Pandemic Ball

Before there was Curt Flood, there was Ty Cobb—almost. The major league baseball season in 1918 was abruptly halted with a month left and many games to be played. There was a huge, disastrous influenza pandemic going on then but the big reason that games had to be halted was that most constant feature of the history of civilization—war. America, or at least its business leaders, wanted to help Great Britain, its old pal, destroy Germany. Many professional baseball players were being drafted into the armed forces or were volunteering. Cobb signed up for a job that was apt for his personality, being a flame thrower. In addition, that June Provost Marshall General Crowder had issued a “work or fight” order that meant to force all draft age men to either join the military or go to work in “essential” industries. Baseball did not have television executives around in those days to explain how essential baseball players were.

The owners were all fairly well to do in 1918 but they tended to be individuals like Jacob Ruppert or Charles Comiskey rather than investor groups like we have today so the scale of business was smaller and more easily managed. They were patriotic and generous then, as well, just like what we have today. Each of the leagues, the established National and the adolescent American, had presidents to guide them on their righteous courses but there was not yet a commissioner over both leagues because no one had tried to fix a World Series. Anyway, the owners saved themselves a bundle in payroll due to the aborted season. What they granted to the players was that the players would all be released from their contracts. All would become free agents. Now, legal beagles among us will recognize that what has been called the reserve clause meant that a player could negotiate a new contract only with whatever team he had signed with previously. There was no freedom of movement except for retirement. Now, with this move, the owners had made free agents of all players. That was going to destroy the thing that was helping the owners make lots of money and not have to constantly be rebuilding their teams. Ty Cobb counted among his skills the ability to hit, to steal bases. to play a good outfield, and, especially, to negotiate contracts. When World War I was essentially over and the press inquired of Cobb as to if and where he might play when the 1919 season began, he replied that he expected the owners to be competitive. No such luck, players, the owners secretly agreed to keep their hands off each others’ property and everybody just went back to work.

Now here we are in 2021 and what the heck is going on? Well, just about everybody who doesn’t still believe in the Lizard People realizes that there is a real pandemic going on that has claimed the lives of over half a million people here in the United States alone. Nevertheless, whistling while they work, Major League Baseball is going almost full blast. Players are getting traded, free agents are signing big contracts and, holy mackerel, there is a Grapefruit League and a Cactus League getting done. We are going to have a 162 game schedule, say the players and the owners. Arizona and Florida, two of the hottest hot spots for the virus and its mutants, are going to be busy. Can this really be true? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m wishing it were so and would love it as much as anyone. But I need some kind of super pill to swallow to help me suspend disbelief.


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