Harry Caray, the Chicago Cubs broadcaster, recently received a letter from a glutton for punishment. The letter came from a fellow in the Soviet Union who says he picks up telecasts of Cub games on an illegal satellite dish. Condemned by wanton fate to live in the Soviet Union, he turns to the Cubs to assuage his suffering. Imagine his consternation when even that consolation was threatened by a strike.
President Reagan reveres Calvin Coolidge, but missed this moment for militant Coolidge-ism. Coolidge's career was made by stopping a Boston police strike on the grounds that there is no right to strike against the public interest. Harry Truman seized the steel industry to keep it functioning. Sure, the Supreme Court, always picky, pointed out that he had no authority to seize industries, but baseball is special: a nation can live without steel.
The national pastime reflects the national tendency to clothe naked interest in the fine silk of philosophy. The basic truth of baseball is the basic fact of political life: Life is -- ho hum -- unfair, but the unfairness is not irreducible.
Baseball is like the Third World (although not, of course, in per-capita earnings). The collective label "Third World" suggests more similarity than actually exists between the member nations. Think of the Los Angeles Dodgers as Saudi Arabia and the Cleveland Indians as Uganda. The different sizes, affluence and traditions of major- league markets give certain teams advantages (larger attendance and broadcasting revenues) that must be at least partially compensated for if competitive balance is to be maintained.
Baseball suffers from a plague of political philosophy. Many owners and players are, in different circumstances, eager to profess selective worship for "free enterprise." Never mind that owners and players derive much of their incomes from a highly regulated semi-monopoly -- the three networks. Never mind that most teams play in stadiums built by taxpayers and rented cheaply as a subsidy.
Never mind that any sports league depends on competitive balance, which depends on cooperation, which in other industries would constitute conspiracy in restraint of trade. Exemption from laws forbidding such cooperation constitutes yet another subsidy for this semi-socialized industry in which wealthy owners and the well-paid proletariat conduct the class struggle in the language of "free enterprise."
For years the owners fought to prevent a free market in talent -- to deny players the right to sell their services to the highest bidders. When free agency began, owners made two false predictions. They said players would move much more often than before, and that a few teams in the big markets would buy all the top talent and dominate baseball.
But BiJames, baseball's Spinoza, says in his newsletter (You don't subscribe? Philistine!) that player migrations are not much more frantic than usual during the last eight decades. Yes, only three Phillies remain from the 1980 championship team that scattered unusually quickly. But five years after the 1959 White Sox won a pennant -- before free agency -- only one player remained.
Furthermore, in the last 10 seasons 40 division championships have been won. Of the 26 teams, 19 have won at least one. The nine teams that have won two or more division championships include five from the smaller markets (Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Oakland -- combined, 14 championships in 10 years).
The danger the owners did not predict was dumb owners. Irrational bidding for free agents has had a ruinous upward ratchet effect on all salaries, and bad business decisions have hurt otherwise sound franchises (Texas, Cincinnati, Cleveland). Baseball is a meritocracy: attendance varies directly and quickly with artistry. Cincinnati's attendance declined from 2.6 million in 1976 to 1.2 million in 1983 as the team declined. The team with the best won-lost record in baseball during the last quarter-century plays in Baltimore, where intelligent entrepreneurship has compensated for demographic disadvantages.
The national pastime has some of the national failings. Its businessmen do not practice the business virtues as well as they praise them. Owners and players are so loquacious in the language of rights, there is only an attenuated sense of collective responsibility for the continuity of the institution. Continuity requires (conservatives, note) strong central government. But baseball's sense of governance is Italian, which means tenuous.
Commissioner Ueberroth can serve the nation better in baseball than in the Senate if he can make it a model. Baseball should show that the vigorous assertion of rights is compatible with a collective sense of reponsibility for an institution that should be passed in good health to coming generations.