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Insights: Sports

Baseball may evolve, but some things never change. A pundit looks at the state of the game
Roger Kahn
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

(continued from page 1)

Big-market teams dominated. The New York Yankees won the '51 World Series, 4 games to 2, defeating the New York Giants. It was the Yankees' third consecutive championship. Under Casey Stengel, they would win five in a row before handing the title to another New York team, the Giants.

Smaller-market ball clubs struggled, both to win games and to attract fans. They could not support extensive scouting systems and farm teams. Flamboyant, gifted Bill Veeck ran the Browns, the No. 2 team in St. Louis, but that was Veeck's only baseball failure. Almost bankrupt by 1953, the Browns had to shift to Baltimore, where they were reborn as the Orioles. The Braves, the No. 2 team in Boston, drew so poorly that their ballpark sounded like a library. Farewell, Longfellow. Hello, Bratwurst. The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953.

Television was creating havoc. "Our game doesn't televise as well as football," the guru, Branch Rickey, told me. "The shape of the television screen simply doesn't fit the shape of the diamond. We need engineers to develop a pyramidal screen so the beauty of baseball can be properly displayed." Still, even in the old black-and-white, 19-inch days, television nipped at attendance. Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in baseball history in winning the 1951 National League playoff between the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. Using the new butterfly ballot, my rough count today finds that 4.9 million people claim to have seen that game. Actually 15,000 tickets went unsold.

Although Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947, bigotry remained rampant in front offices. It was 1959 before Tom Yawkey, who owned the Boston Red Sox, signed his first black player, Elijah "Pumpsie" Green. Not only behind the times but dim. A pleasant enough chap, Green, like most of us, never could hit Major League pitching.

Allan H. "Bud" Selig, a former Wisconsin Ford dealer, who has become commissioner of baseball, held forth on the game's current problems last fall. Accompanied by two tiny bodyguards, George Will and Bob Costas, Selig bravely entered the Capitol building and addressed a Senate panel on antitrust, business rights and competition. As someone else remarked in another context, "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

Twenty of the 30 Major League teams will lose money in 2001, Selig said. The Yankees' payroll for 2000 was $114 million. Two or three teams, he said, had payrolls as low as $25 million. The result, according to Ford Fairlane Bud Selig: "At the start of spring training [2001], there no longer exists hope or faith for fans of more than half our 30 clubs."

Will and Costas later testified, but that is less important than two people who did not appear. These were Don Fehr and Gene Orza, the director and the lawyer for the Players Association, the white-collar title stamped on the ballplayers' union. Nor did the senators invite Orel Hershiser, the great pitcher, ill-treated by the Dodgers, or Yankees skipper Joe Torre, who gets smarter every season. What the Senate got, for your tax dollars and mine, was organized baseball's exasperating company line. In rough translation, Bud Selig really said to an Ohio Republican named Mike DeWine: Look, Senator, why do we get stuck paying these huge salaries? Forget antitrust. That's Commie stuff. Let's all be pro-business Republicans together. And by the way, can I get you a pair for opening day?

The rich Yankees rule. They have for much of the time since October 11, 1923, when Babe Ruth hit two home runs and a 485-foot flyout, burying the Giants and manager John McGraw's old "scientific" game -- squeeze plays, double steals and such. (Heywood Broun's lead the next day in The New York World: "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail.")

But not all rich teams succeed. Rupert Murdoch paid $311 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers three years ago. Fat cats though they are, the Dodgers have not won a playoff game since 1988. Under the right leadership, small-market teams still flourish. The Chicago White Sox, the second team in the Second City, dominated regular-season play in the American League last year. Seattle, after dropping the monstrous salaries of Junior Griffey and Randy Johnson, reached the last round of the playoffs. The Seattle general manager, Pat Gillick, and the manager, Lou Piniella, are splendid at their jobs. In sum, money helps, as it always has, but competence is just as important.

Without going cosmic, I believe that is the nature of free enterprise.

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