It's Time To Overhaul The Grand Old Game

An effort to modernize baseball's outdated organizational machinery could have far-reaching effects both on and off the playing field
April 12, 1982

Like an old car with too many miles on it, baseball broke down last year, and some observers thought it might never again run with its old zip. But that was far too gloomy a diagnosis. From the evidence of record spring training crowds, of healthy advance ticket sales, of the general mood of optimism and relief that fans across the land are expressing, the game seems to be running at full throttle once more. "I'm a great reader of my mail," says Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, "and I haven't received one negative letter in months. I think that's a straw in the wind." The infamous strike of '81 didn't consign the game to the junkyard. Indeed, it's almost as if nothing at all had happened to the tin lizzy that has been puttering over rocky roads for more than a century.

But that's not quite true. The strike that shut down baseball for eight weeks last summer has, in fact, inspired a veritable orgy of self-examination by the game's leaders. And some young Turks among the owners are urging hidebound traditionalists to set aside old prejudices and set to work streamlining administrative machinery that resembles nothing so much as a Rube Goldberg contraption. "As has been said, we shape our buildings and they shape us," says Oakland A's President Roy Eisenhardt. Eisenhardt is co-chairman, with Dodgers President Peter O'Malley, of the restructuring committee that is examining as never before the way the game is run. "We're not trying to solve all of baseball's problems," says Eisenhardt. "We're trying to design a building we can live in. We're trying to make sure the building itself isn't a factor in the troubles we've experienced."

The feeling among Eisenhardt and other owners relatively new to the game, such as Edward Bennett Williams of Baltimore and Eddie Chiles of Texas, is that baseball cannot afford to go on as it has. Considering ever spiraling costs and players' salaries—the players estimate the average is $230,000 a year; the owners say it's $255,000—"afford" is the operative word. As a business, baseball is as different now from what it was only 15 years ago as CBS is from WKRP.

If nothing else, the strike exposed the commissioner's office for the anachronism it has become. It is an office, says Eisenhardt, "that, like the doughnut, is defined by its hole." Kuhn, supposedly the game's leader and its spokesman in times of crisis, virtually disappeared during the strike. In his stead, as a sort of neo-commissioner, stood Ray Grebey, director of the Player Relations Committee, a corporation created by the owners for the express purpose of dealing with the increasingly powerful Major League Baseball Players Association, captained by the redoubtable Marvin Miller.

Grebey was accorded enormous power during the strike as the owners' negotiator, and he saw himself as being beyond criticism by his constituents. "In a collective bargaining situation," says Grebey, "you can have only one spokesman." So if someone suggested, as Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton did, that maybe the PRC should be more concerned with compromise than victory, the wrath of his colleagues descended upon him. Dalton was fined $50,000 by the owners' disciplinary committee for his supposedly divisive remarks. The fine was later rescinded, but the whole experience left Dalton with the uneasy sensation that the PRC was a power unto itself. "I don't think we should eliminate the use of professionals in labor relations," he said during spring training. "But I don't think the PRC should be a separate body. I think it should be incorporated into the commissioner's office."

"The most important question we have today—player relations—now lies outside the commissioner's office," says Eisenhardt. And so, he adds, does the game's marketing arm, which generates important revenue through the licensing of products and the production of promotional films. The restructuring committee is investigating the possibility of placing both of these functions under the commissioner's wing. Not surprisingly, Kuhn is in favor of broadening his office's authority. "We need a strong commissioner now more than ever," he says. "The forces that have divided us are stronger than ever. The Player Relations Committee did what it was authorized to do during the strike. What was missing from the equation was the ability to involve the 26 clubs more intimately in the central issues." Gag rules and secrecy don't make that sort of involvement easy.

The rivalry between the two major leagues is an important baseball tradition, and even the most radical of the game's reformers would seek to preserve it—at least on the playing field. "Our leagues have their own identities, says Eisenhardt. "The only way I can tell the NFL's conferences apart is that one is on NBC and the other is on CBS." Rivalry is one thing, but the game suffers when one league plays with 10 men and the other with nine and one has 14 teams and the other 12. Under the present setup, the leagues don't necessarily even have to play the same number of games, although they must start and end their seasons at the same time. Many a baseball commissioner has dodged a tricky policy question by proclaiming, "That's a league matter." There's a feeling now among the game's progressives that there are far too many "league matters"—issues that might better be dealt with by the club owners' acting as a body. The commissioner himself must be elected by a three-fourths majority in each league. A candidate could conceivably have 22 votes and not win the election if the four owners who opposed him happened to be from the National League.

Of the two leagues, the National is considered the more conservative, primarily because of its repeated rejection of the designated hitter rule and its refusal to expand since 1969. A good argument can be made, of course, that the American League is dead wrong on both of these issues. But the so-called senior circuit is also the league of such conservative factions as the Busch family of St. Louis and the management of the Cincinnati Reds. The National League owners, says the Orioles' Williams, "are locked in cement on many ideas. They move very, very reluctantly. I think it was a long time before any of them had inside plumbing. Hopefuly, this will change." It may with the infusion of new blood in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. And it certainly will if the reformers sap it—and the American League, as well—of its separate powers. This is a prospect that obviously pleases neither National League President Chub Feeney nor American League President Lee MacPhail. In general, they have used their power wisely and efficiently but at times they have also opened themselves to criticism when they failed to act forcefully on matters like the aftermath of the umpires' strike and on-field violence. The game can no longer afford a bifurcation of authority that can stymie legitimate progress. The owners, National and American alike, must realize they are partners as surely as they are rivals.

Which is not to say that the current make-up of the leagues should be scrapped, as has been proposed by some deep thinkers, in favor of a new alignment drawn along geographical lines. This change would have the virtue of establishing supposedly natural rivalries between, say, the Yankees and the Mets, the White Sox and the Cubs, the Angels and the Dodgers and the Giants and the A's. It would also do away with the absurdity of a Southeastern city like Atlanta being in somebody's "western" division. Most important, it would cut down on transportation costs. But it would make a mockery of tradition, and some things deserve to remain sacred.

A three-division system in each league is a more distinct, if no less depressing, possibility. This proposal could have the support of the players, who rather enjoyed the extra miniplayoff money they made last year and wouldn't reject it on an annual basis. Fan interest is another matter. The average attendance at the 18 miniplayoff games was 43,755, as compared to 50,205 for the two League Championship Series and 56,347 for the World Series.

Baseball's most unnerving problem is the imbalance of economic power that's nearly as old as the game itself, and public awareness of it has been heightened by the advent of free agency. Some teams, the Yankees for one, pay out more in player salaries than many others take in in gross revenue. When the Mets signed George Foster and the Expos signed Gary Carter to contracts that will pay the players nearly $2 million a season, there were shudders in front offices across the nation. Significantly, Montreal and the Mets have local television and radio contracts many times more lucrative than, say, Seattle's.

Baseball cannot work up a national television contract the equal of the NFL's, which will pay each member team more than $14 million a year. "It's duck soup for them," says Kuhn. "But they have eight home games. We have 81." Cable television, a force in the near future, might represent a source of revenue sharing, and, to be sure, the owners have a revenue sharing committee. "Revenue sharing may be creeping socialism," San Diego Padre President Ballard Smith has said, "but it's better than creeping bankruptcy."

Meanwhile, the owners are watching with considerable interest the so-called Cincinnati experiment, which involves shoring up the farm system so that young talent is available to replace established stars, like Foster and Pete Rose, when their salary demands exceed the team's willingness or ability to pay. Marvin Miller feels the owners are already conspiring to beat the free agent system by offering contracts not appreciably different from those tendered free agents by their former teams. Nevertheless, player salaries have increased by upwards of 20% since last year.

A concern common to owners and players alike is the proliferation of player agents, many of whom are less than competent and honorable. "Some players are going right down the tube with some of these guys," says Grebey. "This is political dynamite for Marvin."

Miller sighs in agreement. "We did open the doors," he admits. "Before the 1970 Basic Agreement, the owners refused to talk to anyone but the players. The Basic Agreement that year established a player's right to be represented. On balance, I think I can still defend the system, but I'm not too pleased with the side effects." Miller's office plans to send detailed questionnaires to all identifiable agents asking them to give their background, experience, proposed services and fees. He has run seminars for agents on the dos and don'ts of representing players, and for players facing salary arbitration Miller is considering recruiting agents of his own who are specially versed in these proceedings. "You can't use a broad brush," he says. "Some agents are capable and conscientious. Some are anything but. The Players Association has no authority to license them."

Miller will not have to contend with such problems much longer. He has asked the players to find a replacement for him by next year at the latest. After 16 contentious and victorious years, he's retiring, concerned that some owners will think his absence will weaken the union. "My leaving has the potential of leading to another one of their misjudgments about the players' resolve," Miller says. "On the other hand, if they are finally convinced that the players can't be broken, the chances are good that for many years we will not go the route taken last year and that future negotiations can be conducted reasonably and progress can be made on a peaceful basis."

Kuhn's contract expires on Aug. 12, 1983, and he says, "I'm no blushing violet. I'll be available." He's especially enthusiastic about the expanded powers the restructuring committee is contemplating for his office. But if genuine progress is to be made, particularly in the area of player relations, a fresh face at the top might better serve the game. Kuhn has his enemies now among the owners, although one of his former critics, Williams, recently recanted. "I've come to believe that the commissioner's job is a difficult one," Williams said. "I've been unfair at times and I regret it. There are so many conflicts in interests and so many traditionalists opposed to change pulling at the commissioner in different directions. He's the commissioner of the whole game, not just the people I share a common view with." Kuhn has worked well enough within the authority granted him. But baseball desperately needs new vigor and independent thinking at the very top.

There are encouraging signs that some of the new owners, notably Eisenhardt and the Haas family in Oakland, have the kind of vision necessary to get the old jalopy rolling again. In the past, baseball's troubles have been caused by a lethal mixture of shortsightedness and hard-headedness. The owners generally have not been able to agree on anything except their common dislike of Miller and the Players Association. The players, for their part, seem oblivious to the game's real economic problems and have tended to regard all owners as grasping. These two conflicting forces, unfettered by a powerless commissioner, have sought only to defeat each other.

So a new season begins, this time with the turmoil in the background and the competition on the field. Let's play ball. The whole season this time, if you please.

ILLUSTRATIONSANDY HUFFAKEREisenhardt (lower left) and his committee may redesign the roles of Commissioner Kuhn and presidents MacPhail and Feeney. ILLUSTRATIONSANDY HUFFAKERDespite fears that the 1981 strike would drive fans away, they're back in droves. ILLUSTRATIONSANDY HUFFAKERGrebey's and Miller's differing points of view made a strike an inevitable collision.

The scouting reports on pages 54 to 77 were written by Bruce Anderson, Ron Fimrite, Jim Kaplan, Douglas S. Looney and Steve Wulf. The accompanying statistics were provided by Bill James, the author of The Baseball Abstract 1982.