Why is it that big league baseball players are so solidly, indeed almost unanimously, behind their union, while in pro football there are a number of outspoken dissidents whenever a strike is in the offing? Marvin Miller, who recently retired as executive director of the Major League Players Association, has some thoughts about that.
Most football players, he points out, come to the deluxe atmosphere of the NFL directly from the first-cabin environment of big-time college football. Most baseball players, on the other hand, have spent time—some of them a lot of it—in the minor leagues, so they know firsthand how parsimonious, unfeeling and sometimes downright cruel baseball management can be when it holds all the cards. In recent years, major league players have gained a degree of control over their destinies. Minor league players are still virtual slaves—with no emancipation proclamation in sight.
Miller's theory is quoted toward the end of a very good book called Beating the Bushes, by Frank Dolson (Icarus Press, $13.95). If you think minor league baseball, except in the shape of the infield, has any real similarity to the big-league product, this book will startle you. For the most part, the minor league story is one of long bus trips, shoddy playing conditions, rotten hotels, smelly uniforms, insensitive management, cramped, dirty locker rooms—or none at all—and broken dreams. Lots of broken dreams.
What's surprising is that so many who have made it to the majors—and many who didn't—have fond memories of the minors, especially the low minors, where in many cases they formed their most durable baseball friendships.
This is doubtless less true in the cases of those who should have made the majors and didn't. It's a myth, writes Dolson, that "if a baseball player has the ability to play in the big leagues, he'll get there." There are countless instances of men with major league talent who never made it because they were in the wrong place at the right time, or because someone in authority didn't like them.
But this is all too general. The real charm of Beating the Bushes is in the anecdotes about the minor league life, real players' personal stories. They are funny, sad, occasionally shocking.
One of the saddest is that of Pat Bay-less, the absolutely-can't-miss Phillies farmhand who won 18 games, including a no-hitter, and averaged nearly a strikeout an inning in his first pro season, with Class A Bakersfield (Calif.). Less than four years later, at only 23 years of age, he went home broken—physically and emotionally. There were grim rumors of an untreated back injury, mixed-up X rays and heartless treatment by his parent club. Eleven years later, Bayless is still mentally unable to hold a job, and will need a weekly tranquilizing shot for the rest of his life.
Then, for a sad story that's also funny, read about Thetford Mines, a town of 20,000 in Quebec, that was assigned an Eastern League franchise in 1974 when, to understate the case, it wasn't ready for it. According to the manager, an empty lot was cleared, a canvas backdrop was tossed up and someone hollered, "Play ball!" And they played. Ask Jim Gantner, Willie Randolph, Omar Moreno, Lenn Sakata, all "survivors" of Thetford Mines.
If you're a fan with a genuine interest in athletes as people, you'll find dozens of engrossing stories in the book. Take Jim Bunning, a rare star who returned to the low minors to manage in hopes that he could learn the trade from the bottom up. After five years in the Phillies' system, he was cut loose with no substantial explanation by a man he'd thought of as one of his closest friends.
The chapter on young black players in the South during the '50s will—or ought to—make you indignant at the total lack of compassion among their big league owners, who "just didn't give a damn." Read this sort of thing before? Sure, but I'm repelled all over again by reading it anew.
There are first-class operations in the minors, from Triple A Denver to Lakeland in the Class A Florida State League, but they're the exceptions. Generally, says Dolson, it's easy to tell the pros from the amateurs (meaning the colleges). "The pros are the ones who run their games like amateurs. The amateurs...like pros."