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Pay for Play? This MS/NBC
2002-07-26 14:44
by Mike Carminati

Pay for Play?

This MS/NBC article proposes having the players leverage their incomes and skills to become the team owners. He then proposes that the player-owners establish a pay-for-play system:

Wouldn't interest in the game be sparked if the player-owners instituted incentive compensation plans? The better the play, the more the pay.
Imagine a payroll restructured to reward performance. Players would all receive a base salary, and from there bonuses would be paid for performance and production.

The fans would be more interested in player-owners who have their livelihood on the line on each play, the article contends.

I don't know if the author is trying to be serious or droll in that Andy Rooney unfunny way or both, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at his word. First, I have to point out that this is how professional baseball started-a number of professional teams organized the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA) in 1871. They took their blueprint for the new league from the originally amateur National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which was organized in 1857 by the New York Knickerbocker club, the first group to codify the baseball rules. These were professional, largely urban men who played baseball for recreation, to get outdoors and partake in the exercise craze sweeping the nation. It originated in the New York area (the baseball that today's game evolved from was original known as "The New York Game") and spread to Philadelphia. Washington D.C., Massachusetts, and finally the Midwest and South. Originally teams would host other teams including a clebratory feast after the game. Baseball as a spectator sport began to mold the game in its own vision. As competition became more fierce players were given either fake jobs or were paid under the table since professionalism was not only looked down upon, it was not allowed in the association. Finally the association recognized professionalism as a fact of baseball life. The Cincinnati Red Legs in 1869 were the first all-professional team and their undefeated season caused a sensation. Professional teams were then split into another "division" (more a concept than a reality) in the NABBP.

Those teams became so strong that in 1871 they split away and formed the NA. The amateur association re-dubbed itself the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players and resigned itself to the scrapheap. However, the league was structured like the amateur association. Teams scheduled their own games against the opponents that the saw fit to play. If the Boston club did not want to travel to Keokuk or Rockford to play the NA team there, nothing required them to do so. If Boston would prefer to play the Lynn team that played nearby but was not an NA team so that they could attract more fans, they could do so. If Boston agreed with New York to play 10 times but with Philadelphia to play 6 times, that was OK. As long as they paid their nominal dues, they could do as they pleased. Players had more freedom, too. If a player could get more money playing for New York than for Troy, he was free to break his Troy contract and sign one with New York. This was called "revolving." As competition for the best players evolved the team ownership concept was replaced by an actual financial backer. This owners wanted more control over the product on the field and on their assets, i.e., the players and over their contracts.

In 1876, Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert and his cronies but a stop to all these shenanigans and established the National League of Professional Clubs-today's National League-on the moribund body of the NA in 1876. It required a larger entrance fee, only considered clubs from large population centers (all were over 75, 000 people), established the idea of territorial rights by limiting the number of teams representing a community, and centralized the league functions (schedule-making, record-keeping, umpire management, and rule enforcement). Contracts were enforced driving down salaries. The owners then established the reserve clause (only 5 players at first) to ensure that the teams could retain some of their assets from year to year.

The players lost more and more power as the reserve clause grew to encompass all players and as the NL established itself as the premiere group of baseball talent. Its monopoly drove down player salaries and while raising ticket prices. Rival leagues attempted to break up the NL's stranglehold. The American Association was formed in 1881 after the NL had jettisoned its two most populous cities, New York and Philadelphia, after they failed to perform a road trip to the Western (actually Midwestern) teams in 1877. Known as the "Beer and Whiskey" League it reintroduced Sunday baseball, $.25 admission prices, and alcohol to the games, all things frowned upon by the NL. The AA eventually merged into the NL in 1892 after its base was weakened by other rival leagues. The Union Association, probably the weakest of all major leagues, played after a fashion in 1884. It collapsed after its financially strongest club, St. Louis, was granted an NL franchise.

In 1890 perhaps the strongest rival league began play. It was called the Players' National League, known as simply the Players' League (PL). This was formed after John Montgomery "Monte" Ward, a former pitcher turned shortstop and Columbia Law School graduate, started the first baseball players union, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in response to the expansion of the reserve clause to encompass all players. The Brotherhood told players in 1889 to play out their contracts and not sign new owns for 1890. Ward lined up financial backers and formed the PL with Brotherhood teams in a number of NL and AA cities. The PL proved more popular with the fans apparently far out-drawing the two more established leagues (it's hard to determine given the inflated attendance figures reported by the leagues). However, even though all of the teams lost money because of the intense competition, the PL backers felt it most dearly without established capital to fall back on. The NL and AA made an hardline offer to the PL's financial backers almost as a last ditch effort and to their surprise they accepted. The Brotherhood collapsed but brought down the AA in its wake. The NL was left to run as a monopoly for 10 years.

The 1892 NL roster consisted of 12 teams, 4 of which had come from the collapsed AA. During the various wars that the NL had to endure investing in rival NL clubs was begun to prop up weaker franchises. Eventually, with new-found peace the NL clubs started using these shared clubs as development squads. By 1899, the NL decided to cast off these weaker teams, buying out four clubs (Washington, Loiusville, Cleveland, and Baltimore) and regrouped as an eight-club league. This created a vacuum that Ban Johnson, president of the soon-to-be-renamed Western League filled by positioning his clubs in larger markets while still remaining under the NL's auspices. The Western League became the American League in 1900. In 1901 it declared open war on the NL pilfering players from NL rosters; an attendant overall salary increase ensued. The two leagues came to an agreement in 1903. Contracts were respected and not surprising salaries dropped. In 1912 a rival league called the United States League attempted to break into the major-league market but after two successive incomplete seasons, they collapsed. One final rival league appeared in 1914 when the Federal League declared itself a major league and started raiding major-league rosters. Salaries rose until the league collapsed after 1915. The FL sued and (even though the league had settled the BaltimoreTerps club fought on) eventually the Supreme Court and justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in 1922 that the antitrust laws do not apply to baseball because it did not constitute interstate commerce. They then left the issue for Congress to rectify, which they have failed to do ever since though threatening to do so at various times. This is the supposed antitrust exception that baseball is purported to have.

The next challenge to the baseball establishment didn't occur for 30 years. The Mexican League started recruiting professional players after World War II. Commissioner Happy Chandler issued a ban of five years on all players who skipped to the new league. Danny Gardella was a minor-league player who signed with the new league, changed his mind, but was now prevented from returning. He sued and eventually settled with the majors, the ban was lifted, and the Mexican League was admitted into organized ball as a minor league. The stillborn Continental League attempted amicably to become a third major league after efforts to replace the re-located Dodgers and Giants failed in the late '50s. The majors finally co-opted the new league allowing four CL owners to buy into the leagues as they expanded to 20 clubs. In 1969 Curt Flood refused to be traded by the Cardinals to the Phillies and challenged the majors in the courts, eventually losing in 1972 in the Supreme Court. Catfish Hunter was ruled a free agent after 1974 because A's owner Charlie Finley failed to meet all the demands laid out in Hunter's contract (he neglected to pay a $50K insurance annuity). In 1975 the reserve clause fell to arbitrator Peter Seitz, who ruled that the Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were free agents since they had played out their contracts and the assumption that the reserve clause gave the owners the right to impose their own contract on the players was too one-sided. Seitz was fired, but the ruling stood. There have been work stoppages in baseball in 1972, 73, 76, 80, 81, 85, 90, and 94-95. Owners are assessed $286 million in damages for colluding to keep free-agent salaries down in 1985-87.

So what does this rather long-winded history have to do with the article's proposal? Basically, that a) player-owners have been tried before and they failed, and b) there is a long-winded history that explains how baseball got to this point and this delicate balance would be thrown off by such a wholesale change. Besides, how would the proposal deal with the following issues:

- How would injured players be compensated?
- How would the ownership be apportioned, by salary, playing time, longevity, etc?
- How would managers be able to make decisions if they report to the players they manage?
- What would happen to the ownership of retired or demoted players?
- How would promoted players gain ownership? Would they lose it when they get demoted as they often do?
- What happens to the ownership of a traded player? Say he gets the same number of shares in th new team. What if he doesn't feel that its compensatory?
- What's to prevent player-owners from relocating to a new town or from establishing 10 teams in New York?
- Who will enforce players to make trips to cities that do not draw well when they know that they will not be compensated? Or to even finish out the season?
- How would you compensate the players based on statistics, longevity, drawing power? What statistics would you use? What about for defensive stars whose contributions are hard to quantify?
- People complain now that players are only interested in their own stats. What will happen when their corporate bonuses are tied to them.

Besides, Andrew Zimbalist in Baseball and Billions showed that there is a correlation between players' salaries and performance. Its just occurs one year after the fact: first the player performs and then he is compensated the next year. Also, players are compensated for winning awards and reaching statistical milestones throughout the course of the season. Why should baseball players be subjected to this sort of scrutiny? Why not pay Julia Roberts based on the tickets sold to her latest cheesy flick instead of paying her $20 million up front? Why doesn't the author ofthe article get paid on the quality of each article rather than a salary? Why not require corporations to pay their CEOs based on the health of their respective corporations?

This is nothing more than another hairbrained proposal, the ones that seem to manifest themsleves as people become more disenchanted by and disaffected with major-league baseball as a whole. If the owners and players sign a contract, we will no longer have to deluged with these wacky ideas.

. . .

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