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Hardball : MAJOR LEAGUE LOSERS: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It. By Mark S. Rosentraub . BasicBooks: 513 pp., $27.50

March 02, 1997|ROGER KAHN | Roger Kahn is the author of many books, including the forthcoming "Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art and Writing About It a Game" (Hyperion)

Mark S. Rosentraub and some academic colleagues, mostly from the University of Indiana, bang the drums loudly in their polemic, "Major League Losers." The tom-toms seem to be saying this: The hustlers who run big-time sports in the United States and Canada must be regulated immediately. If not, they will steal our tax money, seduce our daughters, burn our crops.

Well, no. Rosentraub doesn't mention daughters or crops. But he is deadly serious about those characters sportswriters used to call magnates--the men who wheel and deal and run big-time sports.

Offering case studies from a variety of venues, Rosentraub argues against the use of any more tax money for big-dollar sport. Let club owners buy their own land like anybody else. Let them pay for their own buildings. Whatever owners tell us, Rosentraub says, big-time sports actually produce few jobs and have "a negligible positive impact even on their own immediate neighborhood."

No one is going to read this work for its prose. But "Major League Losers" is not about prose or the poetry of sport, for that matter. It is about challenging the premises that the magnates peddle and that the media too frequently accept.

In the end this book guides readers toward a significant question. Are big-time sports a good thing? That is not a question raised by the editors of Sports Illustrated or by power television sportscasters. The editors at Sports Illustrated and the television sportscasters are part of big-time sports themselves.

"Major League Losers" inspires fresh and unconventional thinking. That is what makes it significant.

The late John R. Tunis' classic study "The American Way in Sport" apparently is quite forgotten (Rosentraub doesn't list it in his bibliography). The essence of Tunis' message, circa 1960, was a lamentation for the way sports had been stolen away from fans.

As a boy, Tunis attended the final game of the first World Series in 1903. He bought his ticket from the famous pitcher, Cy Young. Since Young wasn't starting that afternoon, he went to work in a ticket booth. Just imagine something like that today. ("No, you are not off this evening, Mr. Nomo. You sell tickets till game time. Then you hawk scorecards in Section 12.")

The Boston Pilgrims won that first series, defeating the Pittsburgh team of Honus Wagner. After the final game, Boston fans rushed onto the field, lifted the players to their shoulders and bore them triumphantly down Huntington Avenue. "These days," Tunis wrote, sadly, "any fan rushing on the field and hoisting a winning World Series player on to his shoulders will be arrested."

By the time the New York Herald Tribune assigned me to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, I had memorized "Lines on the Transpontine Madness" from Stanley Woodward's brief, brilliant book "Sports Page": "Baseball writers develop a great attachment for the Brooklyn club if long exposed. That was so in the days of Wilbert Robinson [1920] and it is so today. We found it advisable to shift Brooklyn writers frequently. If we hadn't, we would have had on our hands a member of the Brooklyn baseball club, rather than a newspaper reporter. You must watch a Brooklyn writer for symptoms and, before they become virulent, shift him to the Yankees or to tennis or golf."

I was being paid not to promote the Dodgers, but to report on them. When Red Smith grew gushy in a column about Joe DiMaggio, Woodward issued a directive. "Stop godding up athletes." At Woodward's Tribune--a golden land for sportswriting--we reported as honestly as we knew how on players and owners, emperors and clowns, limited only by the boundaries of taste.

Today, the influence of newspapers and independent newspaper sportswriters has shriveled, like a rhododendron in the frost. The major sports news source is television, and the superstars of communication are no longer newspaper columnists. Today's stars are wealthy men who work broadcast booths.

The networks that employ them invest hundreds of millions of bucks to broadcast sports. Do you think network honchos warn sportscasters these days against "godding up" the athletes? Their counsel goes the other way: "Make everything and everyone just as great as you can, guys. We need the ratings."

Watching big-time college football on the networks, we see halftime photo essays on happy days at Silo Tech. We do not get essays on how big-time sports distorts life on the campus.

"I once flunked two football players in the same semester," Les Martin, a Notre Dame English professor, told me some time back. "I didn't get another athlete in my class for years.

"It gives me a certain pleasure to announce when the season is over. Football has ended. It's Chaucer time again."

What about the impecunious youths who build worthwhile lives on the foundation of an athletic scholarship? For every Paul Robeson, you find a thousand melon heads playing big-time football who don't belong in college in the first place.

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