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Sore Winner : A WHOLE DIFFERENT BALLGAME: The Sport and Business of Baseball, By Marvin Miller (Birch Lane Press / Carol Publishing Group: $21.95; 336 pp.)

August 18, 1991|George Will | Will is the author of "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball."

Follow the bouncing ball and sing along: "Arise ye prisoners of starvation . . ."

Baseball players have risen. And how. There has been a 2,000% increase in salaries in 20 years, and a commensurate increase in the dignity of their status relative to their employers.

Before the players organized a union, the owners were, more often than not, an overbearing lot. The players were among the last Americans to gain the right to negotiate the terms of their employment. But in the 25 years since Marvin Miller became head of the players' union, the Major League Baseball Players Assn., the players have gone from chattel to domination, from relative penury to riches beyond the dreams of even 1970s avarice.

The short, eventful history of the MLPA is quite a story. Miller, who breathed life into the MLPA and made it mighty as its head between 1966 and 1982, tells the story in "A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sports and Business of Baseball."

The heart of the story is the overthrow of the reserve clause that bound a player to one club for as long as the club wanted. When in 1976 players won the elemental right to leave one employer and seek another, the owners were unreconciled. Strife--lockouts, collusion, strikes--has been one result. Another is an average salary of almost $900,000. Miller recounts all this, and other fascinating arcana such as the business of bubble-gum cards, with polemical punch. And worse.

There is a problem inherent in the memoir genre, a tension that often results in the triumph of ego over editing. It should be instructive to read the reflections of people who have achieved big things. But the confidence, single-mindedness and moral certitude that serves such people in the realm of action often disfigures their reflections. As Miller tells it, his adversaries, the owners, were mostly wicked, boorish, corrupt and stupid, and his allies, the players, were often inconstant and uncomprehending. So blinkered is he by his egomania, he does not understand that if the owners were as dimwitted as he says, then his triumph over them was not as much of an achievement as he supposes.

His book is unrelievedly unpleasant. It is arrogant in tone, ad hominem in argument, ungenerous toward vanquished foes and mean-spirited toward former allies. This is particularly disappointing because it tarnishes a story that should sparkle. Miller played a large, indeed decisive role in a just cause, winning an unbroken skein of victories that made the national pastime, and hence the nation, better.

In fact, an even better case can be made for the union's work than Miller, in this lazy, score-settling book, bothers to make. The redistribution of baseball's burgeoning revenues has been good for the game. Baseball is played better because better athletes are drawn to it by the money, and are motivated to train and improve year 'round because long careers are so lucrative.

The owners were wrong about many things, but particularly in their warnings that the end of the reserve clause would bring the end of competitive balance. The worry was that a few rich teams in their biggest cities would corner the market on talent and monopolize the World Series. Actually, free agency has coincided with splendid turmoil in the standings. Consider:

From 1949 through 1953, the Yankees won five consecutive pennants. If the Dodgers had won two particular games--against the Phillies in the last game of the 1950 season, and the 1951 play-off game that Bobby Thomson's home run won for the Giants--the Dodgers, too, could have won five pennants from 1949 through 1953. And five Series would have been played entirely in two parks. The Yankees finished second in 1954, although they won 103 games. If 103 wins had sufficed, as it usually does, to win the pennant, the Yankees would have been in 10 consecutive Series. But since the 1977-78 Yankees--since, that is, free agency began to work--no team has won two consecutive Series.

Miller rightly gives short shrift to wooly-headed rubbish about how lovely baseball was "before money mattered." When was that? Miller is properly impatient with people who blame players for society's priorities. (No teacher is paid poorly because players are paid well.)

America's pastime is one place where Marx's labor theory of value makes much sense. The players are the central, indispensable ingredients in the creation of considerable wealth. This year fans will buy about 56 million tickets to major-league games (perhaps 4 million in Toronto). Not one fan will pay, or tune into the broadcasts now earning baseball more than half a billion a year, to see an owner.

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