Book review: The Imperfect Diamond

He goes where he is sent, takes what is given him, and thanks the Lord for the life.

-New York Giants shortstop John Montgomery Ward, reflecting on the life of the 19th century ball player

Today’s baseball fan is inundated with information about the Rule 5 draft, revenue sharing and similar concepts that deal with the business of baseball, because increasingly what we see on the diamond is shaped by off-field events. What happens in the offices of general managers, owners, agents and the commissioner is vital to how their team will play this year (and in the not-too-distant past, whether games would even be played at all).

It’s difficult to fully appreciate this off-the-field activity, though, without at least a passing knowledge baseball’s labor history and the long struggle players had to undergo to achieve a fair share of baseball’s gate. It is this history that Lee Lowenfish, a Columbia University lecturer and the author of a superb biography of Branch Rickey, recounts in The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars, recently released in an updated edition.

We’ve come a long way from when major league baseball players were the property of imperious owners free to sell players’ services without restraint and pay them little more than what was merely necessary to keep them playing baseball as opposed to laboring in some other endeavor.

In contrast, today’s major league baseball player earned at least the league minimum salary of $400,000 in 2009, is eligible for free agency after six years in the big leagues and is eligible to have his salary determined by impartial third parties through arbitration after a mere three. How we got from the 19th century world of John Montgomery Ward and his hard laboring, mistreated colleagues to that of today is a long, complicated, often discouraging tale.

The Imperfect Diamond delivers on its subtitle A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars by providing a clear synopsis of the most significant labor disputes in the game’s past. At just over 300 pages, it explores the historically significant episodes where various players and outsiders attempted to challenge the onerous working conditions that existed for them throughout most of the game’s history.

The infamous reserve clause that purported to bind a player to the ball club that signed him so long as the club wanted him (at whatever salary it was willing to pay him), baseball’s judicially created antitrust exemption that propped it up and the fight to establish a pension fund for retired players and their families are just some of the subjects chronicled. With the third edition, Lowenfish is also able to update the story to include the 1994 strike, the attempts by owners to combat free agency via collusion, and the steroids controversy.

Despite any romantic notions we might have about a time when baseball was an innocent game, prior to being sullied by profits and the inevitable disputes they bring regarding their disposition, our story actually begins as early as 1885. The players, led by Ward, one of the superstars of the day, formed the first organization devoted to protecting them from the worst abuses they suffered; e.g., unpaid signing bonuses, players terminated with little or no notice, etc., the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players.

This attempt was just the first of many such ill-fated efforts. The Players’ Protective Association, the Baseball Players’ Fraternity and the American Baseball Guild would all follow over the years. But none would succeed beyond the short term until the formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1954.

The familiar stories are here—tales of the reserve clause and the abuses it engendered, ill-considered judicial opinions that credulous congressional committees were hoodwinked into letting stand, and similar sad affairs. It begins with the 1975 Messersmith-McNally arbitration that resulted in the effective elimination of the reserve clause as it had existed for decades. Curt Flood’s pitiful saga is also recounted in great detail.

Other less well known, but equally important aspects of the story are also present. Among the most interesting is the case of Danny Gardella, whose 1947 federal lawsuit (stemming from an attempt by baseball to prohibit him from playing due to his participation in the Mexican League) resulted in a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that could have effectively ended baseball’s monopoly had the owners not settled. For the Gardella case and some of the issues covered in his new epilogue, Lowenfish was able to directly interview some of the participants, making these passages some of the most compelling parts of the book, particularly the new material covering more recent events.

A good history tells you what happened and why. The “why” in The Imperfect Diamond would occasionally benefit from a deeper treatment of external events as a means of shedding light on why baseball’s labor history developed as it did. For instance, only occasionally does Lowenfish reference labor conditions outside of baseball. Additional discussion of other labor movements, developments in labor law and the public’s perception of labor unions in general would help the reader understand a little better why some players’ efforts succeeded better than others at different points in history.

The book contains a couple of factual errors, none of which undermine the book’s value as a comprehensive history of baseball’s significant labor disputes. For instance, Jimmie Foxx was traded from Philadelphia to Boston in 1936 rather than 1933.

More glaringly, because of limitations placed on what could be altered in the original text, the third edition necessarily retains the now discredited story that Ford Frick placed an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s 1961 home run record. (In fact, Frick had suggested that since 1961 represented the first year with a longer season (162 vs. 154 games) those who kept baseball records (which, incredibly enough, Major League Baseball did not at the time) should keep a separate set of records for the 162 game era going forward.) The myth of an actual, as opposed to a metaphorical, asterisk has been around long enough and deserves to be put to rest.

These are quibbles, however. For those looking for an introduction to baseball’s labor history, The Imperfect Diamond is a splendid choice. Lowenfish writes clearly, and he is transparent enough to acknowledge that he takes the players’ side for the most part. It’s hard to disagree with his position, however. Baseball owners were, like most magnates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imperious and impatient with their “laborers” and they saw ballplayers as no different than workers in any other industry.

Things have changed radically in the past century, however, and major league ball players are, ironically, no longer viewed as sympathetically; they have moved from being our neighbors to out-of-reach superstars living in gated communities. How they, and we, got here is the story Lowenfish tells well.

Following MLB from Down Under
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In the spirit of The Hardball Times, I’ll close with a “10 Things I Didn’t Know About Baseball Labor Relations Until I Read The Imperfect Diamond“:

(1) “Revenue sharing” in its original context did not refer to teams’ sharing revenues among themselves, but compensating players by dedicating a percentage of the revenues to players’ salaries. Owners’ counsel Charlie O’Conner put the concept on the table in 1990, but MLBPA chief Don Fehr wasn’t interested (p. 272-273).

(2) The players fiercely opposed efforts by MLB to reduce use of illegal non-performance enhancing drugs in the 1980s (pp. 261-263). Also, Fehr’s predecessor lost his job, in part, for his tepid stance on the issue (p. 253). Could this partially explain why neither baseball nor Fehr took a harder line against the use of performance related substances during the 1990s?

(3) Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had a fairly enlightened attitude toward the players, especially considering his era (pp.115-126). He made a number of important pro-player rulings aimed at allowing talented players to emerge, turning back owners’ efforts to keep many of them hidden in the lower leagues even while they were playing major league caliber baseball.

(4) In 2007, Commissioner Bud Selig made $17.5 million—more than all but three players (p. 299).

(5) Baseball’s august counselor at law, George Wharton Pepper, actually argued in court that the reserve clause was not legally binding, but merely an “honorary obligation.” (p.106). Rickey told a congressional committee that perhaps it constituted a “harmless illegality” (p. 175). Apparently someone forgot to tell that players that it was not a legally binding clause until the Messersmith-McNally arbitration of 1975.

(6) The reserve clause and similar elements of what was called “baseball law” were not universally as despised by players as might be thought. Many acknowledged baseball was such a peculiar enterprise as to require peculiar legal rules outside those that governed the non-baseball world (p.22). Even Ward stated that the reserve clause has virtue in that it “compels (rival managers) to keep his hands off his neighbor’s enterprise” (p. 32).

(7) Baseball not only banned players who had, in the view of owners, violated their contracts by jumping to the occasionally operating third leagues; e.g., the Federal League and Mexican League, but anyone who dared play against them even in an exhibition was similarly viewed as ineligible (p. 159).

(8) Kuhn, who would be derided throughout much of his tenure as commissioner, was widely viewed as a marvelous appointee when first named. The legendary baseball scribe Roger Angell opined that Kuhn had the potential to be the “best thing to happen to baseball since the catcher’s mitt” at the time of Kuhn’s appointment (p. 204).

(9) Although this is my conclusion, and not necessarily Lowenfish’s, the success of players in wringing concessions seems closely tied to the emergence of (or prospective threat thereof) of another league, e.g., the 1890 Players’ League, the Federal League, the Mexican Lague, the Continental League (which never actually got off the ground). Concessions made, however, would disappear once the threat dissipated. Baseball, it seems, may have been immune to the laws of man to a large extent, but not those of economics.

(10) The owners lived in fear that their legal arguments would eventually be discovered to be the shams they mostly were. Keeping baseball out of the courts, said Landis’ assistant Francis O’Conner, was Landis’ greatest contribution to the game for precisely that reason (p. 149). This was because Landis himself harbored grave doubts about the legality of a perpetual reserve clause, and O’Conner insisted that had a player requested a contract without one, it would have been granted by Landis (p.123).

References & Resources
The Imperfect Diamond is available at Amazon.

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