The World Series is over, and it’s time to start counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report. That means it’s time for free agency, which somehow hasn’t destroyed the league in the 39 seasons since Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally finally broke through the reserve clause.
But make no mistake: people around baseball were afraid free agency would ruin the game, much like so many around the NCAA are afraid dismantling amateurism will ruin the charm of college football. In 1979, Petersen’s Professional Baseball Yearbook — a baseball preview magazine filled with major national writers like the New York Times’s Murray Chass — focused on violence. One of those forms of violence was the violence of inflation — player salary inflation, to be specific.
The article in question is titled “Violent Inflation: Baseball’s Doom?” As ominous as it sounds, it begins innocuously enough. Jerry Green, a sportswriter enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, spins a few yarns about Reggie Jackson, who signed a five-year, $2.9 million contract with the Yankees in 1978. Jackson is presented as the arrogant rich athlete, the man whose hubris and lack of humility will bring the whole sport crashing down with him. The quotes, carefully selected, express this dangerous side of Jackson.
After a road springing training game Jackson was irritated about attending:
“This is spring training. If I run three-quarters speed these people don’t understand. I’m a black man with all the money in the world. People resent that I got it and the rest of those bleep-bleepers didn’t. I don’t owe anybody nothing except the man that pays me.”
After Billy Martin pulled Jackson for supposedly not running after a fly ball he let drop:
“I’m a black man with an IQ of 160 making $700,000 a year and they treat me like dirt.”
Green tells these stories. He tells the stories of Rod Carew, who bolted Minnesota for Anaheim and a five-year, $4 million contract. He tells of Pete Rose, who ditched the Reds for the Phillies and a four-year, $3.2 million deal, and of Larry Bowa, a teammate who was unhappy about the move.
“I guess our players have everything to lose and nothing to gain with Pete here. If we win, they’ll say Pete won it. If we lose they’ll say Pete can’t play with losers.”
It’s all terrifying stuff, but Green doesn’t make the consequences of baseball’s violent inflation clear until later in the article.
“George Steinbrenner has bought three American League pennants and two world championships for the Yankees. The champions Charlie Finley once owned in Oakland have been scattered to the winds on windfalls of money. The old A’s used to call Charlie cheap and it was one of the nicest things they said about him. Reggie and Catfish are with Steinbrenner; Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace are with Ray Kroc, the hamburger magnate, in San Diego. Joe Rudi is with Gene Autry in California. Bert Campaneris is with Brad Corbett in Texas.”
So the problem is one of competitive balance. It’s a fair enough concern, albeit one that doesn’t hold much water. The Yankees won most of their 27 championships before free agency. Large markets consistently dominate in sports with salary caps like the NFL, NBA and NHL. But it was an understandable concern before we had actually seen the effects of free agency — something that didn’t exist in any of the other professional leagues at the time.
And if it ended on that note, it would be understandable. But it didn’t.
“So the money violence will continue with these projections.
1. There will be a million dollar a year outfielder in the major leagues by 1980.
2. A club will not be able to make it and will go under because of bankruptcy.
3. The loyal fans will have to foot the bill — and then watch disgruntedly as their favorite player greedily strips off the home uniform, tears up his roots and goes to the highest bidder.
4. Only the Arabs and Japanese will be able to afford to own a major league baseball franchise.”
That, as they say, escalated quickly.
A little historical context: In early 1979, massive protests in Iran led to an energy crisis, the second major one in six years. Oil exports dropped substantially as a result of the protest and the drop in supply led to a massive price hike in the United States. Additionally, these price hikes saw a rise in popularity of imported gas-efficient models like the Japanese Toyota Corolla, hence Green’s concerns about both the Arabs and the Japanese.
But here we are, nearly 40 years later, and baseball’s ownership group has been far from overthrown by an eastern scourge. In fact, outside of the Nintendo-owned Mariners, baseball ownership remains a nearly pure-white institution.
Throughout American history, though, there is nothing that terrifies the elite — or people like Green, those who carry the water for the elite — like the prospect of white money heading in the direction of minorities. Sports are no different. Whether it’s talented and newly rich black players (and particularly outspoken ones) like Jackson or potential rich owners from overseas, free agency threatened to break down the old boys’ club that was Reserve Clause Baseball.
And sure, the owners power is limited today relative to the reserve clause days. Players can force their way out of a bad situation. Players can earn a huge payday on the free agent market. But the owners are still rich, still mostly white, and still hold a phenomenal amount of power, able to hold cities hostage for public funding as they roll in their own millions. Despite Green’s trepidations, no number of Reggie Jacksons and no number of Middle Eastern oil magnates could dismantle that power structure.