Yesterday's Players As Flawed As Today's

May wasn’t a good month for the Professional Geezers. The month’s top baseball stories included an ugly brawl between the Yankees and Orioles; Wayne Huizenga’s continued dismantling of the world champion Marlins; and Mike Piazza’s demand for baseball’s first $100 million contract. The Geezers reacted as they always do, filling the newspapers and airwaves with their laments.

“Baseball’s going to hell,” they cried. (At this point, some Geezers reflexively complained about modern music, TV, movies, fashion, morals, and education, too.) “What happened to the good old days, when players loved the game so much they’d have played for free? Remember when baseball players were all role models I would be proud to have my children emulate?”

Well, no. And neither do the Geezers. Literally no one alive today can accurately recall such an era. Looking back through the rose-colored glasses of Geezerdom yields a distorted image of a world that never was.

By 1884, the Spalding Guide was already protesting: “Within the past year or two this salary question has passed far beyond the bounds of a reasonable remuneration for professional services on the ball fields, to the region of exorbitant demands, which, if complied with, would eventually bankrupt the strongest company in the professional arena.” The poor owners’ only defense was the reserve rule, which “simply places a barrier to the reckless competition for the services of men who, outside of the ball field, could not earn a tenth part of the sum they demand for base ball services.”

Sound familiar?

Yesterday’s players were just as “greedy” as their modern counterparts. “Greed,” in the context of baseball salaries, seems to mean “demanding a market wage,” something the players of old could never obtain because of the reserve rule. But when a new “major league” came upon the scene, ignoring the reserve rule, old-time players eagerly used the competitor to extract higher salaries.

The American League began as an “outlaw” league. In its first two seasons, the AL induced dozens of established National Leaguers to ignore the reserve rule. Future Hall of Famers, including Cy Young, Nap Lajoie. Ed Delahanty, and John McGraw, led the stampede to the junior circuit. A decade later, the Federal League folded after two years, but not before Cub legends Joe Tinker and Three Finger Brown wore its uniform. Even the great Walter Johnson was lured away from the Washington Senators, though Johnson returned to the Senators (for a substantial raise) before playing a Federal League game.

These players were doing exactly the same thing Roger Clemens did, Mo Vaughn might do, and you and I do when we look for a job: find out what we’re worth on the open market before deciding where to work. Today’s players aren’t always out for the biggest paycheck, either: Terry Steinbach and Paul Molitor spurned higher offers to sign with their hometown Minnesota Twins, and Greg Maddux joined the Braves as a free agent for millions less than the Yankees had offered.

The systematic dismantling of the Marlins has its precedents, too. Connie Mack sold off the cream of two dynasties -- 1911-14 and 1929-31 – when he thought the players were earning more than he could afford to pay. Charlie Finley tried to sell off his mid-1970s Oakland juggernaut before losing the players to free agency. And does the name Harry Frazee ring a bell?

Many of today’s superstars, such as Nomar Garciaparra, Greg Maddux and Tony Gwynn, are as admirable as the Yastrzemskis, Musials and Mathewsons of the past. Others are perceived to be selfish troublemakers. But many baseball legends had character flaws that make Gary Sheffield look like Cal Ripken by comparison. Ty Cobb was a vicious racist who once jumped into the stands during a game to attack a crippled heckler. Tris Speaker belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Babe Ruth violated the Prohibition laws a dozen times a day and patronized a bordello-ful of prostitutes in a single night. Ted Williams spit at his home fans. Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic; Pete Rose, a compulsive gambler. Rogers Hornsby was so hard to get along with that at the height of his career, the NL’s best player was traded three times in three years.

Hall of Famers all, at least on the diamond. But they were also human beings, flawed like the rest of us. With time, Roberto Alomar will be remembered for his hitting, not his spitting -- and with time, later generations of Professional Geezers will point to the 1990s, the era of Bonds, Thomas, Maddux and Piazza, as baseball’s Golden Age.

Copyright © 1998 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the June 1998 issue of Boston Baseball.

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