The Economic History Of Baseball, Part 5
From the Seitz Decision to The Strike of 1994, The Owners Are Still Determined to Destroy The Players — But Now The Fans Are Becoming Unwilling Accomplices
Note: I expect this series may need as many as two parts in addition to this one to get the end; another article illustrating how the steroid era was essentially a consequence of the big strike and a final piece on the best way to solve baseball’s woes — which may be less problematic than I thought.
After the Seitz decision in the winter of 1975, ownership acted pretty much as you might think. They started the 1976 season by locking the players out of spring training. They thought that given the choice between throwing away their newly won freedom or playing baseball, the players would choose the former.
There’s no evidence that was ever going to work, but the owners were so certain of it that when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn opened the camps against the owner’s wishes, they were infuriated. Many in leadership, who were convinced that Kuhn was a puppet for Dodger owner Walter O’Malley, considered the true ruler of baseball, had played about Kuhn’s fondness for the game as the reason to move forward. O’Malley had done so not because he believed in the Seitz decision, but rather because the Dodgers were rich enough that he thought they’d succeed no matter what system was in place and didn’t want to risk losing money on cancelled games.
As to Andy Messersmith, the player whose free agency had liberated all players, ownership had no intention of given Messersmith the time of day or signing him. Or rather, all but one owner: the new owner of the beleaguered Atlanta Braves, Ted Turner.
Ted Turner’s legacy as a baseball owner is complicated, to say the least but there’s a pretty good argument that the decisions that he made involving free agency, while anathema for ownership at the time, was the right thing for the game then — and may very well be a model for the right approach.
Those of us who are used to the Braves as perennial contenders might well be surprised to know that for the first several years that they were in Atlanta, they ranked in bottom of the standings and in attendance. It was not uncommon for there to be less than 2,000 fans a game, even during the years Henry Aaron was breaking the home run record. Many people were questioning whether the Braves, who had left Milwaukee under controversy, might have to move yet again when Turner bought the team.
Make no mistake; Turner bought the team to effect his other business interest: growing his media empire. Back then, it was TBS a ‘Superstation’ that basically showed My Little Margie and Beverly Hillbillies reruns. Turner thought being able to broadcast baseball games would be a good source of revenue. But that meant people had to want to see Braves games in the first place. Turner was a more populist owner than most of his colleagues, staging giveaways, stunts that defied description (he had one night which involved both a wrestling match and a mass wedding ceremony called ‘Headlock and Wedlock’ night) and getting on the PA after loses and offering the fans to come back the next night free of charge. Turner knew eventually he was going to have a real reason to bring fans to the park, and what better way than to sign a superstar.
So in the spring of 1976, he signed Andy Messersmith for $1 million over 3 years and offered a no-trade clause in the contract. (Because Messermith’s jersey number was 17, he tried to persuade him to change his name to ‘Channel’ to promote TBS which was for years known as Channel 17.) He spent the next several years making similar rich free agency signings many of which were of dubious value: Al Hbrosky, a reliever he hired more for his personality than his statistics, Claudell Washington, an outfielders whose lackadaisical fielding caused Cub fans to hang the sign ‘Washington Slept Here’ and Garry Matthews, who he agreed to take a suspension from the game for a year to keep — and then spent much of the next year yachting.
Many people in ownership questioned whether what Turner was doing was in ‘the best interests of baseball’ (their go-to phrase for what happened when players were earning too much money). However, history would seem to indicate it was in the best interest of the Atlanta Braves. These free agents signings did not lead the Braves to a pennant or even out of the cellar: in the first fifteen years of Turner’s ownership, the Braves only won a single division title. What it proves was that Turner was willing to open his checkbook in order to help Atlanta contend or at the very least, make watching a Braves game more of a draw. For more than thirty years, the Atlanta Braves were exclusively available on TBS and with that TV revenue, the Braves were slowly but surely able to develop prospects and eventually get free agencies who would make the team contenders for decades to come. By 1991, when the Braves won their first pennant, many considered them ‘America’s Team’, perhaps more due to the ubiquitous nature of cable then anything else. That said, after that year the Braves would be in postseason for fifteen consecutive years and have never been out of contention for long. Simultaneously Ted Turner was able to build a media empire in large part because of the success of the Braves. It’s hard to argue that this relationship wasn’t beneficial for both sides.
As a book on this era says: “Ted Turner had seen the future, while the rest of the owners were going towards the dying of the light.” That’s a fair assessment for ownership during this period. Bob Howsam, who’d developed the Big Red Machine, began to dismantle it after the Seitz decision, saying the Reds would never sign a free agent. Charles Finley would trade some of his stars, try to sell off the rest and ended up losing all of them to free agency. Bill Veeck, who managed a brief return to ownership when he bought the White Sox in 1976, left baseball for good when Nolan Ryan signed a million dollar contract with the Angels in 1979.
Most owners would spend enormous amounts on free agents but few spent well. George Steinbrenner spent much of the first fifteen years of his ownership spending enormous sums on free agents many of whom paid very little in dividends. Owners kept matching the prices of the mediocre and prices kept getting higher. But rather than blame themselves, they continued to do everything in their power to try and bring the players to their knees. The first time the Players Agreement came up for renewal in 1981, the owners refused to meet players demands and that June, there was the first strike that interrupted play. It went on for six weeks and eventually the owners settled having got nothing in return. The narrative, however, was set in the media and among the fans: the players were selfish and greedy for pursuing money rather than playing the game for their enjoyment. The fans never said that believed the owners were on the right side, but I have little doubt ownership took it that way.
This led, in a sense to one of the greatest scandals in sports history, and one that I am relatively certain is almost unknown. Certainly, no one has written the same level of volumes to it that have been written about seasons where play was stopped to strikes or other scandals involving players. I certainly knew nothing about it until I saw Ken Burns’ documentary and have rarely seen anything else about it since.
In the spring of 1986, boosted by a report by retiring American League President Lee MacPhail about recent bad free agent signings and with the silent back of new commissioner Peter Ueberroth, all twenty-six owners entered an agreement that they would not sign any free agents, no matter how qualified they were. (I should mention this is the first time I heard the term ‘collusion’ in any context.)
This process lasted for three seasons from 1986 to 1988 (and Miller suspects into 1989). During that period, only a handful of free agents were signed and for far lower than they were asking. Many more than qualified players, including future Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Andre Dawson and Jack Morris would be forced to resign with their home teams after not getting any offers in the market.
Miller argues in the documentary that this was in his opinion, the worst scandal in baseball history, even worse than the Black Sox Scandal. As he puts it: all twenty six teams entered into an agreement that they would not spend money to improve their teams, no matter how gifted the free agent was. This decision in essence, fixed every pennant race and World Series between 1986 and 1988. The Black Sox scandal involved one team. This scandal involved all twenty six at every level of ownership, along with the Commissioner and perhaps several league Presidents (there is less evidence on that part). And it’s worth noting that when the Dodgers signed Kirk Gibson as a free agent in 1988, and he not only drove the Dodgers to the pennant that year, but hit one of the greatest home runs in history that led to the Dodgers upsetting the Oakland A’s, that there’s a very good argument to Miller’s point.
Ownership was eventually found guilty of collusion in court and forced to pay over $350 million in lost wages. But that was the extent of the culpability. Ueberroth denied any responsibility after the scandal, no owner was forced to either resign or sell his team as a result and whatever public outcry their might have been over the affair was immediately overshadowed by the scandal of Pete Rose’s betting on baseball the following year. And there is no evidence that ownership learned any lessons from that going forward, certainly not the next time the players agreement came up for renewal. They were just as determined to break the union and free agency as they were before.
In 1993, Commissioner Fay Vincent was forced to resign before his term ended. Owners had been making sure the commissioner did what was in their best interests ever since the passing of Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1944. However, they had at least been willing to hire men who were not directly involved with ownership. After Vincent resigned, they stopped with the illusion by hiring Bud Selig who had been the owner of the Brewers since 1970. (He would hold the title of ‘interim commissioner for six years before they made it official in 1998; he remained in that capacity until 2015.)
While I can’t imagine purists will blame him, Selig may have been the most destructive force to baseball as a game in history. His first act as commissioner was to institute the Wild Card and Divisional Playoffs, basically done to extend playoffs to extend TV revenue more than anything else in the minds of some. He effectively limited American League and National League independence by consolidating the administrative functions under both leagues. He attempt to get the Expos and the Twins both out of major league baseball in 2001, only a temporary restraining order stopped the Twins from doing so and Selig was sued for racketeering. And that’s before you get to everything involving steroids (which is going to take another article)
And that’s before you add into the fact that Selig was part of a cabal of owners that forced Fay Vincent to resign because he believed that owners were still colluding in the signing of free agency. After a no-confidence vote in which Vincent made it clear he ‘wasn’t a lackey whose job it was to massage the owner’s egos’ Selig was behind what amounted to an ownership proposal which would give Selig complete power to the commissioner on labor negotiations.
The contract included a salary cap to players, the elimination of salary arbitration, free agency would begin after four years rather than six, and owners would retain the right to keep a four or five year player by matching his best offer.
Don Fehr, Miller’s replacement as executive director, had no trust in Selig and this became even clearer in June of 1994 when the owners withheld $7.8 million that they were required to pay into the player’s benefits and pension plans. Fehr felt that the players had no choice but to strike and on August 11th, that’s exactly what they did.
It’s worth remembering that several individual players were on the verge of potentially record setting seasons. Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters of all time, looked like he might hit .400. Both Matt Williams of the Giants and Ken Griffey, Jr. of the Mariners, looked like they had a chance to break Roger Maris’ home record. The Yankees looked like they were heading for the postseason for the first time in 13 years. The Montreal Expos were seven games up on Atlanta when the season ended, and with a roster that included future Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker and future superstars Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou, it looked like they might become the team of the 1990s. All of them knew the consequences, but players like Gwynn and Tom Glavine knew they had to stand by the union.
Negotiations to resume play were not resolved in time for the 1994 season to resume; by September 14th the World Series had to be called off.
When the deadline passed, baseball’s owners voted for the use of replacement players which infuriated players and management. (Sparky Anderson, the Tigers manager, refused to manage under those circumstances and was put on ‘an involuntary leave of absence’.)
Finally on March 28, 1995 players voted to return to work if a district court judge supported the NLRB’s unfair labor practices complaint. Three days later, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners. The court of appeals upheld the ruling and ownership was bound to their original collective bargaining agreement. Essentially ownership lost more than half a billion dollars in revenue and got nothing in return.
And yet despite all of the fact, the players are still held by many as just as villainous in the pieces. Those who showed up in parks when play resumed booed the players who walked on the field and threw dollar bills at ownership. To be clear, fans were showing their contempt for ownership in a way they would feel the most — at the gate — but the players rarely got any support from the fans during this period. It was framed as a conflict of ‘millionaires versus billionaires,’ which as I put in my previous article is just another way of saying that the Players Union had been too successful and that so many people’s voices for organized labor will stop only when it doesn’t affect them directly.
Because this strike really did hurt baseball in a vital way. One can argue just as much that there would have been damage anyway from some of Selig’s other actions — many sportscasters were angered by the creation of the Wild Card race and the eventual creation of interleague play — but I imagine that for a generation of younger fans, who have no idea about labor issues, this was a betrayal that they never recovered from. I remember the strike and how infuriating it was, and it was only a series of outside events — Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record and Cleveland returning to the World Series after more than forty years — that made me embrace the game. I think other fans, young and old, may never have been as forgiving.
And it was perhaps as a result of this potentially mortal wound to the game that a scandal that was eventually even more destructive was allowed to unfold. In my penultimate article in this series, I will touch on steroid abuse, the economic reasons it happened and was allowed to perpetuate, and why we’re still blaming the wrong people for it.