Friday, October 19, 2012

The Problem of Salaries

In major league baseball today, fans of small-market teams worry about the ever growing disparity in the payroll of their team versus the big-market big spenders. While the New Yorks and Bostons of the world address their weaknesses with high priced free agents, the San Diegos and Oaklands must squeeze every penny in their efforts to keep their teams competitive. Though not always the case, big spending means more wins. Interestingly, the Red River Valley League of 1897 faced a similar concern that contributed to its failed season.

The problem of salaries was not lost on the league's organizers. In fact, the league rules specified a $40 per player per month salary limit. Only the captain of each team could earn more. Additionally, the league established a $400 monthly limit on a team's total salaries. The Forum remarked that these measures were necessary to avoid "the experience of the old '87 league." The paper also chastised unnamed teams who had already violated the new salary limits, predicting that if the practice continued, it would "cause the downfall of the league."

Indeed, the salary issue ended up being one of the nails in the coffin of the 1897 league. The Moorhead club, particularly, shares a good deal of blame for overpaying players. Decades later, when W. P. Davies of Grand Forks reflected on the old RRVL, he placed the blame on the Moorhead saloon-keepers who excitedly pumped money into their hometown team. In calling the bar owners the "worst offenders" though, Davies implied that there were other teams breaching the salary limit. Davies explained in one of his later columns that the excitement of having a pennant winner caused enthusiastic local businessmen to pony up extra money "for the honor of the town."  As a result of the free spending, the Moorhead club took an early commanding lead in the standings, which may have caused fans to lose interest in the league. The resulting lack of gate receipts as the summer of 1897 went on impacted other teams' financial stability, particularly the Wahpeton-Breckenridge club. When the W-B club couldn't come up with a solution to its money woes, the team was forced to fold, and the league collapsed with them.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican May 20, 1897, "Baseball"
"That Reminds Me: Today and Yesterday" by W. P. Davies, April 1932 and May 10, 1939.

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