Sunday, June 13, 2021

Review: Gathering Crowds (2021)

By Paul Hensler

A great deal happened to baseball in the years between 1975 and 1993, more or less.

That doesn't include what happened on the field, either.

That was an era that was essential to the game's growth, and set the stage for Major League Baseball to become a business giant again. Believe it or not, the baseball business had suffered from a distinct lack of attention before that, and that allowed pro football to fill a void and take over as the number one sport in America. 

Luckily, a series of events took place that caused baseball to take steps to improve the situation. Those interesting years are the subject of "Gathering Crowds." It's another in the series of books on different parts of baseball history. 

Author Paul Hensler wisely starts with labor matters. The players and owners had been building toward a pivotal moment, and it came when the reserve clause fell in what is called the (Peter) Seitz decision. That allowed players to test the marketplace for the best contract after playing a certain amount of years (usually six). If you listen to the background noises that can be heard while reading this historical review, you can still hear the owners claiming free agency will ruin baseball. As we know, the opposite happened. It increased interest in the game, turned it into a year-round business, and raised revenues for everyone. Other sports have followed the same formula with similar results. 

It wasn't easy to reach that point. The collective bargaining agreements represented stops and starts in the evolutionary process. The occasional roadblock turned up for a while, such as the time when baseball owners stopped signed expensive free agents in the 1980s - only to be hit with collusion charges and suffered damages that were more expensive than the actual contracts. Now, of course, there's a lot of money out there, and it takes time to figure out how to divide it. But the ground rules are fairly clear. We know what works, more or less.

Hensler covers other off-field issues that sometimes overlap, nicely divided into nine chapters. Commissioners came and went during this era, as ownership clung to hopes of returning to previous standards. Drug use by players came with all sorts of trap doors for everyone. The multi-purpose ballpark mercifully died (I know, it's not my money), to be replaced by baseball-only stadiums that could be downright intimate considering their size. Expansion came back on the table, and new teams were added. Marketing became much more sophisticated. Plus, as society changed, baseball had to change - giving a new set of issues to encounter, such as women in baseball, gay rights, locker room access, etc. Even the baseball card wars and fantasy games get mentioned along the way, and some of the sport's top general managers get a hat tip in a chapter.

Hensler is a good guide to all of this. He has done a lot of writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, and covers what needs to be covered. Hensler comes to conclusions along the way, and there's nothing here that will raise anyone's ire. 

But there is a problem here, and it's a fairly substantial one. All of that fairness is probably necessary in this format, but the product comes out rather dry. Part of the reason for that is it's a baseball book that has very little to say about the actual games between the white lines. It was an issue in the other book in the series that I read earlier this year. The material also is going to be very familiar to anyone who lived through that era, or has read a lot about it. This in part may be because of my relatively advanced age at this point, but I found myself skimming the material at time. 

I have no doubt that "Gathering Crowds" is a worthwhile addition to the reference libraries of America. Those seeking information on the business of baseball in that era will find what they need to know. It's simply difficult to picture it attracting much of an audience.

Three stars

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