From the archive: Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

Editor’s note: I’m pleased to introduce a new Friday column here, “From the archive.” I recently re-upped my subscription to newspapers.com, a paid archive service. I’m the kind of person who can kill several hours combing through old newspapers. (Seriously, it’s fun for me.) As a writer, I’m also always in search of information beyond what’s quickly available on the web.

I both enjoy and value newspapers.com as its database goes back as far as the 1700s, with a range of big-name and defunct papers, both from big cities and rural areas. It’s great for re-discovering forgotten stories or players.

I’ll aim each week to highlight at least one interesting piece that I come across. Please feel free to email research suggestions to thewomack@gmail.com.

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Found on Newspapers.com

Why this story sticks out: Television revenues have revolutionized baseball, and sports in general, transforming a modestly-profitable enterprise into a multi-billion dollar industry. Many teams have aligned themselves with cable networks with great success, teams like the New York Yankees whose relationship with the YES Network is a major reason the franchise is valued at $2.5 billion today. It’s also forced many fans to purchase cable packages to see games.

It makes the story above seem quaint, humorous even. But, in 1964, the Yankees selling for $11.2 million (about $86 million in 2014 dollars) in a hastily-brokered deal to the Columbia Broadcasting System created no small amount of controversy. It  stirred renewed questions about baseball’s informal exemption from anti-trust laws and irked a number of baseball owners from the era.

“Those big companies can lose a half-million dollars in baseball without feeling it,” former Yankees co-owner Larry MacPhail said in the story, an Associated Press piece that ran August 16, 1964 in the Kansas City Star and elsewhere. “It’s unfair to other owners.”

CBS for its part denied anything untoward, saying in a statement quoted in the article, “Pay television was in no way a motivating consideration in our decision to invest in the New York Yankees.”

Given all the that changes paid television has wrought in baseball since 1964, I’ll call a rat on that quote. I think this sale foretold a lot to come over the next 50 years.

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UPDATE: Longtime reader Vinnie, who grew up a Yankee fan emailed me shortly after I published this post. With Vinnie’s permission, I’m sharing his email:

As best I recall, the purchase did nothing to effect the free broadcast of the Yankee games on, I believe, WOR in NYC and on the station I picked up the weekend and holiday feeds from. If anything, the purchase instead of putting new life into the team, signaled the end of the dynasty and almost a distant, hands off, benign neglect by general partner mike burke that insured mediocrity until the boss bought the team from them.
To begin with, CBS had no business owning a team. They had no idea how the business worked and no idea of any kind of a business plan or model to follow. The great Yankees had either retired, grown old and suffered injuries, and were reduced to hollow shells. (See Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone) The farm system with the exception of a Roy White, a Bobby Murcer, was supplying such as Roger Repoz, Jerry Kenney, Jake Gibbs, Steve Whitaker, and yes; even Bobby Cox. Trades brought in Bill Robinson and Charlie Smith. The draft had cut off their ability to sign the best young talent and left them a shambles, with no direction and no one who had any knowledge of baseball running the team.
There was no special tv deals and I don’t think that even crossed anyone’s mind. If there was a plan for pay tv, with the product on the field, no one would have watched and no sponsors would have bought air time.

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