WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 1 – The Sporting Life)

Courtesy of Morehead State University

I could never claim to love sports. I’ve always been bad at them except for dodgeball which is a sport I relish in of itself and how I viciously mocking others for missing me. I flirted briefly with a love of football that year the Patriots went almost 19-0 but lost in the Superbowl to the Jets. I’ve tried to watch hockey (and I support Gritty!) and I played soccer when I was younger. Um…I love air hockey, does that count? Yeah, I’ve never been big into sports.

But I could also never claim to hate sports. I think sports are overrated but I resist indulging in the popular tendency amongst fellow nerds to vilify people who watch and enjoy sports. I may eye-roll when people talk about fantasy football (it’s just D&D for jocks but hey, I love D&D so…) but I’m not going to castigate them.

The bottom line is that it takes a lot of skill to play the sports and I’m glad there are people in the world who enjoy that showing of skills. It can be exciting when things are down to the wire and playing the few sports that I have throughout my life (which also includes street hockey, running and various sports in school) I can understand the addiction to adrenaline.

In Working, the long-running book that I’ve been examining in my (possibly) just as long-running series, Studs Terkel is now looking at those who play sports. You know, those folks we see get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for catching a ball. So far (this’ll only cover half of the chapter) I’ve found the argument(s) against that notion interesting.

One last note before we really begin, y’all might be happy to know that I’ve read and written enough of Working at this point to make it a normal sized book! As it stands, we’ve got less than 250 pages before the book is done.

Actually finishing the book?

Now won’t that be something!

Eddie Arroyo (Jockey)

Arroyo does not hold back from his job and how it really works. Lots of jockeys get hurt and when they get hurt it can often be serious. The minor injuries can turn into full-on paralysis and the ones who are hurt are often not taken care of by the people who paid them. This already goes against the conception that sports players have it easy.

Even though Arroyo says he makes “sixty thousand a year” (p. 365) he can only do that by constantly winning or at least placing (1st through 3rd) in races. And to do that he has to be on the horses anywhere from 7-8 hours a day and constantly fly to different places. It’s a grueling work schedule, one that does not allow him for much rest.

And as I said, Arroyo is not shy about noting the flaws with his profession:

Riding is very hazardous. We spend an average of two months out of work from injuries … We suffer more deaths than probably any other sports. (360)

This is the trade-off for many sports players. Folks in the sporting life get paid the big bucks yet are asked to risk their health in serious ways. Sure, you want to provide for yourself, your family, loved ones, but is it worth the risk of death? Even Arroyo’s mother at one point “…confides softly concerning her daily fears. She hopes he will soon do other things.” (360) And even after only a short interview I hope Arroyo went on to other things soon after the interview.

Consider the fact that Arroyo almost casually mentions that he does not feel pain until after the race or that injuries, the bruises, the pulled muscles, etc. just seem to happen out of nowhere. That the “…casualty rate is three, for times higher than any other sport. Last year we had nine race track deaths, quite a few broken backs, quite a few paralyzed…” (360)

And even after this they are not treated particularly well. They have a guild for jockeys but they can only manage to get fifty dollars in compensation per week. And in a quote that read like Arroyo was working for Uber, he comments:

We don’t have a pension plan. We’re working on one, but the legislature stops us.

They say we’re self-employed. They put us in the same category as a doctor. There are old doctors, but there are no old jockeys. (361, emphasis mine)

Add on to this that the pace of Arroyo’s day is hectic to say the least.

If I ride within the first four races, I have to be back at twelve-thirty. The first race is two-ten. They want you at least an hour and a half before. You have a good thirty, forty-five minutes to get dressed, get your weight down, get prepared, read up on the charts of the horses that are gonna ride that day, plus your own. (361)

There’s not a lot of time throughout the year for Arroyo to rest. Again, Arroyo may make a lot of money per year for seemingly not a lot of work (which is now obviously incorrect) but at what cost? Arroyo tells us that when he first started he worked “…ninety-nine percent of the year.” (359) and that was just for the first two years.

It’s obvious the conditions in this sport are not ideal in the 70s. Just as obvious however is the limitations we could take from Arroyo’s experience. Arroyo has 6 years of experience but Terkel’s interviews take us as late as the early 70s and not much more than that. Over 40 years have gone by since then, I wonder what has changed.

One thing that bothered me in this interview is that there was no significant mention of the horses themselves. Sure, Arroyo makes sure to note that you have to love horses to do the job. But if you loved the horses would you really put their natural racing ability to the test in such a fraught sport? Never mind the lack of care towards human beings to make them try to earn a living from possibly paralyzing themselves or even dying.

What about the horses who do much of the central labor?

I can’t claim to be any sort of animal liberationist (though zoos, circuses and aquariums are pretty awful, generally speaking, except to preserve endangered species) but it nagged me throughout the interview. What are the rates for injuries of the horses? How are the horses treated? Are they treated as well only as they can make people money?

One thing I found interesting was the safety protocol during a race if something is going wrong:

If a jockey’s in trouble and he hollers for help, that other ride has to do everything in his power to help—whether it’s going to cost him the race or not. … Not all [jockeys move to help]. Some that are just interested in winning … They’re frowning on. They have very little friends among other riders. (362)

Arroyo talks about having an agent and it being a must for him, though the agent tends to eat up quite a bit of Arroyo’s salary. He also talks about prejudice within the sport, especially against Spanish folks. Arroyo himself is Spanish but arbitrarily because he went to high school and has lived in Chicago a significantly long time he’s a “home town boy” (364). It mostly comes from the officials, Arroyo says, and in the form of rule discrimination.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the shape of the people “in the back” (365):

It’s incredible to see jockeys as honest as they are, for the conditions they come from. If you could see conditions on the back side, the way they have to live. the barn area, it’s bad now like it was twenty years ago. The filth I had to live in, the wages I had to work for, the environment I was with, the alcoholics and whatnot. To come out of there… (365)

Arroyo mentions that the jockey guild is working for “better track conditions, better rooms for where we ride at.” (365) but I honestly think the whole sport ought to go. It isn’t for a dislike of sports but rather what injuries are risked and who is risked by them. If people want to play hockey or football (two particularly physical sports in the US) then that’s their choice. But the horses have no say over being put in these races and sustaining serious injuries, or worse.

And while people can get seriously hurt in football (especially with concussions) there are not many cases of people literally dying on the field or on national TV. I’ve never seen nor heard of that happening, though that may not mean much since I don’t watch or pay close attention to sports.

Arroyo points a dark picture of jockeying that I had never thought of or had considered before. I had never considered the plight of horses before in this sport but I’m glad that I can do so now. If my readers are inclined to do some research on the state of jockeying now, I’m happy to see what’s going on currently.

For now, let’s move on to…

Steve Hamilton (Baseball Player)

It’s not easy for me to say…so I’ll just type it.

Baseball has got to be one of the most boring things in existence.

I do not understand how people watch baseball and I don’t think I ever will. That’s not a knock on people who enjoy it, I just can’t understand the appeal. Even some baseball fans (from what I understand) have admitted the game should be trimmed for length and pacing. Maybe even just a few innings? I think part of what makes the sport so boring (if I may opine on sports philosophy for a second) is the lack of movement players can make in the field.

The batter is obviously stuck at the home plate, the pitcher is obviously stuck in the center of the field (or whatever) and there are outfielders for the left and right side and then people on each base. But hey, this sounds vaguely like football, right? Each position is designated and each part of the team has its restrictions to how far they can go.

But football players have way more maneuverability and because they are not going around the field but rather from one side to another it feels like progress is happening.. Whereas with baseball, it never feels like any of the players have accomplished anything. They managed to hit a really fast ball really far and then head back…to where they started. Maybe this has something to do with the slow pace? Maybe not. What do I know anyways?

But you know who does know about baseball?

Steve Hamilton, who, “…is a well-traveled Relief pitcher, having been with the Washington Senators, New York Yankees, San Fransisco Giants, and Chicago Cubs.” (366) Unlike Arroyo and jockeying I did some basic research on Hamilton and a year after this interview he stopped baseball and became an athletics director at his alma mater.

I’d like to think that Terkel’s interview got Hamilton to think more about his career as a relief pitcher and decide to do something else. But it seems like Hamilton already on his way out, “To be perfectly honest with you, I’m ready to quit. …I’m tired of the traveling. I’m tired of the hours and I’m losing the zest. When this happens it’s time to leave.” (367-368)

Hamilton spends a fair amount of the interview countering the suppositions of people on the outside. He counters the idea that he’s “lucky” that he gets to fly so much and see so much by reminding us it means “more games” (368). I almost typed that this was a “pessimistic” comment but it’s just realistic. It bums me out so my mind thinks cynicism which I think is an interesting thing to think about as well.

The interview continues with Hamilton noting that his team has, “A longer season, more games scheduled, and longer spring training.” (368) and complains of having to play an exhibition game with the Minnesota Twins only to fly all the way to San Fransisco the next day. Similar to Arroyo, it seems the big bucks does not guarantee the big hours.

Unsurprisingly, on such little time or sleep, the Giants end up losing the pennant all because the owner of the Twins wanted to make some money. Terkel notes further that the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland Athletics who battled for first place had a nineteen-inning game and on the following night they played another extra-inning game.

It’s easy to say, “Oh boo-hoo, you get to do what you love and make a ton of money! How can you complain?” but look, I love dogs and I only partially like my job at this point. Bad co-workers, management, hours and control over your own employment (baseball players have little say over what teams they are traded to) can make your dream job a nightmare.

Here’s the big take-away from the interview:

The average fan can’t understand it. They think you’re overpaid and you’ve got great working hours. They read about the superstars and huge salaries. For most of us the money’s not that great, when it’s only for a short time and it doesn’t really help you when you’re out of baseball.

There’s a great to-do about our salaries, but no one questions the income of the six hundred top lawyers or top insurance men—-the kind who own the ball clubs. I always wondered about that. (369)

Personally I question it all, but I’m an anarchist and that may as well be our job.

The thing I do not have much sympathy for is when Hamilton complains that his wife has replaced him as the head person in their household. Look, you decided to have a career that means you are going to travel a lot and therefore not get to spend time with the ones you love. That doesn’t mean you should give up on those things, but you have to be aware, going in, that it’s one of the sacrifices you are going to have to make.

And if you aren’t there then what is the wife supposed to do? Delegate to the oldest son or something? Maybe I’m taking this too seriously but it struck me an unwarranted complaint. What is warranted are Hamilton’s criticisms of the owners of baseball teams not helping the older baseball players.

Although you may not think it, people who quit baseball have a very particular skillset and one that does not necessarily translate to many professions. And while the money from playing baseball is good, people often want to do something else with their life or may not be able to support themselves and their family till the kids are in college.

Another great passage I liked was on how corporate baseball has become:

Company ownership has replaced the individual owner. This became apparent to me when we signed the first agreement with the owners. There wasn’t one baseball team that was called, say, the Boston Red Sox. It was olden West and CBS and Charles Finley Enterprises. They’re all parts of corporations. (371)

And despite the money and tax breaks corporations make off these players, Hamilton stresses that often the amount of money is not that great. Most players don’t last more than a few years in the MLB because it’s so prone to injury and people getting old or deciding to do something else with their lives. So while there is a big short-term benefit for many baseball players, it often is not sustainable either for them personally or even for their families after they quit.

The last thing I want to highlight is this stunning admission of complicity in white supremacy (kind of):

When I first started playing in the Southern Association in 1960, they didn’t even allow black players. We were lily-white. Now the relationship is pretty good, but I couldn’t say there’s no racism. I had a player take me out to the field this year and say, “Now there’s a real ni**er.” It appalled me.

I felt bad afterwards that I didn’t say anything to him. I just walked away.

I’m as guilty as he was. (372, emphasis mine)

Hamilton died in ’97 of colon cancer.

Rest in peace.

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