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A few times in this space, I’ve covered the rhetoric of owners threatened by the specter of rising player salaries. When the major leagues had their antitrust exemption challenged in Congress in the early 1900s, National Baseball Commission president August Herrmann sounded awfully similar to NCAA president Mark Emmert today. Both claimed the current way is the only way, and that any changes (calling baseball a trust or paying NCAA athletes) would destroy the game.

And as the early days of free agency led to players becoming millionaires, owners and writers alike fretted about the potential consequences of players earning increasingly higher salaries. As Jerry Green wrote in 1979:

“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.”

I have generally characterized these and similar statements as pure rhetoric, designed to keep the baseball-loving public on their side. Throughout this series of articles I have implied that the owners and their lackeys were intentionally deceptive, that they knew better and were simply being manipulative. Such an approach, I now realize, gives the owners too much credit.

Go back to April of 1981. It had been nine years since Flood v. Kuhn and six since the reserve clause was struck down and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were made baseball’s first free agents. Baseball indeed saw its first million dollar a year player in 1980, although it was pitcher Nolan Ryan and not an outfielder like Green predicted. And the owners acted just like they talked: scared.

From 1979 through 1981, eight teams saw turnover in the owners box: the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets all sold to new owners, over 30 percent of the then 26-team league. In the spring of 1981, the Carpenter family put the Phillies up for sale, eventually to become the ninth team sold in the two-year stretch.

“Phils-for-Sale Scares Owners” read the headline on page 15 of the April 11th, 1981 issue of The Sporting News. Phillies president Ruly Carpenter stated he was “disgusted with the running battle between owners and players and was particularly upset over ‘ridiculous’ contracts won by the 1980 crop of free agents.” Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner and mouthpiece of the owners, said:

“A lot of people are concerned for the game. The Major League Baseball Players Association has no such concern. It doesnt make sense to drive out class owners. We can’t be sure that their replacements will have the same determination to protect the game’s integrity.”

Here we see that same style of threat employed by Herrmann and Green. Fear change, for it will destroy the game from the top on down. Ray Grebey, the owners’ chief negotiator in bargaining with the Players Association, was a bit more explicit:

“The Carpenter family, long associated with the duPonts, doesn’t have to sell a baseball club to make money. Carpenter is just one of numerous owners who are concerned with the general nature of baseball today. It has nothing to do with the ability to pay a player’s salary.

The owners see what’s happened in the National Basketball Association and they are worried — things like drugs and loss of fans. Then there are soaring transportation and hotel costs, and how owners deal with one another.

We don’t need franchises changing hands every four or five years. We don’t need sharks who come in for their own interests and a fast buck, then bail out. I’ve heard it said that there are always buyers. Well, it took three years for the Mariners and Orioles to find buyers.”

Here we see the holy trifecta of anti-player comments. Grebey’s “general nature” comment refers to the innate goodness of playing a game for cheap or free, in effect an argument for amateurism or something close to it. Then he appeals to the racial fear that always pops up whenever large sums of money end up heading towards black players (such as Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew, who had signed multi-million dollar contracts within the last couple of years) in a fashion we still see employed today.

And the final concern, an exclusively upper-class worry, is that the “good money” of old owners will be replaced by disgraceful new money lacking the class of the historically wealthy (and given Green’s concerns, there was likely an element of racism here as well).

Marvin Miller, MLBPA president, saw right through it as usual.

“The problem is that the owners can’t control themselves. We appreciate that problem. But the owners are trying to force players to force the owners to regulate themselves. That is not the players’ responsibility.

They want to lower player salaries and they’re claiming this is an economic necessity. Very well. That being the case, I am asking each of the 26 clubs for financial data to substantiate their claim that they need economic relief.”

Naturally, the clubs did not respond to Miller’s request.

Phillies catcher Bob Boone put the situation even more plainly:

“It sure seems like an odd way to sell a club — to tell prospective owners it’s not financially feasible to own one. If the game is in fact in trouble, the players’ association would be more than happy to cooperate.

Why have so many clubs been sold recently? Well, one reason is that people have been offering record amounts of money for them.”

To place Boone’s comment in perspective, the Yankees sold to the Steinbrenner family for a mere $8.7 million in 1973. By 1981, the White Sox and Phillies sold for $20 million and $30 million respectively. The Twins sold for $44 million just three years later.

Obviously, the owners’ fears never manifested themselves in baseball’s destruction. Rather, those owners who stuck around found their franchises exponentially accruing value. By the early 1990s clubs were selling for $100 million or more. The Orioles sold in 1980 for $13 million and were flipped for $70 million in 1988. The Mets were sold for $21.1 million in 1980 and increased in value to $391 million by the time the Wilpons bought the club in 2002.

The obviously incorrect nature of the owners’ assumptions, their ridiculous concerns of lost value, makes it easy to assume these statements were bluster and rhetoric aimed to turn the public against the players and for the owners. But it’s clear from the fire sale of the late 1970s and early 1980s that for a significant portion of this group, there was real belief behind their statements. A remarkable one-in-three owners acted on these fears of free agency and lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

The fact that a few truly believed doesn’t make the general tone and tenor of the rhetoric employed by Kuhn, Grebey and the others any less wrong or deceitful. That those true believers found themselves on the outside looking in as baseball franchises skyrocketed in value in the era of free agency at least gives us a nice opportunity for some much-needed laughter at their expense.