Books June 2003

The Reluctant Fan

Professional baseball's lachrymose and soporific spell

My wife drew a blank this morning when I asked her what Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams had in common. Thinking cap firmly in place, she did hazard a guess: "They're all baseball players?" (She meant this as a joke, she says now.) "They all hit home runs? In the World Series?" This was getting us nowhere. It was time to turn over all the cards, as they used to say on What's My Line?, and spill. Unfortunately, I was spilling already—misting up, or starting to, as I sometimes do when the conversation turns to baseball.

Misting up is one of two physiological reactions the game tends to produce in me. The other, a symptom I regularly present in the later innings of most game broadcasts, is unconsciousness. At first, when on the couch with the remote, or in the study with the computer, or in bed with an ear over the pillow speaker, I'm in heaven. Too soon, though, heaven is forsaken for dreamland. Something about a postgame show always wakes me up, but sleep usually makes a comeback before I can hear what the final score was. It's like radio traffic reports: We wait forever to hear one, but when we do, our attention falters before the announcer can get around to the route we want. "Hey, did she mention the 101 yet?"

Tears and snores. One wouldn't think the same stimulus could produce two such divergent responses, but then, baseball has never been an oasis of strict causality. Sneak a bad pitch past a napping hitter and you're a hero. Snap off a wicked curveball and get beat on an excuse-me swing. Logical it's not. How to explain a game (to the uninitiated, or even to initiates) that has us choking up like a pesky bunter one minute, and nodding off the next?

The stock answers are that we weep from nostalgia, and we doze out of boredom. According to this line of thinking, we're tired of greedy owners, and of overpaid ballplayers who change teams so often that we're left rooting for little more than an empty uniform. We pine for the game of our childhoods, when salaries were lower, tickets cheaper, and all the grass—if not greener —was at least real.

Andrew Zimbalist is here to tell you that the stock answers are, like a batting-practice pitcher's aim, all too true—yet inadequate. A professor at Smith, Zimbalist argues persuasively that the biggest problem with baseball today is the monopoly power exercised by the owners running it. Undergirding this power is baseball's antitrust exemption, as enshrined in 1922 by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Although a wise and witty man (whose father helped to found this magazine), Justice Holmes appears, in retrospect, to have rendered one of the Court's more cockeyed decisions here. Through it the Court held baseball immune from antitrust laws governing interstate commerce on the grounds that because crossing state lines to play ball was "a mere incident, not the essential thing," and because playing amounted to "personal effort, not related to production," professional baseball was neither interstate nor commerce. Whatever the merits of these findings in 1922, before pro ball went west and became a multi-billion-dollar industry, it's a toss-up which half of the argument looks more ludicrous now.

To give us some idea what he thinks of Federal Baseball, Zimbalist makes a habit of referring to "baseball's presumed antitrust exemption." If this monopolistic exemption were repealed, he contends, market forces would distribute talent more evenly; players would no longer have to strike whenever the general agreement came up for renegotiation; financially mismanaged teams would fold, and the rest would make enough money to quit pleading poverty all the time; cities could more easily resist owners' shaking them down for public funds to build new stadiums; and Zimbalist's bogeyman, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, might finally be out of a job. That's a lot of hopes to pin on an idea that nobody has exactly tried yet, especially with the owners' lobbyists and lawyers ready to make a meal of any member of Congress who tries anew to reconsider the exemption. But Zimbalist had me believing him almost all the way. He adduces pertinent statistics and historical parallels from football and basketball—both of which have by most yardsticks eclipsed baseball in popularity, and without the dubious benefit of an antitrust exemption. In addition, Zimbalist documents instances in which team accountants' massaging of club finances has called to mind another profession—one for which massage often serves as a handy euphemism. Ever since the publication of Zimbalist's somewhat dated but more accessible Baseball and Billions (1992), owners have been trying everything to discredit his figures—everything, naturally, except opening up their books to public scrutiny.

Of course, one can be glad a book exists without especially enjoying the act of reading it. Zimbalist's actuarial prose style doesn't do much to help his case. Too often he writes like the little kid who used to keep score at home during NBC's Saturday Game of the Week. We now have a good idea what happened to that kid: he grew up to be an economist (like Zimbalist), a baseball statistician (a career for which Zimbalist shows great aptitude, in case the Robert A. Woods chair at Smith ever slips out from under him), or, well, me. The only time Zimbalist's learning plays him false is when he mistakenly writes that "in 1988 the Twins became the first MLB team to surpass the 3 million mark in annual attendance." He should have said the Twins became the first American League team. The first major-league baseball team to pass three million, fully ten years earlier, was the National League's Dodgers—something Zimbalist can be excused for not knowing, since he probably didn't cut sophomore Spanish with Alan Foonberg to watch them do it.

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David Kipen is the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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