There are numerous approaches to writing about baseball. There are books that aim to analyze the game, from sabermetrically oriented approaches that explain the relationship between statistics, performance and value to new histories of race and integration in the game or baseball and labor. Then there are baseball narratives, from team histories and player biographies to single-season or multiple-season narratives. The problem remains though, that for each writer success with one style or approach does not guarantee success in the other.
That said, the success and brilliance of Split Season: 1981, published last year, lies in Jeff Katz’s ability to combine the on-field action of the strike-shortened 1981 season with the labor struggle between players and the owners.
Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball deftly interweaves the fraying negotiations between players and owners off the field and the on-field exploits of such players as Fernando Valenzuela, Rickey Henderson and Len Barker. When the season finally grinds to a halt, he follows the efforts not only of Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, but of player representatives Doug DeCinces, Mark Belanger, Steve Rogers and Bob Boone. When play returns he follows the four through the end of the season and beyond.
Another way to convey Katz’s storytelling skill is to note, because I’m too young to remember it, that the split season had always been to my mind a statistical anomaly or a turning-point in labor relations, but not really a season like I remember 1987 or 1989. However, by the end of the book, I cursed myself for caring whether the Dodgers or Yankees would win the World Series, I could feel how Reds fans or Cardinals fans might dismiss the results of 1981 with an asterisk or two, I felt indignation at the possibility that Boone was sold to, and DeCinces traded to, the Angels at the end of season as retribution for their efforts on behalf of the union. Finally, I grinned with pleasure when Katz notes that an Angels team packed with union leaders—DeCinces and Boone, but also Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor and Steve Renko—made it to the playoffs in 1982.
The role of strikes in sports, as Katz reminds us with ample evidence, is a contentious issue among fans. There is a prevalent view that strikes are caused by players’ greed and intransigence, and that free agency harms competitive balance. It has been voiced by owners, often echoed in the media , and then repeated by fans. I still hear this sentiment when my friends and I discuss the impeding expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement in December 2016. The key issue in 1981, which could be a key issue in future bargaining, is compensation for a team “losing” a free agent. In 1981, the owners implemented a system of direct compensation so that, as Katz summarizes
When a free agent was selected in the postseason reentry draft by eight or more clubs and ranked in the top half of performance in their position (pitchers measured by starts or relief appearances, hitters by plate appearances), then the team who signed the free agent could protect 15 to 18 players on their major league roster, depending on whether the free agent was in the top one-third or one-half of the rankings. The team that lost that free agent could then pluck a major league player from the remainder of the signing team’s roster. It was direct compensation, a punishment for teams signing a free agent.”
It was a plan devised to provoke a strike. If the players capitulated, as the owners mistakenly believed they would, they would be conceding important aspects of their free agency rights. Moreover, as Katz points out, the plan would penalize the free-spending ways of owners such as George Steinbrenner. Management, as Bowie Kuhn presented it in a speech at the annual winter meetings in December of 1980, viewed free agency as both a financial issue and a threat to competitive balance.
Katz ably shows that the owners’ appeal to competitive balance is secondary to their financial interests. He mentions the reporting of Murray Chass “or Leonard Koppett, who wrote detailed accounts on how competitive balance had been bettered with free agency and how roster turnover was nearly the same from 1979 to 1981 as it had been in the mid-1960s.” Then, in a passage that ironically evokes the so-called “Golden Era” of baseball, Katz writes:
The purported glory days were a false construct. From 1947 to 1958, the Yankees, Dodgers, and New York Giants won 18 of 24 pennants…. New York ruled and no one else had a chance. The complete absence of competitive balance was a hallmark of the time, the old way that the owners had wished to preserve when they fought to pull back on free agency.”
There is a persistent sentiment that sometime in the past baseball was more pure, that competition was stronger, and that players were more dedicated to the game. But, as astute historians of the game remind us, these nostalgic images of baseball past often obscure how the owners colluded to enforce various techniques of segregation and player exploitation. And, relevant to the present discussion, as Katz shows, the Golden Era was no more balanced than the period immediately following the emergence of free agency.
And yet, Katz notes, an “NBC poll showed 53 percent of those asked supported the owners in the strike, 47 percent the players.” Baseball, he continues, despite the “speed and intensity” of the major-league level, fosters the illusion that the Show is basically the same game that fans once played in Little League. Players, who would have made a minimum of $32,500 in 1981, appeared to be “spoiled brats” who earned significantly more money than the average American ($13,000 at the time) to play a game.
I am suspect of attempts to explain economic and labor struggles in moral terms, since our moral vocabulary is largely individualistic while these struggles are collective and concern baseball as a system. But there is a variant of this argument that reasons that baseball players make a disproportionate amount of money in relation to other forms of labor: there is something wrong with a system that pays athletes a ridiculous amount of money when we underpay other professions such as teachers, firefighters and nurses.
In either case, there seems to be a failure of political imagination around this issue at the outset of the Reagan era (though the strength and status of the players’ union vis-à-vis others’, such as the air traffic controllers’, is not lost on Katz). Why is this not an argument that workers in all industries ought to be paid more rather than that baseball players ought not complain about compensation? And where, exactly, do these critics of the players assume this money goes—which Katz pegs at over $8 billion in revenues today—if it doesn’t go to the players?
While I’m simplifying a bit on this point, Katz argues, as Marvin Miller did, that the owners and the commissioner have been successful in presenting themselves as the arbiters of what is in the best interests of baseball. It is a misperception that persists to this day. Kuhn worked to portray himself in public as a representative of both players and management, but his private papers demonstrate that he often equated the so-called best interests of baseball with the owners’ financial interests.
In the end, as we know, Kuhn’s misperception of his own role and the owners’ general misreading of the players’ solidarity contributed to Miller winning, in his words, the “complete and unconditional surrender” of the owners. The owners provoked the strike by implementing a system of direct compensation, and ended up negotiating a system in which teams could lose a player without signing a free agent. (This system was abolished in 1985). It was a give-back by the players, but one that was, as Gussie Busch of the Cardinals management saw, a Pyrrhic victory: “If the Cubs lose a player to the Phillies through free agency, then possibly I have the honor of giving the Cubs my twenty-seventh-best player—marvelous compensation.”
On the cover of its May 30, 1981 issue, The Sporting News published a cover with images of Miller, Kuhn and Ray Grebey (the owners’ negotiator) on a baseball diamond that asked: “Will They Kill Baseball… Or Save It?” As Katz sees it, the strike saved baseball. It solidified the free agent system that has made players “partners, in a very real sense, with management,” in which owners can no longer make unilateral decisions over the business of baseball or players’ salaries. In the long run, he argues, the vision of Marvin Miller has won out.
But, in a telling conclusion, Katz also notes that insofar as the “players association is every bit as interested in keeping the status quo as the owners,” Bowie Kuhn has won, too. While relative labor peace has prevailed in baseball for the past two decades, the next negotiations will open with Rob Manfred as commissioner rather than Bud Selig and Tony Clark the executive director of the MLBPA rather than Michael Weiner. Moreover, there have been suggestions of player discontent with the current qualifying offer system, and, most importantly, player salaries have declined relative to league revenues. As Nathaniel Grow writes:
After peaking at a little more than 56% in 2002, today MLB player salaries account for less than 40% of league revenues, a decline of nearly 33% in just 12 years. As a result, player payroll today accounts for just over 38% of MLB’s total revenues, a figure that just ten years ago would have been unimaginably low.
There is, then, a possibility that neither players nor owners can rely on the status quo in the upcoming CBA negotiations. Katz’s Split Season 1981 is a timely reminder of what could be at stake both on the field and off.
References & Resources
- Craig Calcaterra, NBC Hardball Talk, “A Reminder that Baseball’s Commissioner Works For the Owners”
- Nathaniel Grow, FanGraphs, “The MLBPA Has a Problem”