The Dallas Times Herald carried a story at the top of Page 1 today that reassured those of us who were worried that Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Texas oil man, might be ruined financially by the collapse of the silver market. A lawyer announced that while the precipitous decline of silver hurt the Hunts, the family "is still worth billions of dollars."
Whew, that was a close one.
Now we can worry about the owners of baseball teams.
Poor fellows. They would have us stay up nights praying for their economic salvation. The owners say the players are out to kill baseball. The owners say the players are greedy for those million-dollar contracts that will drive the game into bankruptcy.
Maybe we should take up an office collection and send it to Ray Kroc, the San Diego Padres' owner. If he paid Dave Windfield $1 million a year, Kroc would be dead broke in 600 years. Poor fellow.
In the current bargaining for a new basic agreement between the owners and players, the players say all they want is the status quo. The players say the owners can't control themselves. They say the owners are making these $1 million deals without anyone putting a gun to their heads. The players say they aren't about to give up the freedom they won in contract talks four years ago. They aren't going to save the owners from themselves.
Unless things change quickly, then, there will be a strike by the players this season, coming on May 23.
The critical issue, as always, is free agency.
The mind reels. Free agency has been a godsend to baseball. The last five seasons have been among the most exciting in baseball history. Attendance set records, television revenues increased dramatically, public attention was riveted to the game year 'round.
But the owners don't like free agents.
In fact, the players are not truly free to move from job to job, as any American is to leave the line at General Motors for a job at Ford. The players struck a compromise with the owners four years ago when they signed the basic agreement that expired Dec. 31. It was a compromise that revived America's interest in baseball, because suddenly stars moved from team to team in big money deals that had the power to change a team's character overnight.
The compromise in that contract was that the players could become free agents after six years with their original team. As free agents, they were able to deal with a maximum of 13 of the 26 teams.
Under a previous ruling by a federal judge, the players had been set totally free. They could change jobs at the ends of their contracts, just as, say, a sportwriter could move from Washington to New York.
But the players agreed to a compromise with the owners, who said total freedom would wreck their business by allowing the richest teams to buy up all the stars. So the players give away some of their freedom by agreeing to the six-year, 13-team arrangement.
And now baseball's owners want out of the deal.
The owners want to go back to the slave-owningg days of the 50 years preceding the federal judge's proclamation of emancipation. "The owners liked it better," said Marvin Miller, the players' labor leader, "when they had a full monopoly, when they could say, 'You take this or go pick cotton.'"
The baseball owners look at the National Football League with envy. They see the NFL having none of this million-dollar contract trouble. They see no free agents jumping from team to team. Of 200 free agents in the NFL, only one has signed with another team that then gave compensation to the original team.
Baseball owners would like that. It won't happen. Ed Garvey, the NFL players labor boss, says the football owners differ from baseball's in that the NFL people make big money no matter how their teams perform. That's because each team gets $5 million annually from a TV deal.
"There's no economic incentive for Jack Kent Cooke (the Redskins' owner) to sign free agents but there is for George Steinbernner (the Yankees' owner)," Garvey said. "If an NFL team goes 0-16, it still makes its $5.5 million. If it goes 16-0, it will make maybe $10,000 more.
"But if you took, say half the TV contract and split it up between just the two Super Bowl teams, boy, if the teams could make $150 million from the Super Bowl, you'd see some scrambling for free agents then."
The NFL is a giant system of socialism, with all the teams sharing in all the revenues. The football owners work together to a common end. Baseball owners are independent competitors of such cut-throat habits that, according to Miller, one told him. "Our problem is we can't control our own people. One year it'll be a Kroc, and the next it's Gene Autry or Brad Corbett, then Steinbrenner. So you're it, Marvin."
It is weird, Miller said, to have management asking the labor union leader to save management from itself.
The owners' position in the current negotiations is also unusual in that they are asking the players to pretty please go back to working in the cotton fields of the old plantations. The owners have given up a fixed salary proposal that was ridiculous on its face, but they still want an end to an existing free agency.
Football and basketball have compensation rules that have discouraged the movement of free agents, and baseball wants a compensation rule, too. The owners have proposed that a team losing a free agent be entitled to pick a player from the other team's roster after that team protects 15 men.
Miller smiles at the audacity.
"The player, under such a rule, is now not free. There is a cost to sign him. The 16th best player, almost by definintion, is a regular. That will innibit the bargaining power of the free agent."
Without our sympathy, Nelson Bunker Hunt and Ray Kroc will get along with their mere billions and millions and so will Dave Winfield make to with several hundred thousand for swinging a stick. The average baseball salary is $121,000, basketball's is $189,000, football's $69,000. Altheles are paid well, but they have rare talents that produce big money for the owners.
If we withold our sympathy for the poor $121,000-a-year baseball player, he yet deserves the freedom of the assembly line worker. And when, by the way, did you last see the owner of a baseball team sell out at a loss? If the owner doesn't like what's happening, he can always sell for a profit. The Mets brought $22 million. Sing us no sad songs, Ray Kroc.