A History of the MLBPA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement: Part 1

Ron Santo was the first player to reject a trade because he was a 10/5 player. (via Public Domain)

Ron Santo was the first player to reject a trade because he was a 10/5 player. (via Public Domain)

A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a legal document, negotiated between management and a labor union, that defines the terms and conditions of employment. The 1935 passage of the Wagner Act (formally the National Labor Relations Act) guaranteed the rights of employees to organize into a union and for those unions to bargain collectively.

Although the Major League Baseball Players Association was formally created in 1954, the players’ only substantive accomplishment was its pension and benefit plan, first established in 1947 (by a pre-MLBPA group of players). This was not considered a problem – the MLBPA took pride in its pension plan, and the players otherwise accepted their lot. They had a part-time lawyer named Norman Lewis for a while, but when Lewis suggested they negotiate more than just a pension, the owners more or less told the players to get rid of him, and they soon did.

The players then hired Robert Cannon, a personal friend of many of the owners, as a legal advisor. Cannon was a Milwaukee judge who really wanted to be baseball commissioner. Along these lines, his strategy was to remind the players continually how well-treated they were and to ask for nothing from the owners.

The players’ pension plan long had been tied to the revenue generated by the All-Star Game and World Series. As this pool continued to increase, the owners were becoming increasingly uncomfortable giving up so much money to the players, and this disagreement finally caused the players to decide to hire a formal executive director. After considering a few other candidates, including Cannon, they ultimately hired Marvin Miller in the spring of 1966. To say this was a watershed moment is an extreme understatement. In 2016 the MLBPA is publicly celebrating its 50th anniversary-–the pre-Miller days aren’t even acknowledged.

The owners were not happy with the appointment of Miller, and they tried to torpedo it. “We could tell from the reaction of the owners that Marvin would be good for us,” Jim Bouton later said. “They hated him. They were saying that he would bring in goons with bicycle chains and baseball bats, and there would be violence and strikes and pickets signs, and we didn’t need that in our union. And of course, we all realized that we did need that. That that would be better than what we had.”

Many of the players hated the word “union,” which is why they called their group an “association” in the first place. But Miller, who had been an economist with United Steelworkers, knew labor law and what a united union could mean. “We were naïve,” Tim McCarver later said. “We had no idea about unions. More than that, we had no idea how powerful we were…I was stupid enough to swallow the idea that ‘I’d be taken care of.’ There is no taking care of you.”

One significant thing the players did not have was a collective bargaining agreement.

Before the first CBA, the owners simply made all the rules. The minimum salary was $7,000, which had been raised once since the 1940s. And even that was squishy-–Bouton claimed in Ball Four that some players were given less than that and were scared to complain. Nothing was written down anywhere. The players had spring training allowances and in-season meal allowances, but none of this was strictly enforced. Players were supposed to have travel paid for if they changed teams, but good luck getting the money any time soon. “Before the union came along,” said Joe Torre, “player reps used to ask about things like broken shower heads in certain clubhouses or getting more towels.”

After a year and a half of on-again, off-again negotiations, the first CBA was signed in February of 1968. There were now two essential agreements covering the players: the CBA and the pension plan.


Signed: Feb. 21, 1968
Period: Jan. 1, 1968 through Dec. 31, 1969
Key provisions:

  • Minimum salary of $10,000 (up from $7,000)
  • An improved and standardized base contract
  • Increases in cash allowances for meals and spring training
  • A formalized procedure for grievances
  • New scheduling rules (specifying how many days in a row a team could play, for example)
  • Two sides agree to form a “study committee” that would discuss the length of the season and the reserve clause

The most important facet of the CBA was that it now existed. Miller later told of a 1966 meeting at which he mentioned that one team’s players were concerned they had a long stretch without an off day. Joe Cronin, the American League president and an early member of the Player Relations Committee, exploded at Miller about the schedule being the prerogative of the league office and who the hell does Miller think he is? Having scheduling rules, even minor ones, in the CBA established the precedent that the players had a voice in these matters.

Another vital component was the establishment of a grievance procedure, which Miller knew was a key component in the CBAs of other industries. The procedure was very simple, merely requiring the player or union to fill out some paperwork and file it with the commissioner’s office. Commissioner William Eckert was the sole arbiter, which was not ideal, but the players won more often than not. In 1968, to cite one example, a few American League teams objected to staying in Baltimore’s substandard Lord Baltimore hotel and filed a grievance. Eckert ruled for the players. These minor victories led to increased compliance from the clubs and increased confidence by the players in their newfangled union.

The bump in the minimum wage, formally locked into the CBA, also provided an important safety net for the players. As highlighted in the chart below, the minimum wage has continued to increase throughout the CBA era significantly faster than the rate of inflation.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Miller also landed the players a significant increase in the in-season daily road meal allowance. The new amount equated to roughly $100 in 2016 equivalent dollars and has remained remarkably close to that value ever since.

 Note: 1985 amount estimated, remainder of CBA-6 grown at CBA-defined inflation rate.

Note: 1985 amount estimated, remainder of CBA-6 grown at CBA-defined inflation rate.

The two study committees are also worth mentioning. As early as 1966 the players were concerned with the length of the season. In the past decade the major leagues had expanded geographically, with three teams on the West Coast, and expanded the season from 154 to 162 games, taking both actions without consulting the players. One of the union’s first efforts was to reduce the size of the season, but the committee was likely a delaying tactic by the owners.

Miller continually impressed upon the players the unfairness of the “reserve clause,” which bound a player to his team in perpetuity. The owners considered any changes to this clause a non-starter and once again agreed to a committee they had no interest in supporting in any way.

The early CBAs were fairly short in duration–two or three years–because Miller believed each success was just a small victory in the larger battle. The 1968 CBA was a landmark, but Miller knew the struggle was just going to get tougher.

With the first CBA about to expire, in December of 1969 Curt Flood announced he was suing baseball to block his trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia. Although Miller had continually pressed the players on his view that the reserve clause was illegal, he did not believe Flood would win, and this certainly was not part of a concerted union strategy. Nonetheless, the union agreed to support the lawsuit financially.


Signed: May 23, 1970
Period: Jan. 1, 1970 through Dec. 31, 1972
Key provisions:

  • Minimum salary of $12,000 in 1970, with annual increases
  • Increases in postseason pool to account for new playoffs
  • Increases in cash allowances for meals and spring training
  • Agreement that players could use agents to negotiate contracts
  • Two sides agree to table discussion of reserve clause while Flood case ongoing
  • Impartial arbiter in grievances (except in cases involving the integrity of the game)

The last of these was one of Miller’s greatest achievements and a crystallization of how he was able to outmaneuver the owners (and commissioner Bowie Kuhn) at every turn. The owners had long resisted Miller’s insistence on an impartial arbiter, and Kuhn, who considered himself an heir to Judge Landis as the moral authority of the sport, insisted he and he alone could rule on players who might be taking bribes or throwing games. Miller considered this an unlikely occurrence and offered to leave these issues to the commissioner. The owners agreed. As Leonard Koppett later said, “An impartial arbiter is the key thing in any negotiation, because that’s the only weapon the union has. Without that, you don’t have anything.”

Kuhn and the owners likely envisioned arbiters hearing cases on travel allowances and the size of players’ lockers. Miller, on the other hand, was biding his time until he could challenge the legality of the standard contract. An impartial arbiter was a crucial component of this strategy.

The other far-reaching change was the legalization of the player agent. There were countless stories of agents being thrown out of offices in the 1960s, but those days were now over – very few players would negotiate their own contracts going forward.

One little-understood fact about the MLBPA is that managers, coaches and trainers are also eligible for membership. The pension and benefits plan and other ancillary ventures, such as its now thriving licensing arm, apply to the entire membership. The collective bargaining agreement, on the other hand, applies only to the major league players.

This distinction can be important, and it was particularly so in 1972 when the union conducted its first strike over the owners’ contributions to the players’ pension plan. By the late 1970s, the CBA and benefits plan were put into sync so they expired at the same time, but in the early days the negotiations were separate. The 1972 strike was settled in mid-April, and only then did the union turn its attention to the CBA, which would expire at the end of the year.

The Curt Flood case finally ran its course in June 1972 when the Supreme Court reaffirmed baseball’s antitrust exemption and denied Flood’s appeal. One of the ironies of the case was that one of baseball’s principal arguments was that the reserve clause was a matter for collective bargaining and not one for the courts. So while the players lost the battle, the owners’ concession on this point led to much of what followed.


Signed: Feb. 25, 1973
Period: Jan. 1, 1973 through Dec. 31, 1975
Key provisions:

  • Minimum salary of $15,000 in 1973, with annual increases
  • Five-year players cannot be sent to minors without consent
  • Neutral binding arbitration for all players with two or more years’ experience
  • Players with 10 years major league service time, five or more with their current team, must approve trades

The most far-reaching change was salary arbitration, which the owners have regretted and fought to change or eliminate for 43 years. The agreed-upon procedure, whereby each side offers a salary and a neutral party chooses one or the other, is unchanged today. In the early days there were generally a few dozen cases heard, and even the player “losses” involved such big raises that the procedure drove the salary explosion as much as free agency did.

The 10/5 clause also has survived to the present day. Crucially, this was the owners’ first-ever concession to the reserve clause. Had this provision been in place a few years earlier, Curt Flood could have rejected his trade to the Phillies, and that entire history might have played out differently.

The first player affected by this clause was Minnesota pitcher Jim Perry, who consented to his March, 1973 trade to the Tigers. Several other players agreed to trades over the next several months before Ron Santo made history by rejecting his trade from the Cubs to the Angels in December of 1973. Appropriately, he publicly thanked Curt Flood for the new rule.

On Dec. 23, 1975, arbiter Peter Seitz ruled that clause 10-A of baseball’s standard contract (the infamous reserve clause) allowed a club to reserve a player for only one year beyond his signed contract. This case came about not because of CBA negotiations, but because two players (Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally) had filed a grievance on this issue. When the players won, the concept of free agency was born.

Importantly for our story, the Seitz decision was made possible because the players had fought for and gained the right to an impartial arbiter in CBA 2 in 1970. Here was the payoff.

As luck would have it, the prevailing CBA (No. 3) expired eight days after Seitz’s momentous decision. The owners typically had been stalling and stonewalling any attempts to negotiate changes to the reserve system, even when Seitz begged them to do so rather than hanging their hopes on his decision. Once Seitz made his ruling, the owners went to court to block it, claiming catastrophic consequences to the game. Once this failed, negotiations on a new CBA began in earnest. While the first three CBAs had been the result of player demands for more benefits and control on their careers, nearly all subsequent CBA negotiations, right up to today, have required the players to play defense–to protect the rights Seitz had awarded them.

The owners first offered free agency for players with nine or more years of experience, a deal the players might have jumped at a few years earlier. When they declined, the owners locked them out of spring training camps for a few weeks before Kuhn interceded and ordered the camps opened. The negotiations now concerned the rules and mechanics of free agency, which had become a fait accompli.


Signed: July 12, 1976
Period: Jan. 1, 1976 through Dec. 31, 1979
Key provisions:

  • Minimum salary of $19,000 in 1973, with annual increases
  • Players can demand a trade after five years
  • Free agency institutionalized
  • Regardless of service time, all current players can play out their option whenever their current contract ends. For players whose contract was executed after Aug. 9, 1976, there would be compensation to the losing team: If the signing team drafted in the first half of draft, it would lose its second-round pick to the signing team; if team was drafting in the second half of draft, then it would lose its first-round pick
  • Players with six years of service can become free agents and negotiate with up to 12 clubs chosen through a re-entry draft
  • Teams can the sign greater of two free agents or however many they lost

The players’ stance in negotiations was that the Messersmith decision allowed all players, regardless of service time, to become free agents after playing out their contract plus one additional year. Mike Marshall, one of the more hawkish players, publicly suggested he might sue the union if it negotiated away this right. There are reasons to doubt how serious Marshall was, or even if Miller put him up to this ruse, but the players maintained the position that creating the service time provision was a concession on their part. In return, the owners had to allow all current players one crack at free agency without the service time requirement. The first two free agent classes included several players like Wayne Garland and Lyman Bostock whose careers had barely begun.

Many of the owners hated this agreement before the ink was dry. “We’ve been kicked in the teeth,” said Gussie Busch. “We’ve been hornswoggled,” said Charlie Finley. And this was before all the autumn free agents signed one record-setting contract after another.

Before the Messersmith decision, players and owners had many difficult battles, but the owners always knew they had the whip hand. They would compromise only as much as they felt they had to.

Post-Messersmith, owners became openly hostile, using public ridicule and predictions of baseball’s demise as negotiating tactics. Arguably, it took another 25 years–and exploding profits–before the owners were willing to concede the realities of the new order.

References & Resources

Mark Armour and Dan Levitt are the authors of a new book, In Pursuit of Pennants—Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball, which recounts the evolution of baseball team building over the past century. It is available in all the usual places. Follow them on Twitter @markarmour04 and @dlevs1.
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Noah R (Mpls)
7 years ago

Great piece!

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Anyone that complains about player salaries or unions in general need to read some history. The owners were and are no worse and no better than anyone else with unlimited power. They abused it. Why would you pay someone what they deserve if you don’t have to. If you honestly believe in the free market, I don’t see how you can complain about free agency. In fact, I suspect if there had never been a reserve clause, there might not have been a need for a union in the first place.

Mark Armour
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Ensuring a (limited) free market is one of the primary gains of the union. But they also have a great health and pension plan, a lucrative licensing program, and many other benefits outside of contract issues. The union has done great things for the players.

7 years ago

I’m reminded of Charlie Finley’s cry “Make ’em all free agents!”, which would’ve been better for the owners.

Cliff Blau
7 years ago

First (permanent) concession on the reserve clause came around the time of the Federal League and the Players’ Fraternity, when the owners allowed 10-year veterans to choose to become free agents if their team tried to send them to the minors. There were earlier short-term concessions, such as the AL eliminating the reserve clause when it first became a major league 1901-1902.

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