Sunday, September 18, 2011

#67: The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars by Lee Lowenfish

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010 edition

This is not a "ohhhhhh, Baseball should never go on strike" book, nor is it "the owners can't kill baseball so it will go on forever" book. It splits the difference, and remains through three editions the essential book about labor in baseball history. The prologue begins with the decision by Peter Seitz that ended the reserve clause and instituted free agency; Lowenfish strives to present the major leaguer as "a worker in an industry". (23). He does; while many fans complain about multi-million dollar contracts, the fans are not conditioned to look at the players as men at work plying a trade.

The Reserve Clause, instituted in 1879, limited a player to signing with whatever team he played for the previous season. The player could not negotiate with anyone else or play with anyone but an outlaw league. This was done with the express intent to limit salaries, and it worked. To put this in perspective, let us look at Mickey Mantle.

In 1957, Mantle was paid $58,000, a raise of $ 50,500 since his rookie year in 1951. By 1957, he was a 5 time all star and the American League MVP in 1956. In 2010 money (per this is equivalent to $449,000. This is approximately 1/4 the league minimum salary as of this year. This does not mean that today's players make too much; it means that players until the 1970s were paid too little. If ticket prices at Yankee Stadium were set at 50 cents per seat (which they were not) and they attracted their usual crowds of 19,943, they could pay Mantle's salary by the 7th game of the season. This is on ticket sales alone and does not count TV, commission sales or anything else.

In any event, Lowenfish interviewed many of the big names of the labor strife in baseball (union head Marvin Miller, former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and multiple team owners) and provides much insight into the mindset of both sides. Consider the following comments by the establishment:

1. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators: The Reserve Clause "Was to give a man the right to keep what they had." (177). He was talking about players. It should be remembered that Griffith jumped from the NL to the new, "outlaw" American League in 1900.

2. J.G. Taylor Spink, publisher of the Sporting News: "Anyone who fights the reserve is a Communist." (180)

Or, consider that the TOPPS company paid nearly 3/4 of a million dollars into MLB's coffers each year from 1957-1960, with each player receiving....between 2-3 dollars each. MLB got the rest. Lowenfish describes in many ways a long train of abuses, but manages to not make the owners look greedy. They just look silly and about 40 years behind the times. Sort of like the people I work for and most Republican presidential candidates. If you are looking for a way to keep baseball in the front of your mind this winter, you could do much worse than this text.

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