Does VC stand for ‘Validating Cronyism’?

Amazing … and not in a good way.

Here’s the thing: When voting for executives regarding their Hall of Fame credentials, I always assumed you had to look for an innovator—somebody who did something positive for the game of baseball. For example, we have Branch Rickey’s development of the farm system and Bill Veeck’s introducing marketing and promotion into the game. Former commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler is best remembered for integrating the game, while Rube Foster did much to build up the old Negro Leagues.

Don’t get me started on Buck O’Neill either.

But … Bowie Kuhn?

I simply cannot fathom why Kuhn was elected. The man spent his entire tenure as commissioner fighting to retain and regain MLB’s antiquated status quo. Baseball was struggling in the 1960s when he became commissioner. The NFL’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds. The dominance by the New York Yankees almost plunged the rest of the American League into irrelevance until their GM George Weiss was let go and later the Bronx Bombers were sold to CBS.

Further, players were indentured servants who often had to take offseason jobs to make ends meet. Player payroll was a small fraction of the game’s revenues (Marvin Miller was shot down cold when he proposed the players be guaranteed 20 percent of baseball’s revenues) and working conditions were terrible. Outfield walls weren’t padded, pitchers were worked until their arms fell apart, and a career-threatening injury was pretty much a career-ending injury unless you were a major gate attraction.

When a team reneged on a player’s contract, there was no recourse save for appealing to ownership’s handpicked and paid boss—the commissioner. The player could seek redress in the courts, but it was understood that he was ending his major league career by choosing that option. In addition, team owners were repeatedly screwing the players out of money that should have been devoted to their already less-than-modest pension plan.

Briefly, the players’ pension plan was funded by 60 percent of TV and radio revenues from the All-Star Game (and 90% of the gate) and World Series. One problem: Baseball telecats were sold as a single package. Both network and radio deals were done with no breakdown of how much money was devoted to regular season, All-Star, and World Series games. Therefore 60% of the revenues from the All-Star Game and World Series were whatever the owners said they were. The players had no choice but to accept.

Suffice it to say, the pension fund was getting screwed early, often and repeatedly.

This was the status quo Bowie Kuhn spent his tenure as commissioner trying first to retain, and after it had been destroyed by Marvin Miller and the MLBPA, what he tried to regain.

Somebody who fights so hard to resist change cannot be viewed as an innovator or pioneer. In fact, it was well known that Kuhn was little more than Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley’s puppet. Miller himself referred to O’Malley as “baseball’s real czar” and Kuhn as his “messenger boy.” Miller wrote in his autobiography A Whole Different Ballgame that:

“O’Malley, more than any other owner, set league policy; rarely (if ever) did he do what was requested of him unless he felt it to be in his own interest.”

I know it’s popular to credit O’Malley for making baseball a coast-to-coast affair. However, it was inevitable. Back in the early 1950s the Pacific Coast League was seeking to be recognized as a third major league. There was no way the AL and NL would accede to that. The threat underscored the necessity of moving out west or facing player raids and increased salaries that would result if the PCL unilaterally decreed it was the equivalent of the other two leagues. It would be the Federal League war all over again.

Bill Veeck tried to take a team out west, but he lacked the capital and political clout with MLB to pull it off. O’Malley had both, and due to simple circumstance is credited for taking the major leagues to the Pacific coast.

Initially, it appeared Calvin Griffith would be the first to go out west. Kenneth Hahn, L.A.’s county supervisor, was angling to land the Washington Senators when a note from O’Malley appeared, indicating that “the city of Angels” could have a pennant-winning club instead of a perennial doormat. Giants owner Horace Stoneham was looking at relocating to Minnesota, which had just built a new stadium. When O’Malley took the Giants west with him, Griffith took his club to the Twin Cities.

In both cases (Kuhn and O’Malley), I cannot see any degree of pioneering and positive change to the game. O’Malley struck gold out west simply because he had the tools to accomplish it. You cannot separate the legacies and contributions of O’Malley and Kuhn during “their commissionership.” Between them, the only innovation can be credited to O’Malley, and it was an inevitable one and he gutted a baseball institution to do it.

How does that compare to what Marvin Miller brought to the game? Fans decry the contracts handed out to players, but is it reasonable that the talent generating almost $6 billion in revenues should see but a tiny fraction of it? Miller, who was not elected to the Hall of Fame while Kuhn was, brought the free market into baseball, making everybody a ton of money. Bowie Kuhn’s salary was a fraction of Bud Selig’s earnings. Joe Torre as a manager in 2007 was making as much as baseball’s best-paid player prior to the last work stoppage.

While it’s popular to blame ticket and concession prices on player salaries, that’s typical ownership propaganda. Were the two linked, then it should be very, very affordable to score tickets to the Orange and Rose Bowls, March Madness’ Final Four and the Olympics, right? Most of the athletes competing in these events don’t have $15 million a year contracts, so why are tickets to these things so expensive?

Ticket and concession prices are based on the maximum a team thinks it can charge without reducing demand for them. That is why New Yankee Stadium will have fewer seats than the old one—to increase demand, thereby allowing the team to charge more. It’s why the Boston Red Sox keep adding seats to Fenway Park … there’s so much demand for tickets that they can charge a large amount for them yet demand keeps increasing. This is the reason most new stadiums don’t have inexpensive bleacher seating. It’s also why the Toronto Blue Jays have flex packs and the Minnesota Twins had a promotion where you could get season tickets for about a dollar a game. Demand for these are low, and if you can fill the seats with them you can make it up in concession and souvenir sales.

Believe it or not, players switched teams as often before free agency as they do today. The difference is, in the past it was the owners causing the turnover. Now it’s the owners and the players.

Bottom line, the problems in baseball as regards ticket prices and player movement has little to do with Marvin Miller. If baseball got a salary cap tomorrow, do you think ticket and concession prices would fall? The luxury tax and revenue sharing have not affected prices one iota. Why? They are unrelated phenomena.

Major league baseball is now attracting top talent from around the world. The ability of the players has never been higher nor has the training and developing of players been better. We are seeing the best major league baseball ever and we can thank Marvin Miller for that. He opened up the windows, relieving the game’s suffocation of the 1960s. It’s not perfect, but Miller did quite a bit to improve the quality of what we see today. Had Kuhn and O Malley had things their way, the best talent would have gravitated toward other sports and major league baseball might be right down there with arena football and indoor soccer.

Marvin Miller was an innovator and a pioneer. And never forget this: Bud Selig would not be earning $14 million a year had Miller not opened the game to the free market.

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