Baseball is a game of legends, larger-than-life stars ever ingrained in our public psyche. However, all too often, the off-the-field personalities get lost in the shuffle, dwarfed in the eyes of history by the Babe Ruths and Jackie Robinsons of the world. Here then is the Mount Rushmore of those other legends, the pioneers and innovators that built baseball into the game it is today.
1) Alexander Cartwright, Jr.– In truth, there is no big bang of baseball, no moment when the inspiration for what would become the American Pastime was beamed down from the heavens. For centuries, men had played cricket, rounders, and other various contests featuring bat and ball. However, if you’re going to point to one man who truly set the wheels of baseball in motion, that man is Alexander Cartwright. Cartwright was a bank teller and volunteer firefighter who for many years had played various ball games around the parks of New York City. Though many of these games roughly resembled what we now know as modern baseball, Cartwright showed up one day with some new found inspiration. As his friend Duncan Curry recalls of that Spring afternoon in 1845, “Cartwright came to the field…with his plans drawn up on a paper…. He had laid out a diamond shaped field with canvas bags filled with sand or sawdust for bases at three of the points and an iron plate for home base. He had arranged for a catcher, a pitcher, three basemen, a short fielder and three outfielders. His plan met with much good-natured derision, but he was so persistent in having us try his new game that we finally consented more to humor him than with any thought of it becoming a reality.” Cartwright would proceed to codify a set of accepted rules and engineer what is widely accepted today as the first organized baseball game between his Knickerbockers and the New York Club at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, June 19th, 1846. Three years later, lured by the California gold craze, Cartwright began trekking westward, along which he would spread the gospel of baseball. Barely twenty years following that day in Hoboken, there were thought to be over a thousand organized baseball clubs scattered across the country.
Note: Though many think of Abner Doubleday as the creator of baseball, history has all but proven this to be myth. In 1907, The Mills Commission, appointed to determine the origin of baseball, concluded that “the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.” However, Doubleday never claimed this distinction in any of his writings, and it was even determined that at the date of the alleged invention, Doubleday was a cadet at West Point, his family having moved away from Cooperstown a year prior. Adding further doubt is the fact that the primary testimony on behalf of Doubleday lay with a man named Abner Graves, who after shooting his wife two years later wound up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum. So yea, not the most credible of witnesses. On June 3, 1953, Alexander Cartwright was officially declared by Congress to be the inventor of modern baseball.
2) Henry Chadwick– Often the best way of conferring legitimacy upon something is simply by committing it to paper. A British-born journalist in the mid-nineteenth century, Chadwick was one of the first to cover the infant game in print, writing up game summaries for the New York Clipper. In it, Chadwick originated the box score, giving birth to a national obsession with baseball statistics and records that persists to this day. He also penned the “Base Ball Manual” and “Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player,” guide books in which he described rules, techniques, and star players of the game. The American Pastime was on its way.
3) Harry Frazee– History has not been kind to Mr. Frazee. The infamous former owner of the fledgling Boston Red Sox will forever be linked to the disastrous transaction that sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees, damning the Sox to nearly a century of futility. However, that may not be the only raw deal Frazee got. In truth, and this is coming from a die-hard Red Sox fan, Frazee had his hands tied, making a move that almost any other owner in his position would have made. For starters, Ruth was the ultimate diva of his day, a drunk, a womanizer, a hothead (at one point throwing a punch at an umpire), an egomaniac, and the farthest thing from a team player. During the 1919 season, Ruth refused to continue pitching, continually undermined his manager, and even went ‘Manny being Manny’ on his teammates by pulling himself out of the last few games of the season. That year, the Sox would finish sixth (in the two years following his departure, they would actually climb a spot to fifth). After that season, Ruth demanded that his salary be doubled, an unheard-of figure that Frazee simply could not pay. Ruth then proclaimed that he wouldn’t play until his demands were met, all but forcing Frazee to negotiate a trade. Due to an ongoing dispute with American League president Ban Johnson, Frazee was effectively banned from dealing with any team but the White Sox and Yankees, two teams that also defied Johnson’s corrupt reign. (Johnson’s hatred of Frazee in part stemmed from his belief that Frazee was Jewish, violating an unwritten rule within the game to keep Jews out of the ranks of ownership. Frazee was in fact Presbyterian.) It’s hard to fathom that the only other offer on the table would actually have been more catastrophic than the one that ultimately transpired, but that’s exactly the case. The White Sox offered up superstar “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and cash, an intriguing offer were it not for the fact that just months later, Jackson would be suspended for life for his role in the Black Sox scandal. At the time, the Ruth transaction was actually seen by many as being favorable for the Red Sox. In subsequent years, numerous inaccuracies were perpetuated about the Sox owner, many of which were motivated by the ongoing belief in his Jewishness and the notion that a cash-strapped Frazee selfishly sold Ruth to finance his landmark play No, No, Nanette. (which actually didn’t come out until six years later) As we all know, Ruth would go on to transform the Yankees into a dynasty while the Red Sox would go titleless for 86 years. Whatever blame Frazee deserves, the impact of his decision upon the future course of the game is impossible to deny. For more on Frazee’s misplaced maligning, check out the illuminating Glenn Stout piece ‘A Curse Born of Hate.’
4) Kennesaw Mountain Landis– When in 1921, baseball decided that it was finally necessary to bring in a commissioner, the game was reeling from the revelations of a fixed World Series. That commissioner was Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Upon the appointment, The Sporting News summarized Kennesaw’s stated mission: “to clean out the crookedness and the gambling responsible for it and keep the sport above reproach…he would have no mercy on any man in baseball, be he magnate or player, whose conduct was not strictly honest…The Judge will be the absolute ruler of the game.” During his time in office, Landis did indeed rule with an iron fist, at once banishing the eight guilty players who had conspired to throw the World Series in the infamous Black Sox scandal. The ruling that was ultimately established– ‘Any player, umpire, club or league official or employee who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor had a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible’– would go on to be the damning assertion used against Pete Rose several decades later.
Under his reign, Landis also helped usher in the live ball era. From 1903-1921, small ball had been the order of the day, as a series of factors contributed to an unprecedented decline in offense. Among them was the common practice of leaving baseballs in play for much of the game until they were brown with dirt, making it harder for batters to pick up while in flight. Balls also became softer with repeated usage, resulting in a greater difficulty to drive with power over the course of the game. Upon assuming power, Landis immediately legislated that balls be removed from play at the first sign of wear, causing an immediate uptick in offense as batters could not only see pitches better, but when they did, it would travel further on contact. Landis also outlawed the spitball, further shifting advantage away from the pitcher. From 1903-1919, the league-wide ERA had been 2.80. In the decade that followed, it had jumped to 4.00. Upon his death in 1944, Landis had transformed the game, restoring both its excitement and integrity.
5) Mel Allen and Red Barber- Baseball on the radio would make its debut in the summer of 1921, as a man named Harold Arlin called the Pirates-Phillies match to an almost non-existent audience. However, it would be over a decade more before baseball received its true airwave ambassadors in Allen and Barber. Known and beloved primarily as the voices of the Yankees and Dodgers respectively, Melvin Israel and William Barber were the first truly iconic broadcasters in American sports history. Initially concerned that radio would discourage people from actually showing up to the park, owners soon found the medium to be an unparalleled promotional tool for their sport (not to mention a great way to generate additional income). By the 1940’s, Barber’s presence was so ubiquitous in Brooklyn, The Daily News mused “A person could cover the length of the beach of Coney Island and never lose his voice.” Perfectly suited to the pace and nature of the game, radio was instrumental in broadening the game’s reach and appeal, expanding fan bases and turning local stars into national heroes.
6) Branch Rickey– There is perhaps no man more responsible for changing the complexion, both literally and figuratively, of the modern game more than that of Branch Rickey. When Rickey was named the general manager of the St Louis Cardinals in 1925, minor league teams operated independently of big league clubs, auctioning off their top prospects to the highest bidder. Rickey decided to buck the system, buying his own minor league clubs through which he could develop talent and directly funnel players to his major league franchise. It took only a single year as GM before the Cards captured their first World Series, and in time the homegrown talent of Pepper Martin, Stan Musial, and Dizzy Dean would take three more pennants for the Gashouse Gang between 1928-1932. By 1940, Rickey’s farm had steadily expanded into an empire, claiming ownership of an astounding 32 teams while maintaining working agreements with 8 others. Rickey moved on to the Dodgers in 1942, where he would continue his prowess in developing young talent, producing such stars as Duke Snider and Gil Hodges from within the organization. However, his most important achievement was the signing of Jackie Robinson from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Upon his major league debut two years later, Robinson would bring a pennant to Brooklyn, opening up the doors to full-fledged racial integration in the years to come. Dickey soon left for Pittsburgh, where he would once again shake the baseball establishment with the drafting and promotion of baseball’s first Hispanic player in Roberto Clemente. When he ultimately retired in 1955, Rickey had introduced the modern farm system, racially integrated the game, popularized the use of the batting helmet and batting cage, and created the first spring training facility. Moreover, he was perhaps the earliest proponent of what we now call sabermetrics, valuing such indicators as on-base percentage over average to further his advantage over the competition. A maverick in the truest sense, Branch Rickey remains the most influential figure in the history of baseball, if not the entire sports world.
7) Walter O’Malley–You’re in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley and have a gun with only two bullets. What do you do? Shoot O’Malley twice. To many 1950’s Booklynites, the Dodgers were everything. In one fell swoop, O’Malley ripped it all away, unapologetically moving the team to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. The vitriol knew no bounds as the Dodgers’ owner become public enemy #1 to a city reeling in grief. Harsh as it was, O’Malley’s infamous decision would mark a pivotal moment in the course of baseball history, as professional baseball was finally introduced to the West Coast. America’s pastime had for half a century been concentrated predominantly in the Northeast, with the westernmost team being St. Louis at the time of O’Malley’s ascendancy. The first domino to fall had been the Boston Braves, who in 1953 relocated to Milwaukee. However, it was not until the Dodgers split town that the game truly underwent a tidal shift. O’Malley knew that to make baseball a reality in the West he would have to recruit a partner, and so inserted himself as key player in facilitating the Giants move to San Francisco as well. The entire complexion of American baseball had changed, as O’Malley’s Dodgers helped make baseball a truly national game.
8) Marvin Miller–Today, the Major League Baseball Players Association is the most powerful union in all of sports, and no man deserves more thanks for that fact than Marvin Miller. Elected head of the MLBPA in 1966, Miller soon made his impact felt, negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement with owners, increasing minimum salaries, introducing the all-important independent arbitration practice, and eventually ushering in the age of free agency with the invalidation of the reserve clause. Under the reserve clause, players had been effectively married to their initial club, with that club retaining their rights from year to year not so unlike a piece of property. To make matters worse, those players unhappy with their compensation were forced to settle their disputes with the commissioner, who, as having been hired by the owners, was naturally biased in his rulings. In 1974, after Cardinals’ outfielder Curt Flood brought the issue of the reserve clause’s inherent unfairness to the forefront, Miller encouraged pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to refrain from signing a contract for the following year and instead enter arbitration. Peter Seitz, the arbiter, ruled that the players had no legal ties to remain with their clubs and were free to pursue other offers. The reserve clause had effectively been abolished and the era of free agency had begun. During Marvin’s tenure, which stretched from 1966-1982, the average player’s salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000. His work signified a colossal shift in the balance of power between athlete and owner, an impact enjoyed every time a player signs on the dotted line to this day.
9) George Steinbrenner– Before there was Jerry Jones, before there was Mark Cuban, there was George Steinbrenner. Loud, irreverent, controversial, and hyper-controlling (changing managers 20 times in his first 23 years as Yankees owner), George Steinbrenner was the archetype for the larger-than-life sports owner. Buying the Yankees for a measly $8.7 million in 1973, he turned them into a $1.6 billion franchise, the gold standard for sporting excellence the world over. Today, ballplayers earn more than the GDP of small countries, and perhaps no man is more responsible than the Boss. With it came unprecedented market inequality, as the Yankees payroll grew to such exorbitant levels that it literally sextupled that of the smallest market teams. Contracts are now bloated to the point of absurdity (see: Werth, Jason and Rodriguez, Alex) as owners from around the league struggle to keep up with the Evil Empire.
10) Bud Selig– Sadly, when all is said and done, Bud Selig will go down first and foremost as the man that presided over the Steroid Era, baseball’s black eye. However, to pin him solely as “The Steroid Commissioner” is to overlook the vast amount of good Selig was actually able to accomplish for the sport. Assuming the role of acting commissioner in 1992, the former Milwaukee Brewers owner’s first act was to realign the divisions and institute a wild card, expanding the postseason roster to eight teams. Achieving permanent status in 1998, Selig would go on to make a series of other important changes, including the introduction of revenue sharing and interleague play, the expansion of instant replay, and the creation of the World Baseball Classic. He also presided over a 400% explosion in league revenue and brought baseball to both Arizona and Tampa Bay. Time will tell just how favorably future generations look upon his legacy, but one thing is for certain: Uncle Bud left baseball in a vastly different place from how he found it.