The major league baseball players in the United States recently went on strike—just as "ordinary" workers are from time to time compelled to withdraw their labour in order to protect their living standards from attack. The superficial observer, knowing the high salaries which baseball players and other sports people can often earn, may doubt this similarity of interest. However, the principles involved are no different from those of a more orthodox industrial dispute. The player, like any other worker, is selling his or her physical and mental energies in return for the wage or salary which the employer, in this case the club owner, is prepared to pay. Furthermore, it is only relatively few star players who earn these high salaries. The run of the mill major league performer receives far less, but clearly also stands to lose if the stars are forced to take a cut. If these "lesser” players felt a conflict of interest with those on the higher salary levels, the strike would in all probability have collapsed quickly. The owners could have recruited a few minor league players to maintain numbers, and been able to force the stars into submission. No such break in fact occurred.
Star sports people are expected to maintain a high life style. The fans expect it, the news media expect it, but most of all it is encouraged by those who profit most by it. If a star is using articles made by a certain company, the latter will lose no opportunity to cash in on the advertising value. Another consideration is the short life at the top for most stars, very rarely more than fifteen years. Some money has to be set aside to try and insure against the leaner years ahead. A former baseball player “Catfish” Hunter, is quoted (International Herald Tribune, 20/6/81) as saying: "The players missed their first paycheck on June 15. The next one is due on July 1. If they miss that one, you will see a lot of them crying”.
True, this strike did not attract the virulent media reaction reserved for a coalmining or dock strike. There was, however, the same misrepresentation of the real issues, the same bias against the strikers. Joe Cronin, a former star, now President of the American League, is quoted (International Herald Tribune, 20/6/81): "I can’t help but think that the guys who worked so hard through the ’20s, '30s and '40s to make the game what it is today must be sick in their stomachs over this strike. The issue they are striking over is not big enough to warrant a strike during the season.” Another former star, Ted Williams, said (International Herald Tribune, 20/ 6/81): “I don't like anything that hurts the game. As for taking sides, in my heart 1 don't know all the issues and particulars so that 1 can’t say which 1 favour. Logically the players haven't given up a thing over the past 8 to 10 years while management has.” These two statements contain a number of misconceptions.
The appeal to the “game itself” as something greater than anything at stake in the dispute appears at first sight to be neutrality, but is nothing of the sort. The implication is that the players (the workers) should, in some “higher cause”, get back to playing the game and abandon their preoccupation with “lesser things” such as pay and conditions of work. The complaint that the issue on which a strike is taking place is a small one is often voiced by capitalist apologists.
Always present, however, is the fundamental class antagonism of capitalism, which is just as applicable to baseball players and their employers as to British coalminers and the National Coal Board. Workers face the capitalists as sellers and buyers of labour power. The former want the highest price they can get, the latter the lowest. In addition, the larger the share that the capitalists take of the wealth produced, the less there will be for the workers who have, in fact, produced all the wealth!
Whatever outward appearances may be, it must always be an illusion to suppose that there is little separating the two sides. In fairness to Ted Williams we should point out that he went on to say: “But if it had happened in my time, I would have stuck with the players’ association”.
Cronin’s comment about the strike occurring during the season is significant. A previous players’ strike in 1972 took place at the start of the season, which was delayed for just over a week. The recent one did not start until the season had begun to take shape. The interest of the fans had been aroused. Airlines were making money from transporting the players to and from fixtures. Telecasting of games had further whetted appetites, and the television companies find the frequent intervals between innings (no fewer than 17 in a game of 2½-3 hours) a lucrative source of revenue from advertisers. In view of these and other considerations, the owners may well have hoped that they could turn public opinion against the strikers and so assist in the defeat of the latter. The loss of gate money due to the strikes could be used as an argument for cutting playing staffs. It goes without saying that if there is reason to believe that the capitalists welcome a particular strike, the workers should think very hard before continuing with it.
In this dispute the baseball players are acting in the only way open to them when their living standards are under threat from their employers. This might persuade them that, beneath the glamour and ballyhoo of a ball game player’s life there is a basic, unpleasant reality.
E. C. Edge