Arts & Culture » Arts

The Old Ballgame

Historian Charles Korr debunks a few myths about baseball


Charles "Chuck" Korr leans, arguably, to the side of labor in the ongoing disputes between baseball players and owners. But as a historian, and one who has done his research to write The End of Baseball as We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-81, the University of Missouri-St. Louis professor possesses the knowledge, facts and good sense to expose decades of stupidity on the side of management.

"Up through last year, baseball ownership has systematically done one of the silliest things any industry has ever done," says Korr. "They in effect have spent 35 years creating attack ads on their product. Where does the term 'selfish, greedy ballplayer' derive from? It's owners talking to reporters and general managers. Where does the concept of players' not caring about the game come from?

"This idea that you demean your workers publicly is standard labor relations, but baseball's different. You're demeaning the product: 'These guys don't give a damn about the game. Come watch them play!' That's a great advertising campaign for baseball."

No sport in America is more burdened by mythology than baseball. In the mythology of baseball, for example, owner actions are for "the good of the game." As a historian, Korr's job is to tear down myths. In The End of Baseball as We Knew It, Korr seeks to dispel one of the most comforting American myths: the innocence of the baseball diamond.

"One of the first things I do in each of my classes is to talk about the creation of myths and legends and the rewriting of history," says Korr, an academic with the gift of storytelling. "There are some malignant myths. The best one to use is the 'stab in the back' at the end of World War I: Germany lost the war because of Jews and Communists. That provides the basis for the Nazi Party.

"On the other hand, there's a nice benign myth about Abner Doubleday. We know Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball, but we know he had to [have] invent[ed] baseball, because we needed a genuine American hero to invent baseball so baseball couldn't be derivative of the English schoolboy game of rounders. What you needed was a myth to inspire good solid American young men.

"But who's hurt by it? The pastoral myth [of baseball] is the same thing. Who's damaged by it? It's a pastoral game until the 1870s, but as soon as they start putting bleachers up and fences up and charging admission ... Fenway Park does not exist as a way to stop farm animals from eating the grass. It's a way to get people to pay to watch other people who are getting paid to play."

Despite the treacly prose of the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti ("[Baseball] is a living memory of what American culture at its best wants to be") and hundreds of sportswriters over the years, each insisting on baseball as a romantic fable, baseball is business.

In that, argues Korr, it is a wholly American game. "Baseball is American because it combines the pastoral origins of America with nineteenth-century cutthroat capitalism. To deny that is to deny what America is all about.

"The Gilded Age and its sense of excess -- or as some people prefer, the Gilded Age and its sense of initiative -- existed. It is the foundation for American culture in the twentieth century -- and what we've seen so far of the twenty-first century.

"If baseball is really representative of all that is best and worst of America, then let's not deny the realities of professional baseball. The major leagues were made up of people who either wanted to make money selling tickets or selling sporting goods or advertising a political party or putting the ballpark near the streetcar line that they owned. That's reality. The only people that were told that wasn't the reality of baseball up until 1976 were the players."

The End of Baseball as We Knew It chronicles the players' age of enlightenment. In so doing, Korr dispels another myth -- that of the evil Svengali Marvin J. Miller, executive director of the players' union from 1966-82.

Perhaps no single figure in the history of the union has been more reviled by owners, sportswriters and fans than Miller. According to those who prospered from the status quo, and those living comfortably with their myths, Miller's mission was to destroy the hallowed game, and his method of doing so was to bewitch the poor, ignorant ballplayers. How could any group of hayseeds lucky enough to be paid to play baseball ever consider themselves exploited unless a mustachioed pinko labor leader convinced them of their servitude?

The Miller who emerges from Korr's account -- and Korr was given full access to the union records -- is one who listened attentively to his membership and, in so doing, led the organization where it wanted to go. In 1972, for example, the year of the first baseball strike, Miller repeatedly cautioned the players about the risks involved. "You only get one chance at your first strike," he told them, "and if you don't win that one you have lost the union."

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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