Search

On the Money Three new books trace the insidious rise of the cash culture in baseball over the past five decades

May 26, 2003
May 26, 2003

Table of Contents
May 26, 2003

Tennis
Departments

On the Money Three new books trace the insidious rise of the cash culture in baseball over the past five decades

THE LAST GOOD SEASON: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final
Pennant Race Together
by Michael Shapiro
(Doubleday, 332 pages, $24.95)

This is an article from the May 26, 2003 issue

OCTOBER MEN: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin,
and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978
by Roger Kahn
(Harcourt Inc., 363 pages, $25)

MAY THE BEST TEAM WIN: Baseball Economics and Public Policy
by Andrew Zimbalist
(Brookings Institution Press, 159 pages, $24.95)

The public, Otto von Bismarck once said, ought never to witness
the making of laws or sausages. Add major league baseball teams
to the list. Like lawmakers, baseball owners often sacrifice the
public good for their own personal gain; like sausage makers,
they know the public will swallow damn near anything as long as
it's properly packaged. On the plus side, the baseball owners'
outrages can be amusing--rather like those reality shows about
animal attacks and out-of-control trucks.

Two new books provide such entertainment. Shapiro, a journalism
professor at Columbia, writes about the Dodgers' 1956 season,
their last in Brooklyn. The tale is dominated by owner Walter
O'Malley, who Dodgers vice president Buzzie Bavasi said "would
have been a wonderful guy, except he loved money too damn much."
How much? Though Brooklyn had won the World Series in 1955,
O'Malley cut Jackie Robinson's pay from $37,500 to $33,000
because, at 37, Robinson's skills had begun to decline. Shapiro
skillfully re-creates the tension of that bittersweet '56 season.
On the field there was a gutty, pennant-winning performance. Off
the field O'Malley battled furiously to build a new stadium in
Brooklyn--a fight he was destined to lose to New York's powerful
urban planner, Robert Moses. Shapiro, an old Brooklyn fan,
resists the temptation to demonize O'Malley. Avaricious and
dishonest he may have been, but no more so than businessmen in
other walks of life. O'Malley's infamy, writes Shapiro, stems
from the fact that "he could not see that baseball is more than a
business.... This did not make him unique among team owners. He
was just the first to be so obvious about it."

Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, offers a
stream-of-consciousness memoir of the Yankees' 1978 championship
season. His style, loaded with literary and historical
references ("baseball feudalism was history, like Charlemagne"),
might be over-the-top to some, but it's almost appropriate in
this context, since everything about the '78 Yanks was
excessive: Never before had so many ill-fitted narcissistic
mercenaries been brought together. Some feared that the club,
built with the help of large amounts of George Steinbrenner's
free-agent money, which brought in the likes of slugger Reggie
Jackson, was the end of the game as we know it. It wasn't, but
the Yanks' World Series win showed that clubhouse harmony wasn't
essential to a championship--and that a great team could be
bought.

These days a typical owner will rake in big money, claim he's
nearly broke and then threaten to move unless his host city
subsidizes a new stadium at taxpayer expense. If you think this
is an exaggeration, read Zimbalist's brilliantly researched study
on the economics of the game. A Smith College economics
professor, Zimbalist writes convincingly that baseball is nothing
less than "an unregulated legal monopoly." And since "capitalism
draws its strength from the competitive process," unregulated
monopolies breed "arrogance, laxity and inefficiency."

For evidence of arrogance he points to commissioner Bud Selig's
testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in which he spoke
of baseball's losing approximately $519 million in 2001. Using
public records Zimbalist reveals the accounting subtleties behind
Selig's figures. Many baseball teams appear to lose money because
the team itself is reported as a business separate from other
baseball-linked moneymaking enterprises that enrich owners such
as TV broadcasting, stadium parking and concessions.

Baseball's former chief operating officer, Paul Beeston, once
said he could make a $4 million profit look like a $2 million
loss and "get every national accounting firm to agree with me."
Zimbalist sheds light on the whole mess and argues that there's
much Congress could do to defang ownership: remove the antitrust
exemption, eliminate tax-exempt financing for pro sports
stadiums, improve competition in cable and satellite TV services.
If reform doesn't come soon, someday in the not-too-distant
future, owners like O'Malley and Steinbrenner will be remembered
as pussycats.

COLOR PHOTO: DOUBLEDAYCOLOR PHOTO: HARCOURT INC.COLOR PHOTO: BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESSB/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS OCTOBERFEST Jackson's Yankees tenure heralded the free-agent era.