Selected Skirmishes: Reds


The April issue of this magazine has always celebrated the re-emergence of American baseball, that perennial awakening from the winter blahs to a Springtime of hope and…OK, maybe I fabricate just a tad in a pathetic attempt to impersonate George Will (you know, the guy with the bow tie and a sparkling water out in the left-field bleachers?). Yet today's object lesson does indeed focus on epic battles of the diamond.

Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott has been banished from Major League Baseball for one year, fined $25,000, and sentenced to a "multicultural" re-education camp due to her prima facie racist remarks concerning black, Jewish, and Japanese people. A woman who overheard a conversation involving Ms. Schott claims that she employs the term nigger with the frequency of a rapper and articulates a fondness for the plantation relationship from which the term grew. Other hearsay evidence has been adduced. Ms. Schott has wiggled on her story, but has admitted to using certain racial vulgarities. She maintains, though, that while her mouth may be filthy, her heart is pure. She claims no offense.

Don't bother Judge Wapner on this one. I say: She's outta here! Baseball has a profit-driven responsibility to fill its stands, and that means that any Top Executive appearing to despise 17 percent of the fan base must hit the showers early. Due process, schmoo process—Marge is bad for business! I know that this will entail wholesale hypocrisy on the part of some team owners who, in their heart of hearts, harbor thoughts as devilish as La Schott. (At least they have had the good sense of a salesman: Keep your idiotic peccadilloes personal.)

I know too that this looks a little like railroad justice of the most politically correct sort. But this is the court of public opinion, and the gate is Chief Justice. In the private sector, baseball simply exercises its right to free association when it informs the loquacious Reds owner that, alas, she has Schott her wad.

Note that the victim is not being deprived of property or liberty; she may sell her interest for its market value and speak quite freely elsewhere. But she has no God-given right to continue to do business with those who do not wish to carry on with her. The federal law on baseball has not a word on your constitutional right to be a Major League Baseball owner.

Or a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In all the huffing and puffing concerning Pete Rose's disgracing of the sport that won him millions of fans, dollars, and thrills, there is a universal constant: Pete should not be denied admission to the halls of greatness simply because of his gambling on baseball games. His achievements on the field should be the sole criterion for induction into Cooperstown.

Am I the only knucklehead in this great nation who thinks this popular truncation of ability and responsibility is insane? Is physical prowess on the diamond the single dimension of success in baseball? Is immoral philandering on the game's most sacred mistress—a non-fixed nine innings of honest baseball—less important than hitting to the opposite field?

Did I miss the lesson in elementary school where it was announced that 4,000 career hits let you jog around society's moral code? Call me old-fashioned, but the fact that a player has exceptional lifetime stats makes him more culpable for any reprehensible offense: His talents—and luck of the draw in life—carry a little quid pro quo regarding the demigod status it bestows. The hero to our youth is making book on the Dodgers game? Throw the bum out!

How deranged has our perception of equal protection become that we reflexively analogize: Well, isn't discrimination against Marge Schott or Pete Rose (or George Steinbrenner!), without due process, just the same as allowing baseball to discriminate against African-Americans? In form, yes—but not in substance.

The baseball police are morally empowered and legally entitled to operate by virtue of MLB's right to free association, the very freedom that could otherwise allow people to indulge in racial collusion. This sanctions groups of people to set standards of conduct, and surely that power may be abused. (For a century after the Civil War, helped along by Jim Crow's state-mandated discrimination, it was.) The argument behind the Civil Rights Act was that the legacy of slavery was so utterly repressive and repugnant that, on certain margins, one freedom—association—had to give way to another—equality.

One can argue about the morality of this trade-off then, or the actual success of this policy since. But what is above debate is that freedom of association remains a fundamental liberty and that barring some overwhelming reason to the contrary (read: racial collusion), we want people setting standards for themselves, sanctioning those who fail to behave.

This essential point gets lost in a parade of ethical posturing, much of it regarding baseball's allegedly poor record on racial equality. (Jackie Robinson might point out that, whatever baseball's record, it blazed a trail one generation ahead of the U.S. Congress.) It is testimony to the frailty of our laws and the opportunism of our politics that "civil rights" and "due process" can be invoked in defense of sleazeballs whose performance on the field of life has justly earned them the enmity of good sports everywhere.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.