4. In business, as in baseball, know the history of your industry.
Cultivate a firm grasp of your industry’s background. Do not settle for longstanding beliefs. Do you remember the fact that Abner Doubleday, a military cadet, invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York? It’s not actually true, says Beneke.
“In addition to challenging myths about the early game, I talk with my students about the way the past is romanticized, and how our collective memories are clouded both by what we want to believe and what we see in the present,” he says.
Peeling back the layers of our national baseball memory offers us a model of how to see things clearly, says Beneke. It gives us a sharper understanding of how institutions and practices are born, how they survive over the long term, and what the consequences are. And it’s a lot of fun.
Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.