November 21, 2002, Episode Twenty-Six: Behind the Carl: A Birthday Celebration
Traditions of celebrating the day when a person was born date back thousands of years and are tied up with beliefs about the spirit world and the effects of the stars upon our lives. In contemporary times, there is great variation in the ways in which birthdays are honoured. North American children endure spankings equaling the number of years they have lived plus one more "to grow on." Children in Argentina receive pulls on their earlobes, one for each year. A traditional Irish birthday includes "birthday bumps" - a practice in which the child is held upside and their head is gently bumped on the floor - again one for each year with an extra bump for "good luck." Today, November 21st, is Carl's birthday and I've put together a special show celebrating his day. Okay, I'll admit that I thought about spanking him, pulling his earlobes or bumping his head gently on the ground 37 times for yours and my entertainment, and, of course, cultural edification. However, I weighed the practical problems of attempting such feats along with the fact that these things would be more fun to watch than to listen to and decided that to celebrate his birthday by rerunning two of my favourite segments by him.
E-Bay was going to be America's Garage Sale. Cyberspace was the new frontier of the weekly consumer ritual. But E-Bay has grown into a complex market with much higher stakes than the front yard and it has developed a culture of its own. This culture is becoming increasingly suspicious and hostile as more players figure out ways to break the trust needed to make such a market work. We examine the place of social trust in commerce and how the breakdown of trust means the breakdown of commerce.
When baseball fans discuss baseball they use statistical records, RBIs (runs batted in), ERAs (earned run averages), on-base percentages, number of homeruns in a season and so forth. These numbers lead to the assertion that one player is worthy of more attention than another because they are compared over time to other players. But can the numbers from players in the nineteenth century really be compared to players in the twentieth century? At what point can one say that "modern baseball" began? Some say at the turn of the century. Some historians say 1871, 1876, 1901, or 1920. Carl makes a case for the late 1940s when the colour line of baseball was broken when Jackie Robinson became the first recognised African American in the previously white leagues.
[TO E-BAY OR NOT TO E-BAY BY CARL WILKERSON]
After I finished my MBA at the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University, I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to take a hobby of mine and put it together with my business knowledge. I had a computer. I had research capabilities. I built an on-line business. I had a product: The business was one in sports collectibles. My desire to do this coincided with the rise of on-line auctions. Touted by its originators as America’s garage sale, Ebay was fast becoming the predominant online secondary source for collectibles and seemed like a good place for me to tap into my target market. Like many other vendors, I found that I could sell my stuff on Ebay and advertise my website at the same time. At first, it seemed efficient and powerful. I was intrigued.
What I didn’t realize when I started was how much I could learn about markets and economies from this experience. Ebay made for a nice post-graduate laboratory to understand the social contexts of markets.
Ebay is a great example of increasing returns, the concept of “increasing returns” being one I credit to polymath Brian Arthur, whose considerable accomplishments can be found on his bio page at the Santa Fe Institute website. It has become THE place for online exchange. The more people who come to Ebay to buy and sell, the more appealing buying and selling becomes on Ebay. You can put stuff on other auction sites or classified ad sites, but because the traffic is so much less than Ebay, you have the feeling you aren’t reaching enough people. So you are encouraged to use Ebay because that’s where all the people come. But all the people are coming because that’s where all the items are listed. Thus, Ebay’s position becomes increasingly stronger. The more it does, the bigger it gets, the more solid its position becomes. You call it circular reasoning or groupthink, Arthur would call it “increasing returns.”
If traditional economics were correct, there would be competitors to Ebay who would begin to take away part of the market, particularly if their products were comparable to or better than ebay’s. There are plenty of disgruntled customers. Websites whose primary purpose is to facilitate complaining about Ebay exist with many contributors posting their horror stories. But Ebay hasn’t experienced diminishing returns. This is, in part, because of Ebay’s dual role in the world of e-commerce.
In a sense Ebay is the provider of a marketplace. It is not a “market maker” in the sense in which that term is used on Wall Street but the creator and overseer of the physical and procedural aspects of a marketplace. For a market to function, it must have the capacity for buyers and sellers to discuss terms, if only for the necessary mutual agreement to a set of terms to be expressed. Storefronts in downtown areas are markets. Flea markets have booths where sellers show their goods and buyers inspect them and sometimes make offers. The organization called the New York Stock Exchange has a geographic aspect, namely the location in Manhattan where producers of financial instruments to buyers represented by stockbrokers. When we talk about a “market” in the sense of a venue for commerce as opposed to the sense reflective of the actions of the participants within that venue, we mean first and foremost, a place. It can be a place in the physical world, or it can be a constructed or intellectual space. So one of the players in the economy is the provider of the place, as is the landlord, the real estate broker, the stock exchange owner, the auction house, or the flea market manager who uses that place for its intended purpose. Ebay is a market, in the sense that it is a marketplace. A number of small businesses have grown to fruition through using Ebay.
But Ebay is a player in the world of e-commerce. With its forms and hidden fees and so forth, it often acts as the umpire who both officiates the game and participates in it as a player. Ebay isn’t an impartial provider of a place. It is more akin to a casino manager. At Ebay, the house always wins. If something sells, Ebay gets a percentage. If something doesn’t sell, Ebay charges rent for the space. Like many stockbrokers, ebay doesn’t especially care how well its clients make out in the course of using their facilities. Whether “profit” of any sort is realized by buyer or seller, the transaction fees have to be paid.
This dual role leads to role conflict. Ebay has been an easy target for corruption. Because of its fee structure, Ebay is motivated to get as many players into the mix as possible, because the more listings, the more money Ebay makes. Ebay has had a poor track record of keeping con artists out of the market. Because buyers and sellers need to trust each other in order to make the system of exchange work, any corruption in the system undermines all of the transactions in the system. Ebay makes money whether or not a “sale” resulting from one of its auctions can be completed in practice, so Ebay has little motivation to ensure that any particular transaction is successful. Thus, horror stories of rip-offs are plentiful.
I began to have problems with delinquent clients soon enough, and I learned quickly that law has not caught up with the realities of online commerce. I sent money to a seller who said he was in Texas but turned out to have moved to New York. He never sent me the item I purchased. I found out later by posting to several related Internet forums that he had done this to more than one other person. Texas begged off on jurisdiction because the guy only said he was in Texas. Florida (where I lived at the time) and New York (where the seller had moved at some point) said that it was California’s problem (California being where Ebay was based). As for the federal government investigating the matter of using the U.S. Mail to defraud, they were apparently too busy with other projects to be bothered. The transaction was too small to merit my retaining compensated legal representation, let alone travelling to California to go to small claims court. Ebay was not helpful either. I basically had no choice except to call it a loss and let it go.
My only alternative was to give the guy a bad rating on Ebay’s feedback system, which I will discuss in detail in a moment, and to warn people in the Sports Collectibles world about him. But by the time I was able to do that, he was long gone with my money and several other people’s money as well. The con game had ended and the warnings were too late.
Ebay has a formal system available to allow buyers to provide useful feedback regarding service and product for other buyers to read. The rating system is one of the best features about Ebay, and it speaks of the market place being a social system. Buyers and sellers not only conduct transactions with each other, they pay attention to what other people say about their counterparts in the transactions. We ask for recommendations in all of our transactions and sometimes are willing to pay a higher price for someone who comes highly recommended or are willing to forego the lowest price because of the reputation of someone as being a bad risk.
In addition, there are forums, bulletin boards, for people to discuss their problems with Ebay (though little evidence exists that Ebay actually pays attention to these problems) or their problems with specific vendors or buyers. Within different genres of product, online communities grow and develop social relationships that contextualize the market. This happens in the “real” world as well. People are “regulars” and spend time at stores and restaurants to the point that they become part of the experience of that particular market.
Eventually, however, I grew tired of online commerce and began to grow weary of the problems I encountered. I found myself bogged down in details I never anticipated as being part of the process. I love the commercial for a courier company that shows a toy football popping out of a fax machine after someone has purchased it online. The point of the commercial was that once the transaction took place, shipping had to be part of the equation. Shipping has not caught up in technological efficiency, as distinct from the administrative kind, to online commerce. It took longer and was more detailed-oriented than I liked. I envisioned spending time with a hobby I enjoyed and talking with customers who cared about the same features of the hobby that I did. Instead, entirely too much of my time was spent trying to find the best cardboard box in which to ship my oddly-shaped merchandise and beating the virtual bushes for the best available shipping deal given that I was too small a player to get the courier companies’ full attention. I also had to think about how many items I was willing to keep on hand. Similar activities rounded out the lion’s share of the everyday experience of running the business, and I suspected throughout that my education had prepared me for better things.
I grew tired of the Ebay culture. The spoilers were successful far too often in tainting the whole experience. I grew weary of trying to figure out who wasn’t trustworthy and in what way they weren’t and whether they had come up with any new ways to ruin my enterprise since the previous day. When I wasn’t successful in anticipating the swindlers, it took a disproportionate amount of time to straighten things out. It simply didn’t constitute a worthwhile venture for an adult.
Perhaps the last straw was that the word “money” defied its conventional definition within this context. Ebay was coming up with systems of escrow and prepayment that addressed part of the unsavory matters at hand but added bureaucratic complexity. Lots of vendors were “credit card only” vendors to whom checks and money orders were not acceptable. After a while, I was becoming convinced that money wasn’t liquid any more. Also, I was dealing in such small amounts that I actually had people send cash through the mail to me, which made me nervous. I knew it was just a matter of time before someone said they had sent cash when they had not and I would have no way to prove they had not.
The culture of Ebay was evolving into a hostile and distrustful culture and I wasn’t having any fun at all.
The prisoner’s dilemma in game theory seemed pertinent. Two guys are arrested for committing a crime. The police do not have any real evidence that they have the right guys, so they need one of them to confess and turn in the other guy. They are put in separate rooms and asked about the crime. They are told that if one of them confesses he will be given a light sentence for his testimony and the other one will be put away for a long time. Of course, if both of them confess, then they will both go to prison since neither confession will be needed to convict the other (both having admitted to the crime). If neither confesses, then they will both go free. It is simple to set up the situation so that it is in each prisoner’s individual interest to inform on the other, and the example serves in textbooks in several subjects to illustrate how individuals each of whom acts out of self-interest can combine to create a situation less advantageous to the result that would have ensued had cooperation were allowed.
Ebay is a place that could work if everyone worked to the good of the market, but the advantages that accrued to spoilers were and are too great for many ebay users to resist. Thus, acting only in one’s best interest is not enough for optimization of global gain. The only hindrance to someone taking advantage of such a system comes when a general understanding of the mutual profit of keeping the system intact is matched by action that systematizes that mutuality. Everyone, absolutely everyone, ends up losing in the end if the whole system breaks down. It is true that game theory allows for a certain number of predators being sustained within a population, but this is a tendency that arises only to the extent that the cost/benefit tradeoffs permit it to do so. It is also true that it is not the successful parasite which kills its host or which simply annoys its host so much that its host takes it between two fingers and flicks it a considerable distance away. No matter how well I understood the potential for gain within ebay under the rational actor model, I could no longer afford the luxury of caring about it unilaterally. I dissolved the Florida corporation I had formed to the end of selling sports collectibles in the middle of the year 2000.
copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002
[THE DAWN OF MODERN BASEBALL BY CARL WILKERSON]
I perceive that major league baseball began in the late-1940's, not in 1871, 1876, 1901, 1920, or any of the other dates commonly cited by so-called baseball historians. I support this claim by noting that the top Caucasian professional baseball leagues that existed before the color line began to go down in the 1940's cannot reasonably be called major league baseball.
My defense will not be reliant upon the social utility of drawing the line as a way to get even with bigots, although I personally find such reciprocity not without appeal. It is rather an internal attack on the "major league baseball" of those prewar years, dismantling the notion that the games and pennant races could have been legitimate in and of themselves in the context of the race issue.
My initial motivation for such specificity in setting a single date on the dawn of major league baseball was the perceptible lack of agreement as to how long the top North American professional leagues have been playing essentially the same game they do now. Television announcers regularly report on a player having broken one "modern" record or another, with closer inspection revealing that the date of transition used in the particular case may correspond to, tautologically, nothing other than the last time another player was more successful in the given category. Examination of the more perceptible discontinuities in major league play since the first professional team was formed in 1869 is instructive in other respects. The central precepts of team sport were violated in the days of the color line to an extent that severely contextualizes, and perhaps entirely invalidates, American League and National League standings and statistics before that time and the violations stem with logical inevitability from the ban itself.
It is imperative to the integrity of an event that is competitive and presented as such that all sides attempt, as a matter of good faith, to win. Otherwise, what transpires is not a contest but an exhibition at best, a farce at worst. The 1919 Black Sox scandal was not about the Chicago players intentionally playing poorly as much as it was about their intentionally playing less well than usual. The point of law, as it were, had to address the latter act, else any player who threw a game could counterargue that he hadn't done anything to hurt his team, he had only declined to help it as much as usual on that particular day. This rhetorical ploy was known by early-20th century baseball fans and adminstrators to be used by would-be game fixers in approaching players thought to be potentially helpful. The popular term for intentional underperforming was "laying down," implying a more passive (and less detectable) variety of subversion than flagrant misplay.
The ban on blacks playing in the American and National Leagues created a conflict of interest in players that discouraged them from full display of their talents. As in Las Vegas, where every successful new strategy employed by gamblers is made illegal upon discovery by the casinos and the biggest individual winners are rewarded with an "informal" request to leave Nevada and never return, the professional baseball players of the day were subject to attack on the race issue if they became too good at what they did. Babe Ruth himself was suspected of being a "secret Negro," a claim which he felt compelled to deny frequently throughout his career. His denials may have been rooted in whatever racism he harbored personally, but the prospect of his being removed from his profession, however slim the probability, must have motivated him as well. Did it perhaps motivate him, and others with a little extra ability to burn, to keep a lower profile on the field? It cannot have encouraged better play on his part.
Less prominent players also had to be concerned with passing the "race test." For example, teams wanting to use Cuban players had to establish that the players in question were "true Cubans," that is, as opposed to black ones. Some of the players so examined passed the test and some failed.
Player abilities are largely developed by the individual player. A young person begins to hone baseball skills at an early age. The young person spends certain amounts of time and energy on batting, throwing, running, and other skills. Development is largely a function of this allocation. Later, when coaches and managers become involved, it is still the young person who has to execute, and the physical and mental processes that accompany every action of the eventually-mature player can still be said to spring from the player's own past and present regimen to a great extent. The color line could not have been reasonably ignored by a prospective professional ballplayer. Players had to allocate a certain amount of their stamina and intellect to beating the ban continuously, evading it every moment of their pre-professional and professional lives. Certain players did not have to worry as much as others about it, which only added to the inequities it caused. And, as with Ruth, those who survived the entrance exam still had to worry, at least in theory, about becoming good enough at the game to draw negative attention and possible witch hunts, with the resulting absurdity that it was possible for a player to be "too good" in what was supposed to have been a competition. Taking practical steps to prepare for race scrutiny, or at least the player's anticipation of its becoming a nontrivial influence on his career, necessarily compromised player training effectiveness and performance in league games. The resulting contests were not entirely about who played baseball the best.
As the ban was an informal one, never appearing as black-letter law in any official American League and/or National League documents, the individual teams were technically at liberty to field black players from the beginning of the 20th century (and before). That they did not attempt to do so, preferring to participate in the unspoken moratorium, violated the principle of competition as well. Some cooperative elements, inevitably, must exist for league games to be held. But blanket immunity for collaboration cannot be granted in an environment in which competition drives the validity of the enterprise to such an extent. It is difficult to blame the successful teams for preferring the status quo; it is easy to blame the perennial losers for not hiring all of the black ball stars they could and going to any extreme to see to it that none of their opponents got too rambunctious with the new talent. The Athletics of the late-1910's, the Red Sox of the 1920's, and the Phillies of the 1930's would unquestionably have benefitted from having had Rube Foster, Martin Dihigo, and Ray Dandridge respectively. Preferring to take the easy route, these teams effectively threw season after season in the same way the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. They couldn't be bothered to try.
Is there anyone who can explain why watching a game in which one team is losing on purpose is worthwhile? I am not referring to situations such as the insertion of the mop-up reliever in baseball or the third-string quarterback at the end of a football game. Those situations are marked by the presence of two mitigating factors: the teams are cutting their losses so that they have a better chance of winning future games, and the personnel on the field, given their identities, are still trying to win the game if possible. No conflicts of interest exist. Even conceding for the sake of argument that the athletes in the American and National Leagues were in general superior to the black ball mainstays in prewar times (a "concession" that one might well prefer to describe as "falsehood"), the former were compromised in their ability to pursue the goal of winning to a perceptible extent by the side effects of the color line. Teams that abdicate the goal of winning in favor of deliberate suboptimality are not teams. They reduce to triviality the completion of the "games" in which they engage, games which are the only evidence their league has to offer of its legitimacy and worth. A thrown game is no game, and the games played by the American and National Leagues during the days of professional baseball apartheid were thrown games in the strictest sense of the term.
The prewar pennant races took place in the shadow of conditions that were measurably more racist in certain major league cities than in others. St. Louis and Boston, for example, were often cited as worse towns than most for blacks. To claim that the racism, and regional fluctuations therein, were irrelevant since there were no black players in the majors at that time is like saying that racism is not a problem in all-white neighborhoods. For example, Forsyth County, Georgia, became noteworthy in the early-1990's for not having had a black resident in several decades. Closer examination suggested that the absence was a result of conditions so inimical to blacks that none had remained in the county long enough to have been rightly called residents. It was the social condition in question that had caused and maintained the demography.
The concept of the level playing field is not strictly enforced in baseball, with franchises building their teams around their parks and, on occasion, their parks around their teams. However, there are, and must be, some restrictions on home team advantage. Minimally, killing off or maiming for life opposing players is, and must be, implicitly forbidden. Such an observation may seem ridiculous now, unless you have lost a relative to a lynching, and there are quite a few people alive who have. It has been nearly fifty years now since Brown vs. Board of Education was first addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court. A lot of people who were around then are around now, or at least their first two or three generations of descendants are. Or they should be.
It would be petty to assess the historical effect of regional pockets of racism solely in terms of how they have influenced baseball games. That is not to say that one cannot, conversely, assess the games in terms of how they have influenced by regional pockets of racism. Why should the manager of the Chicago Cubs, for example, have to cave in to those who would maintain a hostile environment in St. Louis by leaving any of his players home when playing road games against the Cardinals? If I had been managing the Cubs in 1935, I would not have left Gabby Hartnett home for a road game against the Cardinals. Had I been managing the Cubs in 1998, I would not have left Sammy Sosa home for such a game. The implications for fair play of having to leave any number of players home for road games are obvious. Racism did have a casualty count, and the pervasiveness of its more violent aspects was such that not even a baseball game could take place in certain parts of the country without being influenced by it.
One hears often that history is written by the winners. Examined more narrowly, history is written by those who are still around to write it today. It follows that any version of history which a given group promulgates at the expense of other groups' ability to compile, not to mention circulate, other versions, must be looked upon as suspect.
It is not petty to mourn the effect of genocide on discourse. Eliminating persons with knowledge of a culture has been a historically effective way of curtailing the presence and influence of that culture in general discourse. As the individuals who sustain the culture are dispatched, the culture itself naturally succumbs to attrition. Is there a black American, Canadian, Mexican, Cuban, Honduran, Salvadorian, Belizian, . . . , or Falkland Islander alive who will maintain that the exclusion of "colored men" from the American and National (and, indeed, Federal) Leagues between 1884 and 1947 had no measurable effect on the game as played by these leagues? To claim that "the damage is done [and cannot be undone]" and that it is best to "let bygones be bygones" is to accept and reinforce the aims of the initiators of the "color line." If one dismisses the loss incurred by the game (never mind the persons thus excluded) as not worth examining, one is guilty of upholding the "color line" oneself in the sense that the "color line" was a line of propaganda that was sustained by passive as well as active destruction of opposition and evidence that might serve opposition. So far from having no choice but to accept what transpired under such twisted circumstances as valid, one has no choice but to throw out the results. This practical and theoretical imperative is binding for scientific reasons as well: "reality control" encompasses diddling with the conditions before the testing has begun as well as throwing out subsequent results that one does not like.
Without taking the statement to be true in the extreme, I note that history is consensual. Some range of popular assent would be a necessity in redrawing the line initiating modern major league baseball history if it were to be put into practice. To maintain that the "color line" was not of sufficient import to merit selecting 1946 or 1947 as when modern major league history began is to take on the counterarguments of quite a few black Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Cubans, Hondurans, Salvadorians, Belizians, . . . , and Falkland Islanders in addition to taking on the responsibility of coming up with a more logical year for candidacy. Are you so worried about Babe Ruth being stripped of some of his statistical legitimation that you never even think to extend the same amount of concern to Josh Gibson?
Did YOUR parents have to use the side or rear door to the stores in their home town? (The doors are still there in the rural south, by the way, their isolated and architecturally-inefficient presence along otherwise-featureless long brick walls a tangible and measurable reminder of exactly how willful the segregationists were about ensuring their ideals.)
Did YOU have an older sister with a gift for numbers who nonetheless received little or no math education while not-too-bright kids went to "public schools" that were better-funded than your siblings' by several orders of magnitude? (We won't even talk about the so-called "literacy" tests that were administered in the United States to blacks but not to whites to prevent the former group from voting.)
If you really think that Jackie Robinson was an inadequate augur of the world to come, don't convince me, convince a black woman or man, or better still, convince someone who wasn't "really" black but who got pigeonholed as such early on and never escaped the label. Because until you do, you will never, ever get the "consensus" necessary to establish any other time as historically more significant. And, if brushing them off in the hope that they will ultimately grow weary of arguing and go away is your preference, I remind you that it was the failure of this approach that allowed the color line to go down in the first place.
It may seem hard-headed of me not to believe the pre-1946 American League and National League to have been "major league baseball." With Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, et. al. spending their careers playing in one or both of the two leagues, one might ask how I could not regard them as having been "major league"? My response is that, on the contrary, I didn't regard them as having been "baseball." "Race" is a term that is often used, not without cause, synonymously with "assigned social role."
Assignment of a given player to the "white" group or the "black" group was ultimately at the discretion of the commissioner's office, which was the authority of last resort on such matters during Kenesaw Mountain Landis's term in office. The assignment of status was even made explicitly by Landis in some cases, with a given organization trying to classify a player as "white" but being thwarted. This operationalization of "whiteness" was such that once it was in place, "competition" among the teams in the white leagues could not possibly have retained integrity. This was in part because a team wasn't truly at liberty to improve itself under such a system. An upwardly-mobile team could not freely scout, recruit, acquire, develop, or trade for players under such a system, since their fortunes might ultimately hinge on whether Landis's temperament would favor them in a particular case. With such a spectre at the end of the tunnel, teams gave up on certain players "just to be on the safe side," with some of the players being dismissed before they had had a chance to play for the organization at all.
Even more of a conundrum, given the simple-minded taxonomy employed by the baseball establishment, must have been the issue of how to deal with Cubans and Polynesians and native Americans and Arabs and Mexicans of heterogeneous ancestry and so forth. The ban on "blacks" presupposed that race was univariate, dichotomous, and discrete. With such tepid assumptions as the foundation of their conceptual model, the racists made it impossible for Landis or anyone else to be "fair" within the context of its application, there being no logically consequent standard against which "fairness" could have been judged. I expect the racists would have said that they "just knew" who was white and who was black, a statement whose articulation would only have supported my case.
copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002
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