Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2005/ 25 Tishrei 5766

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Greed's Always Been Part of Baseball — And So What?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Last month, the boys and I were taking a walk downtown when a sidewalk yard sale in Charles Village—the hub for Johns Hopkins students—caught my attention. I've been a packrat since childhood, carting boxes of albums, books, souvenirs from trips abroad, periodicals and personal memorabilia from residence to residence, city to city, a not uncommon tic that nonetheless drives my wife nuts. Several times a year Melissa goes on the warpath, attempting to make some order out of our dwelling, tossing away ignored toys, clothes and Pokemon trading cards, for example, an obsession (in my view) that's earned her the moniker of the "Great Recycler" from Nicky and Booker.

Anyway, stopping by to inspect the collection of junk in Charles Village I found an April 15, 1958 copy of the long-defunct biweekly Look that was being offered for a mere 50 cents, not much more than its 20-cent newsstand price. The cover alone—including a subscription label addressed to Mr. E.J.J. Gobrecht of Hanover, Pennsylvania, with no zip code of course—was reason enough to fork over half a buck. The lead story was headlined "Revolution in Records," with pictures of Elvis, Sinatra, the McGuire Sisters and Johnny Mathis, topped by two teasers, "The Woman Behind Khrushchev" and "Is Greed Killing Baseball?"

It was the latter story that grabbed me, not to slight Nikita or the saccharine pop tunes of Mathis, since it's one that's reprised oh, about 18 times a year, every year, during the baseball season. The piece was written by C. Leo DeOrsey, not entirely an objective source given his position as "Director" of the soon-to-leave-for-Minnesota Washington Senators, and like most morality lectures about the sport's fatal venality, this article was fairly ridiculous, particularly in retrospect. At the time the sport had just seen the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants leave for the more lucrative locales of Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively (although MLB still had just 16 teams in total), but that wasn't DeOrsey's beef.

It was his contention, and this really is quaint, that America's pastime was in peril because too many MLB games were broadcast on television, thus leading to the ruin of independent minor league teams in towns and cities across the country. As it happens, while researching the biography of DeOrsey, Google led me to a 2002 article by ESPN.com's excellent Rob Neyer, who quickly attested that the minor leagues were, in fact, still thriving.

In addition, despite claims by know-it-alls that Little League participation has gone the way of the McGuire Sisters and evening newspapers, citing the popularity of soccer, videogames and the Internet, a record three million kids played on organized teams in 1996, just two years after the MLB strike that left many fans so sour that they pledged to boycott MLB for the near future. I was part of that mob, giving up prime season tickets to Yankee Stadium, where I had seats in the third row of the upper deck right behind home plate, foul-ball heaven. Not long after, I re-upped at the Stadium and found myself in right field, just barely in fair territory.

As a fan who's delighted that so many MLB games are available via television, thanks to ESPN, Fox and cable packages, I found this DeOrsey passage especially entertaining. "At issue is whether Congress will permit 16 club owners to force the rest of the country to enjoy its baseball vicariously—via TVů Every American baseball fan then could be at the mercy of slot-machine kings, because the fans eventually might be compelled to drop a quarter into the slot to see a televised game.

And once these syndicates got a stranglehold on pay-TV and the club owners demanded more tribute, what would there be to stop them boosting the price to 50 cents or $1—or more?"

Now, it's not entirely fair to pick on a baseball executive working for a losing team 48 years ago—although one could quibble that DeOrsey didn't once mention the slow pace of integration in the big leagues, most notable with the Boston Red Sox and Yankees—but what the heck, its naysayers like him who confirm that nothing much changes in baseball, whether it's members of Congress attempting to avoid real issues and harp on the crowd-pleasing scandal of the day—like Sens. Jim Bunning and John McCain and their obsession with steroids—or the consistent complaint of "greed" in baseball.

Isn't it time to realize that baseball and other spectator sports are big business, subject to market conditions, and that the days of bringing transistor radios to school to hear the play-by-play of World Series day games are from a distant America? I agree that it sucks my 11-year-old, a devoted BoSox fan who models his batting stance after Johnny Damon's, falls asleep by the third inning of a post-season game, but whining about it won't change anything.

I got a real kick out of the phantom Joe Torre-George Steinbrenner standoff since the Yanks were eliminated by the Angels earlier this month, reported breathlessly by New York's dailies, with some sportswriters saying that Joe was going to chuck the remaining $13 million on his contract to give Steinbrenner the finger and demonstrated his solidarity with Mel Stottlemyre, Don Zimmer (of all people!), Gene Michael and every other functionary the Yankee owner has humiliated at various times over the years. Predictably, Torre elected to stay with the team (and collect his dough), although it was pretty embarrassing that he was swayed by Steinbrenner's initial greeting of "Hello, Joseph!" and quickly folded, saying that theirs was a sometimes bumpy relationship but rich and rewarding nonetheless.

Couldn't have Torre, who certainly appears to be a decent man and unquestionably a great manager, refrained from the Sally Field routine and made Steinbrenner squirm a little more for his services?

Still, Torre's retreat without a single round of fire wasn't a patch on a deplorable op-ed in the Oct. 19 Los Angeles Times by David P. Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Barash begins his own tirade about sports greed, and sucker spectators who enjoy following professional athletics, by writing, "Isn't it bad enough that the hurricane season is still around? Now we have the World Series bearing down on us with all of its predictable sound and fury and heavy breathing signifying less than nothing." What a fun guy.

He continues: "Was it really a national disaster when a bunch of grossly overpaid, barely literate prima donnas refused to chase balls on artificial grass [the '94 strike]. Or when these paragons are revealed to be hormonally enhanced when as well as ethically and intellectually challenged?" Barash doesn't note that "barely literate" actors, some of whom believe their status as celebrities make them foreign policy experts, aren't exactly starving.

Complain all you want, but rooting for a favorite team is one of the most uplifting aspects of popular culture, especially during the current era's political polarization, where longtime friends break off contact after arguing about the future of Social Security or the war in Iraq. My father-in-law, for example, is a committed Democrat, and so while we leave the topic of Bush and Hillary alone, it's fun to speculate on the fate of his team, the White Sox, who last appeared in the Series when he was a senior at M.I.T. A shared interest in sports can be a great equalizer: I'd say elitists like Professor Barash are the ones who are "intellectually challenged" and culturally myopic.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- was the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2005, Russ Smith