“Venality, slavery, and gangsterism”: Soviet Perceptions of Baseball’s Golden Age

Maybe it’s just that the Twins are off to a terrible start, but I was especially tickled to come across this in Alan Ball’s new Liberty’s Tears: Soviet Portraits of the “American Way of Life” During the Cold War:

Ball, Liberty's TearsPermeated with the spirit of venality, slavery, and gangsterism, contemporary American baseball maims hundreds of young lives and serves the ignoble endeavor of distracting millions of ordinary people from political life, from the struggle to raise the standard of living, and from the struggle for genuine freedom and democracy.

So ended an April 1952 article in the Soviet sporting journal Fizkul’tura i sport, as translated by Ball, a history professor at Marquette.

The list of baseball’s sins was long, according to the article’s authors, P. Kostin and N. Baratov:

  • Americans had “perverted” a Russian bat and ball game called lapta into a degrading spectacle: “The heartrending howl of the crowd, which has lost human dignity, stays over the stadium, while the game, played by contemporary gladiators wearing gloves and helmets, resembles a sporting event least of all.”
  • That the pinnacle of American baseball competition was a “World Series” showed that “in sports, too, Americans suffer from megalomania.”
  • Baseball was in the clutches of “clandestine gambling syndicates” that “with the help of bribes to club owners and payments to players, ensure fairly often the desired outcomes of games.”

But what most horrified these Soviet observers was baseball’s infamous “reserve clause,” which dated back to the late 19th century. While players negotiated contracts, once the contract expired they were “reserved” to the same team until it decided to resign, sell, trade, or waive them. “The baseball player,” concluded Kostin and Baratov, “no longer belongs to himself but becomes the same sort of property of the team as inventory and other stock.”

Harry Truman throws out the first pitch in 1952
Pres. Harry Truman throws out the first pitch of the 1952 season – U.S. National Archives

Despite growing criticism from “the progressive portion of society” and occasional attempts by players to unionize, the better-paid players “rarely complain of their lot” and the majority scraped by on a “very low standard of living.” In short,

Baseball today is still an arena of slavery and oppression. By wearing a baseball glove and setting out on the path to professional sport, the ordinary American is, in essence, putting on handcuffs. He is arrested by the team and sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude on the baseball fields.

It was far from an original observation… In an 1887 article, Hall of Fame infielder (and Columbia Law School graduate) John Montgomery Ward had asked,”Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” Ward, the president of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players,  thundered that the reserve clause

has been used as a handle for the manipulation of a traffic in players, a sort of speculation in live stock, by which they are bought, sold, and transferred like so many sheep…. Like a fugitive-slave law, the reserve-rule denies him a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape….. It inaugurated a species of serfdom which gave one set of men a life-estate in the labor of another, and withheld from the latter any corresponding claim.

Flood letter to Kuhn - 12/24/1969
Curt Flood’s historic letter to Bowie Kuhn, sent Christmas Eve 1969 – U.S. National Archives

The following year, the 25th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, The New York Graphic featured an image of Ward being auctioned off, with the caption, “Slavery Days Again.” In 1890 Ward and other star started their own Players’ League, but it lasted only a year. And when the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1922 that baseball was not subject to anti-trust legislation, the reserve clause received protection that lasted another half-century.

Of course, the player who eventually undid that system also likened baseball’s economy to slavery. After the 1969 season, the St. Louis Cardinals — accused in the 1952 Soviet article of having once traded a player for a hunting dog — traded All-Star outfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood refused to accept the trade and asked baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to declare him a free agent, since “…I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”

Kuhn refused, so Flood, with the support of Players Association executive director Marvin Miller, sued the commissioner. In an interview with Flood and Miller, Cosell said that the player’s salary ($90,000) “isn’t exactly slave wages,” prompting Flood to reply that “A well-paid slave is still a slave.” Miller acknowledged that “If people think slavery is all right as long as the money’s OK,” then they might never gain popular support. And Flood’s legal complaint against Kuhn claimed that the reserve clause violated the 13th Amendment and federal laws banning “peonage and involuntary servitude.” (On all this, see Brad Snyder’s A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports.)

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