“There was something about the national pastime that made the people in it behave badly. They were, perhaps, blinded by the light of what it represented—a glowing distillate of America. Men fought to control it as if they could own it. They wallowed in dubious battle, locked in ugly trench warfare for dominion over the green fields. The money poured into the game and men gorged and gouged over it—made damned fools of themselves over it. And the fans, ever forgiving, were still there.” —John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball
John Helyar remembers the moment he realized that writing about the business of baseball had changed the way he watched the game. It was October 14, 1992, and the obscenely slow Sid Bream had just beaten Barry Bonds’s throw home to seal a walk-off win for the Braves in NLCS Game 7. A crowd of almost 52,000 fans made Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium shake, causing visible tremors on the broadcast when the camera zoomed in on the happy pileup at home plate.
Helyar, a lifelong Red Sox fan, had also adopted the Braves after the Wall Street Journal transferred him to Atlanta in the mid-1980s, and he celebrated their historic comeback from a spot deep in the left-center-field stands. But amid the euphoria of the Braves’ big moment, he pulled out a pair of binoculars and trained them on the Pirates’ private box, where he spied owner Doug Danforth and GM Ted Simmons looking “slumped and devastated.” Bonds had just played his last game for Pittsburgh, and although Danforth didn’t know it, his defeated franchise was about to embark on a streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons. “This was their last chance to win anything before the club was to be broken up by free agency,” Helyar recalls. “This was, I felt, the very definition of mixed feelings.”
Both Danforth and Simmons had been useful sources for Helyar as he worked on the book that would become Lords of the Realm, the seminal chronicle of MLB ownership and labor relations that turned 25 last week. The ambivalence he felt about the Braves’ win was partly the product of the uncomfortable clash between childhood hobby and professional life that any sportswriter experiences. But the behind-the-scenes book he produced complicated the consumption of sports even for regular readers. After reading Lords of the Realm, it’s impossible to view baseball, beloved as it is, as anything less than a big business, and one that for much of its history was an exploitative enterprise governed by greed, dishonesty, and incompetence.
Helyar’s exhaustively reported, richly detailed, and improbably readable account of how baseball became the province of billionaires and multimillionaires—with an emphasis on the string of labor battles that went the way of the MLB Players Association under Marvin Miller’s stewardship, which started in the mid-1960s—won the 1994 Casey Award, an honor bestowed on the best baseball book of the year. The New York Times called it “the ultimate chronicle of the games behind the game,” praising both the vividness of Helyar’s characters and the quality of his facts and figures. “Nobody ever screamed that I got something all wrong,” Helyar says (although then-Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday did deny having uttered an anti-Semitic remark the book attributed to him). Plenty opined that Helyar had gotten much right. “It was one of the better and more insightful and more accurate treatments of the [labor] relationship as it existed at that time, so I have nothing but praise for it,” says longtime top union official Gene Orza, who recalls recommending it highly when it was published.
Lords of the Realm remains a staple of sports “best of” lists; in 2002, Sports Illustrated deemed it the 60th-best sports book of all time, and it placed third on a 2016 Sporting News list of the best baseball books. Just as telling as the continuing recognition from other media members, the book is still a frequent reference point for the people involved in the latest labor skirmishes. “I’ve read and reread it several times and consider it probably the most important book written about early labor relations in baseball,” says Chris Dahl, the director of communications for the MLBPA. “The pages are falling out of the copy in my office and the margins are filled with handwritten notes from various research projects. Post-it notes mark key sections.”
According to Dahl, veteran sports-law litigator and labor consultant Bruce Meyer, who was hired as the MLBPA’s new chief negotiator last summer, has a copy of Lords in his bookcase and reread it after accepting his current role. He probably didn’t do that just for fun. “I still recommend it often, especially to anyone interested in a primer in labor relations,” Dahl says. “It tells us a lot about how we got here.” Although the book is a quarter-century old, it also tells us something about where we’re going. At a time when baseball’s economic underpinnings appear precarious and the rhetoric between teams and players sounds increasingly strained, the best source of perspective on the possibility of a future work stoppage may be a book published prior to the last one.
Helyar started on the sports-business beat for the Journal in 1990, the year after he and coauthor Bryan Burrough published Barbarians at the Gate, a no. 1 New York Times bestseller about the leveraged buyout of tobacco company RJR Nabisco. Like Barbarians, Lords grew out of reporting for the paper. Shortly after it became Helyar’s business to study baseball’s business, MLB owners agreed to pay the players $280 million—more than half a billion in 2019 dollars—in a settlement that followed three grievances filed by the union in response to the owners’ collusive, salary-suppressing behavior during the 1985-87 offseasons. The owners had worked in concert to keep costs down, sharing information and exhorting each other to strive for austerity. As large, long-term offers evaporated, few free agents switched teams, and some stars went unsigned. Arbitrators found in favor of the players all three times.
Helyar wrote a long story for the Journal that delved into how and why collusion had occurred, and his agent suggested that the material he’d gathered could be the basis of a book. What particularly piqued Helyar’s interest, he says, “was that the collusion era was really a reaction to the degree to which the economics of the game had flipped totally in a very short period of time.” In the early ’70s, years after Miller arrived on the scene, player salaries equated to only 25 percent of MLB revenue—and that revenue was much smaller than it is today, when MLB salaries amount to roughly 50 percent (depending on what’s included in the denominator). Yet the advent of free agency a few years later caused contracts to skyrocket, and after two solid decades of being beaten at the bargaining table by United Steelworkers alum Miller and his successor, Donald Fehr, the owners were both panicky and petulant.
Although the story of the struggle for control of the pastime’s purse strings seemed to promise more of the drama Barbarians had delivered, Lords presented new narrative challenges. The events of Barbarians took place over a period of six weeks; the events of Lords spanned decades, with a backstory extending more than a century into the past. “It was like embarking on a Civil War book where you start out knowing the won-loss record of the North and South in all the battles but have little idea what made the generals tick or the interesting quirks or fatal miscalculations,” Helyar says. Lords also lacked constant characters. Players, owners, and commissioners come and go, and even Miller faded from the narrative after the early ’80s. “The story had to be built more around recurring themes, as reflected in an ever-shifting cast of characters,” Helyar adds. Another slight problem: Lords didn’t have an obvious ending, and as its publication approached, another labor battle loomed.
Months after the Seitz decision in December 1975, which made pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents and signaled the demise of the reserve clause, Helyar and a few friends went on a cross-country road trip that took them to more than 20 big league ballparks. He estimates that he’s attended roughly a season’s worth of games at Fenway alone, and he’s belonged to a fantasy league since the early 1980s. Fandom can distort beliefs about baseball, imparting the opinion that players are supermen or that merely being a big leaguer is a privilege that removes the requirement for financial compensation. But Helyar grew up reading books by pitchers Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton that presented an unromanticized player’s perspective on the sport and instilled a strong desire to learn what baseball “was really like.” For Helyar, learning about MLB’s bottom line was a “labor of profound interest as well as a commercial undertaking.”
Although the broad strokes of the players’ belated but rapid rise to power had been big news, the details weren’t well known. “So much had been written about the game of baseball, but not that much about the business of baseball,” Helyar says. “They tended to be from earlier periods and were more academic, and even when the average salary was probably $12,000, they all tended to be of the hand-wringing mind-set of, ‘Oh my God, salaries are getting out of control.’” Throughout Lords, Helyar took pains to point out that “it’s kind of a misdirection to say how much the salaries have grown when obviously the revenues have to have grown by a roughly commensurate amount.” The liberalization of sportswriting has made that a frequent refrain, but in the early ’90s, it wasn’t quite as common for writers to question or debunk owners’ claims about disappearing profits and impending disaster.
Helyar took a leave from his day job to devote himself to the book, conducting conversations with more than 200 interview subjects and perusing obscure baseball biographies and memoirs, arbitration and litigation documents, and contemporary copy by trailblazing business-of-baseball reporters Jerome Holtzman and Murray Chass. His initial investigations at the Journal had yielded connections to union officials and agents—the latter of whom tended to talk to both sides of the labor divide—and he accumulated contacts as his work on the book began.
Longtime baseball man Peter Bavasi, the second of three Bavasis to become MLB GMs, was then the president of SportsTicker, which, like the Journal, was then owned by Dow Jones. Bavasi helped out Helyar, a corporate colleague, by introducing him to his own network. Helyar also sought input from figures who had been in the room at owners meetings but had since left the game (including Charles Bronfman, principal Expos owner from 1968 to 1991), and he found some active owners and executives who believed that bringing attention to past mismanagement might prevent teams from committing more errors. Some sources took cajoling; Messersmith, for one, declined to talk initially but opened up after Helyar mailed him an 11th-hour excerpt, which convinced the pitcher that the author cared about getting the story right.
The Park Avenue potentates Helyar fleshed out spanned the spectrum from the imperious Peter Ueberroth, afflicted with a powerful case of “commissioneritis,” to the consensus-seeking Bud Selig. On the ownership side, they ranged from conniving and quick-witted political creatures like the Dodgers’ Walter O’Malley to patronizing patricians like the Cardinals’ Gussie Busch to prescient showmen like Bill Veeck to successful but unsavory attention-seekers like George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley. (“What’s in it for me?” Finley growled when Helyar asked for an interview. The author took him out to dinner.) The only things most of the squabbling rivals shared were a sense of entitlement, a short-sighted self-interest, and an inability to believe that their absolute supremacy was slipping away. Opposing them was Miller, the patient and underestimated tactician, who cured the players of their former subservience by listening to their concerns, schooling them in strategy, and inculcating a group pride and personal agency that eventually broke some of the traditional bonds tying players to teams and produced one of the nation’s strongest unions.
Miller and his immediate successors could count on the owners to act in ways that seem irrational today. As Helyar wrote, “the owners had met the enemy and it was themselves.” Braves owner Ted Turner put it more profanely: “Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we’re fucking it up.”
In October 1985, veteran club executive and league president Lee MacPhail circulated a report that showed that players tended to decline over the course of long-term contracts, and he counseled clubs to rely on minor leaguers rather than “give in to the unreasonable demands of experienced marginal players.” But both before and after collusion, teams rarely listened. Spellbound by RBIs and batting average, they fell in love with lackluster players and paid premiums for modest upgrades. With little concept of aging curves, they signed declining players to long-term deals. Even when they locked up younger players, they spent much more than they had to; as Helyar wrote, “They would all too often do multiyear deals with young stars that didn’t actually buy out free agency, but paid the players as if they were doing so.”
Compare that with the Ozzie Albies deal. “Baseball is the only industry where I have to pay someone what my dumbest competitor pays,” White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf once said. Today’s dumbest competitors aren’t easy marks. Ownership groups are better off than ever, but baseball functions slightly less like an ancien régime. Fewer teams are family-run, and more owners delegate baseball decisions to baseball personnel, who themselves are far less likely to be former players and whose training may make them better prepared than earlier execs for their roles as evaluators and negotiators.
Just as teams have gotten less gullible, they’ve also grown less driven to win without delay. MacPhail told Helyar that the pre-collusion owners, eager for ego boosts and civic glory, “wanted to win so badly they didn’t care about breaking even. They always thought, ‘We’re just one player away.’” But as Helyar recounted, pressure to ease up intensified. At one of Ueberroth’s early meetings with the owners, the commissioner described a scenario in which he would sit each owner down in front of a red button and a black button. If they pushed the red button, they’d win the World Series but lose $10 million. If they pushed the black button, they’d make $4 million and finish in the middle of the pack. “The problem is,” Ueberroth scolded, “most of you would push the red one.” The fiscally minded commissioner was berating the owners for wanting to win the World Series.
He wouldn’t have to administer that tongue-lashing today. Alternative revenue sources such as MLB Advanced Media—“the best thing that ever happened to baseball since somebody thought up the concession stand,” Helyar says—and the proven success of past rebuilds, among other factors, have made standing pat more appealing.
Post-Messersmith, the union’s approach was to peg the whole pay scale to free agency. As Helyar wrote, “the trick was setting the free-agency threshold: high enough so it took a top player to reach it, low enough so he wasn’t washed up by the time he got there.” Collusion era aside, that worked for quite a while, to many owners’ chagrin. As Finley remarked to commissioner Bowie Kuhn amid his attempted pre-free-agency fire sale in 1976, “This free-agency thing is terrible. The only way to beat it is with young players.”
Teams seem to have finally figured that out, and free agency is fizzling. For the first time since Miller’s hiring, the average MLB salary has dropped in back-to-back years. This time, teams may have mastered the art of suppressing spending without leaving themselves susceptible to a grievance. “I do feel as though the lords of baseball do have collusion in their DNA regardless of the changes in ownership, but I think it’s a recessive gene,” Helyar says. “It can skip a generation or two and then return in some different form.” In one form, he continues, “it’s not outright conspiracy, it’s a group psychology, group mind-set, and nobody wants to be the first to break. Nobody wants to be the first to do the big contract, because then you’re not cool, you’re an idiot, you’re not sabermetric enough.”
In the face of that threat, the union may be missing what was once an ace up its sleeve: institutional knowledge. Throughout the first few decades of the MLBPA’s ascendance, Helyar wrote, “the union’s experience and continuity would contrast sharply with the Lords’.” Almost every new round of bargaining brought a new negotiator for the ownership side, but from Miller to Fehr to Michael Weiner, the MLBPA’s leadership never needed to play catch-up. Weiner’s death in 2013 broke the post-Miller line of succession, and current executive director Tony Clark, the first former player to head the union, made his MLB debut in September 1995, after the last strike was resolved. Current commissioner Rob Manfred, meanwhile, has a history in MLB bargaining that dates back to 1987. Perhaps partly as a result of that reversal, Helyar says, “There’s been a little bit of a creep toward owners, not all the way, but in a way that the old hard-liners would not have gone for.”
That creep has helped preserve the peace, but it has come with costs. In the period documented by Helyar, a lot of the labor strife emanated from the complaints of small-market clubs that escalating salaries would drive them out of business. Revenue sharing and record revenues have quieted that claim, but teams’ sudden stinginess, coupled with players’ concerns about receiving a smaller piece of the pie, have heightened tensions for the first time in years.
“Marvin was great at keeping his side together and united, and the owners had very splintered economic interests,” Helyar says. “That usually gave a big advantage to the players’ side.” Today, disparities in salaries are larger, young and old players’ interests may not be aligned, memories of old injustices have faded, and every major leaguer is making more than he could easily earn during a work stoppage. The unanimity Miller strove for may be tougher to obtain. When Lords went on sale, the start of the season-ending strike was mere months away, and that work stoppage stretched on through the paperback’s publication. Were an updated edition to appear today, its afterword would end on a similarly uncertain note.
By 1994, neither side was winning many hearts or minds; the prevailing attitude, Helyar says, was “a pox on all houses.” After covering the strike, he grew sick of the subject himself, and following subsequent stints writing about business at Money, Fortune, ESPN, and Bloomberg News, he left journalism for investment research. “Writing about the business of baseball is like writing about the music in topless bars,” the largely complimentary Times review of Lords had asserted, suggesting that the games are the only legitimate reason to care about baseball. For the length of its 600-some pages, Lords of the Realm makes the games almost seem secondary—or, at least, less dramatic than the fireworks away from the field. “Wow, this guy has a way of taking a totally boring subject and making it interesting,” former catcher and union rep Bob Boone says about Miller midway through the book. Helyar had that gift too, and like Miller’s, his gift is still giving.
Thanks to Dustin Palmateer for research assistance.