Palo Alto Weekly

- November 11, 2011

Of balls and strikes

William Gould's book, "Bargaining with Baseball," takes on Major League Baseball's labor relations and much, much more

by Gennady Sheyner

"Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil," by William B. Gould IV; McFarland & Company, Inc.; Jefferson, N. C., and London; 318 pp.; $39.95

Long before Barry Bonds earned his asterisk, Alex Rodriguez signed his quarter-billion dollar contract and Manny Ramirez shrugged off a playoff loss with the comment, "Who cares? There's always next season," the life of the typical baseball player was a brutal and thankless affair.

As recently as the first half of the 20th century, baseball players had no collective-bargaining rights, guaranteed contracts or six-digit signing bonuses. They shared hotel rooms, paid for their own rehabilitation and held second jobs to support their families.

As 1940s Yankee pitcher Floyd "Bill" Bevens said, "Even if we win the World Series, you will find me back on the delivery truck at Salem, Oregon, in winter."

The quote, which appears in William Gould's new book, "Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil," may shock today's baseball fan, accustomed as he or she is to astronomical contracts such as the $25 million one-year deal the Yankees' ace de jour, C.C. Sabathia, signed earlier this month. But as Gould explains in his detailed and wide-ranging book, the current excesses did not develop in a vacuum.

A Stanford University law professor, avid Red Sox fan and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, Gould is more than a scholar of the national pastime. He was the central player in baseball's last major labor dispute. In 1995, he cast the deciding vote that ended baseball's strike — the last time a labor dispute interrupted the season. All three sides of his personality are on full display in "Bargaining Baseball."

The book is an expansive, passionate and anecdote-riddled survey of labor relations in baseball, from its surging popularity in the aftermath of the Civil War to the players' legal victories in the 1960s and 1970s, and to the "steroid era" of the present day.

The book contains all the virtues and flaws of the game it covers — long stretches of insider minutia interrupted by moments of entertainment and insight.

Some chapters read like a college textbook: Gould catalogues antitrust cases, discusses the applicability of collective-bargaining agreements to international players, and painstakingly details the financial consequences of the 1994-95 strike he helped end.

A scholar of labor relations or a law student could find much to admire in this detailed survey. But for a casual fan, some sections pack all the thrill of watching a big leaguer chomping on a wad of tobacco.

Gould's generous use of exclamation marks doesn't always help. In some cases, they make sense, as when he celebrates the game of his childhood: "Under the circumstances of our sandlot ball, it goes without saying that the guy who owned the ball was particularly powerful and popular!" he writes early in the book. At other times, they seem almost puzzling, particularly in the context of labor jargon. "The rich are getting richer through revenue sharing deductions provided by the collective bargaining agreement!" he exclaims. His excitement is admirable, though not always contagious.

What Gould does do exceptionally well is explain how players' salaries got to be where they are. (They have risen more than a hundredfold since 1969, he notes.) A true student of the game, Gould does a masterful job chronicling the legal battles between the players' union and team owners, whose once unassailable power over players gradually began to crumble in the second half of the 20th century. He takes us step by step through every major labor dispute, from the 1912 episode in which the legendary Detroit Tigers slugger Ty Cobb was disciplined for punching out a heckling fan, leading to a players' strike, to the 1972 dispute over pensions, to the "mother of all strikes" in 1994-5.

The turning point for the players came in the late 1960s, when the fledgling Major League Players Association began scoring a series of victories over team owners. Headed by former steelworkers' union organizer Marvin Miller, the union was a successor to earlier failed efforts. It managed to abolish the "reserve clause" — a long-standing policy that gave teams the power to resign players in perpetuity — and to negotiate significant salary hikes and improved pension benefits.

In the first eight years of Miller's tenure, which stretched from 1966 to 1980, the players' pensions more than tripled, the minimum salary rose from $6,000 to $16,000 and the average salary more than doubled (though at $40,956 it still seems paltry by today's standards), Gould writes.

More significantly, the union negotiated its first collective-bargaining agreements in 1966 and in 1968, setting the parameters for a system that remains intact to this day.

As the union grew in power, team owners were forced to loosen their strangleholds. In 1972, the union staged a successful strike that forced owners to contribute $500,000 to players' pensions. The following year, the union negotiated a new collective-bargaining agreement with owners that gave veteran players a greater say over trades and established a binding-arbitration process for salary disputes.

Another pivotal victory for the players came in 1974, when legendary Oakland A's pitcher "Catfish" Hunter faced off against the team's notoriously stingy and heavy-handed owner Charles Finley. Hunter challenged Finley after the latter failed to deposit $50,000 into Hunter's "deferment plan," as called for in the contract. He won his "breach of contract" challenge in arbitration, terminated his A's contract, became a free agent and joined the New York Yankees, who gave him an "unprecedented salary package" that included a $1 million signing bonus, a $150,000 annual salary for five years and life-insurance benefits worth $1 million.

The Hunter-Finley face-off resulted in the first "guaranteed contract," that obliged the team to compensate him even if he couldn't perform due to injury.

Players prevailed in 1995 when Gould cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 labor board decision to authorize an injunction against the team owners, who were looking to reduce salaries and field minor-league replacement players to keep the season going.

Gould agreed with the board majority that owners did not bargain in "good faith" with the union before they declared an impasse and imposed new employment conditions that would have stripped some players of salary-arbitration rights.

Gould's stance isn't too surprising given his lifelong admiration of big leaguers. It doesn't help that the chapter on the 1994-5 strike features a signed photo of Baltimore's ironman shortstop Cal Ripken standing with the author. His description of the owners' bitter reaction to the injunction ("they "snarled angrily") also does little to foster a sense of objectivity. Still, his frenetic, play-by-play description of the labor board's frenzied negotiations amid heavy political pressure makes for a wildly entertaining read.

Throughout the book, Gould is never shy about criticizing current league policies, as when he excoriates interleague play — a system adopted in 1997 under which National League and American League teams square off during the regular season. The arguments are invariably passionate, though not always entirely convincing.

But "Bargaining with Baseball" is more than a primer and a polemic. It is also a celebration of the game, which has always been more prone to nostalgic recollections than other major sports.

Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who as a district judge granted the National Labor Relations Board's injunction that settled the 1994 strike, wrote at the time that the "often leisurely game of baseball is filled with many small moments which catch a fan's breath."

"There is, for example, that wonderful second when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall, and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it is a home run, a double or a single off the wall, or an out," she wrote.

Gould's book has its share of nostalgic recollections and colorful anecdotes. It veers from dry to ecstatic, such as when he follows the upswings and downswings of his childhood heroes, the Boston Red Sox. It casts a wide net and has something to offer to any serious fan of the game — provided the fan is willing to wade through minutes of labor-law nuance to get to the "wonderful second." The experience will surely feel familiar to a baseball fan.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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