How Baseball Players Became Celebrities

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tags: baseball, journalism, celebrity, Babe Ruth, Sports History, Lou Gehrig

Professional sports right now is a covid-19 ghost town. The games have vanished. There are few events to cover and almost nothing to broadcast. Yet, eerily, the industry lives on. Reporters file stories and analysts hold forth even though the stadiums are empty. Athletes are paid even though they are sitting around the house. A chunk of your cable bill is going to Major League Baseball even though there are no major-league baseball games to watch. M.L.B. is selling Mookie Betts Dodgers jerseys and the N.F.L. is selling Tom Brady Buccaneers jerseys even though no one knows when they will ever play for those teams. In Las Vegas, you can get 3–1 odds on the Yankees to win the World Series.

It’s a reminder that the industry is much bigger than the games and, in a sense, only minimally needs them. Sports sells newspapers, television shows, Web sites, as-told-to books, and exercise regimens. Professional athletes make endorsements, get paid for appearances, take parts in movies, license their names to video games, and have their own product lines. The stars at the very top of their sports make more money from these things than they do from competing. And, of course, there’s the gambling. The idea of games in empty arenas is not as far-fetched as it sounds. As long as you have stars and scores, you have an industry. Hot-dog venders and parking-lot attendants will be out of work, but most of the business can go on.

The rise of sports as big business and the handling of athletes as human capital are often dated to 1960, the year Mark McCormack founded the International Management Group, with Arnold Palmer as his first client. McCormack saw that in sports, as in Hollywood, it’s the stars that sell the product, and he turned athletic success and good publicity into dollars. Thanks to television, the number of available dollars for the clients of sports agents mushroomed.

But the possibilities had been glimpsed and the opportunities realized almost forty years earlier, by a man named Christy Walsh. Walsh was born in St. Louis in 1891, and went to college in Los Angeles. He bounced around a little—worked as a sports cartoonist and a ghostwriter—but it was his background in advertising and publicity for automobile companies that prepared him to become the first sports agent in the modern mold. He wasn’t just a promoter or a handler but someone who took charge of an athlete’s complete on-field and off-field package, who controlled the publicity as well as the contracts. He signed his first client in 1921. And that client turned out to be the greatest sports figure of his day, or possibly, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, of any day: Babe Ruth. Ruth didn’t just do what every ballplayer did but better. On the field and off, he was in a class by himself.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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