Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Boss is Dead

I have a soft spot for historical figures that did the right thing, against all odds, and succeeded. The easiest place to see it, for me, is in baseball. I am not going to compare George Steinbrenner to Rosa Parks ... comparing him to Branch Rickey might be more palatable.

Branch Rickey was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he recruited the great Jackie Robinson to be the first player to cross the color line. Because he did so Dodgers were great for many years later not only because they had Jackie Robinson but other black players that other teams (like the Cubs and the Red Sox) would not go near. The Cubs and the Red Sox were two of the last teams to integrate and their records in the 50's and 60's show it. They excluded themselves from a pool of great players and suffered for it. I say this as a lifelong Red Sox fan. The history of my team would be very different if the owners in the mid-20th century were not so darn racist. We celebrate Branch and Jackie for their courage to challenge something that was wrong and they succeeded in making a great thing, Major League Baseball, even greater.

To a lesser extent, Steinbrenner did the same thing as the owner of the Yankees. In the 1970's MLB was still shaken up by free agency. Where players were once beholden to teams for the length of their careers, they now had control over what team they played for after their contracts expired. Most Major League owners rejected free agency. Steinbrenner saw it as an opportunity and used the power of his very big purse to sign (aka steal) Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter from the A's. They have been stocking their team with free agents ever since. After seeing the Yankees winning the World Series in '77 and '78, other teams followed suit and embraced free agency. Many baseball fans like myself find free agency to be a necessary evil to the game. Prior to free agency, players were thought of as highly paid slaves (a commodity being sold) whose lives were at the mercy of the owners and MLB executives. Now many players (the people who actually do the work) are paid more than the executives. Little is done with their lives without their say in the matter.

I cannot say that I am a fan of Steinbrenner, after all he was a Yankee. He was a fairly despicable person. He was once banned from baseball for paying a gambler $40k to dig up "dirt" on Dave Winfield during a contract dispute. In 1974 he pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign, and to a felony charge of obstruction of justice. He actually reminds me of Nixon in that in his death, people come out of the woodwork to say nice things about him where days before he was openly disdained. The NY Post dedicated 43 pages to him in yesterday's edition.

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