Wednesday, July 30, 2014

MLB Labor Lessons in 'Ball Four'

In the current day of free agency, eye-popping contract terms and super agents like Scott Boras, it's hard -- and for some of us, not possible -- to recall a point in time where these things didn't exist. It's even harder to recall a time when the major league minimum salary was in the four figures and the reserve clause was still holding players hostage.

What do you think it was like to be a player back in those times?

Jim Bouton's Ball Four illustrates exactly what it was like. And so much more.

If you're an avid reader, there are probably some books on your extensive "To Read" list that when asked if you've read the book, you lie and say yes. Or you're at least moderately embarrassed and shy away from openly admitting that it is still indeed on the "To Read" list. Ball Four was one of those books for me.

Bouton's book has been called one of the most important sports books ever written, and it's easy to see why. His day-by-day look at his 1969 with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros is witty, insightful and, most of all, open and honest. When it was published, then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn asked Bouton to say that the book was a fabrication and a lie. Of course, Bouton refused, and Ball Four onto great critical acclaim.

In documenting everything from the games to bullpen shenanigans to late night forays to the impact of the game on a family, Bouton also gave a first-hand account of what contracts and collective bargaining were like for players at the time.

Consider this exchange Bouton had with a player back when the major league minimum was $10,000:

"I was making $1,300 a month," he said. That's for a five month season.
"What did you make last year?"
"Last year I made $1,100 a month, and the year before that I was under a thousand."
And this was his eighteenth season in the minors. "Did they sweeten up that $1,300 when they call you up?" I asked.
"Oh yea, they sweetened it."
"How much?"
"I'm making $10,000." (That's a rate, or $1,666 a month.)
"What's so sweet about that? They have to pay you that."
"Yeah that's true. I guess they have to."
After the exchange, Bouton makes note that this makes him sad and mad. An 18-year vet who doesn't know his basic rights under the collective bargaining agreement. And something as simple as salary. It makes it easy to see how players could be taken advantage of.

Ball Four also sheds a light on the beginning of Marvin Miller's work with the MLB Player's Association. The book shows moments during player meetings about certain collective bargaining fine points where many players wanted to play things safely and conservatively as to not rock the boat with the owners. In one meeting, players are debating what they should propose raising the minimum salary to. Many are cautious, saying $14,000. Bouton says $25,000 and is faced with a room full of laughs.

(Of course, after the 1969 season was when Curt Flood began to rock the biggest boat, beginning his fight for free agency. Miller was behind Flood all the way. The case, Flood v. Kuhn made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Flood eventually prevailed in 1972.)

In the epilogue "Ball Five," Bouton speaks openly about life of free agency, Miller and no more reserve clause.

"The irony is that if the owners hadn't abused the players so badly, we wouldn't have gone out and hired Marvin Miller and the players wouldn't be free agents today. If the owners had just doubled the minimum salary, say to $14,000, and given us some extra meal money, we would have been more than content to let things ride. Most ballplayers had no idea what kind of money they could be making. ... Now, thanks to Marvin Miller, the laugh is on the owners. Marvin showed the players how to become free agents and the owners are showing the players how much they're worth."
Of course, this all shows why Miller was so important to bringing baseball into the day and age its currently in. But rarely do fans get open an honest thoughts on these types of issues from the players themselves. Bouton gives just that.

While Ball Four is an essential read for a baseball fan, it's also an essential read for anybody interested in sports labor affairs or becoming an agent. It humanizes these labor issues that are often seen as dollars and sense. And it gives perspective of how far we've come in little time. Before the days of knowing who each player's agent was, there were no agents at all.

Think about that.


Kevin Rossi is a senior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to President. Currently, Kevin is serving as the Sports Information Assistant for Drexel Athletics and  intern at Comcast SportsNet in web production. Kevin has writing experience with, The Triangle, Temple University, and various outlets in a freelance capacity. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

Connect with Kevin Rossi on LinkedIn.

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