Strikes and Sheer Balls
An afternoon in the old ballyard… The sweet smell of the emerald outfield grass mingling with the mouth-watering aroma of foot-long dogs slathered in mustard and sauerkraut from the friendly vendor hawking his wares in the stands. Down on the field those mighty young men in their crisp whites and greys run and catch and throw like Olympian godlings at play, the pitcher unleashing his fastball like Zeus with a thunderbolt, the hitter responding like Hercules with his club, and as we hear the distinctive crack, like a rifle shot, that one only hears when the ball is destined to leave the park, is there any doubt that heaven exists on earth?
Well, yes, because I live in Atlanta, where a summer afternoon is like being stuck between a Naugahyde couch and a fat man’s ass—hot, sticky, and hard to breathe. I’ve just paid too much money for a nosebleed seat in Turner Field and now I can’t afford a hot dog, some dickhead behind me has just spilled beer down my back because he can’t hold his cup and talk on his cell phone at the same time, and the row in front of me has decided to spend the entire game trying to resurrect the Wave.
Now the Braves had better win this thing in spectacular fashion to make it worth all this and the trip home in the sardine-tin confines of the subway train. I am a baseball fan and thus by definition a romantic fool, but the romance of the game can only go so far before harsh reality kicks in. The dichotomy between the lyric myth of baseball and its mundane realities is nowhere more in evidence than at this moment.
As I write this, it is a week before the strike date set by the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), and by the time this piece appears the strike will either be on or will have been averted by the narrowest of squeaks. In either case, the spectre of the 1994 players’ strike—the longest work stoppage in baseball history and the first year that anything, even war, has cancelled the World Series—looms large over the game, and the ire of the fans is palpable.
On the radio sports-talk programs, on Internet message boards, and around countless water coolers, the rhetoric is of a piece: billionaire owners haggling with millionaire ballplayers over the idea that neither of them makes enough money. Is any player, even a Barry Bonds or an Alex Rodriguez, worth twenty-plus million dollars a year? How can anyone justify paying an average salary of $2.2M to a bunch of guys who should be grateful to be paid at all for playing a kids’ game? Why do they need a union in the first place? Can’t any of them see what this unbridled greed is doing to the fans, nay, to baseball itself?
While the sentiment behind all of this hand-wringing over the national pastime is understandable, it’s also incredibly naive and illustrates just how powerfully baseball’s myth can cloud people’s perceptions, because if the game is in crisis it is not purely the fault of baseball owners and players, but of the fans as well.
If baseball is truly a “kids’ game” then only kids would play it, neighborhood sandlots would be thronged with fans, and middle-aged kibbitzers would form fantasy stickball leagues. If all the fans cared about was seeing the game played, then there would be no empty seats in Montreal and Milwaukee and neither city would be in danger of losing its team.
The truth is that most fans don’t want to see their teams just play, they want to see them win. That demand, and the huge number of consumer dollars the fans will part with depending on how the demand is met, is the reason baseball owners offer extravagant salary packages to top players.
The idea that players, whose careers are usually over by their mid-thirties if they’ve managed to stay healthy that long, should refuse those millions and just be happy to be allowed to play is just flat-out stupid. If it were any other industry, nobody in his right mind would volunteer to spend six months of the year working non-stop in sweltering heat and pouring rain, sustaining potentially career-ending injuries, with no job security, making paltry wages while his employers rake in a fortune from his efforts.
And yet it is the refusal of fans caught up in the myth to realize that, for the players, baseball is a job that helped to foster the conditions which allowed team owners to keep players in a condition of glorified serfdom long after all the other, less glamorous industries had ceded basic worker’s rights to their employees.
For over a hundred years, even the legends of the game were making subpar wages with few benefits—in 1956, Mickey Mantle led the American League in batting average, RBIs, and home runs, but was told by the Yankees he’d be traded if he asked for a raise—at the whims of owners who regarded even the paying of pensions as noblesse oblige, forget such pipe-dreams as revenue sharing or free agency. Given these conditions, the real question is not “Why do players need a union?” but rather “What the hell took so long?”
Historian Charles P. Korr’s The End of Baseball As We Knew It is a fascinating in-depth look at the history of the MLBPA as it brought the players out of the Dark Ages and into the position of professionals with a measure of control over their own careers, laying out the issues at the heart of the strikes of 1972, 1981, and 1994: fair wages, equitable treatment, and most importantly, the right to have a say in their own futures and the future of baseball.
Drawn from a wide range of authoritative sources, including transcripts from arbitration summits and court proceedings and interviws with playes, owners, journalists, and negotiators, Korr’s book recalls the fiery rhetoric, monumental egos, and down-and-dirty fighting that went on at the time and continue to resound today. In fact, Korr makes the case that baseball’s labor disputes are merely chapters in an ongoing struggle over the same issues, and as we watch in 2002 as owners go on TV to plead poverty and lament the way in which skyrocketing player salaries are ruining baseball—as if the owners have nothing to do with offering those contracts—Korr’s case is a good one.
The focus of the book is the period between 1966 and 1981, the years in which baseball underwent its most sweeping and dramatic changes, hence the book’s title. Prior to ‘66 the structure of labor relations in baseball resembled nothing so much as medieval feudalism, its teams fiefdoms ruled by the owners through a standard reserve clause which bound a player exclusively to a team unless he was traded. Thus if you were, say, a decent center fielder with speed on the basepaths and some power in your wheelhouse, good for you, unless you happened to be on a team with a couple of other center fielders with higher averages. Then you got to sit on your hands while your skills atrophied and your career floundered. Moreover, the lack of an open market or salary arbitration for players meant that for six months you drew whatever the owner decided you were worth, and though you were forbidden to discuss salaries with other players, you knew it wasn’t enough.
No wonder that so many of the Boys of Summer sold cars and aluminum siding in the off-season.
Meanwhile the owners raked in the lion’s share of revenues, often relocating the teams (as with the Dodgers and the Giants) with impunity when it became profitable to do so, and protected from regulation by a 1922 Congressional declaration that baseball was not a business, no matter how much money changed hands.
The players’ association existed before 1966 but had all the power to effect change of a suggestion box. Their executive director, Judge Robert Cannon, refused to engage in confrontation with the owners, trusting in them to take care of “their boys.” Fed up with Cannon’s appeasement policy, a handful of player reps enlisted Marvin Miller, a labor organizer who had spearheaded battles for the steelworkers’ union, to represent the players. Korr’s book is primarily the story of Miller’s tempestuous tenure as executive director and his successful drive to unite the players into a single voice for change. Wildly criticized by the owners and the press as a rabble-rouser and a Svengali who coerced otherwise happy ballplayers into betraying the sport, Miller was in fact a facilitator who saw his job as a very simple one: apprise the players of the full extent to which they were being screwed and let their natural instincts for competition and teamwork do the rest.
To this end the owners provided a wealth of ammunition, asserting in both private meetings and for the public record that they alone knew what was best for the players and the game and that they had no intention of considering the wishes of a few malcontents. For the players such patronizing dismissals, when coupled with their own considerable grievances and brought home by such punctuating events as Cardinals star Curt Flood’s career-ending lawsuit to block his trade to the Phillies, were enough to galvanize them into a united front willing to shut down the game, if necessary, to win the rights to collective bargaining, the end of the reserve clause, salary arbitration, and finally free agency.
It is clear that Korr’s reporting is heavily slanted toward the players’ side and he often paints a disturbing picture of the owners as mustachio-twirling villains, but it is hard to ignore the sheer volume of foot-in-mouth statements by baseball management figures that are part of the public record, perhaps the most damning of which was a 1966 series of articles in Sports Illustrated by Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi in which he proudly related the duplicitous tactics he routinely used to keep player salaries down, including phony contracts that showed other players making far less than they actually were, and asserted that allowing superstar pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to negotiate through an agent was the beginning of the end of baseball.
What baffles Korr throughout his book is the unwavering attitude among the owners—at least the owners on record—that despite their significant gains the players’ association would fall apart if the owners simply continued to hang tough. This recalcitrance proved a source of frustration to the owners’ chief negotiator John Gaherin, who took the union seriously and repeatedly warned his bosses to do the same. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to ascertain that, once the labor dispute coalesced into an our-team-versus-their-team situation, professional athletes would have a better handle on teamwork.
For all the sturm und drang of the baseball strikes of ‘72, ‘81, and ‘94, Korr’s book makes it plainly evident that the issues were less about money than about management’s history of preferring a pissing contest to negotiation.
So there you have it, sports fans: it’s 2002 and we’re staring down the barrel of yet another baseball strike, but this one has an interesting difference. This time instead of fighting the system, it’s the players who have the thankless job of maintaining the status quo against the owners’ attempt to once again shake up the game. A simplistic explanation, perhaps, but no more simplistic than the widespread illusion among the fans that this is nothing more than the rich seeking to get richer.
It’s all about leveling the playing field, the right of the employees to partake of the fruits of the free market as much as the employers do, fairness, equity, and dignity. In short, America’s game living up to the American ideal. For a mundane reality, I’d say that’s romantic as hell.