Not pro-Bonds—just anti-collusion

Were black players colluded against prior to Jackie Robinson’s arrival in MLB in 1947?

Can you prove it?

What I mean is this: Is there a smoking gun? A piece of paper or a memo detailing that it was forbidden to sign black players? A deathbed confession from a tearful former team owner or general manager about how they wronged entire generations of qualified athletes? Something in a dusty old rule book that stipulated only light-skinned players were allowed in the game? Somebody from that era finally “coming clean” and stating that MLB deliberately excluded black players?

Anything?

There are legions of examples of executives and owners alike saying there was no such rule in writing or otherwise, not to mention reasons why there were no blacks in the sport; everything from being unqualified, to having no black players apply for a big league job to a desire not to destroy the Negro Leagues.

But is there a smoking gun? Something that would hold up in a court of law as hard evidence that black players were colluded against?

If one exists—please pass it along but as far as I know, the only evidence remains circumstantial; however, that evidence is too obvious to dismiss.

To state that blacks were not colluded against because there is no concrete proof would cause folks to lump you in with the flat-earth society. I mean, how else could players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Martin Dihigo not land a job in MLB unless there was a collusive understanding to exclude them?

Skeptics of those who feel Barry Bonds is being colluded against would never dispute collusion against black players pre-1947 despite the lack of hard evidence (the smoking gun), yet they demand just that when it comes to Bonds.

In both cases though, it’s blindingly obvious … never before in baseball history has a talented player been deemed too obnoxious to employ and that includes abusers of women, statutory rapists, racists, steroid users, alcoholics, drug addicts, felons, men who threaten their own children with death etc. If they could help a team win ball games, they found work.

Until now (some maintain).

The New York Yankees were desperate for a big bat earlier this year; indeed, the Bronx Bombers have been held to three or fewer runs 65 times this year (just one time less than the offensively challenged Toronto Blue Jays!). They opted for Richie Sexson, who was just released from one of the worst-hitting teams in the AL. Here is a team that traditionally does anything to get to October and desperately wished to make the postseason in Yankee Stadium’s final year. They were desperate for offense and hitting with runners in scoring position and they inked Sexson?

The designated hitter position requires only the ability to hit and if he cannot do that, he is useless to the team employing him. Yet, in 2008, the following teams settled for this level of performance from that position.

The AL average listed below is average for all second basemen in the league—a position where a superb gloveman can hold down a job (and even make the Hall of Fame!) even if he’s not a very good hitter. The following teams received the about the same production from their designated hitters that AL teams received from a key defensive position (second base):

Team       AVG  OBP  SLG
Twins     .266/.337/.424
Rays      .252/.324/.435
Blue Jays .242/.327/.413
Indians   .246/.328/.404
Tigers    .211/.305/.379
Mariners  .224/.271/.341
(AL 2B:   .281/.338/.408)

Every team on the list went into 2008 as potential contenders for a postseason berth. All of them needed a player who could hit and all were willing to settle for the level of production that was average for a second baseman. Even with seasons on the line, Barry Bonds went unsigned.

Although not on the list, the Angels (they missed due to a .363/.416/.439 line in September from rotating some of their better hitters through the position—Halos’ DHs were .255/.312/.434 at the end of August) were fortunate to play in a weak division and it didn’t cost them; so far, it hasn’t hurt the Rays as they continue to hold onto first place, but it could cost the Twins the AL Central. It might have damaged the Yankees when Hideki Matsui was injured. As we’ll discuss in a moment, it hurt the Toronto Blue Jays most of all.

How serious is it? Here is Marvin Miller’s (former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association) take on collusion:

“They were found guilty … of colluding not to sign free agents … no matter how much those free agents would improve their team. … It was, undeniably, an agreement not to field the best team possible—which is tantamount to fixing, not just games, but entire pennant races. … The fact that not signing free agents meant not fielding the best teams was revealed graphically when the conspiracy ended. … The Dodgers spent over $36 million on three other free agents prior to the 1991 season. Los Angeles general manager Fred Claire said, ‘The motivation for us is to improve our ball club. It’s not a reaction [to the Giants’ signing of free agents] but a dedication to try to be better.’”—Marvin Miller on the 1986-88 collusion against free agents in his autobiography “A Whole Different Ball Game.

In a nutshell, Miller rightly asserts that collusion by owners is as dirty as players throwing games because in both cases the parties are not trying their best to win.

The Toronto Blue Jays have 20 losses this season when holding the other side to three or fewer runs—among those, there are 12 games that could be described as outstanding pitching efforts (defined as two or fewer runs over nine innings or three or less in extra innings). The Jays lost two 10-inning games where the held the opposition to three runs, and had 12-inning losses where they allowed one and three runs. They have seven other losses where they were beaten despite allowing two or fewer runs. Ten of the 19 losses were inflicted by the clubs just ahead of them in the standings: the Rays (5), the Yankees (3) and the Red Sox (2).

The Jays had 143 opportunities in those 20 games (with runners in scoring position) and managed just 14 hits (.098) and presumably, some of those hits accounted for the run scoring that the Blue Jays did manage to generate.

The Jays actually hit into more double plays in those 20 losses than they had hits with runners in scoring position. To use one example: On June 20, the Blue Jay had about 45 chances to knock a ball over the fence against a club that’s currently last in MLB in ERA and third most generous in surrendering the long ball—the Pittsburgh Pirates … and failed.

Twenty-nine times in those 20 losses they had a man on third and less than two out, seven other times they had the leadoff man on second with none out and 35 times (a single had a baserunner go from second to third) they failed to get a base hit. In only three games did they not have a man on third/less than two out situation, but in two of them they weren’t necessary since the Jays lost 1-0 and no base runners would be required to tie the score.

Would Barry Bonds have made a difference in those 20 games?

Instead, the Jays were forced to trot out the likes of Brad Wilkerson, Kevin Mench and Matt Stairs, who batted .221/.337/.341 with just five HR after mid-May.

But not Barry Bonds.

Had the Jays been able to turn eight of those 20 losses into wins they would be atop the wild card standings. The decision not to sign Bonds might have been the decision that cost the Jays a berth in the playoffs.

If the Blue Jays were following the seeming collusive understanding not to sign Barry Bonds, then did the organization in effect throw the 2008 season?

Marvin Miller would say yes. It would have been a deliberate decision not to field the best team possible—to allow a chronic problem (run scoring) to fester all season rather than remedy it by signing Bonds.

The ultimate irony in all of this is that with the opt out of A.J. Burnett and injuries to Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, 2008 might have been the Jays’ best chance at the postseason—now the future is uncertain. I hope it was worth it for the Toronto brass to play along.

Regardless, a smoking gun may never emerge as to the Bonds collusion (then again, there wasn’t one before 1947), but why else would several teams sabotage their chances at the postseason rather than sign him? Why will teams like the Blue Jays, Yankees and possibly the Twins (not to mention any teams in the NL that might have needed him) be sitting at home?

(Why did Josh Gibson have zero major league home runs?)

The Jays lost a grand total of 27 games this year where they held the opposition to four or fewer runs—27 losses from simply not having enough offense and yet all year one of the best hitters in the NL in 2007 remained available.

And ignored.

Why?

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