Over the past two weeks, this column has looked at pro-ownership responses to free agency. In 1979, Jerry Green wrote a season preview piece in which he stated free agency would inevitably result in a world in which “only the Arabs and Japanese will be able to own a major league baseball franchisee.” Similarly, Green and Atlantic Monthly writer Michael Lenehan painted openly racist Twins owner Calvin Griffith as a sympathetic figure as talented players left his team for richer owners, despite his hate speech and incidents like calling Rod Carew “a damn fool” for signing a multi-year contract.
Reading both stories in question, it was clear that Green and Lenehan were operating from a pro-owner (and therefore anti-player, either explicitly or implicitly) point of view. This shouldn’t be overly surprising — as much as journalism is about speaking truth to power, speaking truth to power is hard, especially when one spends so much time around the powerful.
James Crusinberry, a charter member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and its president in 1929 and 1930, wrote about his interaction with owners in the game’s early years in the July 1949 issue of Baseball Magazine. Crusinberry was writing about the press conference, its place in the baseball news cycle, and what reporters did before the existence of the press conference.
Crusinberry tells the story of one of his first days on the job, when he missed a conference with American League president Ban Johnson and was nearly fired as a result. He continues:
“However, I guess my youth excused me on that occasion and it wasn’t long before I acquired the tricks of baseball reporting, and found such a good friend in Charles A. Comiskey that I decided I wanted to make baseball writing my life’s work.”
Crusinberry doesn’t give a date, but according to BaseballLibrary.com, his career began with the Chicago Chronicle in 1903, so the events of his following stories likely all occurred in the 1900s or 1910s. Crusinberry tells of the makeshift press conferences Comiskey hosted six times a week during the offseason, where Comiskey not only disseminated his news but made friends of the reporters on the Chicago baseball beat:
“There was a small private room in one of the popular ‘loop’ taverns, where he held forth, and where the gentlemen of the press called every afternoon. Many a good baseball story was handed out in that little room. It was there that Mr. Comiskey gave out the news that the following winter his White Sox, and John McGraw’s New York Giants, would make a trip around the world. Many days there was no news given out, but a reporter never left there empty-handed. When he returned to his newspaper office he would find he had ten or a dozen fine cigars, accumulated because of the numerous times during the afternoon he had said: ‘Make mine a cigar this time.’”
Additionally, Crusinberry tells the story of Charles Webb Murphy, one of the owners who took over the Cubs following the 1905 season. Murphy belonged to the “no news is bad news” school. “Boost me if you can, but keep my name and the Cubs in the paper, even if you have to knock me,” Murphy said at one of his early press conferences. And he would go even farther. Per Crusinberry:
On one occasion, when the writers were gathered in Murphy’s office, he called them into his private room. “I’m giving all of you a statement,” he said. “Here it is: ‘Mr. Ban Johnson is just a big drunken bum.’ There’s a suit of clothes in it for each of you fellows if you’ll get that in your paper, quoting me.
Well — there were five of us in the conference, representing five Chicago papers. One paper printed it the next morning. Four of us wouldn’t use it. Murphy must have made good with his offer, too, because a few days later, the reporter who printed the statement, a reporter, by the way, who didn’t last long in the game, was wearing a nice new suit of clothes.
Crusinberry is telling us the best of the best of his stories, of course, but this is still illustrative of the lengths owners would go to get reporters on their side. Whether it was tangible offers — like a suit, or perhaps straight cash — or simply their presence as the primary newsbreakers in town, owners established themselves as a reporters best friend.
Things have certainly changed in the century or so since Crusinberry’s stories — owners and reporters don’t generally have these kinds of direct relationships any more. But it should be a little more clear why reporters like Green and Lenehan were willing to carry water for the Calvin Griffiths of the world. The owners have a lot to offer, and not every journalist is going to be strong enough to resist. The lesson, again, is simple: think critically. Recognize the source, and recognize the agenda, because money and objectivity don’t mix well.