Thursday, April 17, 2014


Let's just submit that this odd phrase "homeopathic social healing" is what history is supposed to be, but  often isn't. When it is that, however, it creates changes that are momentous and irreversible. And in their linked vision of baseball and American history, the Baseball Reliquary and Ben Sakoguchi demonstrate a deep understanding of that concept, even if they might not articulate it as such.

There is a strong linkage between the forces of progressive social policy and the changes in baseball that are now mostly taken for granted--integration and free agency. These are mostly treated as separate issues, but in the flow of history as a set of self-correcting actions, we can see that the achievement of one leads inexorably to the achievement of the other.

The voting membership of the Baseball Reliquary had a strong sense of this in 1999 when it inducted Curt Flood as one of the first three members of its Shrine of the Eternals. They recognized Flood's pivotal contribution to what would change the "landscape of labor" in the game forever.

A few years later, they were guided by the Reliquary brain trust (Terry Cannon and Albert "Buddy" Kilchesty) to examine the antecedents of that effort, and to honor the efforts of individuals whose ceaseless efforts to publicize the lingering social problems that baseball continued to support (segregation and racism) were instrumental in bringing pressure on those inside the game to create a "home remedy" for a problem that was much wider and more socially pervasive.

Ironically, one of the key individuals championing human rights, integration, and the breakdown of centuries of prejudice was a "card-carrying" Communist--journalist Lester Rodney. (There are many ironies about Communism and the American imagination; let's just leave it at this for now.)

Rodney's fiery prose reached beyond its own obscure setting in the Daily Worker and was soon joined by a chorus of voices--a "homeopathic social cure" for an issue that had proved intractable since the days of Reconstruction. As a result, Jackie Robinson could state that "baseball has done it"--it had done something that politicians and philosophers, judges and juries, social workers and businessmen had been unable to do. The iron-clad barriers of race began to be torn down.

But even as that process began to take hold, there was still the "plantation" aspect of the business of baseball, with its reserve clause and regressive pay scale. It would take another twenty years after baseball's integration to cement in place a truly effective players' union, led by Marvin Miller.

Over the course of ten years, Miller employed a series of carefully structured battering-ram techniques to remove the final elements of the "stacked deck" approach to baseball labor relations. Curt Flood was the pioneer of that effort, essentially sacrificing the last 4-6 years of an accomplished major league career in order to create a test case for enhanced workers' rights.

While Flood was a more flawed choice for such a role than had been the case with Jackie Robinson a quarter-century earlier, the pathos that emerged from his troubled effort to carry the weight of such a crusade on his shoulders was not lost upon his fellow union members. They responded by calling the first actual work stoppage in 1972, and increased the pressure on "the Lords." Miller and his team of legal strategists redoubled their efforts, and the momentum of "homeopathic social healing" found an outlet in the courts a few years later, resulting in the labor structure we have today (even though it continues to be under siege, either subtly or not-so-subtly, from the institutional managers of what Leonard Koppett called Baseball As Big Business).

As is often the case, the Reliquary voters were able to separate wheat from chaff, and all three of these individuals--Flood, Rodney, and Miller--are now inducted in the Shrine of the Eternals. The direction that path took--from Flood to Rodney to Robinson to Miller--is a revealing example of how the patterns of history reverberate in ways that expose linkages between events that might otherwise not become apparent. That's the value in "homeopathic social healing," the type of history (and social change) that comes from people, not institutions.