It’s finally getting warm in almost all of the USA. For a certain number of folks young, old and in between, this means the time for baseball has arrived. Youngsters are on the local fields playing ball under the aegis of an organization like Little League, a school or with a bunch of kids from the neighborhood. The professional players at the major league level have been at it for a month and the groove is coming back at the ballparks around the nation. Despite the fact that there are still around a hundred and thirty games left to go, the hardcore fans of certain poorly-faring teams are already losing sleep, cussing at the game on television and calling for the ownership’s heads.
Of course, calling for the owners’ heads would be justified (figuratively speaking, of course) even if one is a fan of a team whose winning percentage is at seventy percent. After all, it was the Major League Baseball ownership cabal that locked out the players in December and held the 2022 season hostage well into the time usually spent by players at spring training. It is during this time that the players work out, practice drills, play practice games and get to know each other as teammates before the regular season begins. Missing a few weeks can make a difference in a team’s season, either right out of the gate or later on. Injuries that might not have happened happen and so on. But, for the owners, the key thing is the cash and controlling how much of that cash will go to the players that defines everything else.
Like cartoonist R. Crumb’s most famous character once said: “Twas ever thus.” And, indeed it was. Professional baseball was born in the days of the so-called gilded age, when money really swore (Bob Dylan once sang “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”). Capitalists who understood they could make money from men playing the game formed leagues made up of teams they owned. Players were paid as little as what the owners could get away with and fans were charged admission and for concessions. As the game developed, ownership realized they could get public funds for their playing fields while keeping any profit for themselves. Eventually, corporate America began its encroachment into the sport, buying teams and selling only products they approved and made money from at the games.
The profiteering of the owners did not go unnoticed by the players. When they compared their paychecks with the profits of the owners, the players rightfully demanded a bigger share. In the professional sports early years, this took the form of players forming their own leagues or joining leagues begun by capitalists more willing to share the money being made. As is usually the case in capitalism, these upstart leagues were eventually either merged into the more established league or ruthlessly put out of business. The ease with which this occurred was enhanced by the fact that the one major league—National League—was a monopoly that would be soon joined by the American League. In fact, Major League baseball was a monopoly that would exempt both leagues from antitrust laws thanks to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling, thereby permitting the continuation of numerous business practices most other monopolies operating in the United States would eventually have to change.
A recently published book by two baseball fans, Robert Elias and Peter Dreier, and titled Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles over Workers’ Rights and American Empire, details and discusses the battles between players and owners throughout the history of professional baseball in the US. In addition,as the title suggests, individual battles over racism, imperialism and cultural differences are also part of the text. As if to emphasize the latter three subjects, the authors had Major League pitcher Bill Lee write the foreword. For those who don’t know Mr. Lee, he pitched for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos over the course of his career. While he was an above-par pitcher during that time, he was at least as well known for his staunch support of the budding players union, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), an outspoken opponent of the US war in Vietnam and a countercultural hero. When he was once asked how he pitched so well, he answered that it was because of the marijuana he sprinkled on his breakfast cereal every morning. This was in the 1970s when weed was not only illegal, but people went to prison for a long time just for possession of the herb. Lee also went to what was then called Red China on a goodwill trip and came back speaking highly of their society.
Owners and managers who tended to be conservative politically and culturally did not appreciate players like Lee. However, as the book points out, he fared better than other players who challenged the dominant paradigm in the sport. The text is full of stories of players whose careers were ended because of their outspokenness on social issues or their insistence on fairness and labor rights for the players. More recent names that come up in the text in this regard are Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood, retired slugger Carlos Delgado (who refused to stand for the enforced playing of “God Bless America” since 9-11) and Sean Doolittle, who is one of the only white players to take a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and against police brutality. Equally noteworthy are the multitude of players mentioned here that came before.
Regarding the authors: both men are much more than casual fans of the game. Dreier is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research and Elias has written extensively about the sport. Their love of the game is apparent. The history they dissect and the stories they tell provide the reader with more than an alternative version of US baseball. In fact, Major League Rebels is also an alternative version of US history in the tradition of historians such as Howard Zinn and Eric Foner. Given that baseball is still sold as America’s game, it would make sense that it too has an uglier side to its history, as well.