Still Upset About the Labor Dispute? Welcome the Villains to Fenway

June’s first homestand gives Sox fans an extra reason to pull for the home team. The Red Sox will host the Brewers and the White Sox, the two clubs owned by the villains of the 1994-95 labor dispute.

Everyone knows Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, Acting Commissioner for Life since the 1992 coup which ousted Fay Vincent. Selig has now governed baseball longer than three of the eight “real” Commissioners, holding the owners together as they collectively drove Major League Baseball off a cliff. In several Washington appearances, Selig alienated Congress to the point that Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont accused him of trying to “mislead the Senate” by giving “testimony that turned out not to be true,” and conservative Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said, “I am fast becoming convinced that a majority of the owners are trying to break the Players’ Association.”

But while Selig gets most of the bad press, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has actually done more to destroy the game. However wrongheaded he might be on the specifics, Selig does what he thinks is best because he genuinely loves the Brewers, his home town of Milwaukee, and baseball. Reinsdorf, on the other hand, loves nothing more than his own bank account.

For example, rather than threatening to move the Brewers from Milwaukee, one of baseball’s smallest markets, Selig agreed to contribute $90 million toward the $250 million cost of a new stadium. Reinsdorf told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “It’s absurd that he’s putting up that kind of money.” Reinsdorf added, “Selig’s too nice a guy. He doesn’t like to play hardball, but that’s the only game you can play with politicians.”

No one’s likely to call Reinsdorf “too nice a guy.” In 1988, when the White Sox wanted a new park, he issued an ultimatum to the State of Illinois: build him a new $150 million stadium with tax dollars or he’d move the team to Tampa/St. Petersburg. New Comiskey Park was built with $10 million/year in direct payments from the city and state, plus the proceeds from a special 2% tax on all hotel and motel rooms in Chicago. Thanks to the taxpayers’ generosity, Reinsdorf now pockets an extra $10 million per season from New Comiskey’s luxury boxes.

While orchestrating Fay Vincent’s ouster in 1992, Reinsdorf set the tone for the upcoming labor negotiations. “You do it by taking a position and telling them we’re not going to play until we make a deal, and being prepared not to play one or two years if you have to.”

That really worked well, didn’t it? Especially when Major League Baseball’s bargaining position -- demanding that the players refuse to accept the high salaries owners freely offered them -- was so contrary to the basic principles of a market economy that even George Will and Rush Limbaugh sided with the players. For Reinsdorf, a true throwback to the 19th-century robber barons, government, taxpayers, and employees alike are mere tools to be manipulated in the single-minded pursuit of profit.

Perhaps the best summary of the Selig/Reinsdorf era came from new Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, now a Republican Congressman from Kentucky. Proposing to repeal Organized Baseball’s antitrust exemption, Bunning observed: “Major League baseball operates as a cartel in classic monopoly fashion. The owners, not market forces, dictate how the supply of its product will be allocated. The antitrust exemption shields major league baseball from market forces and makes competition impossible. . . . Baseball has a problem because the owners have been unable to reach agreement on how to share revenues between small market teams and large market treams. But, instead of hammering out an agreement, they are now trying to arbitrarily impose a salary cap on the players to force the players to solve the owners’ problem for them.”

But is there a problem? Is Major League Baseball teetering on the edge of financial ruin? Are small-market teams unable to compete? I’ll address these issues next month.

Copyright © 1996 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the June 1996 issue of Boston Baseball.

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