Trying to figure out for whom to root in the 1981 baseball strike is not easy. The workers, all 650 of them with an average annual salary of $173,000, do not look oppressed. The owners, with their strike fund of $11 million and their $50 million in strike insurance, evoke little sympathy. For many fans, this strike is the labor-management equivalent of the Iraq-Iran war.
The players have not made their case. Maybe there isn't one. Working conditions do not seem to be a problem. Houston's climate-controlled Astrodome is not your traditional sweatshop. No medical research has yet linked regular exposure to real or artifical grass with even occasional upset stomach. Somehow Yankee employee Reggie Jackson does not seem just right for the part of the embattled Norma Rae.
That is, unless Jackson's Yankee employer George Steinbrenner is cast as the J.P. Stevens plant manager. And let us not forget the totally disengaged commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, whose performance throughout has provided us all with a new meaning for the phrase impotent indifference, or indifferent impotence.
So an understandable reaction might be: let them have their strike; let the owners and the players all suffer. That might be okay if what they were making was men's hair spray. But what they are producing is major league baseball. And when you're producing major league baseball, you're dealing in memories and history.
Which brings me to the solution to the 1981 strike. The solution is the direct result of the clear thinking of Lois Schiffer, a lawyer friend of mine, who understands the cultural and historical stakes involved in the baseball strike.
Here is the Schiffer insight. Baseball is the single major advantage young men in our society have over young women. Baseball's memories may be highly personal, but baseball's records and statistics are universay and objective. Young boys memorize baseball statistics.
Young males learn that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season, and Roger Maris hit 61 in a 162-game season; that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games and that Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games; and that Hank Aaron, who never hit 50 home runs in a single season, did hit 755 in his career, while "Home Run" Baker won his nickname by hitting only 12 in 1913.
Boys, through baseball record books and endless hours of arguments about them, have a chance to train their minds, to learn to remember details. Recipes do not provide the same basic training.
If you accept the Schiffer premise, then you begin to understand what's really involved in this strike. Without baseball, a generation of boys could grow up without that mental discipline, with untrained minds and no advantage over young girls. That prospect alone should be enough to bring all the players and owners -- who are husbands, sons, brothers and fathers -- back to the bargaining table by breakfast time. Phyllis Schlafy should be easily persuaded to drop her current concern about hanky-panky in the office and get those guys to play ball. The consequences are very serious, indeed.
Because the records of baseball are so important, there is another compelling reason to end the strike. Right now, in a friendly saloon, someone has just won a beer by remembering that in 1951 Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, when he threw the pennant-losing/pennant-winning home run pitch to Giant Bobby Thomson, wore uniform number 13. The genuine baseball fans thrive on numbers. The only permanent asterisk in the record books is found alongside the Roger Maris home-run record for the longer season of 1961.
But what if the 1981 strike is not resolved? Think of the disharmony that would inevitably result. Imagine a friendly saloon in the year 2011 where some wise guy asks: what was the lowest home run total for a season to lead the National League, post-World War II? Pittsburgh Pirate fans know that the answer has to be Ralph Kiner with 23 home runs in 1946. But watch out when the future hustler points out that Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt, Cincinnati's George Foster and New York's Dave Kingman all tied with 14 in the short season of 1981. Ha ha. There will be a fight. a
The repercussion are serious. Lois Scheffer is right: baseball is much too important to be left to the owners and the players. Asterisks mean barroom brawls.