From the New York Sun.
Last Thursday the baseball writer and researcher Doug Pappas died of heat prostration in Big Bend National Park, in Texas. He was 43 years old. Even if you are not directly familiar with his work, you probably know it secondhand, such was the esteem in which he was held by baseball writers, scholars, and community activists. His loss is a tragedy not just for his friends and family, but for the game.
I never met Pappas, but often had reason to correspond with him. As the head of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Business of Baseball Committee and a writer for Baseball Prospectus, he may well have known more about baseball’s economy than any other independent expert. What distinguished him, though, was not just the breadth and depth of his knowledge, but his integrity and his generosity, two traits that are unfortunately rare in my field.
Along with a few other writers and scholars like Andrew Zimbalist, Pappas was one of those most influential in exposing the lies of Bud Selig and his fellow owners. In the winter of 2001—02, with baseball ownership tirelessly denigrating the game and lying to the government, the public, and the players about its supposed financial problems, Pappas published “The Numbers.” It was a devastating series of articles in which he methodically exposed the accounting chicanery behind Selig’s farcical claims that MLB lost more than $500 million in 2001.
He wasn’t the first to point out that the owners were liars, but he was the first writer to expose their falsehoods in clinical detail and in real time. Using their own numbers, he showed lies about specific details, like the percentage of the game’s revenue going to players,and about large ideas, like the supposed inability of small-market teams to compete.
Pappas detailed the reasons why stadiums are foolish investments for cities, and showed how teams use such tricks as paper tax losses and the sale of their broadcasting rights to parent media companies to systematically understate profits in their attempts to get on the public dole. Parsing the language of the last collective bargaining agreement,he made clear how its luxury tax and revenue-sharing schemes were meant not to help struggling teams but to restrain the Yankees and drive down the high end of player salaries.
He was effective enough to provoke a phone call from a spluttering Selig, which became the subject of a mordant and hilarious article for Baseball Prospectus called “Friday Afternoon With Bud: The Commish Speaks”:
“With respect to his testimony before the House of Representatives, the commissioner insisted ‘we did very well in Washington’ because the House committee had voted 27—9 against repealing MLB’s antitrust exemption, and the Senate didn’t bother to vote. If success is defined as ‘not provoking your audience to change the laws immediately to spite you,’ Selig’s appearance was indeed a success.”
Pappas was an example to others not only in his refusal to accept lies but in his willingness to share his knowledge. There were many times when I got in touch with him — for facts, to clarify some point, or to verify something I’d been told — and he never failed to pass on more than what I’d asked for. If I was wrong in an interpretation or supposition he’d correct me with good humor,and if I was right he’d point out how I could broaden my understanding. I certainly wasn’t the only writer he helped in this way.
There are still far too many baseball writers willing to regurgitate whatever lies emanate from MLB’s plush offices on Park Avenue, willing to portray the lords of baseball as patrons of the arts and the players as greedy, ungrateful fiends. But there are many less than there once were,and hints of critical inquiry at times creep into the voices of even the laziest shills. Doug Pappas has a lot to do with that.
If it were only a matter of having exposed deception or having provided others with the tools to do so themselves, Pappas’s legacy would be impressive enough. But not only did he help others to find and value truth — he expected others to do the same. Lines from “The Numbers”have stuck with me any time I’ve ever written about the business of baseball:
“Apparently in the hermetically sealed world inhabited by the Commissioner and his minions, ‘good journalism’ means printing what you’re told. ‘Good journalism’ means uncritically accepting MLB’s insistence that it has publicly disclosed all relevant information concerning its finances, even though MLB doesn’t act like an industry on the brink of financial ruin […] Any writer meeting the Commissioner’s standards of ‘good journalism’ should be fired.”
Pappas provided a moral context for journalists to follow, and was not shy about holding them to it. What he understood was that if baseball is really the American game, the way in which it is run and the way in which it is covered tell us a great deal about our national character.
Baseball deserves not to be treated as a mere diversion or pastime, but to be run in an honest and untainted fashion. When it is not, those of us in a position to explain how this is so have an obligation and responsibility to do so. Reminding us — writers and readers alike — of this was Doug Pappas’s legacy to the game, and it is as fine as any writer has left.