The Old Ballgame

Historian Charles Korr debunks a few myths about baseball

Contrary to myth, Miller did not push them wickedly toward the abyss. The players called for the strike, and the players stood firm against the owners and won in 1972.

Korr affirms that it was -- and is -- the players' union, not Miller's or successor Donald Fehr's. Those dumb hayseeds, men heretofore respected for their athleticism on the playing field and little else, emerge as truly remarkable, admirable, courageous figures. The owners' disrespect for their employees -- then and now -- figures largely in the strengthening of the union's resolve.

August "Gussie" Busch Jr., the beloved Cardinal owner, could always be relied on to enliven the players' competitive nature. "We're not going to give them another goddamn cent," Busch proclaimed in 1972. "If they want to strike -- let 'em."

Korr comments drolly, "If someone like Gussie Busch didn't exist, Marvin Miller would have had to create him."

Even though Busch was the most reactionary owner, the players he acquired were some of the most influential in transforming the business of baseball: Joe Torre, Tim McCarver, Dal Maxville, Ted Simmons and the most significant historical figure of all, Curt Flood.

It was Flood who challenged baseball's reserve system, refusing to comply with a trade to Philadelphia for, among others, right-handed slugger Dick Allen in 1969. Flood, who had been acknowledged as the best centerfielder in baseball on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in effect cried heresy in the cathedral, to borrow one of Korr's analogies, and suffered the punishment of heretics. His career ended, and, subsequently, his reputation was smeared by owners and sportswriters.

Seven years later, as a result of the insistence and courage of the players and the complementary ineptitude and hubris of the owners, free agency became the business of baseball. Korr has little sympathy for the persistent cries that the game has been damaged, or lost its innocence. In the book he writes, "Most of the questions raised about the problems facing baseball presupposed there were problems."

"Baseball's in great shape in so many ways," Korr says effusively. "Performances on the field are just mind-boggling.

"The money that's flowing into baseball is enormous. Pennant races have been very good. Last year's World Series was as good as you're going to see. Do you remember a better one? When's the last time the Yankees lost a World Series like that? You got to go back to Bill Mazeroski [in 1960]. It's been 41 years since ultimate justice triumphed over the forces of darkness. Baseball should be celebrating that."

Korr effectively moves baseball labor negotiations into the foreground of his narrative, leaving the events on the field as background. The result of Korr's approach does not diminish the game; rather, it illuminates the complexity of those who play it: a tale more substantial, and mature, than myth.

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