Celebrating century of player power with a lockout

TY COBB, part pioneer and part embarrassing stain on the long history of baseball, could teach Andy Gray and Richard Keys a thing or two about seething intolerance.

TY COBB, part pioneer and part embarrassing stain on the long history of baseball, could teach Andy Gray and Richard Keys a thing or two about seething intolerance.

As America’s pastime grew in popularity at the dawn of the 20th century, the Detroit Tigers outfielder was the game’s first major superstar, setting records which either still stand or took a long time to be bettered.

His limited athletic ability was fuelled by an infinite supply of bitterness and when his successor as top dog, Babe Ruth, arrived on the scene towards the end of World War I, major league baseball breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Cobb was a caustic mix of deep south prejudice and a dysfunctional childhood — his mother shot his father dead just three weeks before Cobb signed professional forms at Detroit. He was a 17-year-old who had already felt too much pain — now the burgeoning ball clubs, mostly based in the hated Yankee north, would feel Cobb’s wrath.

The “Georgia Peach”, as he was known, may have reigned supreme during the height of baseball’s ban on black players but his entrenched racism was still a thing of wonder to his contemporaries.

Even the up-and-coming (and white) Ruth fell foul of Cobb’s unique view of the world when shouts of “nigger” spewed forth from the Detroit dugout during their first competitive encounter.

Among a catalogue of notorious moments, possibly his most infamous episode occurred in 1912 when he launched a frenzied attack on a disabled New York Highlanders (subsequently Yankees) fan who had labelled him a “half-nigger”.

Avenging the sleight earned Cobb a $100 fine and an indefinite suspension. And even though he was despised by his team-mates, they walked off the job in support, heralding the first ever work stoppage in American professional sport.

It lasted just a day simply because the team of amateurs who took the field as scabs were demolished 24-2 by the Philadelphia Athletics, leading to a quick rethink of Cobb’s punishment.

Player/owner relations in America have never been the same and the Cobb effect will be felt once again in 2011 (if we can look past the unfortunate spark that lit the fire of athletic resistance in the first place).

Eight strikes later and baseball is in a relatively stable place — the most recent work stoppage lasting 232 days and depriving fans of the 1994 World Series.

By some strange coincidence, however, the NBA and, to a lesser extent, the NFL are staring down the barrel of a major lockout as the respective player unions dig their heels in over how the eye-watering revenue they generate is divided up. The NFL previously endured a work stoppage in 1982 and 1987 and with the current collective bargaining agreement due to run out in March, the 32 owners have a new list of demands which they claim have been forced upon them by the economic downturn.

In what will sound like a familiar pattern, the players’ union is highly sceptical and has demanded to see the books. It’s not surprising considering an estimated $9bn (€6.6bn) slushes into the coffers annually, most of that through lucrative television deals which are guaranteed even if the lockout goes ahead.

The minutiae of the concerns held by both sides are incredibly complex. However, the owners’ wishlist includes taking a billion dollars out of the players’ cut, imposing two extra regular season games and drastically reducing rookie contracts. Apart from scoffing at those aims, players are also looking for greater funding for the long-term care of players.

The worst case scenario for a sport that had eight of the top 10 TV ratings in 2009-10 is that there won’t be a pre-season and when play does begin in September, players will be a little less sharp.

The NBA is in a far tighter spot. With nowhere like the same demand for live games, a collective loss of $350m (€250m) is predicted this season.

Players won’t countenance a culling of a couple of deadweight teams, nor are they willing to agree to the usual suspects: strict salary cap, a reduction in salaries and a reduction in guaranteed money.

The owners are content in the knowledge that they will lose less money by simply closing the doors on 2011-12 which leaves the players with difficult choices to make. Their union has already submitted a proposal which included an offer to take a snip off the 57% of basketball-related income currently guaranteed to them. This was met with a deafening silence that does not bode well for the July 1 deadline. As per usual, the biggest losers will be the fans and, unsurprisingly, they haven’t been a factor. It’s hard to know what Cobb would have made of his anarchic legacy almost a century later.

Contact: john.w.riordan@gmail.com. Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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