Wednesday, April 12, 2006 1:13 AM PDT
The dreaded reserve clause
A few weeks ago in my copy of “USA Today,” an article buried deep in the sports section of the paper almost knocked my socks off.
It was a story on Major League Baseball’s winners and losers in a game in which the players and their union now run the asylum — a far cry from my growing up years when the Lords of Baseball (owners) invoked their dreaded “reserve clause” and players (employees) faced a take-it-or-leave-it decision.
The story included a table showing the 100 players who sought arbitration from a referee. Team by team, player by player, the table disclosed what the young athlete earned in the 2005 season, what he was asking for in 2006, what the team was offering and the arbiter’s final decision.
As I scanned the list, one player stood out like alarm bells were ringing. Now, I’ve never met the young man named Adam Dunn, an outfielder with the hapless Cincinnati Reds, but one thing I knew for sure and that was that his agent was no piker. I thought his demand was bizarre and outrageous.
Adam, all of 26 years of age, had earned $4.6 million in 2005, in a season in which he was one of nine major leaguers to hit 40 or more home runs.
But, he carried some heavy baggage in terms of a less-than-marginal .247 batting average and a major league-leading 168 strikeouts, a blemish he couldn’t hide.
The Reds had offered him a surprising $2.5 million-dollar raise to bring his 2006 salary up to $7.1 million, yet Adam and his agent were shooting for a cool $9 million.
The arbiter set his price at $7.5 million and Adam had to settle for a lousy $46,296 per each three-hour game he played — or didn’t play in.
That one-game sum is higher than the average salary Americans earn for a full year’s worth of work.
So moms and dads out there, buy your sons a baseball bat and fielder’s glove and encourage his love for the “Grand Old Game” — you never know!
A thought occurred in the form of a question, and that was how this insanity reached a state and a level where moms and dads and their kids were squeezed out of a visit to a big league ballpark by the ticket prices now staring us in the face.
For the answer to that question, we have to go back to the very beginning of the founding of the National League at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City in Feb. 1876.
Beginning with eight teams — Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis — the National League put the beer and whiskey leagues and rampant betting and fist fights in the stands out of business.
The league set up schedules in well-policed ballparks, banned Sunday baseball in deference to religious groups, and soda pop and hot dogs were the staples that permitted the league to flourish.
But, the league did something else.
By 1879, in an effort to end players jumping from one team to another for more money, the league found a terrific cure-all. They introduced the dreaded reserve clause that shackled players to one team for the next nearly 100 years.
In short, what the clause meant was that players (employees) would play for whatever the Lords wished to pay them, and if a player refused to sign a contract he could go back to the farm, factory, or mine in some jerk water town from whence he came — but, that player would be banned for life from playing in any organized baseball league in a game he loved.
I think Ralph Kiner, one of the first post World War II sluggers, said it best. Ralph, a New York Mets broadcaster for many decades, told his sad story once every season. Ralph, over radio or television, would recall his sad experience under the reserve clause.
Kiner had led the National League in home runs and runs batted in one season and expected a decent raise in salary.
So back in his California home that offseason, a contract well over his $12,000 stipend for the previous season was expected. Well, the contract arrived and his shoulders slumped when he read it.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had cut his salary by 20 percent, which in Ralph’s frame of thinking, had to be a gross mistake.
So he made what he called an “expensive” phone call to Pittsburgh and the Pirates front office — and lo and behold his boss, General Manager Branch Rickey, was on the other end of the line.
Branch Rickey, by the way, was the man who it was said invented the technique of tossing out a nickel and having the same nickel roll back to him and jump into his pocket.
After Mr. Rickey got through congratulating Kiner for the outstanding season he had, Ralph finally made his pitch.
“Mr. Rickey, I think there’s a mistake in my contract, sir. It calls for a 20-percent cut in my salary.”
Branch Rickey then recited the facts of life to his employee with a “No mistake, my boy. We finished last with you, Ralph, and we can finish last without you.”
Bob Murphy, Kiner’s broadcasting sidekick, would listen to Ralph’s story and say, “What did you do, Ralph?” and Kiner would laugh and say, “I signed that contract — what else could I do?”
The dreaded reserve clause finally fell in the late 1970s thanks to a U.S. Congress that stopped the Lords of the game in their tracks.
I wonder if the young “Big Leaguers” playing the game today know how lucky they are.
Ace Parker can be reached at email@example.com or 224-9956.