The National Pastime

March 17, 1995|By BURT SOLOMON

Washington -- The spectral-looking backup catcher for the Baltimore Orioles was explaining to a reporter that he didn't blame the owners for messing things up. They were ''out for money,'' Bill Clarke said matter-of-factly -- just as the players were.

This succinct explanation of all that ails the national pastime was uttered not last week, but a century ago. It should come as no surprise that the owners have always acted like owners and the players like players. The logic of capitalism almost requires it. The business dynamics of baseball haven't changed since the last time a century ended. Then as now, it made sense for the owners to aspire to monopoly as a way to subdue the main source of their expense. Only Peter Angelos, whose business is as a lawyer for labor unions, now stands apart. Then as now, the players (rightly) felt put-upon and went after whatever they could get, and whatever they got, they fought to hold on to.

There was no compelling reason for either the owners or the players to bother with the greater good. The dynamics made sense to each side, and the result was -- is -- an outrage.

The machinations in the 1890s went even more to extremes than now. The decade started with the Players' League, which collapsed after the established clubs' owners excited the new league's owners' suspicions of the players. From 1892 on, there was a single major league, the 12-team National League, whose team owners understood the uses of monopoly. The owners publicly exaggerated the extent of their losses and rolled back DTC what the players were paid.

Mere monopoly, however, wasn't enough for them. The league became calcified; the bad teams stayed bad and a few teams persevered near the top. Attendance sagged along with the economy, then plunged in 1898 when a splendid little war started in Cuba around opening day and went on for most of the season. Some of the owners saw their salvation in a new magnitude of monopoly that came to be known as syndicate baseball.

The old Baltimore Orioles were in the forefront. The legendary team had won three pennants in a row from 1894-1896 (and finished second the following two years) by reinventing baseball with its smart and scrappy, ''scientific'' style of play. In Brooklyn, the owners of a terrible team known as the Trolley Dodgers offered a brilliant deal to the owners of the Orioles, the one Bill Clarke was clarifying just before Christmas in 1898. (A Rhode Island gambler named Gus Abell, a nephew of the founder of The Sun, owned most of the team, and a brash businessman named Charles H. Ebbets was the president and owned the rest.)

They proposed that the owners of each team would take a half-share in the other and that the cream of the Orioles would be sent to play in Brooklyn, where the market potential was more robust.

The fans in Baltimore, bored with winning, had been staying away from the ballpark, and a team just past its prime stood to be no easy thing to rebuild. The Orioles' owners saw more profit in plundering their own franchise than in fixing it. Harry von der Horst, the socially ambitious brewer with a majority stake in the Orioles, consented. Ned Hanlon, the manager and minority owner, was more eager still. As a player, Hanlon had been a leader of the Brotherhood that started the Players' League; as an owner, he never failed to put business before sentiment, embodying the spirit of the age.

Similar deals were struck between St. Louis and Cleveland, and Pittsburgh and Louisville. The rooters in the three despoiled cities were crushed. Baltimore lost ''Wee Willie'' Keeler, Louisville gave up Honus Wagner, and Cleveland fielded the worst team in history (20 wins, 134 defeats). All three cities (along with Washington) lost everything in 1900, when the National League, pursuing economic efficiency, downsized to eight clubs.

Everyone but the spat-upon fans fared well for a while. Brooklyn won back-to-back pennants, and St. Louis and Pittsburgh came close. The best players were pleased. But it wasn't to last. The same dynamics that had raised them high soon laid them low. When the American League started up in 1901 and a mob of players jumped leagues, Brooklyn was the hardest hit. The players aped the men who paid them.

Baseball, then as now, pretended to an innocence it has never really known. We Americans like to think of ourselves as Huck Finn but we act like Michael Milken. We're logical and sensible but self-destructive. Even America's age of innocence wasn't innocent.

Baseball may be shakier now than even a century ago. Society-wide, self-discipline has never seemed in such short supply. The players have been so overpaid that they can afford to be unreasonable for as long as they like. As they think about a barnstorming tour under corporate sponsorship, fans are beginning to fear that the structure that baseball has known since the century started could unravel: In place of cheering for the Orioles or the Red Sox, get ready to root for the Reeboks.

But the history also offers a reason for hope. We're as flawed as we ever were, but maybe no more so. The forms of baseball may change but not the basics. What was already known a century ago as the national game seems to endure.

Burt Solomon, a reporter for National Journal, is the author of ''Where They Ain't: A Cautionary Tale of Baseball at a Century's end,'' to be published by Basic Books.

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