Monday, March 21, 2016

In Defense of the Millionaire Athlete

Rounders was the most popular sport during the American Civil War. Abner Doubleday codified the rules and added some interesting features and renamed it baseball. After the war, the first professional sports team in America, or perhaps anywhere, was formed ... the Cincinnati Red Stockings. By the 1870's, they were pulling crowds of over 10,000 fans. The owners saw the  opportunity to make money and started charging at the gate, 10 cents for home games and ladies were free. The laws of supply and demand ensued. This thinned out the crowd a little and made the owner some coin. They also started paying their players because winning teams attracted more fans. You could attract the better players by paying them. The team went out of business in 1880's, then the Guilded Age struck America. Eventually the team moved to Boston and were renamed it the Boston Red Sox.

Once the economy picked up again, the league started back up. By the end of the 19th century, a lot of money was being made in baseball, mostly by the owners. Players needed to be paid higher wages so that they could quit their jobs and play full time.  Being a baseball player required a lot of travel, mostly local back then but still a lot of travel.  They started making more than your average laborer. Because they had fans, they also had clout therefore had demands. The owners didn't want to lose control so they came up with the Reserve Clause. It was embedded in every baseball player's contract in 1879.  Just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation, if these players wanted to play baseball, they were to be owned by the clubs, paid what the team determined and had to remain with the team until the team wanted to release them. They were paid but not much more than the average worker and this remained this way for about 80 years.  In that time, the amount of money increased tremendously while the player's salaries increased mildly.

This system was challenged many times. Players went on strike, court cases were filed and other leagues formed but it always fell on the side of the owners, until 1969.  The St. Louis Cardinals informed their outfielder Curt Flood that he was being traded to Philadelphia. He was told that he had no say in the matter and had to back his things and move his family to Phillie. He had been settled in St. Louis for over a decade and wasn't looking forward to going to Phillie who fans were notoriously racist. He said "no" and brought them to court. He lost, but in the long run, he won. The player's union realized that defeating the Reserve Clause was popular with the players and it was used as a bargaining chip for the next few years during collective bargaining. By 1975, some contract were created without the reserve clause and it eventually disappeared.  Free agency was born and so was the millionaire athlete.

Teams own their players still. They are not employees, but property. They don't produce commodities for their owners like the rest of us, but they are the commodity. They are being sold. The owners control, or at least try to, what they do in their free time. They control the substances they put in their bodies. The players can't skateboard, hand glide or even play volley ball. Recently, Baltimore Orioles has added pie throwing as a banned activity. They can't speak their minds, although often they do, especially now with Twitter. They represent a brand so the brand is expected to shine ... at all times. When you expect this of a person, when they are bought/sold/traded, you better compensate them well.

Today, our derision for this situations has swung the other way. Some players make an obscene amount of money. I am sticking with baseball here because that is what I know, but this applies to other sports as well.  In 1976, the average player made $50,000, that is $206,000.00 in today's economy.  Not a bad amount of money but considering the amount of travelling, the fact that you have no privacy or freedom and you got the privilege of having 40,000 fans yelling slurs at you half the time, that isn't that much money.  Today, the average salary is around $4 million. I think I could deal with it for the money. The highest paid player in baseball now is Clayton Kershaw who will make $32.5 million this year. Among the five highest players are two on the Phillies, a last place team, who make $25 million each. Ryan Howard is no longer any good and Cliff Lee might be retired, but the Phillies still have to pay him.  It is obscene, but like everything else, you have to consider the alternatives ... our current situation is better.

I still heard the tired arguments about players making too much money. I see it every now and then on Facebook. When you know the history, it is cringe-worthy.  Just because you don't like something, it doesn't mean the alternative to it isn't worse. Professional sports team make a lot of money. If I have a choice between the player or the owners making the money, I will go with the players. No question.  Why? Here is what happens when a baseball player makes millions, it trickles down.  Example, Marian Rivera, ex-pitcher and future Hall of Famer for the Yankees, was born in Panama City; his father was a fisherman. When he wasn't breaking the hearts of Red Sox fans, he founded a foundation called the Mariano Rivera Foundation. They contribute $500,000 annually to help educating poor children in Panama, Dominican Republic, Mexico and the US .... building schools, churches, providing computers and supporting mentoring programs.  These type of foundations aren't that uncommon, Craig Breslow, Ryan Dempster, Curtis Ganderson, Cole Hamles, Tim Hudson, Derek Jeter, David Price, Albert Pujols, C.C. Sabathia, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, David Wright, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Zimmerman, among others .... all have charity foundations. I am guessing, and I don't think I am assuming too much here, that the average ball player probably gives more to charity than your average baseball owner.

1 comment:

Chuck McGill said...


The Mills Commission concluded that baseball had been invented by Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York in 1839; that Doubleday had invented the word "baseball", designed the diamond, indicated fielder positions, written down the rules and the field regulations. However, no written records from 1839 or the 1840s have ever been found to corroborate these claims; nor could Doubleday be interviewed for he had died in 1893. The principal source for the story was a letter from elderly Abner Graves, a five-year-old resident of Cooperstown in 1839. But Graves never mentioned a diamond, positions or the writing of rules. Graves' reliability as a witness has also been questioned because he was later convicted of murdering his wife and spent his final days in an asylum for the criminally insane. Further, Doubleday was not in Cooperstown in 1839. He was already enrolled at West Point and there is no record of any leave time. Mills, a lifelong friend of Doubleday, had never heard him mention inventing baseball.