The Unionization of Baseball

Before clashing in Washington, Jim Bunning clashed with Robert Cannon over the MLBPA. (via GLMS)

Before clashing in Washington, Jim Bunning clashed with Robert Cannon over the MLBPA. (via GLMS)

Marvin Miller advised Curt Flood not to sue. It would end his career, he told him. Even if he won, the court would never award damages. Flood had nothing to gain by taking baseball to court.

“But if we win,” Flood replied, “it would help my teammates, wouldn’t it? And it would help all the players in both leagues? It would help all of the players coming up in the future?” That, as Miller would later say, was Curt Flood.

Flood was one of a long line of players who worked to bring down the reserve clause. He eventually would lose his case before the Supreme Court, but his actions helped spur changes that would topple the clause within a few years. On April 10, 1976, Andy Messersmith signed as a free agent with Atlanta, and the reserve clause that had bound players indefinitely to their owners for nearly a century finally was defeated.

Before the Reserve Clause

When the National Association of Professional Baseball Players formed in 1871, players were free to sign with whomever they wanted, and when a player’s contract expired at the end of a season, so too did the team’s control over the player. When the National League replaced the National Association in 1876, it initially continued operating the same way. While this allowed players to seek more money elsewhere, even more than that, it gave players control over their own situations. Players who switched teams did so for a variety of reasons, be it for coaching promotions, more playing time, higher pay, preferred locations, etc.

In 1876, for example, pitcher Albert Spalding left Boston to sign with Chicago, whose owner, William Hulbert, was behind the formation of the National League. Spalding, in addition to being from northern Illinois, was an ardent supporter of Hulbert’s efforts and was given a more prominent role as captain and manager of his new team. Spalding helped convince his catcher from Boston (Deacon White) and two of their most prominent teammates (Ross Barnes and Cal McVey) to go with him to Chicago.

The following year, White returned to Boston, where his younger brother Will was given a tryout as a pitcher. During his second stint in Boston, Deacon rarely played his natural position of catcher, and Will only pitched three games all year. In 1878, the two went to Cincinnati to team up with McVey, who was now player-managing, and became the team’s primary battery.

This type of player movement was typical in the 1870s. Not that players were constantly on the move—they weren’t, but when a better situation presented itself, they had that option. Then, after 1879, things changed. Another of the game’s biggest stars, George Wright, had spent most of the past decade playing for his brother Harry in Boston before taking a player-manager job in Providence for the 1879 season. A year later, he moved back to Boston to run the growing sporting goods company he had founded earlier in his career.

Unlike other stars who had changed cities, however, Wright barely played upon returning to Boston. After appearing in one game early in the 1880 season, Wright suddenly disappeared from the Red Stockings roster. He would play a handful of games the next year and then another partial season in Providence, but for the most part, Wright was done with professional baseball, instead devoting the remainder of his athletic career primarily to cricket.

This wasn’t a sudden case of Anglophilia on the part of Wright—it was the start of the reserve clause. After the 1879 season, five of the league’s eight teams quietly agreed to a resolution allowing each team to renew the contracts of five players for the following season and barring any other team from signing those reserved players. This plan still allowed for some player movement, but it kept most of the game’s top players off the market.

The legal force of the reserve clause was not entirely clear. The Chicago White Stockings opposed the 1879 agreement and signed players who had been reserved by Cleveland and Troy. There were also two new teams in the league in 1880, Cincinnati and Worcester, who were not part of the agreement (Cincinnati had fielded a team in 1879, but it folded at the end of the season and was replaced by a new Cincinnati team). Both new teams signed players who had been reserved by other teams.

The opportunities to challenge the reserve clause quickly dried up, however. Cincinnati was dismissed from the NL following the season for serving beer and operating on Sunday, both in violation of league rules. Chicago and Worcester fell into line with the rest of the league, and the clause crystalized into the National League rules. With every NL team cooperating to enforce the clause, reserved players had no remaining major league teams with which to negotiate. Their only option to oppose the clause was to leave the majors altogether and sign with a minor league team (which some, such as Pop Snyder, did).

In order to truly challenge the reserve clause, players would need a rival major league that would be willing to sign players away from the NL. Two such leagues would emerge over the course of the 1880s—the American Association and the Union Association—but neither ended up providing much resistance to the reserve clause.

There were two main issues that insulated the reserve clause from these rival leagues. The Union Association suffered from poor organization and financing and folded after just one year, with several teams not even making it through the season. The American Association succeeded, at least temporarily, but quickly began cooperating with the NL to ensure the benefits of the reserve clause for its own teams. These two problems would prove persistent, eventually ending every subsequent challenge posed by a rival league to the reserve clause.

Strengthened by the cooperation between the NL and AA, the reserve clause expanded from five players per team to eleven in 1883. Several minor leagues joined the agreement, further shutting off options for players. Over the remainder of the 19th century, the clause continued to expand until teams could reserve virtually their entire rosters.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The Reserve Clause in the Courts

While the emergence of the American Association did little to improve conditions for players overall, it did produce one of the first legal rulings on player rights. Allegheny Base-ball Club v. Bennett, while not directly involving the reserve clause itself, laid the groundwork for later reserve clause cases.

Charlie Bennett was an outfielder for Detroit, an NL team. During the 1882 season, he signed an agreement to join the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the AA once his contract with Detroit expired. Pittsburgh paid Bennett a $100 advance. This didn’t violate the reserve clause, because Bennett was never reserved by Detroit. Rather, as the name Allegheny Base-ball Club v. Bennett implies, it was actually Pittsburgh who sued Bennett. In spite of the 1882 agreement, the two sides were unable to agree to terms on a contract for 1883, and Bennett re-signed with Detroit. Pittsburgh sought an injunction preventing Bennett from playing for Detroit and compelling him to honor his earlier agreement to sign with the Alleghenys.

On the surface, this case doesn’t seem particularly important to the reserve clause. However, when the court denied Pittsburgh’s injunction, its reasoning was surprisingly relevant:

What are the terms of the alleged contract? They provide and contemplate the execution of a regular agreement, in order to bind the parties and render the contract mutual, final, and conclusive. The preliminary contract shows that it was executed with reference to a future and final agreement between the parties. A contract requires mutuality as to all its essential terms, stipulations, and conditions. Is there any allegation upon the face of the bill that a final, regular contract was ever agreed upon between the parties? There is no contract, therefore, capable of being enforced in a court of equity, and the present bill must be dismissed.

The judge argued that, as the parties had never actually agreed to the final terms necessary to execute a contract, the agreement between Bennett and Pittsburgh to sign a contract at a later date could not itself be considered a binding contract.

Which, when you think about it, is essentially what the reserve clause is: an agreement to sign another contract at a later date. And because the reserve clause was used to renew contracts entirely on the owner’s terms, it also lacked the mutuality that Allegheny Base-ball Club found to be essential to the enforcement of a contract.

Compare this to the following, taken from Weegham v. Killefer, a 1914 case in which Federal League owner Charles Weegham sued catcher Bill Killefer and the Philadelphia Phillies:

Are the provisions of the 1913 contract between [Killefer and Philadelphia], relative to the reservation of the player for the succeeding season, valid and enforceable?

Executory contracts of this nature can neither be enforced in equity nor form the basis of an action at law to recover damages for their breach. The reasons…are that such contracts are lacking in the necessary qualities of definiteness, certainty, and mutuality. The 1913 contract between [Killefer and Philadelphia], relative to the reservation of the defendant Killefer for the season of 1914, is lacking in ail of these essential elements…It is nothing more than a contract to enter into a contract, in the future, if the parties can then agree to contract.

The ruling in Allegheny Base-ball Club continued with several more grounds for denying Pittsburgh’s injunction, at least one of which also foreshadowed future reserve clause cases. The judge argued that even if Bennett’s agreement with Pittsburgh were binding, it would not justify an injunction preventing Bennett from playing for Detroit because Pittsburgh had a less obtrusive remedy available. Namely, they could sign another player of comparable skill to Bennett, and if it cost more than they would have had to pay Bennett for the same work, they could then sue for the difference.

This argument, though less important than the first because it did not address the legality of the reserve clause itself, was also applied to future reserve cases. While generally favoring players, there was one significant downside to this reasoning—the better the player, the less likely a court would be to rule that he was replaceable without an injunction. This downside became evident in the one notable case that compelled the enforcement of the reserve clause: Philadelphia Ball Club v. Lajoie.

Nap Lajoie was one of the best players of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and arguably the greatest player to predate Ty Cobb. When he tried to leave the NL to sign with Philadelphia’s cross-town AL team in 1901, the state supreme court ruled that his services were not replaceable and granted an injunction preventing him from playing for the AL in Pennsylvania.

The impact of the Lajoie case was limited, however. The ruling was inconsistent with the handful of contemporaneous cases around the country that also sought to block reserved players from jumping to the AL, as well as older cases involving the Players League, which made it effectively unenforceable outside of Pennsylvania. As a result, the AL simply transferred Lajoie to Cleveland.

Following Allegheny Base-ball Club, the courts repeatedly found the reserve clause to be legally unenforceable in the event of a breach; however, they also never ruled the clause was actually illegal. This was a problem for players, because teams didn’t need the courts to enforce the clause. They simply colluded to enforce it themselves, and there was nothing the players could do to break it.

The First Players Union

After the failure of the American and Union Associations to improve labor conditions, the players decided to organize, forming the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players in 1885.

The Brotherhood was led by John Montgomery Ward, a fascinating figure who started his career as a right-handed hitting pitcher and occasional outfielder before ending up as a left-handed hitting shortstop. (He also learned to throw left-handed so he could play through the arm injury that ended his pitching career.) While playing for New York, Ward earned law and political science degrees from Columbia in his spare time. When he retired from baseball, he went on to a successful law career, which included representing George Davis in one of the later reserve clause cases.

It was two years before the National League would even agree to meet with the Brotherhood. Even then, the owners showed little willingness to negotiate or consider any of the players’ demands. Relations between the two sides further deteriorated when Spalding, now a sporting goods magnate and owner of the White Stockings, organized a world tour featuring several of the game’s biggest stars, including Ward, after the 1888 season.

During the tour, Chicago shortstop Ned Williamson badly injured his knee in a game in Paris, effectively ending his career. (He would play two partial seasons after the injury, but at a greatly reduced capacity.) Spalding refused to help cover Williamson’s medical expenses, left him in a hospital in London while the tour returned home, and then deducted pay from Williamson’s 1889 salary for the games he missed to the injury.

This by itself was a breaking point for many players. On top of that, when the tour concluded, the players returned to find that the National League had instituted a new cap on player salaries in their absence. During the trip, some of the players had discussed the possibility of forming their own breakaway league in response to the lack of progress with the NL and AA, and these two events assured they would put the plan in motion.

The Players League was, at least on the field, a huge success. Of all the challengers to the NL over the years, the Players League was the only one to immediately supplant the NL as baseball’s top league. However, the league struggled financially. With two major leagues already in operation, there was not enough demand to support a third.

By itself, this might not have doomed the Players League, especially since they had the highest level of talent, but the National League exacerbated the problem by deliberately scheduling games on the same dates as Players League games in the same cities. This increased losses for both leagues, but the NL owners were betting on being able to outlast the new Players League investors. Spalding also went after the new league, pulling advertising for his sporting goods company from newspapers that supported the Brotherhood and Players League.

As a result, the Players League folded after one year, and the American Association collapsed a year later. The Brotherhood disbanded, and labor conditions remained largely unchanged until the American League emerged to challenge the NL in 1901.

The labor environment of the 1880s was very different from today. For example, in 1887, Louisiana used its state militia to break a plantation workers strike whose primary demand had been for employees to be paid in actual currency rather than tickets that could only be spent at stores owned by their employers (the full story of the 1887 strike, by the way, gets much worse).

The Brotherhood had little chance of success because the owners had no incentive to negotiate. It wasn’t until 1935 that the National Labor Relations Act guaranteed the right to union representation and collective bargaining for employees. Without any of the 20th century advances won by unions and labor activists and with no marketplace competition for their services, even after organizing the players had little recourse to the owners simply ignoring their efforts.

Legally, players proved the reserve clause could not be enforced, but short of the courts breaking up the collusion between owners that perpetuated the clause anyway, there was little progress to be made. While this type of collusion certainly could be seen as a violation of antitrust laws, this was of no help to the Brotherhood: the Sherman Antitrust Act was not passed until 1890, after the Brotherhood and major league owners had broken off negotiations.

The American and Federal Leagues

Antitrust laws eventually would become the focus of the legal struggle against the reserve clause, but following the Brotherhood, the next significant labor events coincided with the emergence of the American (1901) and Federal (1914) Leagues.

Around the turn of the century, a new players union began to form. The Players Protective Association was met with similar indifference from the National League, but the American League showed a willingness to accommodate the players’ demands as it tried to attract talent away from the NL. With pressure from the AL opening the bidding on players, salaries quickly rose in both the AL and NL.

The AL initially was much more aggressive in going after NL players than the American Association had been, which led to more leverage for players bargaining with their employers. This lasted only a couple years, however, as the AL soon followed the AA’s lead in making peace with the NL and then adopting the same hardline stance with players. The PPA was able to win a handful of minor improvements, but the reserve clause remained untouched.

The next unionization attempt came in 1912, just ahead of the formation of the Federal League. The Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America was led by former major leaguer Dave Fultz, who, like Ward, was a Columbia law grad and a practicing lawyer in his post-playing days, and featured Cobb and Christy Mathewson among its leadership.

It’s worth noting that, while it’s the reserve clause being covered in this article, at this point in time the reserve clause was far from the players’ only or even primary concern. The Fraternity was pushing for such basic rights as players being given copies of their own contracts, which was still not standard practice for teams.

Among the Fraternity’s requests was that teams paint the center field fence dark green to improve visibility of pitches and reduce the risk of injury (a concern which was not fully appreciated by the owners until Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a pitch in 1920). Before the Fraternity, players had to pay for their own uniforms. They did not have to be notified when they were placed on waivers. They nominally had the right to appeal disputes to the National Commission (the equivalent of today’s Commissioner’s Office), but the National Commission did not always respond and was not required to give written explanations for fines or suspensions.

Like the American League before it, the Federal League attempted to gain favor with the players by acknowledging the union. While the Federal League didn’t abolish the reserve clause, it did agree to certain restrictions such as requiring a raise in salary on renewed contracts, and it conceded to most of the union’s demands.

In response, the AL and NL agreed to meet with the Fraternity and implement some of its demands. AL and NL teams also increased salaries to counter the offers coming from the Federal League. For example, Cobb’s salary rose from under $12,000 in 1913 to $20,000 in 1915 (which, adjusted for inflation, is still a bit below the league minimum in 2015).

If the players’ hopes for the AL had gone the way of the American Association, though, their hopes for the Federal League followed that of the Union Association. The AL and NL managed to appease the union just enough to hold onto most of their talent, leaving the Federal League unable to catch up. After two seasons, the Federal League folded, and the American and National Leagues returned to their usual position against the players.

Following the collapse of the Federal League, the Fraternity considered going on strike and attempted to strengthen its organization by affiliating with the American Federation of Labor. However, the AFL’s vaudeville performer union claimed jurisdiction over baseball as a form of entertainment and blocked the Fraternity’s admission. Without the AFL’s backing, the strike fell apart, and the union dissolved shortly thereafter.

The dissolution of the Federal League held one final strike against the players’ efforts. The Federal League owners had been bought out by their rivals, but one team, the Baltimore Terrapins, refused the buyout and elected to sue the American and National Leagues for antitrust violations. Federal Baseball Club v. National League ruled baseball had not violated the Sherman Act because baseball did not qualify as interstate commerce and therefore fell outside the jurisdiction of the Act.

This is the source of baseball’s famed antitrust exemption, which, among other things, was the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling against Curt Flood in Flood v. Kuhn. While the reasoning that baseball is not interstate commerce has since been acknowledged by the Court as flawed and inapplicable to other sports, the exemption has never actually been overturned. Still, the threat of losing this exemption in court would become one of the most powerful sources of leverage for players in future cases.

The American Baseball Guild and the Mexican League

Attempts to unionize over the following decades met with similar fates. The National Baseball Players Association (1922) and American Baseball Guild (1946) each lasted less than a year.

The American Baseball Guild, though short-lived, did see two events that threatened to upset the owners’ stranglehold on labor negotiations. One was a near-strike by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pittsburgh players voted 20-16 in favor of going on strike during the 1946 season, but they fell short of the two-thirds supermajority they had agreed to in order to approve the action.

The other was Jorge Pasquel, the newly appointed president of the Mexican League. As a team owner, Pasquel had greatly improved the star power of his league by signing American Negro League stars. Some of the era’s best players, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, had played for Pasquel in Mexico at some point during the 1930s and ’40s. When Pasquel took over as league president in 1946, he started extending those offers to MLB’s biggest stars.

Reports on the exact figures differ, but he offered Stan Musial something in the range of $175,000 over five years. He approached Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller with salary offers hitting six digits per year. While each turned him down (though Musial at least seriously considered the offer), Pasquel did manage to sign roughly two dozen major leaguers, including a handful of All Stars (and Bobby Estalella’s grandfather).

The biggest of the names Pasquel bought was Vern Stephens, who signed for something similar to what Pasquel had offered Musial. (If that sounds crazy, a year later Cleveland almost traded Lou Boudreau for Stephens, and they were willing to throw in money to make it happen. Stephens may not have been Musial or Williams, but he was a big star.) Unfortunately for Pasquel, his biggest signing was also his shortest lived. Within a week, Stephens left Mexico to return to the American League.

Part of the problem was that, while Pasquel personally had the wealth to pay the players, his league was not built to sustain that kind of spending. The domestic players made a small fraction of what was being offered to the American stars. The fields and clubhouses were well below major league standards—one field even had an active railroad line running across the outfield. Max Lanier described seeing goats grazing on one field before a game.

Teams had trouble getting equipment from the established American manufacturers and often had to make do with lower quality. Travel to the more remote cities in the league could be treacherous, with planes landing in unpaved cow pastures and buses navigating narrow mountain roads. Some players were alarmed by the constant presence of Pasquel’s armed bodyguards.

Add to that the culture shock and language barrier many of the American imports experienced, and the Mexican League no longer seemed like an alternative to the American and National Leagues. Even the added security of Pasquel’s multi-year contracts wasn’t that attractive, as players questioned whether the league would actually have the money to pay them throughout the life of their contracts. Within a year, nearly all the major leaguers Pasquel had signed had left the league.

Before disbanding, the Guild managed to negotiate a few concessions from management, most significantly a pension plan for players with at least five years experience in the majors. The players who jumped to the Mexican League played a significant role in giving the Guild the leverage it needed to achieve its signature victory, but they were largely abandoned in the negotiations. Commissioner Happy Chandler banned the players who had jumped (save for Stephens, who had returned almost immediately), not only from the majors but from the minors as well, and even threatened amateur and college players that they could be blackballed if they played with or against those players in semi-pro games.

The banned players sued MLB for antitrust violations, challenging the ruling in Federal Baseball. A lower court ruled the exemption no longer held—expansions in the court’s understanding of commerce as well as baseball’s expansion into the television and radio broadcast markets meant the Supreme Court’s decision that baseball was not participating in interstate commerce no longer applied.

Because the decision came from a lower court, however, it did not erase the precedent set by Federal Baseball. Rather than appeal to the Supreme Court and risk losing the exemption altogether, Chandler reached a settlement with the players and reinstated them. Even after regaining their jobs, however, these players had missed roughly three years from the ban and were cut out of the new pension plan.


The current Major League Baseball Players Association began in the 1950s, though it took a while to become what it is today. The MLBPA’s first legal representative, J. Norman Lewis, refused to even call the organization a union. Most players favored a conservative approach out of fear that pushing management for further gains would cause the owners to rescind the improvements won by the Guild.

In 1959, Philadelphia player representative Robin Roberts began campaigning the Association to hire a full-time staff from outside the game and expand the role of the union. (Up to that point, the recently retired Feller had acted as the head of the Association. Lewis was merely a lawyer retained to advise the MLBPA; he never actually ran it.) That spring, player agent (which, in those days, meant negotiating endorsements and other off-field contracts, not negotiating with teams on behalf of the player) Frank Scott was hired as the MLBPA’s first executive director, and the union set up a permanent office in New York.

Scott hired Robert Cannon to serve as the union’s legal counsel. Cannon was a Wisconsin judge and the son of Raymond Cannon, a minor league pitcher and Congressman who had represented some of the Black Sox players after their ban and had headed the unionization attempt in 1922. Neither was a full-time employee of the union (Scott continued working as an agent and Cannon as a judge during their time with the MLBPA), but their hirings were a significant step toward Roberts’ vision for the union.

Scott and Cannon both favored a conservative approach to labor negotiations. They elected to work within the owners’ system for modest, incremental change and relied largely on the benevolence of the owners to bring about improvements. As such, they sought to maintain goodwill with the owners at all times, avoided making public statements on behalf of the players, and generally were much more pro-management than later MLBPA leaders.

In fact, before hiring Cannon, Scott had considered Happy Chandler, by then retired from the Commissioner’s Office, as a candidate for the job of union legal counsel. Cannon himself would later be considered for the role of Commissioner, and during his time with the union explicitly told players (and owners) that he considered the interests of the players as secondary to the interests of baseball.

In 1965, the union decided to expand the role of its leadership to full-time. Cannon initially was offered the job, but he was hesitant to leave his judicial position in Wisconsin. He attempted to relocate the union offices to Milwaukee or Chicago to better accommodate his schedule, but the union wished to remain headquartered in New York. Clashes with Roberts (whom Cannon later labeled an anti-owner radical) and other union leaders (including future Senator Jim Bunning) over the direction of the MLBPA further cast Cannon’s role into doubt.

While Cannon had seemed to be the MLBPA’s heir apparent, Roberts was pushing for another, more pro-labor candidate: top economic advisor of the United Steelworkers union, Marvin Miller. When Cannon officially left the union in 1966, Miller was hired as the MLBPA’s first full-time director.

Miller’s hiring transformed the MLBPA immediately. In 1968, the owners’ unilaterally imposed uniform player contracts were replaced by baseball’s first Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the time between the American Baseball Guild’s 1946 negotiations and the 1968 CBA, MLB had raised its minimum salary from $5500 to $6000. Miller negotiated it up to $10,000.

In 1970, helped by the owners’ concern over Flood’s lawsuit, players won the right to independent arbitration to resolve disputes. In 1972, they won the right to salary arbitration and an increase in baseball’s stagnating pension fund. In 1973, players with at least ten years service and the last five with their current team won the right to veto trades.

Then, in 1976, they overturned the reserve clause. The reserve clause allowed teams to renew a player’s contract for the following year only, but because the renewed contract also contained its own reserve clause, teams could continue renewing a player’s contract indefinitely. In 1975, two pitchers—Messersmith and Dave McNally—refused to sign their renewed contracts.

The idea was simple: A team could legally renew a player’s contract because the player had signed a contract saying it could be renewed. Messersmith’s contract with the Dodgers for 1974, for example, gave the Dodgers the right to renew that contract for 1975, even without Messersmith’s signature. However, Messersmith never signed away the right to renew the contract again in 1976. Because the clause only allowed for one-year renewals, L.A. could not renew Messersmith again without his approval (and the same for McNally, though he had planned to retire after the 1975 season anyway and only joined the effort on principle).

Miller previously had used this threat as leverage. In 1972, when Ted Simmons was unhappy with the salary the Cardinals had offered him after his breakout 1971 season, Miller advised him not to sign. Around the time Simmons was selected to the All-Star game that summer, the Cardinals finally caved and gave Simmons a raise rather than risk the possibility of losing him to free agency.

Still, no one could know for sure whether the tactic would work until someone went through with it. The Dodgers and Expos attempted to renew Messersmith’s and McNally’s contracts for 1976. The union filed a grievance. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players, declaring Messersmith and McNally free agents.

It’s important to note this didn’t fully abolish the reserve clause. In fact, the reserve clause is still in effect today—it’s just much more limited than it was before the Seitz decision. Following the ruling, the owners realized any player could become a free agent by simply refusing to sign his contract, so they quickly agreed to a new CBA that placed restrictions on the reserve clause and allowed for free agency in exchange for guaranteeing teams control over a player for a certain number of years (currently six full years of service time).

For nearly a century, baseball’s owners insisted that without the reserve clause, the game would collapse. Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision in Flood v. Kuhn in favor of management, nonetheless confided to fellow Justice Potter Stewart during the case that he didn’t buy into that argument, noting, “I think that however it is decided, the sport will adjust and continue.”

Turns out, he was right.

References & Resources

Adam Dorhauer grew up a third-generation Cardinals fan in Missouri, and now lives in Ohio. His writing on baseball focuses on the history of the game, as well as statistical concepts as they apply to baseball. Visit his website, 3-D Baseball.
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87 Cards
8 years ago

This is a well-done, concise history of baseball unionization. Adam, do you know and could you possibly publish the benefits of MLBPA membership in a future contribution?

Adam Dorhauer
8 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

Thank you.

I don’t know that I would really be able to contribute much to the subject of benefits of MLBPA membership. It would probably mostly just be a summary of the benefits won over the various CBAs negotiated over the years and/or a comparison to the pre-union conditions. In terms of benefits that aren’t just what is in the CBA, I don’t think I would be much help, and there are probably much better sources to actually break down and analyze the CBA itself.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

Here is an obituary I wrote a few years ago about Marvin Miller:
Marvin Miller died two weeks ago. He was one of those people who looked old even when he was young (think Richard Nixon with a dapper mustache and a good tailor), and whose legacy was misunderstood. Miller was an economist by trade and had worked for the United Steel Workers. His background was labor unions, traditionally understood. And what does that mean? Very simply, to use existing laws and economic power to force employers to pay workers more than they otherwise would in a free and unregulated market. Thus, if factory workers are making $4.00 an hour in 1960, unions would try to negotiate a contract for perhaps $4.50 an hour and throw in more pension and overtime benefits, etc. The unions’ ultimate bargaining chip was their ability to strike and the company’s inability to fire them if they did. Of course, the workers would not get paid but they had a certain legal protection that protected them. Underlying every union/management conflict was a simple truth: the purpose of the union was to force management to pay workers more than they would under a completely free market. Prior to the labor laws of the 1930’s, management had a very powerful weapon: “you don’t like what we pay you? Quit and find a better paying job elsewhere.” This is no different from shopping around for someone to paint your house. One person may offer to do it for $2000.00. If someone else offers to do it for $1500.00, you are not legally obligated to hire the more expensive painter. You have the freedom to contract with whomever you want. But unions restrict an employer’s freedom to contract by creating a legal monopoly or cartel that an employer must negotiate with. Fast forward to major league baseball. In the mid 1960’s (I use that era only because that is when I seriously started following baseball, every player had a contract that contained something called the “reserve clause.” As interpreted by the owners, it meant that a player was forever contractually bound to the team he played for. Thus, every player was stripped of his most powerful negotiating weapon: the ability to sell his services to the highest bidder. He could always hold out as many a player did but all he was doing was depriving his team of his services and himself of money. Read properly, the contracts stated that a player could free himself of this legal language by simply holding out and not playing for one year after which he would become a free agent but the courts refused to so hold. Contrary to the economics of traditional labor unions, the baseball labor issues were almost the opposite power play. Unlike the factory worker, a baseball player’s chief complaint was that there was not a free market where he could call the owner’s bluff and sell his services to another team at a higher price. Where a factory owner could offer his workers the option of quitting and finding higher pay elsewhere knowing full well there was a plentiful supply of workers to fill the void, a baseball owner faced the opposite predicament. Faced with the prospect of a Sandy Koufax or Frank Robinson seeking employment with another team, an owner knew damn well that another team would pay double or triple for their services. Thus, the reserve clause sophistry. If a factory worker could at least double his salary by going from GM to Chrysler, there would be no union. Miller’s players were agitating because there was not a free market for labor while the traditional unions recognized the effects of a free market for their members and sought legal protection against it. Imagine if, in 1965, every owner said that they were applying the same logic to baseball as was applied to every other business: “if the players don’t like what they are being paid, hit the road fellas. You are now on your own. If you don’t accept my offer, you are fired and good luck trying to get some other owner to pay you what I am paying you. You will come crawling back soon!” The players back then would have been ecstatic. A price war would have broken out for their talent. Any doubters need only look at what happened when the AFL competed with the NFL, or the ABA with the NBA, or WHL with the NHL. Miller deserves a lot of credit for accomplishing free agency. I read his autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game” years ago as well as the Curt Flood biography by Brad Snyder, “A Well Paid Slave.” Miller may have been an egomaniac who always thought he was smarter than everyone else, but give the man his place in history. But it is wrong to equate him with other union leaders of his time. In a way, he was the complete opposite. Another point about Miller’s success vis a vis other unions. A good baseball player will play for ten years or more. The injuries in baseball are fewer than in other sports and quickness and speed are not that important. Most players do not hit their prime until that are 26. Football and basketball place a very heavy premium on speed and quickness. Thus the average player is finished after three or four years. Going on strike in the NFL could destroy a career whereas in baseball a player would realize the benefits of a strike four or five years down the line. NFL and NBA players are not going to sacrifice their careers so some college kid can make millions after they have retired.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Good summary, but I’m not sure I agree with everything you said. The problem with industrial workers pre-union, such as auto workers or coal miners, is that, because of their fungibility, they have little ability to negotiate with large companies. When you say, unions allow them to make more than they would in a free market, that assumes, I think, that the pre-union rate reflects the value of the worker to the employer. I’m not sure that’s true; the excess of workers in a situation like that might well allow employers to pay below the rate that reflects the value of their productivity. It’s simply the opposite (called a monopsony)of a company that has a monopoly and is able to price its products higher than it would in a competitive market. The size of the employer and the excess of workers enables the employer to obtain economic “rents,” which mean, essentially, that they make more than they would if it was actually a competitive market. To use your example, the fact that an employer, pre-union would be able to pay, say $4.00 doesn’t mean that that rate reflects a “fair market rate.” It simply reflects the excess power of the employer. Unions came into existence to counteract this imbalance of power.

You are correct that the situation is different in sports. Players are not fungible and the supply of major-league caliber players is limited. In this case, Miller knew that all he needed to do was eliminate the reserve clause and the market would work to raise salaries. Nevertheless, IMO, the way the system is structured still gives the teams the ability to make excess value off the players until they become free agents. Mike Trout, for example, I’m sure is grossly underpaid relative to his value to the Angels. Eventually, he will make that up to some extent once he becomes a free agent, but if, for example, he were to get hurt, the Angels would have received enormous excess value.

Of course, the situation is even worse in the NBA and NFL because of the salary cap, which, while not as bad obviously as the reserve clause, pretty clearly holds down salaries. How much would LeBron James make if there were no salary cap? The teams are reaping enormous excess value off the players in the guise of “financial responsibility.”

Jetsy Extrano
8 years ago

Excellent history, thanks for this. I thought I knew the basic outline of baseball labor history, but I learned a lot. Never realized that the reserve clause had been questioned so early by the courts but that it didn’t get the players much of anywhere. Would it be a fair summary to say the reserve clause didn’t have legal force on the players, it was essentially a line teams drew to collude at? Which was a piece of cake before the Sherman Act, and then preserved by FBC v. NL.

Adam Dorhauer
8 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

I think that would be a pretty fair summary from a layman’s perspective. I’m sure there are more legal nuances that a legal expert would be able to clarify, and the clause at least legally worked to the effect that the courts wouldn’t force other teams to negotiate with reserved players and allowed the league to operate under its own rules. But whenever the players did have options to sign with rival leagues, it was considered legal for them to do so, and there was no legal recourse for teams to enforce the reserve clause against uncooperative teams or leagues.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam Dorhauer

An excellent discussion of some of these issues, specifically related to baseball’s antitrust exemption is “The Baseball Trust” by Stuart Banner.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam Dorhauer

The Reserve Clause was really nothing more than a collusive agreement among teams not to sign other team’s players, much as the color barrier was really just a gentlemen’s agreement. It was, as you say, not legally enforceable against teams not part of the collusive arrangement, ie., other leagues. The problem is there were no other major leagues after the Federal League folded and the major league teams all abided by the Reserve Clause because it kept salaries down. An interesting question is what would have happened had one of the major league teams not abided by the Reserve Clause and signed another team’s players? Even with an antitrust exemption, it’s hard to see how a court could say that a team is bound by a collusive agreement to enforce an illegal contract.