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Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Handicap of Wealth

In his wonderful book on Bill Bradley, A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee wrote that en route to becoming a star player, Bill Bradley had to overcome the "handicap of wealth." Bradley was the only child of a bank president and used to dribble his basketball on the decks of the cruise ships his folks would take him on as a young man. His background wasn't the same, say, as that of his Knicks teammate Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who used to run home from school everyday, in part because he had to travel through some hostile gang territories to do so and who matriculated at Winston-Salem because most of today's big-time schools didn't recruit black players in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

I remember once attending a lunch where retired Princeton hoops coach Pete Carril spoke. Some of the old alums asked about the chances of a tall walk-on, whose father was a CEO of a prominent company. Carril looked glum. "I knew I was doomed when I rang the bell and a housekeeper answered the door." Basketball, after all, is about wanting -- no, having to have -- the rock, and if you have many of life's good things at your beck and call, so the theory goes, you're less likely to have the hunger that kids who sometimes go hungry have.

Having just read Cait Murphy's brilliant Crazy '08 (which I just blogged about and is a must read), I got to thinking. What prompted Hall of Famers like Ed Walsh and Christy Mathewson to pitch in 7 games in 10 days at season's end, to pitch over 400 innings in a season, and to pitch both ends of a doubleheader? Why did those guys work so hard, and why weren't they as brittle, seemingly, as the starting pitchers today, who get four days' rest and get about 35 starts in a season, don't go more than 6 innings and are considered aces if their ERA's are below 4.50 and they win 15 games.

Is the reason the "handicap of wealth?"

Remember, there was a strong reserve clause in those days, no union, and dire circumstances. Walsh, Hughie Jennings and others came from Pennsylvania's coal country in the northeastern part of the state. Shamokin, Kingston, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton. Kids started working by 6 or 7, went deep underground, worked as "breaker boys" sifting through coal chunks after they came down the chute into a bin, frequently got maimed, the mortality rate was high, and the wages were about 5 cents an hour. Many Eastern Europeans emigrated to America for a better life, seemingly in retrospect, for future generations, as their personal "present" could not have been all that pleasant. These fellows did not want to go back -- starring in baseball was a way out for them and many others, and there were always many who would take their place. The mines were a spectre, a place to come from, not to default too. Ditto for sweatshops and subsistence farms. To a great degree, there wasn't much, if anything, to fall back on.

Today, the players can become free agents, the average player's salary is somewhere around $2 million, the travel is nice, the per diems generous, the royalty monies from the Players' Association's licensing deals terrific. Many players go to college, and even those who didn't, for the most part, come from much better living situations than players at the turn of the 20th century. Cars, IPods, nice sneakers, air conditioning, better medical care, etc. Put differently, if these kids don't make it, they won't go work underground for five cents an hour in dangerous conditions.

So, does that mean that the modern player isn't as driven for the big records? For 300-inning seasons, 30 wins, pitching through more pain? Clearly, today's professional athletes are motivated and want to win. But they're also more specialized and coddled than ever before. At the turn of the 20th century, the team's trainer, who probably had little formal training, used to create a rubdown ointment by mixing Tabasco sauce with vaseline and rubbing it on a pitcher's arm (one team called that concoction "Go Fast"). Today, there are all sorts of resources for players to train, both at the ballpark and available for a fee. Ditto for medical attention. Pitches are charted, exercise regimens are tailored, and many teams have detailed video libraries about every at bat a position player has taken and every pitch a pitcher has thrown. And there's also the most successful union in the history of organized labor, the Major League Baseball Players Association, that looks out for the interests of the players. And, of course, every player has an agent to look after him.

And many have luxury cars, more than one house, lots of trappings.

But are they as hungry? They're competitive and motivated, but I'll submit that they're not possibly as hungry as they were 100 years ago. First, they literally aren't as hungry. Read the oral histories of those who played in the "outghts" and teens and you'll figure that out in a hurry. Second, the union provides some excellent benefits to assist players, and the pension is outstanding for those who qualify. There were no such benefits 100 years ago. Third, the pitchers way back when just didn't know any better. There weren't 100 years of metrics that the statheads have pored over in excruciating detail (and providing front offices with kernels of wisdom to enable them to rest their pitchers and spot them when necessary), and "sports" medicine was about 70-75 years from starting. Fourth, well, just look at the top two reasons. The players didn't come from money, they didn't have any leverage, and the teams did absolutely everything they could to win. There was no safety net.

Take a look back at the 2001 World Series, when Randy Johnson, having started a few days earlier, came out of the bullpen for the Diamondbacks to win, in relief, Game 7 of the World Series. And who could forget a trio of Red Sox pitchers, Curt Schilling among them, walking out to the bullpen in the 2004 American League Championship Series, to do anything it took to help the BoSox come from 3 games down to win that series? Why did we like that drama so much? Because it was all hands on deck, and because it was the way that teams did things many years ago. No safety net. No tomorrow. Just pure baseball, figuring out any way to win a game to play another day.

Take a look at the records -- the number of wins Jack Chesbro had for the Yankees in a season, the tales of "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity, who pitched both games of a doubleheader and won (but earned the nickname for having worked at an iron foundry in the off-season), the number of innings Walter Johnson pitched season after season, the 511 wins of Cy Young, and the reports of pitchers starting 5 games in 10 days.

Those were the days when it was win and have a nice life or go home and have an uncertain one. That history might explain, for example, why there are so many players from the Dominican Republican, many of whom wouldn't have much to go home to if they didn't make it. And it also might explain why certain records will not be broken in our lifetime, if ever.

So, does the "handicap of wealth" permeate into baseball? Or is it a handicap of too many comforts and the trappings of wealth? Or, perhaps, is it progress?


Blogger Bob said...

You're describing rising opportunity costs in the realm of sports.

The value of the forgone is higher for wealthy athletes (and wealthy children) than for poor athletes (and poorer children).

3:24 PM  

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