Striking players need a time out for reality check

August 14, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the day baseball gave itself a heart attack, some of us went to Sabatino's, in Little Italy, where the talk naturally got around to the sacred fundamentals of the game, such as the need for a left-handed relief pitcher and the importance of union solidarity, when Albert Carmine Isella stopped everybody with the wisdom of his years.

Isella is 80 years old. He is recognized hereabouts through the various newspaper headlines as a fellow who has placed an occasional sporting wager, but he is less widely known as a union pioneer. Long ago, he helped organize the steel workers at Sparrows Point, and thus offers a sense of perspective on the baseball players, who average $1.2 million a year in salary but walked off the job with much blather about workers of the world uniting.

"How much," he was asked, "were people making at Bethlehem Steel when you tried to get the union started?"

"Fourteen and a half cents an hour," Isella declared, still infuriated after all these years.

For those lacking multiplication skills, this does not quite equate to $1.2 million a year although, at a full 40 hours, it did give the steel workers $5.80 a week, or roughly $301.60 a year, which was 1938.

OK, things change. The national wages go up, but maybe a sense of perspective goes out the window. The cost of living rises, but maybe some people have it so good that they should study a little history.

The Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher, Jim Poole, who is assistant player representative, talks passionately of the ballplayers suffering "a hundred years" of team owners' oppression. Poole is 28. He has a 6.64 earned run average and hasn't gotten a hitter out in maybe two months, but he's paid more than $200,000 a year and is considered impoverished by baseball standards.

Some would say Jim Poole should shut up and count his blessings. They would be slightly wrong, but it would be Poole's own fault, since he and the others seem to have lost all touch with current economics and reality.

The ballplayers don't want to hear of union give-backs? Perhaps they've missed the last decade of management-labor negotiations, during which no union in America has escaped various give-backs.

They want to talk of a hundred years of baseball owners' oppression? They have a point, though it's lost considerable relevance. He means all the years when owners controlled players' contracts, and stymied the ability that all other American workers have to find their best deal, and paid players far below their market value.

No one disagrees. Shame on the owners, who, faced with free agency 20 years ago, turned from a century of greed to two

decades of unprecedented wild spending and stupidity. They got themselves into this mess, and now claim they can't get out of it under current contract conditions.

The ballplayers don't trust them, and why should they? The owners say the players are ingrates, and why shouldn't they? And fans, not particularly interested in the details of such things, are simply saying, a plague on both their houses.

"How much money can they make?" Al Isella was asking, as he remembered the days when unions came to existence because people couldn't feed their families. "Isn't there somebody with brains who says, 'We're doing pretty bleepin' good. Can't we work things out, but keep playing?' "

He arrived here nearly 60 years ago, from the coal mines of Pennsylvania where his father headed a miners' local. Isella lived with an aunt on Oldham Street and worked with sheets of tin at Sparrows Point. He and maybe a dozen others, understanding the future looked bleak at $5.80 a week, began trying to organize maybe 25,000 people who worked at the Point as the war years loomed. "It was rough," he remembered. "You'd finish work and walk out so exhausted you could barely make it home. The company didn't want nobody asking for more money, and everybody was afraid to fight 'em. I got beat up by the Bethlehem Steel police for passing out leaflets. My car was blowed up.

"No wonder people were afraid. But you know who made it work? The women. They were the backbone, they had the guts before the men did. The company treated them worse than prisoners. And finally, they had enough, and the men followed 'em."

The baseball players have had enough, too. They talk of their right to strike the best deals available, and that's true, but that fight's long finished and they won it. The owners lost, and some of them have paid dearly and now claim to be running in the red.

There must be room for compromise. But, while they're finding it, there must also be those with a touch of reality who look at the blessings bestowed on them and say, "We have to be nuts not to keep playing while we talk."

And, while they're at it, they should drop all this union solidarity talk we keep hearing. It's a slap in the face to every man and woman who does real work for a living and to everyone who ever walked a picket line to feed a family, even if they don't quite remember a time of 14 1/2 cents-an-hour wages.

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