Sep 13

Book Review: Bargaining With Baseball

When I first picked up Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil by Professor William B. Gould IV[1], I expected to read a textbook about the history of labor relations in baseball.  By the end of the book, I realized I had read a textbook about labor relations in baseball.  But I had also read a history of the game itself, a primer on the business side of baseball, and a love story about a country and its oldest pastime.  In Professor Gould, I had found a kindred spirit who wanted to share not only knowledge, but also his passion about the topic.

I am a sports fan.  I love a good college basketball game.  I get drawn into football games, trying to figure out the next move the offense will make.  But nothing draws me in like a baseball game.  And I’m not quite sure why.  I love the crack as the ball hits the sweet spot of the bat and the sound of a 95-mph fastball cleanly landing in the catcher’s mitt.  I love the green grass of the outfield and the anticipation of watching the infield turn a double play.  I love yelling at the TV or yelling, “Charge!” when I’m in the stands.

Although I have made a point of learning everything I can about the business side of the game there are still moments when I cling to an image of baseball as a game with almost magical qualities.  It is a romanticized version of the game I think many die-hard fans cling to – a world where steroid use doesn’t exist and no one ever tried to throw a game.

For me, I think it is because baseball was ingrained in me from childhood.  I remember watching the Mets with my dad, collecting baseball cards from different teams (and how I wish I had saved those cards), and going to Shea Stadium for the first time when I was five years old.  I can remember going on vacations to upstate New York and spending afternoons watching the Oneonta Yankees play at Damaschke Field.

In a way, this romanticized vision of the magic of the game is nostalgia.  It comes from a time before I understood the nuances of the game.  Back when I didn’t get discouraged and question management when my team lost a game – they would get them the next night.  There are still moments when I feel this way about baseball, like when I watched the Mets’ Kirk Nieuwenhuis get his first major league hit.

One of the strengths of Bargaining with Baseball is Gould’s ability to combine stark dates, facts, and statistics about the history of labor relations in baseball with stories about the human face of the game – about specific players, like Curt Flood, who put everything on the line to try to improve the quality of life for other players – and about his own memories of attending games with his father and, later, with his own children.

Gould believes that he and I are not alone in our love of the game of baseball.  There are many fans across the country, indeed throughout the world, who love the sport.  He puts forth three main theories about why the game remains so popular.

Gould’s first theory is that baseball is a combination of “pageantry, grace, grit, and drama.”[2]  Each game is like a show being put on by the players.  They dive to catch line drives, leap into the air to snag fly balls before the ball is lost beyond the outfield wall, jump and twist in the air as they throw for an out; pitchers kick their feet up in the air as they release the ball, each with his own unique style and flair.  Sometimes, players dive into the stands to make a seemingly impossible play and save the game.  As players run the bases and make jumps, dives, and throws, there is a grace to their movements.  For the most part, the players are not sloppily jumping in the air – they are making calculated moves that can give plays the aura of choreographed dances.

In order to make it to “The Show”, players must continuously perform at their peak and deliver both plays and wins for their team.  They must come back day after day to play in varying weather conditions through a long season.  They must do their best to come back from injuries.  Baseball has been described as a grind and it takes the grit mentioned by Gould for players to get to the major leagues and to stay there.

The final element is drama.  Anyone who says baseball games don’t have any drama isn’t paying attention.  It doesn’t take a bench-clearing brawl or an angry manager who storms the field to create drama in a baseball game.  All it takes is a fly ball headed straight for the back wall, or a runner on first attempting to steal second, or a short stop trying to throw to first in time to make the out.  At its most basic level, the very heart of baseball, the duel between pitcher and batter, is drama.

Gould’s second theory about the pervasiveness of love for baseball is that baseball is easily observed.  Although understanding the way in which the score, the batter’s perceived or actual record, and whether or not there are runners in scoring position affect things like pitch selection certainly enhances one’s viewing of the game, this knowledge is not necessary to watch, understand, and enjoy a game.  All that is really needed is a basic understanding of the rules: three strikes, you’re out; four balls, you walk; if you touch all of the bases and make it home, you score a run.

Gould’s final theory is that the draw of baseball is tied to its suspension of time.  He says, “Timelessly, baseball has no clock.  It must continue to conclusion – as indeed the duel between pitcher and hitter must continue until the conflict is resolved definitively.”[3]  This is certainly true.  Although some games seem to fly by and others seem to drag on inning after endless inning, when you walk through the gates of the stadium, you have no way of knowing whether you will be there for three hours, five hours, or ten hours.  The game must be played until there is a winner, or it is called for weather or some other reason.

It would be easy to read Gould’s words and dismiss his ideas about why baseball is such a draw as the opinion of but one man.  However, his words and thoughts have been echoed by others.  Ira Rosen wrote, “The game of baseball is still America’s pastime.  From Little League to the major leagues, there is no sport that combines its leisurely, timeless pace with its most difficult challenge – hitting a thrown ball.”[4]

Even fictional commentators have spoken about the inexplicable draw of the game.  In the movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’ character says, “They’ll turn up in your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.  They’ll arrive at your door as innocent children, longing for the past….And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces….The one constant through all the years…has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.”[5]

In addition to telling a love story about baseball, Gould outlines the development of labor relations in the game, from the parties’ reliance on the court system for resolving disputes to its current practice of resolving disputes and negotiating contracts through the collective bargaining process.  Gould rightly focuses two chapters on the 1994-1995 strike and its financial aftermath.  He believes the lasting legacy of that strike is a ceasefire between the players and owners that has lasted to the present time.  Gould also writes about what changes in labor relations has meant for the relationship between players and fans, and the steps that were taken in the wake of the last strike to attempt to mend that relationship.

Bargaining with Baseball can be enjoyed by history buffs, baseball fans, and students of labor relations and sports law.  Although it is on the surface a legal text, Gould has made it relevant to those who are not involved in the law.  Its biggest strength is that it is both a story of labor and a labor of love.  Gould has managed to put a human face on the cases underlying the history of baseball and its development into the sport we know it as today.

As Gould does, I will keep coming to the game with a sense of wonder and nostalgia.  Because it is the game of my childhood, when I was inspired by determination.  Because it taught me that places are more than cement and dirt – they are about memories and the people you share them with.  Because a group of guys who wore blue and orange every night taught me how to bounce back from heartbreak.  And because sometimes the more I learn about the oft-unseen parts of baseball, as I did through Gould’s book, the more I appreciate the moments I see on the field.


[1] William B. Gould IV, Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil (2011).

[2] Id at 7.

[3] Id at 44.

[4] Ira Rosen, The American Game: A Celebration of Minor League Baseball (2006).

[5] Field of Dreams (1989).

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