A Whole Different Ball Game

Judging by the reverent tone of many recent books and movies on the subject, it would be easy to conclude that baseball is a religion rather than a business governed by much the same economic imperatives as other forms of enterprise.

Myth and nostalgia about the game, as Marvin Miller argues in A Whole Different Ball Game, this contentiously engaging memoir of his career as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, have always served the baseball establishment well. Credited by friend and foe alike as the man who broke the system by which team owners bought and sold players like chattel, Miller was portrayed in much of the sporting press as ”the villain, the union man who had introduced the evil serpent of money into baseball’s Garden of Eden.” Miller saw his job differently. By establishing a collective-bargaining agreement for players, he helped ”bring the free enterprise system into baseball” for the first time.

Free enterprise, of course, entails competition. But as Miller tells the story, competition was the last thing baseball moguls wanted. Like robber barons during the presidency of U.S. Grant, they preferred the comforts of monopoly. Permitting baseball players to change employers at the end of their contracts — a freedom enjoyed by every worker in every other profession in the U.S. and Canada — would, they argued, be the ruination of the game’s ”competitive balance.”

Ballplayers and sportswriters accustomed to hearing this line ever since Little League had never thought to question it. ”Wouldn’t the wealthiest team get all the stars?” asked Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton during Miller’s first meeting with the team in 1966. ”What would you say,” Miller responded ”about a system which has produced one team that has won 30 pennants and 20 World Series [the Yankees themselves] in the past 45 years?” Confronted with this logic, the players came around — particularly after Miller’s negotiations on their behalf began to pay spectacular dividends.

If nothing else, A Whole Different Ball Game ought to be required reading for contemporary ballplayers unaware of the origins of their good fortune. In 1967, the average big leaguer’s salary was $19,000; in 1990 it was $597,000. But even Miller concedes that some have begun to play as if their wealth is God’s reward for innate virtue.

That much said, readers should be warned. While he’s a compelling storyteller with an insider’s view of the business of baseball — including vignettes of characters as diverse as Reggie Jackson, Brooks Robinson, George Steinbrenner, and Bart Giamatti — Miller tends to be both dogged and repetitious. Modesty is not his greatest virtue. His repeated assaults on former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who clearly did everything to deserve them, nevertheless border on the obsessive. Even so, this is a must for baseball fans. B+

A Whole Different Ball Game
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