THE SOUTHSIDE SHALL RISE AGAIN
by Peter Schilling Jr.
"A man said to the Universe,
'Sir, I exist!'
'However,' replied the universe,
'The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.'
Baseball is a spirit-haunted and superstitious sport. Fans and player alike have their weird amulets, utterances and gestures against bad luck; stadiums are referred to as cathedrals, for reasons owing more to their spiritual power than any real resemblance to a church; thanks to curses, teams are damned by the past to live the present in futility. This is unique to baseball. No one claims that the Vikings or Bills are cursed, in spite of their inability to nail down a championship year after year. There are no shrines to Wayne Gretzky, and the Halls of Fame of the other lesser sports don't incite fans to off-season pilgrimages like ours does in Cooperstown. Last year baseball fans were treated to a double dose of spiritual angst: the teams from New England and the City of Big Shoulders didn't just lose their playoffs in the last game of the Championship Seriesthe Red Sox and Cubs were victims of a curse. We pity the Red Sox nation. We pity the cranks who love the lovable losers of Wrigley Field. How can they endure?
Well, probably better than White Sox rooters do. Lost in the hoopla surrounding those two tormented clubs is the fact that the White Sox have tasted at least as much futility, maybe more. Consider: this year, as in seasons past, the Sox are toast and now this poor team, plagued by injury and ineffective management and toiling in the last of the ugly stadiums, will add one more year to the eighty-six that stand between their last World Championship. That, stat-heads, is one year longer than the Red Sox.
As a Michigander and now Minnesotan, it occurred to me that I didn't know any White Sox supporters, especially not here in Minneapolis, where the Sox are generally hated. I know Cubs fans. I've met Red Sox fans. Both of them are doubly vexed and entertained by the mystical futility of their clubs. White Sox fans seem rather quiet in comparison. Being a Tigers guy myself, and used to a degree of manginess in my club, I got to thinking how nice it would be if I could wax mystical on the Tigers, point to some crazy voodoo that's keeping them from success. But I have a World Series memory in my lifetime, while generations of fans of the White Sox do not. It begs the question: do the White Sox have a curse?
"Hell no!" says Hal Vickery, a writer for the fan-based, online publication White Sox Interactive. "I teach science, I don't believe in curses." Hal is passionate about his White Sox, and, much to my surprise, reflective of the Sox partisan in generalpragmatic almost to a fault and toiling each season in the same obscurity that fans of other lousy teams do. Like my Tigers.
Except that in Detroit we're not defined nationally by our National League counterpart. You can sense, from listening to Vickery or reading some of his (and others) articles on White Sox Interactive, a subtle bitterness, a frustration both over the continued futility of the Sox and attention that Wrigleyites receive. "Cub fans that I really dislike are the ones who come to Comsikey Park dressed in their jerseys, caps, etc. and start cheering for the team the Sox are playing," Vickery explains. "When a Cub fan starts ragging on this friend of mine, he asks them to name five starters in the Cubs lineup. Cubs fans can't do it. When you challenge and beat them on anything, their claim is suddenly 'we draw more than you'. They need the security of numbers."
Vickery reflects the feelings of most White Sox faithful I spoke with. For Southsiders, the endless losing boils down to a simple case of poor management. "Generally, over the years, we've had rotten ownership," Vickery explains. "We are always one or two guys short of what we need. This was even the case with Bill Veeck. After '59, he traded away all his talent for a bunch of has-beens. He traded in one off season Earl Battey and Don Mincher to the Senators for Roy Sievers, John Romano to Cleveland for Minnie Minoso, Johnny Callison to the Phillies for Gene Freese (who couldn't throw the ball to first base) and Veeck actually made a good team weaker. They finished in third place. We're too poor or too tight to finish the deed and win a title."
But there's more than just ownership refusing to get that last player, or making bad moves. Consider the troubles the Sox have endured over the years (summarized from one of Hal's recent columns):
In 1906, the Sox win the World Series over the Cubs, four games to two. Supposedly, Charles Comiskey gave all of his players bonuses, then decided later on to make the bonus an advance on next years' salary, a typical Comiskey move, if my memory serves. Vickery contends that this made the players lackluster in their disdain, and they dropped to third place the following year.
In 1917 the Sox won a hundred games, won the Series decisively over the Giants, and then, again according to Vickery, the next year "the draft or wartime industries broke up that team and they finished sixth."
Then there was 1919. The Sox win the pennant, then go on to throw the series in what still remains the worst blight on the sport. By now we all know the results: eight men banned, and the Sox don't win again until 1959.
Despite that ignominity, Vickery points out that the Sox had some decent teams in the late 30s, but they fell apart when promising young pitcher Monty Stratton blew his leg off in a hunting accident and second baseman Jackie Hayes went blind. You know, stuff that happens to every team.
In 1959, the Sox finally win a pennant under Bill Veeck. In a panic the next season, he dumped a number of his young players for aging sluggers that never took hold. That was the last time they won a pennant.
And in 1994 the Chisox were leading their division by a game when Bud Selig cancelled the season.
But, Vickery maintains, there is no curse. "A curse is a product of the imagination," he writes. Vickery points to all the Sox bizarre injuries to key players (falling off ladders, broken bones, the aforementioned hunting accident) as the result of "natural law" as opposed to some hex. Somehow, Vickery argues, the laws of nature are designed to work against the White Sox.
Still, suggesting that the laws of nature somehow conspire against one team strikes me as about as far fetched as any curse. Besides, curses and luck are as much a part of baseball as bats and balls. In my book, a curse might be a selling point: if the White Sox weren't so grounded in their miserable reality, they might actually draw more. While it's true that the Cubs have their beautiful, ivy-walled stadium in a brownstone neighborhood, a cute logo and a curse (not to mention a decent team this year), the Sox have fielded winning teams, and their stadium's not a dome. Wouldn't it be easier to compete with the Cubs if, say, there was some sort of mystical weirdness surrounding the Sox?
"No," says Scott Reifert, Vice President of Communications, Chicago White Sox. "See, you're either/or in Chicago: A Cubs fan or a White Sox fan. We don't see them as competition, we think that's an opportunity.
"A curse is just not something you hear with us," Reifert explains. "Why do they accept their fate? Because there is a working-class mentality about our team. The idea that you show up each day at your job, and are you guaranteed to get that ring? No. It's not promised to you. Our fans have been disappointed, like in '83. Part of it is the mentality of our fan base. A mix of pragmatism and pessimism. You don't want to get your hopes too high, but at the same time, when we've had a magical season, our fans really respond. I do believe the Red Sox and White Sox have comparisons: but our combatant is baseball fate, whereas theirs is the Yankees.
"You were born a White Sox fan. Even if you don't come to a lot of games, if you're asked, you're a Sox fan. It identifies who you are. And I think that's unique to Chicago. They're fightin' words here. And I think that's why our fans often won't go to Wrigley, even when our team plays there. And that's why I really don't think we're competing with the Cubs."
Although I think that the average baseball fan is moving away from being 'working class', White Sox bugs do look upon themselves the hard nosed blue collar types. Like the blue collar worker, there's a reluctance to embrace romance, to crow about yourself as Red Sox and Cubs fans do. In many ways, the traditions of the South Side of Chicago still linger to this day.
Peter Elliott is a photographer and White Sox fan whose outstanding book Park Life, captures the old Comiskey Park in that magical '77 year when the Sox were known as the Southside Hit Men. Elliott is a Sox fan, now living in Nashville.
"The whole environment of old Comiskey really was the embodiment of Chicago. Very industrial, near the stockyards, blue-collar park and fans. People would come to the park an hour and a half before the game and linger an hour afterwards. Comiskey was really another living room for a lot of people. There's something about them, I don't know what it is. They're a dark horse.
"That describes the White Sox fan as well. There's a tragic hopelessness about them. The Cubs, on the other hand, have a commercial underdog sense about them. So when you see a White Sox fan, you'll see they are relaxed in their environment, they know who they are. There's no pretension about them, even today. Who are Cubs fans? I don't know. They come to Wrigley looking for an identity."
Elliott's photos are reflective of the type of grit and gristle that used to show up in Tiger Stadium in my youth. Crumbling concrete, battered seats, and the fans coming in with cigars in their mouths and a stub of a pencil behind their ear. Looking at the faces of the men and women in Elliott's book, you can sense that these guys probably don't have their imaginations triggered by the tragic ironies of Hawthorne and Melville, as Red Sox writers claim their fans do. Chisox supporters like their players to eat their lunches from a pail and drink the same lousy beer that they do. These fans don't have time for a cursethey're too busy working and coming to the park to watch others work.
The White Sox are a storied team, although most times the story is dark and dismal, as in the case of the Black Sox. Where Sox fans might shrug, screw their faces into a bitter scowl, and cry "Fate!", I think there has to be darker forces afoot.
And in fact there is one White Sox fan who does not believe in natural law, and his name is Dr. David Fletcher. "There is a Black Sox curse," he says, emphatically. "The White Sox haven't won since Buck Weaver was banned from baseball. And they won't win until he gets reinstated." Dr. Fletcher is an occupational medicine specialist in Champaign, Illinois, and the founder and director of Clearbuck.com, an organization dedicated to clearing former White Sox third basemanand banned Black Sox memberBuck Weaver.
Dr. Fletcher is, literally, a man possessed. "This hit me February 1, 2003. I was standing at home plate and I was overcome with the spirit of Buck Weaver." Feeling Buck enter his soul, Dr. Fletcher decided that he had to go find Weaver's family and enlist them in the fight to clear Buck's name. "It was really bizarre. I drove down to see Buck's surrogate daughter in Missouri. I told her that I had to get him cleared and I needed to know everything about him. She thought I was crazy, but I finally convinced her, and brought her up to the All-Star game."
Dr. Fletcher's organization has been working overtime to clear Buck's name, going so far as to hire a full-time public relations advisor. Fletcher even wants to build a Black Sox museum near Comiskey. "I've got fifty thousand bucks into this thing," Dr. Fletcher admits. "I'm kind of a crazy baseball fan. I even got remarried at that home plate. And as you can see, I've been haunted by this story."
Clearing Buck Weaver's name could be just the thing for the White Sox. Everyone deserves to have some mythical fight in their lives, some kind of ghost or spirit to ease the suffering that baseball inflicts during the winter to so many fans. Why don't Sox fans embrace this? Liven up their dreary existence and the past at the same time? Certainly there is a spirit of Buck Weaver who is unhappily prattling around the afterlife, no doubt riled due to the lionization of Comiskey. Not to mention the spirits of the kranks of long ago, those men, women and children who saw their heroes of '19 tarnish the gameand the teamforever. Many of those people died before seeing the Sox take another pennant. They haunted old Comiskey Park, and now they've drifted across the street to wreak havoc on the new generation.
I'm a romantic at heart, and maybe that is why I had to leave Michigan, with its soul crushing blue collar pessimism. Suggesting natural law, or fate, cuffs the spirit. You can't beat natural law, you can't beat fate, but you can fight a curse. You can wear the same t-shirt to every playoff game and not eat in the fifth through seventh innings to bring good luck to your pitcher. You can pray to your god, kiss a rosary or hold séances in center field to appease ghosts. Curses are meant to be endured... and broken.
Baseball, merely a game, is about hope and promise and even silly things like good luck and bad. But the White Sox faithful feel that rally caps and appeasing a dead ballplayer won't beat a mediocre stadium, won't defeat the drawback of trying to attract quality players to the Sox, won't erase injuries, plain or bizarre. Sox fans suffer from the same sort of blue collar angst that keeps places like Chicago's South Side, Detroit, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana in the doldrums, seemingly forever. Good luck won't bring jobs and rebuild a downtown. It won't rebuild old Comiskey. This is life, and that's nothing you can do about it. And that's pretty sad.
Still, White Sox fans cling tenaciously to the small glories. Like Detroiters claiming that their downtown is still vibrant even though over half of it is abandoned, the rooters I spoke with take pride in new Comiskey and believe that someday, somehow, the Southside shall rise again. "Don't forget, we have the last championship," Scott Reifert points out. "That's baseball for you. It's all relative."
All images are details of larger images from Park Life by Peter Elliott. Used with his kind permission.
BOB MURPHY, RIP: THE UNHAPPIEST RECAP OF ALL
By Jeff Kallman
And to think that we Met fans had Roger Maris to thank for Bob Murphy.
September 26, 1961, Yankee Stadium. Bob Murphy was behind the microphone for the Baltimore Orioles in Yankee Stadium when Jack Fisher, then a Baby Bird, soon enough to become a misfit Met, served Maris a fastball that Maris served into the right field seats for home run number 60. Eight thousand fans sat in Yankee Stadium to watch the blast, and one grandmotherly society woman, who just so happened to have been awarded a new New York franchise for the National League's first expansion, listened on her radio.
Whatever he said, however he said it, Murphy had seduced Joan Payson into an invitation to join fellow veteran announcer Lindsey Nelson and former Pittsburgh Pirates home run king Ralph Kiner as the broadcast trio for the maiden Mets. And the very first regular season words any Mets fan heard on his or her radio, in April 1962, came from that distinctive harmonic of Oklahoma drawl and Missouri honey in the rock, cured but never flattened with attentive exercise during preparatory tours with the Orioles and (with Curt Gowdy) the Boston Red Sox:
Well, hi there, everybody, this is Bob Murphy welcoming you to the first regular season game in the history of the New York Mets. Brought to you by Rheingold Extra Dry. Tonight the New York Mets meet the St. Louis Cardinals, right here in St. Louis. Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and I are on hand to bring you every bit of the action. Yes, sir, the New York Mets are on the air in their first great season.
How we would learn so incandescently that greatness has its connotations of disaster as well as deliverance, the Mets marching forth to finish that season as the most singular absurdist theater of which professional baseball has record, the flesh and blood enactment of "Who's On First" as the Keystone Kops might have actualized it.
Casey Stengel reminded a New York generation or three about how to laugh that they might not weep, Bob Murphy taught that generation or three about grace under calamity, and there are your answers should someone inquire how it was possible to withstand season after season of surrealistic Mets anti-ballplaying.
Except that the crazy Mets got even crazier in 1969, snatching a seemingly certain National League East title from an imploding team of Chicago Cubs, then sweeping the Atlanta Braves to nail a National League pennant, and - after dropping the first game to sighs of resigned gratitude for having gotten that far in the first place - taking four straight from a Baltimore Orioles team that had the paper look of Panzer tanks greeting the Mets' buggies. "Those," Murphy told a Hall of Fame gathering (he was inducted into the broadcast wing in 1994), "were my Boys of Summer."
Murphy was so facile at finding the flower in the fallout that he was accused easily enough of being the homer of homers, but there is something to be said for a man who could keep you in the family when the home club graduated from surreal absurdism to elemental deconstruction.
When the Mets were good, even great, there was no more genial broadcaster than this portly fellow whose comportment suggested the neighborhood barkeep who refused to let you drown your sorrows when you could recover your pleasures. When the Mets were gruesome, there was no one to whom you would rather turn for any kind of hint that this, too, should pass. Perhaps it was this that kept his most familiar phrase from devolving into affectative falsity. Only a man who has had to find so many lotuses in so many thick, muddy pools could precede a game-following commercial spot with "Back with the happy recap right after this" and make every buttery syllable seem an extraction from the Word.
And yet when the rare ejaculation of disgust should pass his lips Murphy was just too deeply himself to make it linger as anything other than a "me too, pal" kind of perverse joy. We take you back to July 25, 1990, where something even more grating than Roseanne Barr raping the National Anthem in San Diego occurred. Ninth inning, the Mets have the Philadelphia Phillies in the hole, 10-3, the Phillies put six runs across the plate without one ball being hit any harder than a shuttlecock, and sent the tying run up to hit. And, then, came the only sharply hit ball of the inning.
Line drivecaught! The game's over. They win. The Mets win it. A line drive to Mario Diaz. They win the damn thing by a score of 10-9.
When he first entered a major league broadcast booth, it was at Curt Gowdy's beckon, Gowdy having done minor league games with Murphy in Oklahoma. "Let's announce like we're friends, just talking to each other," Gowdy suggested. He had no idea just how right was the man to whom he offered that suggestion. Murphy announced as though everyone with an ear by the speaker was his friend.
He was a Met fan's friend through the absurdism of Marvelous Marv and the Ol' Perfesser, through the unreality of the 1969 miracle and the 1973 Mets whose season wasn't over until it was over; he was your friend through the Saturday Night Massacre dispatch of Tom Seaver and the rise and fall of the 1980s self-immolating dynasty that never was; he was your friend right up to and including the first time Mike Piazza traded his tools of ignorance for a long mitt up the first base line.
Can you believe it?! A wicked line drive to first base and Piazza makes the play. The ball was just blistered by Carlos Rivera. Isn't that the way it goes in baseball? A guy goes out there for the first time and the ball was hit right at him.
"You never heard him say, 'Hey, I hope it's a two-hour game today,' or 'I hope we get a quick one here'," said Mike Krukow, the former San Francisco Giants pitcher who is now a broadcaster for the team. "He never complained. He couldn't have been happier being at the ballpark. That type of attitude was totally contagious."
And not without its prices beyond the protracted periods of putridity. "So happy to be broadcasting in the big leagues. Only problem was, the constant roar of airplanes over Shea Stadium affected his hearing. He lost a good bit of it," said Vin Scully, the man who makes friends of Los Angeles Dodgers fans. "But he didn't care. If that was the price for doing his beloved Mets, he paid it."
As if to remind one of the foolishness that seems to have been bred into Met administration, their original general manager, M. Donald Grant, thought so little of Murphy that he made Murphy the only member of the broadcast team to wait until after the season's final game before giving him an "oh, all right" new single year's contract. The Doubleday regime pulled him off television entirely and restricted him to radio in 1981. The only happier marriage was to his wife, Joye.
"I'll say goodbye now to everybody," said Murphy, ending his final broadcast, September 25, 2003, on a night in which the Mets honored him at Shea, after partner Gary Cohen thanked him for being New York's Voice of Summer. "Stay well out there, wherever you may be. I've enjoyed the relationship with you." Appropriately, he paused a moment or three before commencing his standard identification wrap up: "New York Mets baseball is a production of Sports Radio 66, WFAN, in conjunction with the New York Mets." As he finished the first four words, up came the theme music which rang in and signed off so many Mets games over so many years, that horn-happy riffing intro into an instrumental version of the team's old "Meet the Mets."
Bless the Mets, they and the Milwaukee Brewers took a pause in Miller Park August 4, to pay a final silent respect to the Voice of Summer, before the Mets went out and thrashed the Brewers, 12-3. And something was missing, in the bottom of the ninth, when Mike DeJean began burping up two of the Brewers' three runs, with a little help from his friends, like Joe McEwing's throwing error, allowing one run in, preceding Craig Counsell doubling home Ben Grieve and Gary Bennett getting plunked, before DeJean finally regrouped enough to strike out Scott Podsednik and get Brooks Kieschnick to hit a game-ending popup to second base.
There was no happy recap.
Not even an on-the-fly choke of disgust, when the Mets threatened to let the Brewers unravel Al Leiter's magnificent start and their own magnificent evening of running, gunning, and stunning the home team; not even a swift followup pondering of whether this just might be the impossible revival, to an impossible recovery, after that nasty weekend with the Atlanta Braves just might have ended the Mets' feather-light postseason hopes.
And that adds a further choke to this unhappiest of all unhappy recaps, to know that the roll of those broadcasters whom you know love the game with all their heart, without having to ask, was reduced by one on this island earth as of August 3.
"It's a constant reminder that from dust we come and to dust we shall return, not to be morbid about it," said Scully. "I'm going to miss Bob, but hopefully we'll do a game together in the wild blue yonder somewhere." A consummation devoutly to be wished, because until the day that pleasure is granted us in the next world, God of our fathers our grief is too heavy in this world now.
WHERE ARE THE JOCKS FOR JUSTICE?
By Kelly Candaele & Peter Dreier
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2004 issue of The Nation, and is reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Dreier. In addition, The Baseball Reliquary is sponsoring a lecture with Mr. Candaele and Mr. Dreier to be held Wednesday, October 6 at the Burbank Central Library Auditorium at 7:00pm.
Adonal Foyle, 29, is a 6-foot, 10-inch center for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Like most pro athletes, he spent his youth perfecting his game, hoping for a shot at big-time sports. But off the court he's an outspoken critic of America's political system. "This mother of all democracies," Foyle insists, "is one of the most corrupt systems, where a small minority make the decisions for everybody else."
Three years ago Foyle started a grassroots group called Democracy Matters. Its goal is to educate young people about politics, mobilize them to vote and bring pressure on elected officials to reform the nation's campaign finance laws. When he's not playing basketball, Foyle is frequently speaking at high schools, colleges and conferences about the corrupting role of big money in politics. "I have lots of support [from fellow players] and I explain to them a lot what I'm doing," says Foyle. "The players understand that I want people to be excited about the political system."
Foyle's activism is rare in the world of professional sports. Many athletes visit kids in hospitals, start foundations that fix inner-city playgrounds, create scholarship funds to help poor students attend college and make commercials urging kids to stay in school and say no to drugs. But when it comes to political dissent, few speak out on big issues like war, sweatshop labor, environmental concerns or the increasing gap between rich and poor. While Hollywood celebrities frequently lend their fame and fortune to candidates and causes, athletes are expected to perform, not pontificate. On the few occasions when they do express themselves, they are often met with derision and contempt.
Last year, for example, just before the United States invaded Iraq, Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash wore a T-shirt to media day during the NBA's All-Star weekend that said No War. Shoot for Peace. Numerous sports columnists criticized Nash for speaking his mind. (One wrote that he should "just shut up and play.") David Robinson, an Annapolis graduate and former naval officer, and then center for the San Antonio Spurs, said that Nash's attire was inappropriate. Flip Saunders, coach of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: "What opinions you have, it's important to keep them to yourselves." Since then, no other major pro athlete has publicly expressed antiwar sentiments.
Although political activism has never been widespread among pro athletes, Foyle is following in the footsteps of some courageous jocks. After breaking baseball's color line in 1947, Jackie Robinson was outspoken against racial segregation during and after his playing career, despite being considered too angry and vocal by many sportswriters, owners and fellow players. During the 1960s and '70s some prominent athletes used their celebrity status to speak out on key issues, particularly civil rights and Vietnam. The most well-known example, boxing champion Muhammad Ali, publicly opposed the war and refused induction into the Army in 1967, for which he was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison (he eventually won an appeal in the Supreme Court and didn't serve any time). Today he is among the world's most admired people, but at the time sportswriters and politicians relentlessly attacked him.
Many others were also unafraid to wear their values on their uniforms--and sometimes paid the price. Coaches and team executives told Dave Meggyesy, an All-Pro linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1960s, that his antiwar views were detrimental to his team and his career. As he recounts in his memoir Out of Their League, Meggyesy refused to back down, was consequently benched, and retired at age 28 while still in his athletic prime. Tennis great Arthur Ashe campaigned against apartheid well before the movement gained widespread support. Bill Russell led his teammates on boycotts of segregated facilities while starring for the Boston Celtics. Olympic track medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith created an international furor with their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, which hurt their subsequent professional careers. When St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons came to the majors from the University of Michigan in 1967, some teammates were taken aback by his shaggy hair and the peace symbols on his bat, but they couldn't argue with his All-Star play. In 1972, almost a year before the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, tennis star Billie Jean King was one of fifty-three women to sign an ad in the first issue of Ms. magazine boldly proclaiming, "We Have Had Abortions." Washington Redskins lineman Ray Schoenke organized 400 athletes to support George McGovern's 1972 antiwar presidential campaign despite the fact that his coach, George Allen, was a close friend of McGovern's opponent, Richard Nixon.
Contemporary activism hasn't infiltrated the locker rooms as it did in the past, in large measure because of dramatic improvements in athletes' economic situation. A half-century ago, big-time sports--boxing and baseball in particular--was a melting pot of urban working-class ethnics and rural farm boys. Back then, many professional athletes earned little more than ordinary workers. Many lived in the same neighborhoods as their fans and had to work in the off-season to supplement their salaries.
Today's athletes are a more diverse group. A growing number come from suburban upbringings and attended college. At the same time, the number of pro athletes from impoverished inner-city backgrounds in the United States and Latin America has increased. Regardless of their backgrounds, however, all pro athletes have much greater earning power than their predecessors. Since the 1970s, television contracts have brought new revenues that have dramatically increased salaries. The growing influence of players' unions--particularly in baseball, since the end of the reserve clause in 1976--has also raised the salaries of stars and journeyman jocks alike. For example, the minimum salary among major league baseball players increased from $16,000 in 1975 to $100,000 in 1990 to $300,000 last year, while the average salary during those years grew from $44,676 to $578,930 to $2.3 million. Even ordinary players are now able to supplement their incomes with commercial endorsements. At the upper echelons of every sport, revenue from product endorsements far exceeds the salaries paid by the teams superstars play for or the prize money for the tournaments they win.
Thanks to their unions, pro athletes now have more protection than ever before to speak out without jeopardizing their careers. But, at the same time, they have much more at stake economically. "Athletes now have too much to lose in endorsement potential," explains Marc Pollick, founder and president of the Giving Back Fund, which works with pro athletes to set up charitable foundations. "That has neutralized their views on controversial issues. Companies don't want to be associated with controversy."
A few years ago labor activists tried and failed to enlist basketball superstar Michael Jordan in their crusade to improve conditions in Nike's factories. But with a multimillion-dollar Nike contract, he was unwilling to speak out against sweatshop conditions in overseas plants. In 1990 Jordan had refused to endorse his fellow black North Carolinian Harvey Gantt, then running for the US Senate against right-winger Jesse Helms, on the grounds, Jordan explained at the time, that "Republicans buy sneakers, too." (The criticism must have stung. Six years later he contributed $2,000 to Gantt's second unsuccessful effort to unseat Helms. And in 2000, like many NBA players, he publicly supported former New York Knicks star Bill Bradley's campaign for President. In March he contributed $10,000 to Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who recently won the Democratic Party's nomination for an open US Senate seat.)
Early in his professional career, golfer Tiger Woods stirred some political controversy with one of his first commercials for Nike after signing a $40 million endorsement contract. It displayed images of Woods golfing as these words scrolled down the screen: "There are still courses in the United States I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. I've heard I'm not ready for you. Are you ready for me?" At the time Woods told Sports Illustrated that it was "important...for this country to talk about this subject [racism].... You can't say something like that in a polite way. Golf has shied away from this for too long. Some clubs have brought in tokens, but nothing has really changed. I hope what I'm doing can change that."
According to Richard Lapchick, executive director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports at the University of Central Florida, and a longtime activist against racism in sports, Woods was "crucified" by some sportswriters for the commercial and his comments. Nike quickly realized that confrontational politics wasn't the best way to sell shoes. "Tiger seemed to learn a lesson," Lapchick says. "It is one that I wish he and other athletes had not learned: no more political issues. He has been silent since then because of what happened early in his career." Woods remained on the sidelines during the 2002 controversy over the intransigence of the Augusta National Golf Club, host of the annual Masters tournament, on permitting women to join.
Like Lapchick, former New York Yankees pitching ace Jim Bouton, whose 1970 tell-all book Ball Four scandalized the baseball establishment, bemoans the cautiousness of today's highly paid athletes. "I'm always disappointed when I see a guy like Michael Jordan, who is set up for life, not speaking out on controversial issues," said Bouton. Today's athletes, he observed, "seem to have an entourage around them that they have to consult before making a statement or getting involved in something. Ali was willing to go to jail and relinquish his boxing title for what he believed in. He was a hero. It's a scared generation today." And it may be no coincidence that some of today's more outspoken athletes grew up outside the United States. Foyle, now a US citizen, is from the Grenadines, and the Mavericks' Nash is a Canadian.
American sports--from the Olympics to pro boxing to baseball--have long been linked, by politicians, business leaders and sports entrepreneurs, to conservative versions of nationalism and patriotism. At all professional sports events, fans and players are expected to stand while the national anthem is played before the game can begin. No similar expressions of patriotism are required, for example, at symphony concerts or Broadway shows.
Over the past century Presidents have routinely invited championship teams to the White House for photo ops. A few weeks after 9/11 President Bush attended a World Series game at Yankee Stadium. His press secretary explained that Bush (who once owned the Texas Rangers) was there "because of baseball's important role in our culture." In January, just before the Super Bowl, Bush invited New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to sit in the gallery during his State of the Union address. Of the more than 900 Americans who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, none were singled out for as much attention--by the media or politicians--as Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan in April. Sometimes politicians' efforts to align themselves with sports figures can backfire. In 1991, for example, when President George H.W. Bush invited the Chicago Bulls to the White House to celebrate their NBA championship, Bulls guard Craig Hodges handed Bush a letter expressing outrage about the condition of urban America.
While most pro athletes are silent on political issues, many team owners regard political involvement as essential to doing business. Owners like Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, Art Modell of the Baltimore Ravens, Charles Monfort of the Colorado Rockies and George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees make large campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats; invite elected officials to sit next to them at games; and lobby city, state and federal officeholders on legislation and tax breaks for new stadiums.
The emergence of professional players' unions should have been a voice for athletes on political and social issues. According to Ed Garvey, who ran the NFL Players Association from 1971 until 1983, racial turmoil was critical to the union's early development. The union "was driven by the African-American players, who knew there was an unwritten quota on most teams where there would not be more than a third blacks on any one team," says Garvey, who now practices law in Wisconsin. "And they knew they wouldn't have a job with the team when their playing days were over." The players also understood that team owners were "the most powerful monopoly in the country," he says.
Garvey brought the association into the AFL-CIO--the only professional sports union to do so--to give the players a sense that they were part of the broader labor movement. In the early 1970s several NFL players walked the picket lines with striking Farah clothing workers, joined bank employees in Seattle to boost their organizing drive and took other public stands. But "now they're making enough money, so they want to keep their heads down," he says. When Marvin Miller, a former Steelworkers Union staffer, became the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) in 1966, he sought to raise players' political awareness. "We didn't just explain the labor laws," he recalls. "We had to get players to understand that they were a union. We did a lot of internal education to talk to players about broader issues."
But those days are long gone. Bouton believes that athletes' unions now consider themselves partners in the sports business. They are "part of the same club," Bouton says, negotiating mainly to give players a greater share of proceeds from ticket sales, television contracts and the marketing of player names and team logos. Donald Fehr, the MLBPA's executive director, argues that players' unions should stick to the issues that directly affect them. "It is not our role to go around taking positions on things for the sake of taking positions," he insists. "Only if it's a matter involving baseball or the players do we look at an issue and determine what to do."
Like its counterparts in other sports, the MLBPA occasionally goes beyond the narrow confines of business unionism. For example, Fehr sent letters asking ballplayers to honor the recent United Food and Commercial Workers picket lines in Southern California and gave verbal support to the striking workers of the New Era Cap Company, who make major league baseball's caps in a Derby, New York, facility.
The players associations could usefully go beyond such symbolic gestures. After the 234-day 1994-95 strike ended, catcher Mike Piazza, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, donated $100 for every home run he hit to the union that represented the concessionaires, who lost considerable pay while 921 games were canceled. It was an individual gesture of empathy with Dodger Stadium's working class--ushers, ticket takers, parking-lot attendants and food vendors--that generated tremendous good will among the Dodgers' fan base. As an organization, the MLBPA could have followed Piazza's example and set aside a small part of its large strike fund to help stadium employees who were temporarily out of work.
A glaring example of the MLBPA's shortsightedness is its reaction to a recent exposé by the National Labor Committee (NLC), reported in the New York Times, revealing that Costa Rican workers who stitch Rawlings baseballs for the major leagues are paid 30 cents for each ball, which is then sold for $15 in US sporting-goods stores. According to a local doctor who worked at the Rawlings plant in the 1990s, a third of the workers developed carpal-tunnel syndrome, an often-debilitating pain and numbness of the hands and wrists. When the Times asked Fehr about the situation, he said he didn't know about it, despite the fact that the Rawlings plant had been the subject of news stories for several years. (Another recent NLC report documented that NBA sweatshirts are made in Burmese sweatshops.)
Echoing growing concern about corporate responsibility and runaway jobs, professional players associations could demand that teams purchase their uniforms, bats, helmets and balls solely from companies--in the United States and abroad--that provide workers with decent wages, working conditions and benefits. The associations could send fact-finding delegations of athletes to inspect the working conditions at factories where their uniforms and equipment are made. The associations could demand that teams provide a living wage for all stadium employees, encourage politically conscious athletes to express their views and endorse candidates for office, support organizations like Adonal Foyle's Democracy Matters and even walk picket lines and do commercials for labor causes. As Foyle understands, taking stands on such issues could help the players forge better relations with the community whose support is critical to their continued economic success.
Foyle has refused to be intimidated by those sportswriters and fans who object to his beliefs. "How can we say we are creating a society in Iraq based on democracy and freedom and tell people here who have the audacity to speak out to keep quiet?" he says. "If people shut down because they are afraid the media is going to spank them or fans are going to boo them, then the terrorists have won." A history major at Colgate University, Foyle says, "The 1960s generation was against the war, people coming home in body bags, dogs gnawing at black people's feet. Today issues are more complicated, and you have to read between the lines. When you talk about campaign finance reform, you are talking about all of the issues--war, civil rights, environment, gender, globalization--because they are all connected." He adds: "If people want us to be role models, it's not just saying what people want you to say. It's pushing the boundaries a bit, saying things that you may not want to think about. That's good for a society. Morality is much bigger than athletics."
CHICKENS COMING HOME TO ROOT
It never ceases to amaze us that since the Twins started to win, the pundits in town wail about the supposedly poor fan support. The Twins are on their way to a third consecutive division championship and no one shows! Johan Santana is the best southpaw since Sandy Koufax and the place is half empty! Twins fans are ingrates!
Here in the Twin Cities, there has been some great baseball, some great heckling and good times in the Metrodome. We saw Johan Santana pitch with a brilliance not seen in years. And, it's true, there were fair-to-middlin' crowds. This phenomenon has been poked and prodded by every local paper and pundit, from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, John Bonnes (aka, Twins Geek), to the City Pages Brad Zellar, with only Bonnes defending the local sports fan. John writes, "[t]he team plays its games in a sterile baggy. It's also owned by a man who still refuses to apologize for one of the more shameful ownership acts in the history of sports. (And if you think that a couple of years of winning baseball erases the distaste of handing money to a billionaire who threatened to disintegrate your team so he could make a couple hundred million more, well, you've never had anyone threaten to disintegrate your favorite team.) There's also the issue of practically doubling ticket prices over the last couple years, though this is rarely mentioned. It's as if sports columnists assume the rest of us get in for free."
Brad Zellar, in his most recent City Pages article, discusses how incredible the Twins have been as of late, showing off their promising youngsters, their brilliant pitching tandem of Santana and Radke, and doing "something no Twins club has done in the history of the organization", namely, take their third straight division title. In a follow up to the CP article, on his blog Yard, Brad wonders: "how do you explain the 22,145 that showed up last night to see Johan Santana take on Freddie Garcia and the White Sox? You don't. You can't."
Well, we do and we can. Specifically, there's the simple fact that that game was played on a school night (Tuesday), against a division rival that isn't much of a rival anymore. Attendance figures usually dip when school starts, considering that responsible parents often don't go to anything that gets them and their kids home around eleven at night during the week. This goes for college students as well, who may or may not care about class as much as digging the new school year.
However, the Twins attendance isn't just mediocre when school startsthey have, according to Zellar, been drawing just 23,405 fans a game, which ranks 24th in the major leagues. Bonnes argues that it's competition, and that the Twins are in a small market with a glut of sports teams, professional and collegiate. But we think it's simple indifference.
As Bonnes points out, the Twins play in a sterile baggy. Zellar concedes that "he can't really blame anyone else for staying away. For even the most zealous Twins fan, the Dome remains a dicey proposition at best. While it's admittedly now associated with all sorts of marvelous memories and history, it's also taken on the hangdog vibe of the perpetually neglected and unloved." What's so galling is that the Minnesota Twins don't just play in a sterile baggy, but the management refuses to do anything to make the place look any better. They refuse to market it.
That in itself is part of the problem: the press, the television announcers, and the broadcasters on the radio complaining endlessly about the very place Twins fans are staying away from. Why would the casual fan bother to come to a stadium that is so routinely described as boring, as a place not to watch baseball, when you can stay home and enjoy the noble sport on tv or radio? Personally, even though John Gordon and Dan Gladden are perhaps the two worst announcers in all of baseball, it is still often preferable to drive around and listen to the game with the warm wind blowing and the smell of the lake in your nose.
Has there ever been such din about a stadium? Candlestick Park in San Francisco was one of the worst places to see a ballgame. There was never a stadium so damned coldat night the winds would come off the bay, blowing trash across the field and damp wind down your neck. But consider 1993, the year of their great pennant race with the Braves. That year, management was doing its level best to convince the city to cough up the funds for a new stadium. In spite of that, the press, the radio and television announcers, and yes, even management, didn't routinely bemoan Candlestick as an eyesore and misery. They focused on the team and trying to get people to the 'Stick to see how great the Giants were, to see Barry Bonds. We were constantly reminded by the press how lucky we were to have a pennant race, and the result was that over 2.5 million endured Candlestick to see the fun, an increase of over a million from the year before. Here in Minnesota, our local coverage is keeping the casual fan away, and it is this casual fan that turns a half-empty arena into a full one.
But there's another factor at work, one that is even more pervasive. The Twins have achieved three division titles in what Zellar once noted (and most baseball fans believe) is the worst division in all of professional sports. The Twins accomplishment is spoiled, both by the press and Major League Baseball itself, thanks to an image of futility created mostly by Bud Selig. The Commissioner has successfully convinced fans that small market teams cannot compete against large market teams. There's a general malaise in the fans of these so-called small market teams: we can only hear for so long how mediocre a club is, even if it's in first, and still show up in droves.
When Koufax threw for the Dodgers casual fans showed up because they knew the Dodgers had a chance to win the whole thing, and win they did. Minnesotans showed up to see Kirby and Kent and the rest of the Twins teams because they knew they could win, and win they did. Today, we've seen Carl Pohlad try to disconnect this club, heard endless reports about how ugly the Dome is, and have been bludgeoned repeatedly by the news that the Twins, no matter how hard they try, no matter how many fresh young faces swing the lumber, they will never be able to conquer the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox or Angels, the large-market teams with endless resources. Sportswriters don't have to lie and say that the Dome is beautifulsimply ignoring the Dome and writing about the game will suffice. Until everyonethe press, the Twins, and MLBbegins to really promote the team, the Twins will never attract more than their usual 25 grand.