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A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Just as baseball shoots itself in the head, the man who perfectly symbolizes the game these days--all-star jiveass Deion Sanders--slips away to San Francisco to play football.

Before Prime Time's plane can land on the Day of Infamy, owner Jerry McMorris decides to reward the patience, loyalty and goodwill of Colorado Rockies fans by jacking up ticket prices for a 1995 season that may not happen.

In Pittsburgh, Andy Van Slyke of the Pirates suggests, with some annoyance, that baseball fans go to the movies or watch NFL games. One thing's as good as another, after all. Right. Van Slyke will probably be taking astrophysics in night school this fall.

Up in Beantown, the owner of the Boston Red Sox accuses major-league players of misjudging the "solidarity" of the owners: Had the players waited for the end of the 1994 season to strike, he insists, everything might have been different.

Sure, and if someone hadn't plugged the archduke, World War I would never have started.

Given an atmosphere of sheer absurdity, it sounds vaguely logical when baseball players start talking about forming their own league. This must be pretty heady stuff for guys who own more cars than books, but as you probably know, there's a precedent. The experiment quickly failed, but it happened. Although it's likely today's players are using their threat of a breakaway purely for leverage against their employers, the greed-mongers who own the teams would do well to look up the name John Montgomery Ward.

Back in 1888 National League owners announced...well, they announced a salary cap, actually, of $2,500 per man per season and a "classification plan" that would rank players from "A" to "E." A-listers would thenceforth get $2,500; E players would be paid $500 and for their trouble get to take tickets at the gate before games...and clean the grandstands afterward. That's great. Think of Jayhawk Owens or Roberto Mejia sweeping the Cracker Jack boxes out of section 105, still wearing their double-knit white unis and their Nike spikes.

In 1889 angry National Leaguers turned to Monte Ward, the New York Giants' shortstop. He had a law degree from Columbia and four years earlier had formed a sort of baseball union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. Richard Ravitch and Ted Turner may be shocked to hear it, but the Brotherhood paid into the kitty themselves and formed the eight-team Players League--complete with part ownership, profit sharing and a highly democratic league council. Wealthy brothers Al and Tom Johnson bankrolled the project.

Ward lured away many National League stars of the day, but the Players competed for just one season. The opposition, led by Chicago White Stockings owner A. G. Spalding (yes, the guy with his name on the ball), branded the Brotherhood "anarchists" and "traitors," railed against them in a bought-and-paid-for press and hauled Ward into court. Spalding and company otherwise high-spiked the upstarts with simultaneous game scheduling and price-cutting at the gate.

Significantly, the National League also rescinded its salary cap.
Despite winning the hearts and minds of "the boys," the Players League folded before the end of the 1890 season, and its members were reabsorbed into the NL and the American Association. Their attempt at self-determination had failed.

The real losers, as usual, were the paying customers. At that time, by the way, fans were not called fans but "kranks." Given the krankier and krankier state of the game, this might not be a bad time to revive the Day of the Krank.

Meanwhile, can current major-leaguers start a league of their own?
Just a few weeks ago, most baseball insiders were laughing at the idea, but the odds on this long shot have dropped some now that Bud Selig has called the '94 season out on strikes and pessimists are predicting gloom and mutual distrust for next year--along with the specter of minor-league replacement players on the field for opening day.

Before they're reduced to baloney sandwiches over at the mission, millionaires like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Darren Daulton and Brett Butler, say, might well be able to convince potential investors of the viability of a new league. After all, the world is full of rich people eager to sniff a jock. Backed by fame, their own hefty bank accounts and deep-rooted fan dissatisfaction, breakaway players just might have a little more luck than Ward.

Remember the ill-fated Continental League? As you remember, Denver was supposed to be a charter member of that project more than thirty years ago. What you may not know is that the latest proposal for a third major league has been in the works for more than five years. By 1989 the proposed United States Baseball League had landed owners for eight teams, including Donald Trump, and scheduled a 1990 debut. But when baseball's collusion problems were solved and players began signing long-term contracts, the idea went back into hiding.

Going, going, gone. But not forgotten.
The big stumbling blocks in 1994 A.D. (After Disaster) include stadium access, scheduling dates and baseball's long-standing antitrust exemption, by which the lords of the game operate as an unregulated cartel. That exemption, given the congressional once-over every few years, will next week undergo what could be harder scrutiny by the House Judiciary Committee. Apparently, there are still some baseball fans on Capitol Hill, and they're no happier about the cancellation of the World Series than anyone else.

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