Baseball and Fairness

Political philosopher John Rawls, in his magisterial tome A Theory of Justice (1971), puts forth a conception of justice as fairness. Since first reading the work for the first time a few years ago, I’ve thought about this a lot. Fairness is a pretty organic concept. Even though Rawls’ book is rigorous and sophisticated, justice as fairness is easy to imagine on its own. Children have a keen sense of fairness, even if they don’t know about philosophical or political justice. Because justice is necessarily precise and complicated, it is difficult to talk about – but fairness is something people know about.

Baseball is all about fairness. Sports in general are, and there are many popular sports in the US, but for various reasons I want to talk about baseball particularly. The other day, my partner mentioned to me that my father-in-law, watching a Cubs’ Spring training game, remarked how much fun it was to watch baseball – much more fun than politics, he quipped. And I think that, if you want to understand US politics, its actually really useful to understand baseball, because, whereas people may or may not really care about politics all that much, many, many people care a great deal about baseball.

Americans might not understand how government works, or why, or what the branches of government are, or why we have a separation of powers; they might not understand GDP or the Consumer Price Index, or how unemployment is related to interest rates; and they might not even care. But it is just as likely that they will spend a great deal of time and money watching baseball, discussing it, debating its myriad rules and regulations; they may have incredibly detailed knowledge of statistics, and spend a great deal of effort in comparing players and games and so on. And fairness is absolutely central to baseball. The famous 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which players were bribed by gamblers to lose the series, nearly destroyed the game altogether. Pete Rose, whose career with the Cincinnati Red Sox was legendary, was permanently banned from the sport – to the point of being barred from attending games -for having been caught placing bets on games. While spectators certainly have a long history of betting on baseball, the idea of the players being in any way influenced by anything outside of the desire to win the game itself is considered absolutely forbidden. The fairness of the game is paramount. And the League itself is almost literally above the law – a famous 1922 Supreme Court case found that the Major League was not subject to the Sherman Anti-Trust act, and basically free to run itself as it saw fit.

I did, at one point, watch the Ken Burns baseball documentary, which was utterly fascinating. It blows my mind that people have apparently no problem whatsoever with the team owners making enormous sums of money, but people are often offended by the players salaries. Part of baseball’s charm is that it is a game played by regular, average men – which is to say, the actual average man can imagine himself being a baseball player. Players were paid very little until the 1970s, and given virtually no say in the conditions of their employment, including whether or not they were traded to other teams. Basically, the league and the owners maintained strict, authoritarian control of the game – and players had no recourse to US law, because of the 1922 Supreme Court decision. And when finally players were able to break out of the paradigm and demand salaries commensurate with the incomes they were generating for the owners, it was not greeted by fans, but remains controversial. The players themselves, it seems to me, are almost incidental to the game itself. What matters is that the game is played, and played fair.

One of the commonplaces of political debates in recent years has been “level the playing field.” This is a sports metaphor which usually implies that employment, or perhaps electoral, conditions are somehow unfair. But like the baseball field, what is left out of the metaphor is the capitalists running the game and collecting the proceeds.

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