Balance of Power Is Tilted
N ews Item: “Bobby Bonilla, prize free agent, offered $29 million by three clubs, opts for New York, signs with the Mets. ‘A lot of it was (due to) location, because the money was basically the same everywhere,’ he explains to the press.”
Baseball has never been a democracy. It’s an aristocracy, a hierarchy.
Football spreads the wealth around. Baseball hoards it like Marie Antoinette.
For decades, all baseball was divided into two parts: The New York Yankees. And the 15 dwarfs. It wasn’t a competition, it was a parade. Between 1923 and 1963, the Yankees won the World Series 20 times. They were in it 26 times. That’s not a race, that’s a rout. A Punch and Judy show. A concert. The Yankees were the soloists, the rest accompanists.
It all began with money. It usually does.
In 1919, the Boston Red Sox were strapped for money. Their owner wanted to put on a Broadway show to get some. So, he sold the greatest player in the annals of the game, maybe any game, Babe Ruth. The buyer? New York. Who else had the $125,000 in those simpler times?
In fact, it actually took $425,000. That’s because Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert loaned Red Sox owner Harry Frazee $300,000 in the same transaction and secured a mortgage on the Red Sox’s Fenway Park. In return, Frazee emptied out his Red Sox franchise over the next several years, stocking the Yankees with magnificent pitchers such as Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock, whom he sold to Landlord Ruppert in a bit of conflict of interest that would not be allowed today.
The point is, New York became the center of the sports universe. As George M. Cohan was to say of the Great White Way, “When you get out of New York, everything else is Bridgeport.” The Yankees built their superb new state-of-the-art stadium. It was filled to capacity more often than any--and capacity was 81,000. In fact, one year, the Yankees drew 81,841 for a doubleheader--and that was 1,000 more than the St. Louis Browns would draw for the whole season.
There was no way the Browns, or most of the rest of the league, for that matter, could compete economically with the Yankees.
When radio came in, New York, with its 16 million listeners, drew millions of dollars for its broadcast rights. Teams such as St. Louis might not even have a broadcast contract.
In the 1930s, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Branch Rickey found a way to compete with the Yankees--a farm system. It was ingenious. Also illegal. You could sign a kid for life then, for a Coke and a ham sandwich, and Rickey stashed future stars in minor league towns on peon wages till he got caught at it.
The commissioner of all baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, stepped in and periodically broke up Rickey’s slave camps. Once, when Landis freed a particularly bright star player, Tommy Henrich, and made him a free agent, Henrich took less money to sign with the Yankees in the bidding. Everyone wanted to come to New York.
The Yankees never had any trouble procuring pivotal players for pennant drives. Johnny Mize and Johnny Hopp and Enos Slaughter come to mind.
For years, the Yankees treated the Kansas City A’s as their private farm club. They sent for Roger Maris after he prepped there. The owner of the A’s owned the mortgage on Yankee Stadium in a switch on the Frazee conflict.
It got so, if the Yankees weren’t in a World Series, it was a non-event. When television came in, the Yankees were prime time. Everybody else was a daytime soap.
When baseball sold its TV rights as a group, it sold only the national rights. Unlike pro football, baseball teams kept the local rights. Again, Yankee contracts dwarfed the industry--until the Dodgers moved West.
When free agency and the death of the reserve clause hit the grand old game, its scholars thought parity, which had come to football, was just around the corner for baseball, too.
So, when Catfish Hunter came on the market as the first of the multi-million-dollar free agents, who grabbed him? Well, who grabbed Babe Ruth? Tommy Henrich?
It isn’t only money. As Bobby Bonilla says, it’s location. Every great performer wants to play the Palace. If you do it in Pittsburgh, you have to be twice as good as the guy doing it in New York. Just ask Roberto Clemente. Who causes the biggest commotion when he enters a room--Ted Williams? Or Joe DiMaggio? Who played in New York?
Who says you can’t buy a pennant? Tom Yawkey tried it for years, but he tried it in Boston. George Steinbrenner did it in New York. He bought his way into the World Series with Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were as good a team as there was in baseball over the past two seasons. They won 195 games and two division pennants. They had one of the best one-two combinations--Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla--since Ruth-Gehrig, Aaron-Mathews or Mays-McCovey.
Like Frazee’s Red Sox in the 1920s, the Pirates couldn’t afford them.
The field can never be level in the grand old game until or unless it shares peripheral revenue equally, the way football does. Or unless it establishes a salary cap, the way basketball does to spread the talent.
Baseball needs Pittsburghs. Pittsburghs need Bobby Bonillas. Sports only work when you can make Bridgeport as important as Broadway--or Green Bay as successful as L.A. With free agency rampant and the reserve clause gone and the farm system non-productive because of it, the game’s only hope is to shore up its have-nots. Otherwise, the Bobby Bonillas go where the wallets are greener, the lights brighter, the crowds bigger and the pennants oftener. Jacob Ruppert would be right at home today.