IF WASHINGTON (or Virginia) gets a new baseball team, its owners will have to come up with $95 million just to join the exclusive club of big-league owners. That's about $20 million more than any franchise, old or new, has ever cost before. And it will only get them in the front door. They'll need another $40 million or so if they want to field a team.
But maybe the two groups vying for a franchise here will get lucky before it's too late: The National League could turn down both of them and give the dubious honor to one of the other contending cities.
A couple of years from now, a big-league franchise may be a good deal. Every team for decades has been sold for more than it cost originally -- usually for much more. But buying a team right now may be an expensive honor. A glance at major-league attendance records and today's worrisome headlines will show why.
Perhaps nothing in American life -- the stock market, election returns, women's hemlines, popular music, tree rings, sunspots -- reflects the ups and downs of the American psyche as faithfully as does baseball. In sunny days of peace and prosperity, Americans flock to the ball parks. But in gloomy days of war or recession, the parks are quiet, with so many empty seats it's hard even to get up a decent seventh-inning stretch.
Let's look at the chart. In the early decades of this century, teams played in the afternoon in cities with a fraction of today's megapolitan populations. They were happy to average 3,000 to 5,000 fans a game.
When World War I hit, attendance plummeted sharply to less than 3,000. But as soon as the guns fell silent in France, fans charged back into the parks in record-breaking numbers. Average attendance in 1920 shot up past 7,000, more than double the wartime low.
Historians have usually attributed the turnaround to the excitement of Babe Ruth and his home runs. But it is more likely that the Babe simply came along at a lucky moment in history and that his homers were a coincidence of -- not a cause of -- the game's soaring attendance. In 1927, the year he hit 60 home runs, American League attendance actually went down by about 300 fans a game.
The game stayed on its halcyon postwar plateau for most of the Roaring Twenties, until the Great Depression hit home on Black Tuesday in 1929. Attendance went into a free fall, from 8,000 to 5,000, hitting bottom in 1933 along with the rest of the country.
Fan interest was slowly building back up to 8,000 when World War II struck. Even Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams's .406 average and the hot Dodgers-Cardinals race in the National League couldn't keep the seats respectably filled in 1941. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and fans began marching off to war, attendance really plunged, all the way to 6,000 in 1943.
But as soon as Japan and Germany were defeated in 1945, the fans rushed back into the ball parks. With Bill Veeck of Cleveland merrily leading the way, and lights for night baseball twinkling on in city after city, average attendance shot through the roof -- 9,000 in 1945, almost 15,000 in 1946 and a then-record 17,000 in 1948.
As the Cold War set in, attendance began to slide again. In 1950 the Korean War broke out and the slide became a plunge -- to less than 13,000 in 1952. But true to form, once the armistice was signed in 1953, the curve reversed itself and attendance climbed to 16,000 fans per game in 1960. It was still short of the 1948 level, perhaps because a new phenomenon, television, was siphoning off fans who would otherwise attend in person.
In the winter of 1960, the first two expansion teams, California and the new Washington franchise, joined the American League. They could not have blundered in at a worse time. For the next three years, attendance plummeted below 13,000. Not even Roger Maris's and Mickey Mantle's 1961 assault on Babe Ruth's home-run record seemed to help.
They were years of endless bad news: racial violence in the South, the Bay of Pigs disaster, John F. Kennedy tangling with steel executives over price increases, Nikita Khrushchev putting a man into space, building the Wall in Berlin, sending missiles to Cuba and threatening to "bury" us. One suspects, of course, that expansion itself may have helped drive average attendance down. The two new clubs boosted total attendance, but they were not a draw on the road, thus hurting the overall average attendance of the league. And 1961 was also the first year of Ted Williams's retirement. "All this league has is me and the Yankees," he once remarked, perhaps prophetically. When the New York Mets and Houston Astros joined the NL in 1962, their timing was much luckier (or their crystal balls much clearer). The slide was arrested and attendance rebounded nicely to over 15,000 in 1966.
Then, beginning in 1967, attendance slumped again despite a furious four-way American League pennant race that went down to the last weekend. Why?
Pundits blamed the late-1960s decline on two causes:
(a) Great pitching. Denny McLain won 31 games, Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and so on. (Actually, there was not enough good pitching. In 1966, Sandy Koufax's last year, one out of every 10 NL fans had gone to see him pitch; his absence had to hurt in 1967.)
(b) Great football. Baseball was too slow, the wise men nodded sagely while ringing their hands helplessly; fans wanted action. The nervous American League tried to provide it with the designated hitter.
But the pundits and the moguls had not been reading their history. It was neither pitching nor football that was hurting baseball attendance. It was Vietnam.
Unaware of what they were getting into, four new teams -- Montreal, San Diego, Seattle and Kansas City -- confidently bought into franchises in 1969. They had to weather the rest of the Vietnam War, the ensuing recession and the trauma of Watergate before they saw their investments begin to pay off.
Owner Bob Short of the Senators couldn't wait. Thinking that his problem was the Washington fans, and not the world outside RFK, he moved to Texas in 1972. There he luckily caught the start of a tidal wave of attendance. As GIs began coming home from the jungles of Southeast Asia and cash registers began jingling again, baseball fans reacted the way they always had: They stampeded back to the major-league parks. Attendance smashed all previous records.
Milwaukee and Toronto showed themselves to be astute -- or simply lucky? -- businessmen. In the winter of 1976 they caught rides on the greatest upward surge in all baseball history, a delerious climb to a new record 18,000 in 1977, then up still higher to a breathtaking 20,500 in '78.
A short down-tick (was it the Carter "malaise"?), ending with the recession and strike of 1981, proved to be only a pause. With the advent of larger stadiums and the free-spending Reagan era, attendance soared right off the chart -- 21,000 in 1982, 22,000 in 1985, 24,000 in 1987, 25,000 in 1988, 26,000 in 1989 and almost 28,000 midway through this year. But watch out for next year. Signs of recession, if not downright depression, are already scaring Wall Street. And what will happen in the Persian Gulf?
If Donald Trump, the S&Ls and Garfinckels can go under, how long can the Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics or Orioles tread water and still pay their new multi-million-dollar player contracts? Can they continue to pay Kirby Puckett, Jose Canseco and Ben McDonald millions of dollars if they no longer draw an average of 27,000 fans for every game and if TV sponsors have to cut back on their advertising budgets? Montreal may be a harbinger: Staggering financially, it is up for sale.
There could be a couple of tough years ahead for baseball owners. It's no time for a rookie to try to break into the club. That $95-million franchise fee will go a long way toward helping the present owners meet their multi-million-dollar payrolls. But it could wipe out an unwary newcomer too eager for the honor of getting into the game at the wrong time.
In the unlikely event that I had $95 million, I think I'd resist the urge to write out a check to NL President Bill White. Instead, I'd sink my cash into some put options on the stock exchange (can you buy puts on baseball teams?) and wait for the American League's expansion round in about 1992 or later.
(The American league owners have apparently peeked at the chart: They're being cagey and waiting to see how the next two infant NL teams will fare before they make any definite plan to expand.)
By 1992, baseball investors may catch the rising side of the next wave. If their timing is right, every passing day will then see the value of their investment go up.
There's another good argument for waiting. Although the addition of National League baseball to the Washington-Baltimore area would hold the greater interest for fans, another American League team might be healthier for business in both cities. Baseball showman Veeck used to say he'd like to put an AL team in Washington, and the first thing he'd do is pick a fight with Baltimore -- get a good snarling rivalry going like the old Dodgers-Giants feud in New York. Maybe Frank Robinson would help by sneering, "Is Washington still in the league?" Then fans from both cities would swarm to each other's parks to cry for the hated rivals' scalps.
Meantime, the privilege of joining the National league right now may turn out to be an empty one. As Abe Lincoln said, quoting the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk."
John Holway lives in Alexandria and writes frequently on baseball topics. His next book, "Josh and Satch," is due out this fall.