Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2022

When More Than A Season Is At Risk

The negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for Major League Baseball drag on in Jupiter, Florida, a location that has spawned countless predictable jokes about the “out of this world” impasse between players and owners.  Thursday’s session reportedly yielded no meaningful movement, consistent with the incremental offerings from both sides in the daily sessions that commenced on Monday, even after a spokesperson for the league emphasized that the previously announced February 28 deadline for a deal represented a hard date for avoiding the cancellation of regular season games.  Based on social media posts from multiple players the MLBPA views the threat as just the latest effort by the owners to squeeze the union to the breaking point.  So far, at least, those attempts appear to have had the opposite effect.

There are two points that tend to be lost in the rush of reports about the potential loss of games, and the lame and inaccurate “billionaires versus millionaires” trope.  First, the decisions to delay the start of Spring Training, cancel the first week of exhibition contests, and, if it comes to that, start knocking games off the regular season schedule, are all voluntary ones made by the owners.  It is they who have shut the game down by locking out the players, an action that could be reversed at any time.  Lifting the lockout would allow the Great Game’s normal rhythms to resume while negotiations continued.  If next week brings a statement from Rob Manfred in which the commissioner laments that he is being forced to cancel games, the only people forcing him will be his thirty bosses. 

Second, the MLBPA’s positions are hardly an assault on the economic stability of the sport or the wealth of the owners.  Take, for example, the issue widely assumed to be the most contentious, one that appears to have not even been discussed this week, the payroll threshold for the competitive balance tax.  Since it was introduced in 2003, increases in both the CBT threshold and average team payrolls have failed to keep pace with MLB’s revenue growth.  But the CBT numbers proposed by the union do not correct that.  Instead, the total increase that the players have proposed over the five-year life of the CBA is less than half of the expected increase just in TV rights payments resulting from expanded playoffs.  As the writer Joe Sheehan has been suggesting, the owners could agree to the entire list of player demands tomorrow and still claim victory on the economics of these negotiations.

For all the focus on the luxury tax, its impact is largely symbolic, as very few teams ever come close to fielding a roster with total salaries approaching the threshold.  More concrete issues that the players have focused on are those impacting younger players, including the minimum salary, a bonus pool for ballplayers not yet eligible for arbitration, the time required to qualify for arbitration, and the manipulation of service time.  These are points that impact an increasingly large segment of the union.  There are of course some already famous players in that group, like Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  But most of those who will benefit are not household names.  They will play the Great Game at its most elite level for as long as they are able, but they will not earn tens of millions by doing so, and their careers after they play their last big league game will be every bit as important to their long-term welfare as their baseball salaries.

Such players, the ones a fan can’t tell without a scorecard, have always been the heart of the Great Game.  Long ago, before free agency was even an idea and when collective bargaining agreements only mattered to baseball players if their offseason job was at an auto plant or a coal mine, Moe Berg was a player like that.  Berg first played big league ball in 1923 with the Brooklyn Robins, a team that was a name change and a coast-to-coast move from becoming today’s Los Angeles Dodgers.  He then bounced around the minors for two seasons, during which his ability was summed up by one scout with the most dreaded four-word summary in the sport, “good field, no hit.”  But Berg managed to make it back to the majors in 1926 with the White Sox, the first of four American League teams he played with over a career that stretched to fifteen years.  Originally a shortstop, Berg switched to catcher in 1928, and spent the remainder of his baseball days behind the plate.

While the length of Berg’s baseball career was impressive, its numbers were not.  At .243/.278/.299, his offense was pedestrian, and while his shift to catching was the result of injuries to three different Chicago backstops, it was probably a good idea as Berg was a far better catcher than shortstop.  He would be a classic, though surely forgotten, example of a nondescript journeyman ballplayer, but for his life after leaving the Great Game.

Berg earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton, signing with Brooklyn the day after his final collegiate game with the Tigers, got a law degree from Columbia while with the White Sox, and traveled widely, including a long stint in Europe just as his playing career was getting started, and two trips to Japan with groups of barnstorming major leaguers.  During his second visit, in 1934, Berg the tourist shot extensive home movie footage of Tokyo’s downtown and harbor from the roof of one of the city’s tallest buildings.  Eight years later he screened the film for U.S. intelligence officials, months after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the country into World War II.  Berg’s home movie showing was but the prelude to his career with the Office of Strategic Services, the nation’s wartime intelligence agency.  As an OSS officer Berg first prepped front line spies for missions into Europe, then was stationed there himself during the final two years of the war, assessing the state of the German atomic bomb project and recruiting scientists to the American cause.

It is surely one of the more fascinating stories of a ballplayer’s life outside the sport.  Still, with the 2022 season seemingly on the brink and negotiations over a new CBA all but frozen, one might ask why take time to tell the tale now?  Partly because, as has already been noted, Berg’s baseball career is an example of the game’s always present journeymen, the current contingent of which stand to gain much from what the union is proposing in today’s CBA talks.  Partly too because the 120th anniversary of Berg’s birth is next Wednesday. 

But more because his life after baseball reminds us, as Berg clearly knew, that European wars are like dry tinder, needing only an errant spark to spread.  And most of all, because like so many other Americans, and especially those born in the early years of the last century, Moe Berg was the child of European immigrants.  When Bernard and Rose Berg raised three children in Harlem, they did so having recently arrived in this country.  They came from a place that is today, though perhaps not tomorrow, the free nation called Ukraine.

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