THURSDAY, MAY 23, 1985, SPORTS
Copyright 1985/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
They Don’t Make Owners Like They Used To
Well, I see where the modern-day versions of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, the baseball owners of America, have taken up the lance and are tilting at the windmills of change again.
Now, they’ve come up with a dandy: They want the union to tie their hands and make them stop tossing their money off balconies to the hired help like drunken sailors.
They remind me of one of those multiple murderers who leans over the body to scrawl a sign in lipstick on the bathroom mirror, “Help me!” Or “Catch me before I kill again!”
Can you imagine captains of industry in the United States of America having to beg unions to stop them from their own pathological over-generosity? Feature John D. Rockefeller doing that, can you? J.P. Morgan? Commodore Vanderbilt? You think that’s how Diamond Jim Brady made his millions?
I’ll tell you, they don’t make capitalists the way they used to. You talk about ballplayers not being what they used to be. They’re throwbacks to the old models, compared to owners. Pete Rose may or may not be as good as Ty Cobb, but I have to tell you that George Steinbrenner is not a patch on Branch Rickey.
Did you know that, in 1937, just after he had batted .346 with 46 homers and 167, repeat 167, runs batted in, Joe DiMaggio requested a raise? To $45,000?
The owner of that day was indignant. He told DiMag that Lou Gehrig had been with the club 13 years and he didn’t make $45,000. I’ll say he didn’t. He made $33,000, it turned out.
Those were the days when men were men, owners were owners, and ballplayers were peons. You wiped your feet and took off your hat when you went to see an owner in those days.
Those were the days when Charles Comiskey paid his athletes such niggardly wages that some of them threw the World Series to get enough to feed their families. They got banned from baseball for life. Comiskey went on being known as “the noblest Roman of them all.” He just made sure he didn’t win any more pennants. With the wages he paid, that was easy.
You think those guys ever had to plead with unions to save them from themselves?
What would you guess Rickey paid the great Dizzy Dean the year the pitcher won 30 games and put Rickey’s Cardinals in the World Series and won that for them? He got $7,500. You heard me. That’s no typo.
The attitude of management in that era is pretty much summed up in an interview that Rickey granted J. Roy Stockton, recounted in the book ‘The Dizziest Season’, put together by G.H. Fleming.
“The average salary should be $6,500 for a star player,” says Rickey. “And he should be able to play for eight years.”
Says Stockton: “Well, Mr. Rickey, the player gives to baseball the years which, in other businesses, he would be building up his earning capacity with prospects to continue through later life. At $6,500 a year, what would he have to show for his (baseball) labors?”
Answers Rickey: “Well, out of $6,500, a man should be able to save $5,000. Then, after eight years, he should be able to retire with more than $40,000.”
Now, that, you have to say is an owner. An owners’ owner. A man who not only ran the club with an iron hand but promoted thrift and frugality in his fellow man and refused to put temptation in his way. You think you needed drug tests for a guy making six grand a year and needing to save five of it? I should say not!
No, those were owners in those days. The real article. In the same book by Fleming, columnist Dan Parker weighs in with this terse graph:
“The dope is Jimmie Foxx signed for $16,000, only three grand more than he received last year. In which case, the dope is Jimmie Foxx.”
Foxx had led the league the year before in homers with 48, in batting with a .346 average, and in RBI with 163. Two years previous, he had hit 58 home runs and batted .364.
You can see how ownership as a craft has deteriorated. These guys today are not owners, they’re complicated philanthropists. It’s not night ball and artificial surfaces and air travel that are ruining baseball, it’s the owners.
What ever happed to them? When did they turn from penny-pinching, coin-biting, dollar-hoarding plutocrats and begin to be guys emptying their vaults to banjo-hitting shortstops, .500 pitchers and over-the-hill outfielders? How did they get into the position where, today, they complain of losing $52 million a year?
They just simply stopped behaving like owners. They began to act like fans, media hypes. They began worrying about their public images.
They got very, very careless. They let the reserve clause slip — just because it was unconstitutional. You think the old-timers ever cared about the Constitution? They let things go to arbitration, then to court.
Still, there was nothing in law or anywhere else that said owners had to pay a million dollars a season to mediocre pitchers, that they have to get into a price war for the services of a .230-hitting infielder, that they have to settle multimillion, multiyear contracts on guys who couldn’t make their clubs in the old days, in fact, to some who can barely make them now.
It’s as if a fever came over them. Their eyes glazed over, they got flecks of foam at the corners of their mouths, and they began to turn on their own best interests in their zeal to get better tables in restaurants and their names in society columns.
They’re not hard-headed businessmen, they’re in large part practicing egomaniacs. They want the pennant for the prestige it will bring them, not the bucks. They want it for the recognition, the White House dinners it will open up for them, the media exposure.
At free-agent time, they are like kids locked up in a candy store. They gorge themselves on things that are bad for them.
Now they want the union to save them from themselves, to give them a salary cap so they can start behaving like owners again.
Branch Rickey had a salary cap. He didn’t need any union to help him stop throwing his money around. Charles Comiskey’s was more than a cap, it was a ski mask.
The Supreme Court ruled, years ago, that baseball wasn’t a business, it was a sport. Finally, that’s true.
Baseball doesn’t need somebody who can break Ty Cobb’s record. It needs somebody who can make a run at Comiskey’s. It needs owners like it used to have.
Alas, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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