Money Talks and Fans Walk

By BILL SIMMONS  |  December 14, 2011

"Even with scandals, baseball reflected us," says Boston sports personality Steve Buckley, a longtime baseball scribe. "Baseball players are so closely scrutinized now, just like everybody else. Peter Rose equals Robert Packwood equals Darryl Strawberry equals Ted Kennedy. I mean, back in the '50s, the sports press protected the players just like the press protected public figures. Nobody wrote about Mickey Mantle's drinking and carousing, just like nobody wrote about JFK."

Now the game mirrors us in another way: everyone's in it for the money. Everyone promotes himself. And everything's for sale.

Free agency at last

What happened between 1975 and today? Free agency was the first factor. Before 1975, players were basically bound to a franchise for life, like slaves, with no hope of changing teams unless they were traded or waived. But in the winter of '75, pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith challenged baseball's ancient reserve clause, which forced players to negotiate exclusively with the clubs that held their current contracts. The two pitchers won their case in a federal court; suddenly, veteran players finished with the option year of their contracts could bargain with any team. This led to full-fledged chaos. Owners started picking up players as if they were picking up fruit in the grocery store, throwing the salary structure way our of whack. In eight years after the Messersmith decision, the average major league salary skyrocketed from $44,676 (1975) to $76,066 (1978) to $185,651 (1981) to $289,194 (1983). Today? The average annual salary is a mind-boggling $2.2 million dollars.

"Suddenly a baseball writer had to be a labor guy, a courtroom guy, and an economics guy," says Joe Giuliotti, the Herald's Red Sox beat man since 1974. "It went from being a seasonal job to being 12 months a year."

Something tangible also changed between the fans and players. After the players and owners warily agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement in July 1976, veterans like Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson, and Don Baylor switched teams the next winter by signing humongous (for then) contracts. Jackson earned $580,000 for the 1977 season and Fingers $320,000, more than triple what they would have gotten under the previous system. Some fans resented the astronomical salaries, spawning a cynical mentality that still exists today.

"Everyone in the starting lineup is making $100,000, the fans know it, and I guess they're going to take a produce-or-else posture towards us," Boston's Carl Yastrzemski told the Globe's Peter Gammons after Opening Day in 1977. "There was a funny feeling out there, one I've never felt before."

And baseball would never be the same. Owners bid crazily on free agents in the following winters, an ego war that almost capsized the sport. It wasn't the big players -- the Jacksons and Rudis sold tickets and won games -- but the fringe players who endangered the game, guys like Oscar Gamble ($2.85 million for a six-year contract), Rennie Stennett ($3 million for five years), Dave Collins ($2.4 million for three years), and John Curtis ($1.85 million for five years). These were dime-a-dozen limited players who simply fell into the right place at the right time, but they also threw off the economic balance of the sport. To put it simply, they were bad investments. The players had fought for their freedom successfully, but the owners didn't have to spend money as if they were playing Monopoly. And with payrolls rising, ticket prices rose as well, giving fans more reasons to grumble.

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