Turn Back the Clock

Non-Fiction: Sports

Lords of the Realm

Author: John Helyar

Published By:
Ballentine Books

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            I have always been an avid reader, but when I used to ride the trains and buses to work, I would go through a couple of books a week.  I worked right next door to a Waldenbooks and had a membership there.  One day, feeling the desire to read a sports-themed book, I picked up Lords of the Realm, a fairly thick book toted as being “The Real History of Baseball.”  The New York Times Book Review called it “The ultimate chronicle of the games behind the game.”  I purchased the book without bothering to read the synopsis.

            I was expecting a behind the scenes look at the stars that made baseball what it is today, and in a way, that’s exactly what I got.  To my surprise, Lords of the Realm was less about the game of baseball and more about the effect of unionization on baseball.  The book starts at the rise of baseball in the 1800s, depicting what it was like for players back then, and then delves into the beginnings of unionization and the strength of the unions in later years.

            First, let me start by saying that this is a very dry read - 600 pages of small type with a lot of statistics, backdoor deals, union talk and the like.  Somehow, I muddled through and actually learned something through my efforts: although the unions were needed to prevent the mishandling of players, the fact of the matter is that, as the unions became stronger, the game was less about playing a sport one loved and more about how much money could be obtained by putting on a baseball uniform.

            Don’t get me wrong - unionization was needed.  Before unionization, some of the best players in the game were treated dirty with barely enough salary to survive, the constant threat of being cut from the team or being sold like so much cattle to another team.  Back then, it didn’t matter how well you played, just how much profit the team owner was willing to part with…and let me assure you that the sum was not very high.  In fact, it was practically nonexistent.  There were players who, after having played their best year in baseball, actually got a pay cut at contract negotiations.  Most contracts were year to year, giving management the upper hand.

            Indeed, management had the upper hand in most things including whether or not you were going to be allowed to leave the team.  If they didn’t want to get rid of you, short of quitting baseball, there was nothing you could do.

            The unions were a definite help in this regard, assisting players in finally achieving fair salary grades for their performances on the field, fighting the reserve clause and earning fair treatment toward players.  Unfortunately, as the union grew in strength, so did salaries.  It seemed there was no limit as to how high salaries could go now.  Players wanted more and more and, no longer held to any team, would threaten to leave their existing team for one willing to pay more.  Things have definitely gotten out of hand.

            Although an admittedly dry read, Lords of the Realm does clear up a great deal about the negotiations that go on between the movers and shakers of baseball.  It also offers up a great deal of information about players who were instrumental in bringing unions into play and fighting rules whose sole purpose was to keep the players down.  I found the book to be a rather interesting read and quite a wake-up call when it comes to the inner workings of my favorite sport.


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