Skip to Content

National Pasttime



How did things ever get like this?
- Don Corleone, speaking to the heads of the five families

Behind the scenes the new national pastime "baseball bickering" goes on. It will no doubt land wherever it will fall. Gravity has its way of insuring this. Many of the owners will be shaken, but relieved. The players (and their union) will be relieved, but tarnished. And the fans: Ah, they will be bitter, but resigned. Then what of the future? What happens when the current band-aid comes undone. Not just next year, or the year after that. The real question is what will it all look like down the road as baseball hook slides into the next century.

If the past is prologue, strap yourself in for a wild ride. Do not pass Go. Do not even collect the (yearly average) $1.2 Million (salary). The players and owners have seemingly despised each other forever. It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys. All you have to do is be born into the family to be thrust into the feud. It also makes the present time ever so ripe for a transformation: A fundamental and irreversible change in the way we do business around here. The business of the ball game. I can see it now...

Ten Year Plan Announced to Transform Sport into Public Trust
Good News and Bad News to Follow

Look, the good news is that the game will survive. The bad news; Not if we continue to let these bozos have their way with it.

What we have presently is a mixture of fan frustration and anger, player guilt from anger, and internal strife. There exists a fundamental dichotomy. Fans have a hard time relating to ballplayers who strike for the right to make more money when they’re already making more in one year than many fans will make in a lifetime. Forget free enterprise for a moment. Forget limited playing career. The players are players because that’s the choice they made. The values that drove that choice are theirs alone. At the core, however, is that these same players are union men while the owners represent management. Many fans will automatically gravitate toward the union position because that’s where their personal sympathies lie. But oh, where and when have you ever seen a union like this one before. If it seems hard to reconcile - in fact, it is!

In 1869 the first professional (read "openly paid") players were the Cincinnati Red Stockings. They were so successful as a team that other businessmen decided to become "sponsors" of these professional ball clubs as well. You know; They’d put up the dough for the uniforms and travel expenses, arrange the games and the fields, charge admission, collect the gate and pay the players a fee for playing the game. Sure beat working in the mills and the mines for the ball players. Not bad for the sportsmen/entrepreneurs either. Trouble was, after a while the ball players took a good look around and said: we’re not getting enough of the pie, so why don’t we run things ourselves. And so they did. The year was 1871 and it was called the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Although they still had to have financial backers, the deal was that players salaries came first.

It certainly was a radical departure from the amateur associations that had spread from the late 1850s but still, not successful at the bottom line. Poorly conceived, poorly managed and poorly run, this National Association gave way in one of baseball’s early coups to The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. The year was 1876 and the country was celebrating an anniversary. Not necessarily in honor of the occasion one William A. Hulbert convened a group of gentlemen in New York who represented four Eastern cities wishing to "own" the four Eastern Clubs of his new league. Mr. Hulbert, armed with the power of attorney for the four Western Clubs he had created, put the deal to bed. All eight cities met the criteria of having populations of 75,000 or more, and the gentlemen all agreed to play at least 10 games versus each other’s team for a total of 70 the first year. Oh, by the way: Whoever won the most games would win the championship and the prize that went along with it - A flag that was supposed to cost at least a hundred bucks. We know it as The Pennant.

It was a rocky set-up but it worked for a few years. Just a year after they began, though, an outfit called The International Association, their first rival, surfaced. The National League lost some players early when they jumped to the new league, but then out muscled the upstarts and decided in the aftermath that this kind of thing shouldn’t happen again. In 1879 all the owners agreed to hold out their top 5 players who they would then "protect" by putting a clause in their contract saying that they were locked in to that team. No other club could sign them. The players first looked upon this provision as an honor for a select few. That outlook didn’t last long. A few years later the American Association (another upstart) was formed. OK, they said to the National League, you want to play hardball: How’s this?!? We’re going to charge 25¢ admission instead of 50¢, we’ll let the teams sell booze, and we’ll play ball on Sunday. Well, with the exception of the "privileged few" who were bound to their team for life, there wasn’t a whole lot of player loyalty (real or institutional) around in those days. It was precisely that lack of loyalty that allowed this new league to survive. In 1883 the two leagues kissed and made up. Oh yeah; Part of the deal ("The National Agreement") was that now all the players contracts would contain that "reserve" clause binding each player to their respective team - unless traded, sold, or released - unto perpetuity.

Other associations came and went. The National League and American Association were now strong enough to repel all comers. For a while. A lot of the ballists, as they were then known, still weren’t happy. People making lots of money at their expense just didn’t sit right. So, when one of their stars, a young fellow named John Montgomery Ward invited the ball players of both leagues to join his Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in 1885, most of them jumped at the chance. It made sense. After all, this would give them a unified voice, the founder- a star player- was one of their own, and he was a lawyer for good measure. (And today’s owners think they have problems). Monty Ward was a deliberate man and he sought to have his Brotherhood join in a collective bargaining arrangement with the owners, most of whom were riding the crest of the sport’s popularity as well as the backs of its star players into a fine level of riches. The owners, however, wouldn’t budge, the talks broke down, and by 1887 it all seemed hopeless. As relations soured and the Brotherhood lost its status, up from the ashes rose (another) Player’s League of 1890. Their history was short. They won favor, they lost money, and then they lost favor.

The sanctity of the game never safe for a moment, the National League and the American Association went after each other. Family squabble of some sort. The NL survived, kind of thrived, but never did prosper. As with many a corporation in trouble, they took the low road. They reorganized.

We trained hard, but it seemed every time we were beginning to form teams we would be reorganised.

I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet every crisis by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress whilst producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation.

Gaius Petronius Arbiter
Pro-Consul at Bithynia
AD 65

In 1899 the National League announced they would drop their four weakest teams (see: small market clubs) and, to keep costs in line, they placed an upper limit of $2400 on players’ salaries (read: salary cap). Are you beginning to get the picture, bunky? Do you have a whole new sense of the collective unconscious? But wait, there’s more.

A year later in 1900 a fellow, shrewd like Hulbert - a guy by the name of Ban Johnson - rechristens his successful Western League the American League and goes head to head with the Nationals. The "baseball wars" of 1901-1903 culminated with another "National Agreement" which brought the relative stability we have come to associate with baseball through the first half of this century. While all was better, all was never quite good. Along about the beginning of the Great War in Europe, The (new rival) Federal League made a run for the roses. While well financed, it was a two year drifting road show which ended with the usual bad blood and threats of expulsion, then blacklisting for the players that jumped. Certainly didn’t help player relations. The real legacy, however, was that one of the league’s teams had enough left in the demise to offer a parting shot to the Nationals and Americans on their way out the door. They sued the major leagues for monopolistic practices. It took a while but in 1922 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that baseball was indeed a sport and not truly engaged in interstate commerce.

Technology, which drives the game now as it did then, pushed baseball to new heights right through the war years. Radio, (and later TV), coupled with the advent of night baseball and everything was quite fine, thank you. That is, until the WW II era ball players, newly returned and armed now with grievances, took another stab at organizing. This time it was called the American Baseball Guild and it came and went during 1946. Every little bit helps you’re starting to think by now and how true it is. Like all the "begats" of biblical fame, the short lived Guild left us with something to remember it by: a player pension plan. Well, it took about seven years, but the owners came to their senses and said "this dog won’t hunt..." any more. When they tried to abolish the pension plan the players closed ranks and formed the MLPA - Major League Players Association. The union held fast on what they won (a portend of things to come) and then to celebrate they took a long, restful nap - until about 1966. It was then they begat Marvin Miller, a highly skilled labor leader who was given the helm and steered the players toward the ultimate destination - control.

Perhaps the single most defining moment of baseball in this century is Jackie Robinson and the integration of sport; Not the military, not the schools, and not even the luncheonettes could pave the way. It was baseball first. But a generation later when all star player Curt Flood sued to block his trade to another team , the high court rebuked him and reiterated that baseball was indeed a sport and not subjected to the same laws as other corporations and institutions. Oh by the way, the court intoned, if you ever want this to change you must call upon the hallowed halls of Congress.

Flood and his union chief Marvin Miller lost the proverbial battle but later won the real time war. In the wake of the court decision Miller went at it with heart and soul. In 1970 he secured the players’ rights to be represented in salary negotiations with the owners. After a brief work stoppage in 1972, he secured a binding arbitration process in the event of disputes arising over those salaries. Then in 1975 he navigated a couple of pitchers without portfolio named Messersmith and McNally through that same arbitration process with righteous ability. The arbitrator declared the two players, who had performed for one year without a contract, bound to no team and available to the highest bidder. Thus, "Free Agency" was born. Since that time terms like arbitration, compensation, salary cap, strike, and lockout have become synonymous with the owners lack of fiscal control and the players’ greed.

What were once called "national agreements" gave way in terminology to "basic agreements" and they came and went with predictable rhetoric, verbal sparring and sickening regularity. 1975, 1981, 1985, and 1989 all saw the owners try to stem the tide of rising salaries by insisting on a salary cap, tying it in to other demands and then dropping the "cap" in exchange for some concession about free agency, arbitration, or compensation. The chief philosophical legacy left by Marvin Miller and championed by the dual consistency and insistence of his scion, Donald Fehr, has been that you never give back what you have once won. If the owners have a problem it’s their fault, admonishes the union, and come on back when you work it out. The owners, never ones to back away from a fight, decided if we can’t beat ‘em, let’s go around them. They were twice found guilty, however, of colluding to limit player salaries by conspiring to retreat from their annual headlong foray into the free agent market. The conversations may have gone something like this. "Look, if you don’t pay that guy twice what he’s worth I won’t sneak behind you and pay him three times the value. Deal? Yeah, I know we’re making it hand over fist from the TV revenues, but let’s not give it away." Then, just to make sure no outside agitator tried to get in the way "in the best interests of the game" they eliminated the office of an independent commissioner. After all this they still don’t appear to be able to control themselves financially and now the inmates have occupied every tower of the asylum.

The "band-aid" wars that began in the aftermath of the 1973 binding arbitration ruling, and have given us no significant change in the "basic disagreement," now have lit upon their eighth work stoppage in the last 22 years. Seven times before, the negotiators for the owners (there have been many) and the negotiators for the players (there have been but two) have placed a band-aid on a wound so deep that no matter how many resources, monetary or not, head count, worker’s benefits or facility improvement they throw at it won’t help in the long run. They’re putting solutions before needs. They continually attempt to solve the wrong problem. The owners, looking through their "solution tinged" glasses want a limit on the amount of money to be paid to the players. The players don their own shades and say "looks like money in the bank to me" and my answer is "...never give back what you’ve won." Hell, even the Israelis gave something back for ‘chrissakes’ and who would have ever made book on that happening a few short years ago. What each side "needs" is perhaps altogether different. For starters, the owners "needs" include financial stability as well as financial security. Some of the players’ "needs" are right to livelihood and financial security. Seems like neither side can see past their nose on this one and the battle’s been joined at the wrong hip.

At the heart of the matter is trust, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

The values of any organization are driven by its leadership. Those values often go unspoken but somehow make their way into the corporate culture regardless. They are what we refer to as "the way we do things around here." Well, the way things have been done around here in recent years has not gone unnoticed by a key stakeholder in the company: The fan. The virtual erosion of trust between the owners and the players goes back over a century now. The names, and other things, have been changed, but the fight remains the same.

Is there a precedent for any of this you ask. Well, the oldest resolved court case in recorded history was a property dispute in India which lasted well over 900 years before finally being settled in this century. We’re not there yet, but as The Koran reminds us: "If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there."

Is this company ripe for a takeover, hostile or otherwise. Should we expect a new, successful "player’s league" to rise from the ashes of lost faith. I think not. The players’ corporate holdings, their union and legal representation, and all their licensing coffers put together are not nearly deep nor strong enough to stem the tide of similarly failed attempts.

It’s time for a transformation. A fundamental and irreversible change in the way we do business around here. If a lack of trust got us into this, perhaps it is a show of trust that can bring us on out; A "Public Trust."

"When everybody thinks alike, nobody is thinking very much."
-Roger Van Oech

And yet, this is exactly what is happening. The driving force behind the owners’ desires to impose a salary cap and restrict free agency is the same as the one behind the players’ steadfastness to the right to free enterprise. It is a belief system that is rooted in union-management labor negotiations. Despite the rumblings to the contrary, the owners decry the thought of union busting. And it’s true! They want and need the union as much as the players want and need the collective bargaining process with management. Both parties are addicted to the adversarial relationship that has been going on for generations. Who says that it has to be that way. How about the idea that says Major League Baseball is immune and exempt from all that? Let us elevate the sport’s organizational structure to a level of respect consistent with its favored place in history. Along with the railroad, baseball has enjoyed the prestige of having grown up with the country. The failure of the railroad to redefine itself in the face of rapidly changing technology has changed their place in history forever. Their kid cousin baseball faces that same challenge in the present moment. It’s time for baseball to redefine itself. Different organizations take different approaches to this challenge. Some are reactive. They look to the past to determine their present. Other organizations just go with the flow. Still others look at the present market, plan, and decide how they want to be in the future. However, rare indeed are those companies that are truly proactive. They design and create their own future.

To begin with, who says there have to be "owners". The game is played in and enjoyed by local communities; those same communities that should be responsible for the safe conduct of the game both on and off the field. The key to this is loyalty; On the part of the players as well as the fans. In the mid-1970s when free agency was just beginning
the greatest cries were heard from those purists who bemoaned the loss of competitive balance. The "George Steinbrenners" of the world who have the deep pockets will buy up all the top players and waltz to the pennant year after year. It turned out not even remotely so. Two truths emerged: (1) that a lot of owners spent a lot of cash and didn’t have much to show for it save the embarrassment of having high payrolls and low league standings, and (2) that their fans’ loyalty quotient was directly proportional to the loyalty of their team’s players. In years past a fan’s loyalty to his or her hometown team brought a sense of community spirit to their appreciation of the game. Now the fan’s loyalty is to their fantasy league players first and foremost.

I favor a not-for-profit organization that is operated locally and whose annual "overage" is invested back into its respective community. Perhaps in the form of a public works. Something simple that everyone can agree upon; Like keeping the streets clean! The owners and players of today will scream bloody murder and claim to never stand for it. Great, we don’t want them anyway. We’ll "grandfather" them through this ten year transition and when we come out the other side we’ll have bid them all adieu. The new "owners" who would be the holders and keepers of this sacred public trust along with the players would have made a professional choice: To participate and play in the one, true National Pastime. You think we’ll never get any of the "good" athletes to play baseball anymore? Don’t bet on it. Football, basketball, and hockey are all headed for a lengthy legal morass. A "slump" off the field comparable only to that of the Red Sox in their soulful sorrowful Fenway. Baseball is in this country’s genes. Besides, the players and public servant owners will be making a bundle of dough off the field capitalizing on their good name in the community. Who amongst the royal rooters wouldn’t want to patronize the establishments and concerns of the local prominent ballists of the day, each in his own way a community man.

This "Trust" would be set up among the stewards empowered to harbor the game’s vision, the players who perform it on the field, and the customers who willingly pay for the privilege to watch. A "Public Trust" that instills confidence in the product, reliance on core values, dependence on each partners good efforts and a certainty and assurance that the greater good of all the stakeholders is being served. While the customers may not always be right, they most certainly have rights. In truth, the game has never been the sole property of just the owners and players. Yet, for 150 years these two entities have left those very customers with one overriding legacy; The inability to recognize and remember that the fan is of paramount importance to the game. On 11 September last, three days before Bud Selig - sportsman, entrepreneur, acting commissioner, and car salesman - announced the untimely end of the 1994 baseball season, he appeared on cable sports channel ESPN. At that time he opined that the fans didn’t understand all the complexities involved in this labor dispute - that they didn’t have the big picture. Well Bud, whenever a company or organization publicly disparages its customers like that ("They don’t understand") it’s a sure sign of one thing -- They’re about to go out of business.

Allen Dulles (of all people) who headed the early days of the CIA under Eisenhower left us a small measure of pithy wisdom disguised within the legacy of the cold war. "When faced with a difficult choice," he said, "it is best to do the right thing."

I believe it is time to take the game out of the realm and the hands of both the owners and the players, their respective negotiating teams as we know them, and set this "Sport" apart. It’s the right thing to do.