IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS, BALLPLAYERS WERE UNDERPAID
Those were simpler times.
It's difficult for us to conceive what life must have been like for even the most supremely talented professional baseball players before Marvin Miller formed the major league players' union.
Currently, we are weary of the Promethean arrogance and astronomical salaries of today's striking players. There is no need for me to cite the numbers. By now they have become public knowledge. I wonder, however, if we are missing the larger point that the current state of affairs is merely part of a historical fiscal cycle. Perhaps salaries are merely striking a balance for players who for too long were grossly underpaid.
Before the union and the coming of free agency, all of baseball's enormous profits went straight into the deep pockets of team owners.
Even then we called owners greedy, but we never understood the enormousness of their avarice. We never knew enough to become envious. Then, too, owners were smart enough to maintain an air of mystery about how much money they were making.
No owner ever got caught snorting cocaine, started fistfights in bars, beat up women, got himself into messy lawsuits about paternity, or drove to the ballpark in Mercedes-Benz automobiles while wearing yellow suits and two dangling earrings.
What brought this all home to me with some impact was watching Ken Burns' baseball saga at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. The series starts this coming Sunday night on public television. It will run for 18 hours over two weeks' time. I predict it will sink of its own weight.
Much of it is fascinating. But too much of it is pretentious claptrap.
Certainly, baseball has the power to intrigue, but it was never as important as cinematographer Burns would now have us believe.
Burns created the much-heralded documentary on the American Civil War a few years back. That, too, ran much too long. His baseball documentary at times descends to the level of nightly ESPN telecasts. All you need to do is substitute Babe Ruth taking a home-run swing for that of Barry Bonds. There is perhaps one difference. I had the distinct impression that I saw the same footage of Ruth hitting the same home run over and over again.
There is another, more serious failing.
When I want to learn about baseball's place in American culture, I really don't have to be instructed by the likes of Billy Crystal, the insipid comic, or Shelby Foote, the condescending Civil War historian, or Bob Costas, the midget broadcaster with the overinflated reputation.
I could, however, be in the minority. At Telluride, the audience gave Burns and his film a standing ovation.
Burns not only appreciated the honor, but gave me the impression that he thought he richly deserved it. He is a diminutive man of 39 who still looks more like an ambitious A student. He is far too self-satisfied to allow anyone in his right mind to wish him well.
Telluride's promoters honored Burns with a silver medal that he actually had the gall to wear around his neck in public the following day. Enough said.
Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants is one of the many historical major league greats highlighted in the Burns series.
Hubbell, who was a New York Giants pitcher noted for his left-handed screwball, spent the last years of his life in Mesa so that he could be around baseball spring training.
He died in his 80s. For recreation, Hubbell hung around a Mesa bowling alley where no one understood or knew of the prodigiousness of his youthful performances as a Giants pitcher.
Once, in the 1934 All-Star Game, Hubbell struck out five of the most feared contemporary hitters in baseball. Going down in order were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.
Pitching for Horace Stoneham's New York Giants, Hubbell won 20 games four seasons in a row. He was the National League's Most Valuable Player twice, but never made big money. In fact, Hubbell never even protested any salary offered to him.
One day Hubbell told me his philosophy about the long relationship between Stoneham, the Giants' owner, and himself.
"I won 16 games my first full year," he recalled, "and they sent me a contract for $16,000 with a note attached telling me to sign the contract and send it back if I wanted to pitch for the Giants anymore."
Hubbell pitched the next four years, winning 20 games each season, without being raised from that same $16,000 figure.
After the 1933 season, in which he was the Most Valuable Player and won two games in the World Series, Hubbell's salary was raised to $17,500.
Compare that to the salaries commanded by today's striking pitchers.
Stoneham, on the other hand, had a much easier path in life. He was given the New York Giants as a present by his father when he was 32 years of age.
When New York dried up, Stoneham moved his Giants to San Francisco, where he became known as one of the most outspoken owners opposed to the union and players' agents.
Stoneham blamed the agents for advising the players not to be friends with management anymore.
To Stoneham, the only players who were "friends" were old-timers like Hubbell who cheerfully accepted low pay and said, "Thank you, Mr. Stoneham."
Because of his subservience, Hubbell was given a front-office job when his playing days ended and remained with the Giants for 34 years.
But he ended up with very little money, making it through his lonely final days on his social security check.
You might have thought that Hubbell would be bitter. Not in the least. Hubbell ended up spending time in that Mesa bowling alley, accepting it as his lot in life. Stoneham finally sold the Giants and spent his final days in a sumptuous house in Scottsdale.
The two men met and shook hands every year at spring training. But their relationship remained the same.
The last time they met, Hubbell still called the owner "Mr. Stoneham.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.