More Lessons from Baseball

Regular readers of this blog will know that I sometimes draw on the game of baseball and its statistics to make points about various subjects — longevity, probability, politics, management, and cosmology, for example. (See the links at the bottom of this post.)

Today’s sermon is about the proper relationship between owners and management. I will address two sets of graphs giving the won-lost (W-L) records of the “old 16” major-league franchises. The “old 16” refers to the 8 franchises in the National League (NL) and the 8 franchises in American League (AL) in 1901, the first year of the AL’s existence as a major league. Focusing on the “old 16” affords the long view that’s essential in thinking about success in an endeavor, whether it is baseball, business, or empire-building.

The first graph in each set gives the centered 11-year average W-L record for each of the old teams in each league, and for the league’s expansion teams taken as a group. The 11-year averages are based on annual W-L records for 1901-2013. The subsequent graphs in each set give, for each team and group of expansion teams, 11-year averages and annual W-L records. Franchise moves from one city to another are indicated by vertical black lines. The titles of each graph indicates the city or cities in which the team has been located and the team’s nickname or nicknames.

Here are the two sets of graphs:

W-L records of old-8 NL franchises

W-L records of old-8 AL franchises

What strikes me about the first graph in each set is the convergence of W-L records around 1990. My conjecture: The advent of free agency in the 1970s must have enabled convergence. Stability probably helped, too. The AL had been stable since 1977, when it expanded to 14 teams; the NL had been stable since 1969, when it expanded to 12 teams. As the expansion teams matured, some of them became more successful, at the expense of the older teams. This explanation is consistent with the divergence after 1993, with the next round of expansion (there was another in 1998). To be sure, all of this conjecture warrants further analysis. (Here’s an analysis from several years ago that I still like.)

Let’s now dispose of franchise shifts as an explanation for a better record. I observe the following:

The Braves were probably on the upswing when they moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953. They were on the downswing at the time of their second move, from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. It took many years and the acquisition of astute front office and a good farm system to turn the Braves around.

The Dodgers’ move to LA in 1958 didn’t help the team, just the owners’ bank accounts. Ditto the Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1958.

Turning to the AL, the St. Louis Browns became the latter-day Baltimore Orioles in 1954. That move was accompanied by a change in ownership. The team’s later successes seem to have been triggered by the hiring of Paul Richards and Lee McPhail to guide the team and build its farm system. The Orioles thence became a good-to-great from the mid-1960 to early 1980s, with a resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The team’s subsequent decline seems due to the meddlesome Peter Angelos, who became CEO in 1993.

The Athletics, like the Braves, moved twice. First, in 1955 from Philadelphia to Kansas City, and again in 1968 from Kansas City to Oakland. The first move had no effect until Charles O. Finley took over the team. His ownership carried over to Oakland. Finley may have been the exceptional owner whose personal involvement in the team’s operations helped to make it successful. But the team’s post-Finely record (1981-present) under less-involved owners suggests otherwise. The team’s pre-Kansas City record reflects Connie Mack’s tight-fisted ways. Mack — owner-manager of the A’s from 1901 until 1950 — was evidently a good judge of talent and a skilled field manager, but as an owner he had a penchant for breaking up great teams to rid himself of high-priced talent — with disastrous consequences for the A’s W-L record from the latter 1910s to late 1920s, and from the early 1930s to the end of Mack’s reign.

The Washington Senators were already resurgent under owner Calvin Griffith when the franchise was moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season. The Twins simply won more consistently than they had under the tight-fisted ownership of Clark Griffith, Calvin’s father.

Bottom line: There’s no magic in a move. A team’s success depends on the willingness of owners to spend bucks and to hire good management — and then to get out of the way. (Yes, George Steinbrenner bankrolled a lot of pennant-winning teams during his ownership years, from 1973 to 2010, but the Yankees’ record improved as “The Boss” became a less-intrusive owner from the mid-1990s until his death.)

There are many other stories behind the graphs — just begging to be told, but I’ll leave it at that.

Except to say this: The “owners” of America aren’t “the people,” romantic political pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding. As government has become more deeply entrenched in the personal and business affairs of Americans, there has emerged a ruling class which effectively “owns” America. It is composed of professional politicians and bureaucrats, who find ample aid and comfort in the arms of left-wing academicians and the media. The “owners’ grip on power is sustained by the votes of the constituencies to which they pander.

Yes, the constituencies include “crony capitalists,” who benefit from regulatory barriers to competition and tax breaks. Though it must be said that they produce things, and would probably do well without the benefits they reap from professional politicians and bureaucrats. Far more powerful are the non-producers, who are granted favors based on their color, gender, age, etc., in return for the tens of millions of votes that they cast to keep the “owners” in power.

Far too many Americans are whiners who grovel at the feet of their “owners,” begging for handouts. Far too few Americans are self-managed winners.

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