A Turnaround, Not Just in Sport
WARREN, Ohio--The baseball strike is over and the second season has begun. Yet the underlying causes of baseball’s transformation from an island of tranquility into a sea of litigation remain as obscure as ever.
Only after careful reflection on my own life as a steelworker and a sports fan did I begin to understand baseball’s true financial picture.
As an American, I grew up believing that the only question of significance I would ever have to answer was, “How much more?” Didn’t my parents live much better than my grandparents? Hadn’t I, in turn, quickly surpassed them when I returned from Vietnam? With every contract, my union came up with more money and almost unimaginable benefits. This was achieved despite the fact that the union agreed in advance not to strike and never disagreed with the steel companies on fundamental policies.
Baseball as we know it was born when I was, immediately after World War II. Baseball’s best players returned from that conflict and settled back into a sport in which the biggest change in nearly a century had been the shift to the live ball that introduced the home-run era. Sixteen teams remained crowded into America’s industrial heartland from Chicago to Boston. Most were owned by moderately wealthy families with limited outside business interests.
Baseball has changed a great deal since then but it isn’t the designated hitter or the return to constant base stealing that has captured the public’s imagination. It’s players’ salaries. The conventional wisdom attributes baseball players’ position atop the professional sports totem pole and steelworkers’ similar perch atop the blue collar slagheap to the awesome power of their unions. This notion is as false as it is fashionable. While I won’t deny the skill of Marvin Miller, the players’ negotiator, nor the importance of the United Steelworkers of America, they are not responsible for the new wealth of the people they represent. Rather, the post-war economic expansion was so profitable that the wisest course for business was to let key sections of United States labor, including baseball players, eat a larger piece of the pie. The seemingly endless expansion of wealth in America obscured the fact that the relative shares for ballplayers and hardhats began to decline.
Meanwhile, the billions of dollars invested in Southern industry slowly created a market that could support major league baseball. The 16 teams that existed at my birth had grown to 28 by the time my son entered first grade. The Sun Belt, which had never been known as a hotbed of major league baseball or modern industry, had become home to both.
Rising disposable income allowed me and my blue-collar brethren to become such a desirable market that advertisers began throwing money at the networks, fighting for access to sports airtime. The networks were only too happy to pass along a bushel full of dollars to the owners who never genuinely complained if the players picked off an odd peck or two.
The federal government also helped out by bestowing special tax advantages on both the steel and baseball industries. Ironically, this allowed steel companies to diversify out of steel while it made professional franchise ownership so attractive that it was a rare corporation that did not consider diversifying into baseball.
By the mid-1970s the overheated world economy had expanded to the most remote corners of the earth. But even a tidal wave must eventually expend its energy and recede. Inevitable the economy must contract. The undertow thus created is carrying real wages and our ability to buy a house or a box seat out to sea.
Yet as we all became increasingly restless watching so many things we took for granted slip from our hands, sports fans were comforted by the thought that almost every day we would escape for two or three hours in a baseball game. When the strike began on June 12, there were no more comforting thoughts at all.
The corporate leopards, including those who own baseball teams, are changing their spots. The depression we are slipping into demands that they reduce their labor costs if the former ratio of pie morsels is to remain intact. The contract the baseball players have agreed to will push them rapidly back in time toward the pre free-agency days of 1974. Here they join a long parade, already in progress, of blue and white-collar workers.
But at least the settlement will bring back baseball, and no matter how much the owners bastardize the rest of the season to wring out every possible playoff game, that is a delight. But it does nothing to slow the upward surge of ticket prices or the awkward two-step toward universal pay television. Despite the seven-week strike, the fan remains as unrepresented and ignored as he was in the dead-ball era.
With the opening of the “second season,” our choices as fans have already been made for us. We might as well enjoy what’s left of this semi-season. We may not be able to afford even this much baseball again for a long, long time.
The New York Times Op-Ed Page / 1981