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Sore Winner : A WHOLE DIFFERENT BALLGAME: The Sport and Business of Baseball, <i> By Marvin Miller (Birch Lane Press / Carol Publishing Group: $21.95; 336 pp.)</i>

<i> Will is the author of "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball."</i>

Follow the bouncing ball and sing along: “Arise ye prisoners of starvation . . .”

Baseball players have risen. And how. There has been a 2,000% increase in salaries in 20 years, and a commensurate increase in the dignity of their status relative to their employers.

Before the players organized a union, the owners were, more often than not, an overbearing lot. The players were among the last Americans to gain the right to negotiate the terms of their employment. But in the 25 years since Marvin Miller became head of the players’ union, the Major League Baseball Players Assn., the players have gone from chattel to domination, from relative penury to riches beyond the dreams of even 1970s avarice.

The short, eventful history of the MLPA is quite a story. Miller, who breathed life into the MLPA and made it mighty as its head between 1966 and 1982, tells the story in “A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sports and Business of Baseball.”

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The heart of the story is the overthrow of the reserve clause that bound a player to one club for as long as the club wanted. When in 1976 players won the elemental right to leave one employer and seek another, the owners were unreconciled. Strife--lockouts, collusion, strikes--has been one result. Another is an average salary of almost $900,000. Miller recounts all this, and other fascinating arcana such as the business of bubble-gum cards, with polemical punch. And worse.

There is a problem inherent in the memoir genre, a tension that often results in the triumph of ego over editing. It should be instructive to read the reflections of people who have achieved big things. But the confidence, single-mindedness and moral certitude that serves such people in the realm of action often disfigures their reflections. As Miller tells it, his adversaries, the owners, were mostly wicked, boorish, corrupt and stupid, and his allies, the players, were often inconstant and uncomprehending. So blinkered is he by his egomania, he does not understand that if the owners were as dimwitted as he says, then his triumph over them was not as much of an achievement as he supposes.

His book is unrelievedly unpleasant. It is arrogant in tone, ad hominem in argument, ungenerous toward vanquished foes and mean-spirited toward former allies. This is particularly disappointing because it tarnishes a story that should sparkle. Miller played a large, indeed decisive role in a just cause, winning an unbroken skein of victories that made the national pastime, and hence the nation, better.

In fact, an even better case can be made for the union’s work than Miller, in this lazy, score-settling book, bothers to make. The redistribution of baseball’s burgeoning revenues has been good for the game. Baseball is played better because better athletes are drawn to it by the money, and are motivated to train and improve year ‘round because long careers are so lucrative.

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The owners were wrong about many things, but particularly in their warnings that the end of the reserve clause would bring the end of competitive balance. The worry was that a few rich teams in their biggest cities would corner the market on talent and monopolize the World Series. Actually, free agency has coincided with splendid turmoil in the standings. Consider:

From 1949 through 1953, the Yankees won five consecutive pennants. If the Dodgers had won two particular games--against the Phillies in the last game of the 1950 season, and the 1951 play-off game that Bobby Thomson’s home run won for the Giants--the Dodgers, too, could have won five pennants from 1949 through 1953. And five Series would have been played entirely in two parks. The Yankees finished second in 1954, although they won 103 games. If 103 wins had sufficed, as it usually does, to win the pennant, the Yankees would have been in 10 consecutive Series. But since the 1977-78 Yankees--since, that is, free agency began to work--no team has won two consecutive Series.

Miller rightly gives short shrift to wooly-headed rubbish about how lovely baseball was “before money mattered.” When was that? Miller is properly impatient with people who blame players for society’s priorities. (No teacher is paid poorly because players are paid well.)

America’s pastime is one place where Marx’s labor theory of value makes much sense. The players are the central, indispensable ingredients in the creation of considerable wealth. This year fans will buy about 56 million tickets to major-league games (perhaps 4 million in Toronto). Not one fan will pay, or tune into the broadcasts now earning baseball more than half a billion a year, to see an owner.

Miller is justly proud of his success in redistributing baseball’s revenues, but he is not alone responsible for the dazzling growth of those revenues. For many reasons--the growth of leisure spending in an increasingly affluent society; better marketing of the game; a better game to market; and, yes, the excitement of competitive balance enhanced by free agency--baseball is much more popular than it used to be.

In 1933, the St. Louis Browns drew 79,000--for the year. They drew 1,271,579 for the entire decade of the 1930s, about half what that transplanted franchise (it moved in 1954) will draw in Baltimore this year. Forty years ago this fall there occurred perhaps the most famous game in baseball history, that playoff game in which Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning home run capped the Giants’ come-from-behind (from 13 1/2 games behind on Aug. 11) pennant rush to beat the Dodgers. The game was played in the Polo Grounds, and about 20,000 of the 55,000 seats were empty.

If one is to judge from these pages, Miller’s thinking about baseball’s collective health as an industry is primitive. When he goes beyond reiteration of the fact that revenues are rolling in, he simply assumes that the union exists to get as much of the money as possible for the players, right now, and that baseball will prosper because it has been prospering.

But both CBS and ESPN have baseball contracts spewing red ink. The next national television contracts may necessitate wrenching readjustments on the part of teams that have unwisely anticipated, and improvidently spent (on long-term contracts), profits that may not happen.

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Miller is of the species homo economicus . He is not inclined to think about the nimbus of consequential intangibles surrounding baseball, particularly its role as a quasi-public utility serving the emotional lives of communities. A cautionary fact: In 1958, the year the Dodgers and Giants went West, leaving the Yankees alone in New York, the Yankees’ attendance declined. Miller is comfortable thinking about economic matters, things that can be quantified and fought over, but not about the precious, perhaps perishable hold baseball has on its public.

Miller, the single-minded salary-maximizer, probably would welcome the migration of some franchises (the Mariners, Giants, Indians, Pirates) to greener pastures. But, then, Miller the trade unionist is not used to thinking about the future of baseball as an industry, any more than the steelworkers’ union, from which Miller came to baseball, thought much about the future of the steel industry. It should have.

Today, the Red Sox payroll is larger than the Mariners’ gross; the Athletics payroll is larger than the Twins’ gross. The Yankees rake in more local broadcasting revenues (about $57 million) than do the Brewers, Twins, Mariners, Royals, Pirates, Rangers and Giants combined. There is some level at which such disparities will produce competitive imbalances incompatible with baseball’s health. The fact that owners have frequently been wrong and sometimes cynical in forecasting hard times does not mean they can never be right.

In 1966, the salaries of all major- league players totaled $9.5 million, about what Roger Clemens and Tony Gwynn together make in 1991. Last year, when players won their arbitration cases, their average increase was 141%. When the clubs beat the players, the players’ average increase was still a thumping 110%. In 1990, the Brewers’ Robin Yount became the first player paid $3 million for one season. In 1991, there are 32 $3-million men. Such exponential growth never goes on for long.

This year, baseball is soggy with nostalgia for 1941, a glittering season--DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Williams’ .406 average--in baseball’s supposed Golden Age. That, say sentimentalists, was baseball before The Fall, before players were contaminated with rights, and before they were tainted by salaries reflecting the market value of their talents.

In a 1941 game, the Yankees’ 24-year-old shortstop, Phil Rizzuto (5-feet-6, 150 pounds), won a crucial game with one of his rare home runs. As he rounded the bases he was mobbed by fans, one of whom snatched his cap. Rizzuto seemed tempted to chase the fan to retrieve the cap. “In those days,” Rizzuto recalls, “we had to buy our own shoes, our own sweat shirts, our own caps.”

In 1941, the average major-league salary was less than $10,000. DiMaggio was paid $35,000. DiMaggio’s manager was paid as much. The baseball commissioner was paid $60,000. As Robert Creamer, the baseball historian, says, “The players were low men on the baseball totem pole.”

They are no longer, thanks in large measure to Miller, who should lighten up and enjoy his laurels more graciously.

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Recently, Gen. John R. Galvin, NATO commander, was in Washington giving Gen. Colin Powell a grim assessment of the continuing Soviet threat and U.S. procurement needs. Powell interrupted: “Jack, smile. We won.” Smile, Marvin.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from “A Whole Different Ballgame,” see the Opinion section, Page 2.


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