Baseball Strike and Free Agency
The 1981 baseball strike was largely fought over the issue of free agency. Baseball owners had become accustomed to thinking of players as property—assets to be traded at will. However, during the decade leading up to the strike, players had been lobbying to obtain the rights of more modern employees, including the right to collective bargaining and the right to become free agents. Since the inception of baseball, team owners had relied on the ‘‘reserve clause’’ to assure that players would be tied to a single team. This clause stated that owners reserved the right to renew a player’s contract at the end of the year. Owners interpreted this to mean that they could automatically renew a player’s contract every year. In 1975, two pitchers, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, refused to sign their contracts for the year. While the reserve clause bound them for the 1975 season, there was no way to invoke it for the 1976 season. An arbitrator held up their decision, and free agency was established. However, owners were upset that after bringing a player along in the early years of his career, he could just leave the team and they would not be compensated. Things came to a head in 1981, and the players went out on strike. Players maintained that compensating teams would undermine the free agency system, since players would not be free to fully negotiate their own contracts. The strike resulted in the cancellation of 712 games and lasted until August of that year. A compromise was eventually reached in which teams that lost a valuable player could not demand monetary compensation but could choose a replacement player from a pool of ‘‘unprotected’’ players drawn from multiple teams. The strike was bitterly fought, and was so hostile that when it ended, the chief negotiator for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin Miller, refused to have his photo taken with Ray Grebey, the chief negotiator for the owners’ association. This agreement held until the 1994–1995 season when the free-agency issue once again led to a walkout, this time one that caused the World Series to be cancelled.
Artificial turf came into favor when teams started building domed stadiums and discovered that grass would not grow inside them. Domed stadiums like the Houston Astrodome, which opened in the mid-1960s, were seen as state-of-the-art, shining examples of a new ‘‘modern’’ approach to professional sports in which the players and spectators would no longer be at the mercy of the weather. Houston was famously hot and plagued with mosquitoes, and when the Astrodome opened, it had Lucite panels on the dome to let the light in. These interfered with the players’ ability to field fly balls, however, so the panels were made opaque, which caused the grass to die. The owner contacted Monsanto and worked with them to develop a short-pile artificial turf. It was installed in the Astrodome in 1966 and throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Artificial turf advocates praised its ease of maintenance and better drainage, and claimed that it reduced injuries. Artificial turf also gained footing because many of the stadiums being built during this time were multipurpose, used for both football and baseball. Football teams in particular liked artificial turf because they did not have to worry about tearing up the surface during practice and therefore avoided having to maintain practice fields. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw teams like the Chicago White Sox, the San Francisco Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals replacing the natural grass in their outdoor stadiums with artificial turf; however, by the mid-1970s artificial turf was coming to represent all that had gone awry with baseball. Since baseball is traditionally a summertime game, it does not inflict the same damage to natural grass as does football, which is often played hard in inclement weather. Baseball fans began to clamor for a return to the traditions of the game, outdoor stadiums, natural grass, and, starting once more with the Chicago White Sox, teams began replacing artificial turf with natural grass.
Iranian Hostage Crisis and American ‘‘Malaise’’
On November 4, 1979, a mob of Iranian revolutionaries overran the American Embassy in Tehran, took fifty-three Americans hostages, and held them for 444 days. In October of 1979, the U.S. government had allowed the ailing shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Despite denials by the U.S. government that this did not constitute asylum, but was a humanitarian gesture only, the revolutionaries who were seeking to form an Islamist state were enraged. In retaliation, a group of students stormed the embassy, took the hostages, and demanded that the shah return to face charges. They also demanded that the United States apologize for interfering in internal Iranian affairs during the shah’s regime. President Jimmy Carter took the hostage crisis extremely personally, and it was in part because the internal state of affairs was so volatile in Iran, as well as his fears that hostages would be killed if he attempted military action, that the crisis dragged on for so long. Although President Carter gave what has come to be known as the ‘‘Malaise Speech’’ during the summer of 1979, two years before the summer of the baseball strike during which ‘‘The Thrill of the Grass’’ takes place, the sense that something was fundamentally wrong lingered throughout the rest of his presidency. President Carter said in that speech that America was beset by a ‘‘crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.’’ By the summer of 1981, this sense of malaise had been exacerbated by events like the hostage crisis and the baseball strike, and is mirrored in the narrator’s sense at the beginning of the story that he suffers from a ‘‘disruption of the psyche.’’ This was a pervasive mood in the national psyche during the summer of 1981.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, W.P. Kinsella, Published by Gale Group, 2010