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Books | Sports

March 25, 2010

Brawls Over Baseball Bucks

Diamond historian Lee Lowenfish tells Gelf the sport's labor history has a way of repeating itself.

Max Lakin

In an introduction to the first edition of Lee Lowenfish's The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars, former Red Sox broadcaster Ned Martin wrote, "Baseball must be a pretty remarkable sport to have survived itself…War and Peace it is not, but maybe in theory, it is."

Lee Lowenfish. Photo by Carol L. Norton.
"In a surprising development, the labor situation in baseball looks rosier than in either pro football or pro basketball."

Lee Lowenfish. Photo by Carol L. Norton.

First published in 1980 and lauded as a perennial document of the unquiet struggle between sport and business (it is counted by the Society of American Baseball Research as one of its 50 essential baseball books), Diamond stands as an expansive document of the game, America's Pastime, and its second cousin, labor disputes. As much as it is a treatise on the game, it is equally a probing account of the history of its stalls, and a paradigm of the modern labor-management dynamic.

Thirty years on and in an updated edition, Lowenfish's Diamond is a sobering perspective on this country's most closely-held love affair, and a dissection of a deep-rooted dissonance that comes about with the muck-making dominance of money. Gelf caught up with Lowenfish via email to talk about the way modern players are valued, the way they're paid, and the game as microcosm for American business. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: You describe baseball as a "beautiful if troubled game." That sentiment feels like the informing principle of the book. Is it that professional players are such historic prima donnas? Or is it more that tethering a ball game to business makes the game so open to disagreement—like kids arguing more about imaginary in-bounds lines in a playground game than actually playing?

Lee Lowenfish: One of the great moments for me came after I handed a copy of the original 1980 edition to the Orioles press secretary, the late Phil Itzoe (he recently died), to give to Earl Weaver. And I found out the next day that Earl had actually started reading my book and was talking about it to his longtime coach Cal Ripken, Sr. "Can you imagine Clark Griffith and Connie Mack were in a players' union?" I heard manager Earl say to Cal, Sr. As an Orioles fan then and now, it was tremendously satisfying to find out that the leader of my team also sided with the players on the basic issue of some freedom of movement for players.
The problem comes when you have to define "some" freedom of movement. Who is to define it? The owners had enormous rights in the first century of baseball and the players chipped away to the point where it is quite possible to argue that today they have too much power. Yet an amazing thing about today's baseball is that the sport/the game/the institution/the way of life—all of the above—may be healthier than they have been in years, and in a surprising development, the labor situation in baseball looks rosier than in either pro football or pro basketball.

Gelf Magazine: In its near-perpetual back-and-forth between players and management, how much does baseball stand in as metaphor for the history of American labor conflict (in as much as you can call playing baseball serious labor)?

Lee Lowenfish: I am struck by how swiftly the reserve system took hold by the mid-1880s and how powerful the reaction to the reserve system was by the late 1880s, with the remarkable John Montgomery Ward leading the Players League. If that league had survived for more than one year, I strongly believe that a lot of baseball history and a lot of American history would have been far different. But Albert Spalding and his allies came down hard on the players and their weak backers during and after the 1890 season. The crackdown on the Players League is very much in keeping with the age of robber barons and the accumulations of great wealth in the late 19th century. How dare upstarts threaten the domination of hard-earned capital!

Gelf Magazine: When he was Players Relations Committee chairman, Richard Ravitch proposed a solution to calls for a salary cap that, among other things, eschewed arbitration in favor of the "pay for performance" scale, which aimed to pay players—wildly enough—in relation to their performance that season, as opposed to the still current and somewhat byzantine practice of drawing up contracts based on previous statistics and hoping that kinetic possibility translates, ignorant of facts like the progression of time. That plan was roundly dismissed, but still brings up a fair point: Are we even paying players the right way?

Lee Lowenfish: Smart teams are doing that these days. The Rays did it with Evan Longoria, a long-term contract that bought out his first arbitration-eligible years. I tend to agree that this investment is usually safer with a position player than a pitcher whose arm can be so fragile. I, for one, am not sold on Tim Lincecum's long-term durability, but the Giants avoided arbitration last month by giving him a two-year contract; it was a nice compromise. It's more reason for why I am bullish about baseball's short-term—and maybe even long-term—future.
In another example, Cincinnati won the bidding for Cuban exile pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Five years guaranteed might be too much, but the Reds have been down for so long that they were willing to take a chance. And as long as there are free-market opportunities for every player, I think baseball will continue on the upgrade. I don't think baseball needs a salary cap, but it does need a commitment from all its teams to put a competitive product on the field. The problem is that management and evaluation brains are not and never will be distributed equally.

Gelf Magazine: What about the chasm between large and small market teams? In the game's current flow, do teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City even stand a chance, or should they invest in alternate revenue streams, like more dangerous costume racing, or Disco Nights?

Lee Lowenfish: Admittedly there are too many teams in Major League Baseball and not enough major-league-quality players available. But the league's managers have no immediate plans to contract teams, a position they suddenly put forward a few years ago. They went about pushing contraction in their traditional heavy-handed manner and it never had a chance at being accepted by the union. Neither did the "pay for play" proposal in 1990 have a chance, because the salary figures the owners presented to the union were lower than what already existed.
What may be an enormously significant step was taken in the past few weeks when the union, with management's blessing, pressured the Florida Marlins to increase their payroll. Their ace pitcher Josh Johnson was the first beneficiary, as he got what was reported as a four-year contract that bought out his first arbitration-eligible years.
It will be interesting to see what both sides agree to on the draft regulations when that hot issue comes up next year in the collective-bargaining agreement. The Marvin Miller-led union never dealt with the draft because it felt that a draftee is not yet an employee. But in recent years the powerful agent Scott Boras has held out many clients from signing after the amateur draft and his tactics have usually resulted in good contracts for his players. He is not infallible on the veteran free-agent side, as the Johnny Damon case proved this year, but this again is showing that the system, flawed as it may be, is working.

Gelf Magazine: And finally, on a lighter topic: As an obvious and impassioned baseball fan—and a New Yorker born, raised, and currently residing—do you align yourself with the team from the Bronx, or the one in Queens? Please be advised your response will have a noticeable impact on the voice of this piece. I am only half-kidding.

Lee Lowenfish: I am an Orioles fan who always likes underdogs coming out of nowhere to contend—see the Rays of 2008. I fell in love with Baltimore's "less is more" teams of the 1970s and respected their great teams of the late 1960s, even if they lost to the Mets in 1969. I long for the day when the sound of "O" is heard loud and clear during the National Anthem, not just at Camden Yards but at Yankee Stadium, too.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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