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Uncommon Laborers: Poets and Players

For the 3rd year in a row I’m honoring Labor Day and the workers of the world by re-posting my essay on two groups of workers: baseball players and writers.

Since it’s Labor Day I thought I’d write something I’ve been wanting to work on for a long time: the topic of baseball players’ salaries. Wait! Don’t cut and run, thinking you already know what I’m going to say. Believe it or not, I’m not about to rant and rave because these guys get too much money for throwing a ball around. I’m actually here to talk about why they deserve the big bucks.

1. History: There was a time when baseball players made bubkas. So little were they paid that most players held jobs in the off-season, some even during the season. Worse, they were treated like chattel: any player could be traded to any team at any time, and he had to shut his mouth and go wherever they sent him. Players had no say about how their pension fund was run, and there was no such thing in baseball as collective bargaining.

The most unfair aspect of players’ working conditions was that the sport was mysteriously exempt from national antitrust laws. The standard player’s contract included a reserve clause stating that if a team and its player did not reach agreement by a certain date, the club could simply renew the contract without the player’s consent. Players had no recourse other than retirement. A lawsuit brought in 1969 by Curt Flood, a St. Louis Cardinal who objected to being traded to the Phillies, started the ball rolling in a new direction. Though Flood lost the suit, his tireless fight was responsible for change that came later.  In 1998 Congress passed the Curt Flood Act, eliminating baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws. For more of this history, see Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and his Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights, by Alex Belth.

I like to compare the ballplayers’ situation to that of old rock ‘n’ rollers like Jackie Wilson, who died destitute: once musicians got organized, they went overboard, and by now we can’t even download a song without paying, or reprint lyrics without forking over a small fortune. Thus, while most baseball players could get by with half of what they make, like the musicians they got a little carried away.

2. Training. Baseball players, like ballet dancers, ice skaters, and other professional athletes, undergo a grueling training period that begins in childhood. Not only must they learn their craft or sport, but keeping in shape for such arduous physical labor is a 24/7 pursuit, a way of life, not merely an exercise plan or diet.

3. Wrecked bodies. Every player has to confront, first and foremost, the terror of standing still while a 96 mile-per-hour hard ball comes hurtling in his direction. These guys get hit with balls, tear their ligaments, crash into walls and each other, pull their muscles, bang their limbs, rip off their flesh and break their bones. They undergo major surgeries, some of which take years of recovery. Which brings me to

4. Early retirement. By the time a player reaches his late thirties he’s lucky if he can still walk, let alone run, throw or see the damn ball. Because of developments in surgery and improved health maintenance in general, some players are now able to keep going into their 40s. That’s still early to retire, and though some players go on to coach, manage or announce games, most need the big bucks so they can stash some away for their many non-productive years.

5. Pressure. Picture this. It’s the ninth inning of an important game, let’s say a playoff for the World Series. Or it’s  not even so important, but the score is 8-7 in your opponent’s favor. There are two outs in the final inning, and bases are loaded. If you get a base hit you’ll send the tying run home. If you get a double, you’ll win the game for the team. If you get a Grand Slam they’ll call you a hero. But… if you strike out, or hit a pop-out, or get an out in any of the numerous ways it can occur…well, you get the picture. Plus, it’s a home game, so your team’s loyal fans are roaring in the stands, cheering you on, praying for you to come through for them. And, just to throw another element into this pressure cooker, millions of people are watching the game on television. Did I also mention that a lot of money’s at stake?

Every time something like this happens in a game, I turn to my son, who thinks players make too much money, and I say, “See this! Right now! Right now he’s earning every penny of his salary.”  The stress of those minutes cannot be calculated in dollars; as the obnoxious credit card ads say: Priceless.

And that’s why they get the big bucks.

And as for poets: it goes without saying that we don’t make the big bucks. What we have in common with baseball players, though, is wide misperception of our work. People think a poet–or any writer who doesn’t have a dozen fat books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble–doesn’t deserve whatever s/he makes, because s/he’s not really working: writing, like baseball, is seen as play. Poets and writers loll about all day playing with words. Unlike the factory worker or secretary or computer technician, we have fun doing what we do. And many people believe we contribute little to society.

It’s a lot easier for me to defend ball players than to make a case that writers should be able to earn a living without taking three other jobs or living in poverty. Defending writers means defending myself, and defending myself stirs up a great deal of emotion. In honor of Labor Day, allow me to merely go on record to state that Writing is Work.

Many of us don’t get off on holidays: we take advantage of them to write, either because we have paying jobs the rest of the time, or because on days when American business takes a breather, we’re not as likely to be interrupted by the phone or the door or Fed Ex or the mail. Notice I’m not at a BBQ today. I’m sitting at my computer, where I’ve been since 6:00 a.m. Working.

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One response »

  1. nice post. It’s impossible to take holidays off…how can you when nothing we do is ever good enough?

    Whew! Did I say that??–MS

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