Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture

Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture

by Krister Swanson
Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture

Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture

by Krister Swanson


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From Major League Baseball’s inception in the 1880s through World War II, team owners enjoyed monopolistic control of the industry. Despite the players’ desire to form a viable union, every attempt to do so failed. The labor consciousness of baseball players lagged behind that of workers in other industries, and the public was largely in the dark about labor practices in baseball. In the mid-1960s, star players Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale staged a joint holdout for multiyear contracts and much higher salaries. Their holdout quickly drew support from the public; for the first time, owners realized they could ill afford to alienate fans, their primary source of revenue.
Baseball’s Power Shift chronicles the growth and development of the union movement in Major League Baseball and the key role of the press and public opinion in the players’ successes and failures in labor-management relations. Swanson focuses on the most turbulent years, 1966 to 1981, which saw the birth of the Major League Baseball Players Association as well as three strikes, two lockouts, Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause in the Supreme Court, and the emergence of full free agency. To defeat the owners, the players’ union needed support from the press, and perhaps more importantly, the public. With the public on their side, the players ushered in a new era in professional sports when salaries skyrocketed and fans began to care as much about the business dealings of their favorite team as they do about wins and losses.
Swanson shows how fans and the media became key players in baseball's labor wars and paved the way for the explosive growth in the American sports economy.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803288041
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 808,584
File size: 410 KB

About the Author

Krister Swanson has a PhD in modern American history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a teacher at Thousand Oaks High School, in California, and is a content developer and presenter at ABC-CLIO Publishing.

Read an Excerpt

Baseball's Power Shift

How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture

By Krister Swanson


Copyright © 2016 Krister Swanson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8804-1


The Magnates, "Their Boys," and the Birth of a Pastime

Since its inception in the years after the Civil War, professional baseball has enjoyed a prominent position in the national consciousness. During the mid-nineteenth century, a rapidly growing nation developed a deep passion for the game. Many Americans, especially Yankee traditionalists and others of old immigrant stock, saw baseball as something uniquely American. Despite baseball's similarities to the British games of cricket and rounders, they believed baseball was born of the American spirit, a notion reinforced by the growth of the game's popularity with the Union army during the Civil War.

One aspect of the game that these traditionalists found particularly appealing was its emphasis on individual performance. Every play in baseball begins with individual confrontation, as pitcher and batter face one another in a contest of skill, strategy, and determination. Over the course of a game these confrontations add up to determine the success or failure of the greater team. The individual successes and failures of baseball players are much more apparent to the casual observer than they are in other popular team sports. No other major professional sport offers as many statistical measures for individual accomplishment as baseball. Over time, statistics such as batting average, runs batted in, earned run average, and the like have become the key determinants of a player's individual value.

This compartmentalization of individual contributions makes baseball players much more interchangeable than those in other team sports. If a professional basketball or football player leaves his team, he requires at least a few weeks of practice to get acclimated to the new team's system and become a valuable member of that team. In baseball the transition time is much shorter. Over the course of their careers, professional baseball players receive thousands of hours of standardized training for almost every possible game situation. As a result, each player knows exactly what is expected of him in any given situation. These standardized expectations allow a player to move relatively smoothly from one team to another and immediately become a contributing member of his new team.

This emphasis on individual contribution and interchangeability makes baseball players very liquid assets. They can be sold and traded between teams easily, a practice the owners of professional baseball clubs have eagerly participated in since the 1860s. The owners of professional baseball clubs always enjoyed this aspect of the game, exchanging players to improve areas of weakness, gain a quick infusion of cash, or cut salary costs at the end of a financially disappointing season. While these magnates enjoyed the freedom to buy, sell, and trade players, they were often frustrated by the players' willingness to use their interchangeability to their own advantage. Just as owners moved players, players often sought to change teams in search of the best possible contract. In order to maximize the financial value of their relatively short career, players were always ready to move on to a club willing to pay more for their services. The owners, citing the difficulties of running a team continually disrupted by unanticipated personnel changes, responded by seeking greater control over player movement. This conflict of interests over the players' freedom of contract set the stage for a baseball labor-management clash that lasted more than a century.

Baseball's public, its ardent fans and the members of the booming sports media of the late nineteenth century, were major players in this debate right from the start. Both owners and players understood the need to foster public support and nurture the relationship between baseball and its public. Toward that end, team management knew that roster continuity, especially their ability to hold on to key players, was critically important to building and maintaining fan interest. The magnates cultivated the notion that "their boys," as they often referred to the players, joyfully served the public interest as sporting representatives of their fine city. The owners enjoyed portraying themselves as the guardians of a game well on its way to becoming a national institution, in a clear effort to win public approval, increase interest, and boost the ticket sales that were their primary source of revenue.

The Players

The popularity of the professional game boomed in the years following the Civil War. By 1868 there were more than two hundred thousand paid admissions to professional baseball games in the northeastern United States alone, let alone fans that paid to see successful clubs in places like Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

As the professional game grew in popularity and stature it consistently drew the best players, regardless of class or background, to its player ranks. Largely, though, these men came from artisan, or working-class, backgrounds. Joining these players were a fair number of "college men." They generally had shorter careers than their working-class counterparts. College men were less willing to stay in the game by playing for a team outside of their hometown and were quicker to leave the game in order to take advantage of the wider variety of economic opportunities available to them. Working-class players' relative lack of opportunities outside of baseball kept many of them in the game for longer periods than their upper- and middle-class counterparts. In most cases, baseball was more lucrative than their other options for earning a living. These men were more than willing to do what it took, including playing wherever they were still wanted, to extend their playing careers to the fullest.

The players' ethnic backgrounds contributed to the notion that baseball was, indeed, the most "American" of games. The vast majority of early baseball players were native-born Americans, not first-generation immigrants. This remained true throughout the first four decades of the game's history. Club owners intentionally maintained this type of ethnic makeup of their teams to reinforce the American character of the game for the steadily growing baseball public. The magnates did so with the full support of their players, who knew, just like workers in so many other industries, that welcoming players from all ethnic backgrounds would mean expanding the pool of potential workers. Players wanted to keep the labor pool small, because it limited competition for jobs and helped keep salaries up. Exclusivity, then, whether defined by playing skill, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, played a major role in shaping baseball's early labor movement.

The Owners

Baseball owners in the 1870s were little different from the "business statesmen," or robber barons, in other booming industries of the Gilded Age. Like their peers, baseball magnates sought to limit the vagaries of the marketplace, especially as it related to control over their labor force. They were especially concerned with limiting player salaries, which were subject to wild inflation as clubs rushed to outbid each other for the services of talented "jumpers," or players who moved from club to club in search of higher pay. Signing a well-known, talented jumper could boost ticket sales dramatically the instant he joined your club and win you great favor in the court of public opinion. The magnates, in a sense, needed protection from their own impulses, as it was their own greed and competitive spirit that led to such bidding wars. They knew that the single most effective way to manage salaries was to limit the players' freedom of contract and restrict player movement.

In addition to their concerns regarding controlling labor costs and player movement, the owners had significant anxiety about the negative impact of gambling on the sport. Baseball provided a wide variety of things to wager on, from the outcome of the game, to the number of strikeouts a pitcher might record, to the outcome of a single at bat. Professional gamblers knew that a well-placed bribe was all that was needed to induce a key player, or two, to botch a critical play and change the outcome of a game. This practice, known as "hippodroming," was the scourge of magnates everywhere, especially those who sought to draw families of fans in search of an "honest entertainment." Ultimately, magnates believed they could make the game more attractive to a "more respectable" class of fan by freeing it from both the clutch of gamblers and immoral player behavior, such as excessive drinking and womanizing. Toward that end, men such as William Hulbert, a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, saw great potential for profit in baseball as long as they could exact the needed controls over player salaries, gambling, and questionable player behavior. Hulbert led a select group of magnates in the formation of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The primary goal of Hulbert's organization was to wrest control of the game from the players and place it firmly in the hands of the team owners. The National League magnates quickly put up a strong, moral front. They portrayed themselves as the civic-minded men who brought baseball to the American people, even though they often suffered tremendous financial setbacks in the process. In reality, Hulbert and his fellow National League owners held a view of competition similar to that of railroad and steel magnates of the Gilded Age. These men crowed publicly about the merits of open, fair competition and then did what they could behind closed doors to establish monopolistic control over the professional game.

Each National League club enjoyed a monopoly on Major League professional baseball in its city. The league office served as a clearinghouse for recording player contracts, making it virtually impossible for a player who was already under contract to one club to "jump" to another club. Players who tried to jump risked being placed on the official league blacklist, which meant permanent expulsion from the game. In addition, any club that signed a blacklisted player was subject to banishment from the league. The clubs selected a five-member board to oversee the blacklist and run the league. True to the spirit of the age, the magnates believed this oligarchic system to be the most fair and efficient structure for operating the national game.

The organization might have seemed democratic to the magnates, but it was extremely feudal in the way it defined the relationship between owner and player. The reality of the new National League was that players had little or no say in either their personal fate or the larger operation of the game. The owners believed their system included numerous practices designed to protect player interests. The best way to accomplish this was to protect the players from their less-than-virtuous selves, since in the owners' view most players were overgrown boys easily tempted by greed and vice. As a result, owner paternalism grew deep roots in the game, remaining prevalent well into the late twentieth century. The National League moved swiftly to build public trust. It dealt sternly with gamblers, quickly expelling all suspected "hippodromers" and any others who openly consorted with bettors and bookmakers. Additionally, in 1879 the National League banned the sale of liquor at games and the playing of any games on Sunday.

The mind-set of these National League owners is clearly illustrated in the story of Albert Goodwill Spalding, a star player of the era who went on to become a leading magnate. Spalding played a critical role in the National League's beginnings. Immediately after plans for the new league were announced, Spalding and four other key stars "jumped" to the Chicago White Stockings. This move helped assure Chicago's preeminence in the new league and accelerated the decline of the player-controlled National Association. Spalding used his public popularity to found a successful sporting goods empire and became one of the first of many players-turned-magnates when he took control of the White Stockings in the mid-1880s. Spalding relished his role as one of the game's formative figures. "The game [in 1876]," he held, "had sunk so low in the estimation of the general public that it was with the greatest effort that the public could be made to believe that the efforts of the League were honest. The first two years resulted in a financial loss to nearly every club connected with the League." Spalding, writing in 1890, emphasized themes such as integrity and the willingness to withstand financial sacrifice for the good of the game, an approach that other owners followed over the next century as they promoted their contributions to the national pastime's health and prosperity.

The magnates, then, were very much men of their times. Socially and politically they saw themselves as among the national elite. They spoke openly of economic competition while seeking to limit it in a way that would best leverage their position in the burgeoning entertainment economy of the day. Morally, they believed it was their duty to save this uniquely American pastime from the evils lurking around every corner. They desired to keep baseball "American" in the face of corrupting influences such as gambling, liquor, and an unstable workforce. Their ability to guide the game through this tumultuous period fueled their claim that they were the men who "saved the game for the people," a claim they continued to put forward well into the twentieth century.

The Reserve Clause

The players almost immediately resented the magnates' success in creating a monopoly over the game by "protecting it from the players." This situation was not unique to baseball. Business owners all over the United States sought minimal competition and maximum control of their industry and workforce. By 1879 the National League magnates' primary concern was gaining a tighter grip on player salaries. National League owners found it maddening that some players made as much as twelve dollars a game, when the same men would be lucky to make ten dollars a week in the world of industry. Management viewed players in the same light as common laborers, not as an elite group with a rare and valuable skill set. The magnates knew that if they limited players' freedom of movement, open bidding would cease and salaries would be greatly reduced.

The magnates' solution to this problem, developed in a secret meeting during the fall of 1879, came to be known as the reserve clause. This section of the uniform player's contract provided the primary battleground for owners and players for the century to come: "It is further understood and agreed upon that the party of the first part (the club) shall have the right to 'reserve' the said party of the second part (the player) for the season next." This policy, in effect, bound each player to the National League club he initially signed with for the entire length of his Major League career.

The reserve clause originated with the idea that each club could reserve five active players from its current roster for the following season. Other clubs could not sign a player once his existing club had reserved him. The number of reserved players quickly grew from five men per club to eleven, and eventually to fourteen by the 1887 season. In those days clubs rarely carried more than fourteen or fifteen players. Thanks to this reserve system, each club held exclusive contract rights over all of its players for as long as it liked. Inactive players, regardless of circumstance, could be reserved as well. This eliminated the possibility of a player choosing not to play during his "reserve season," in the hope of being freed from his contract and negotiating a better salary from another club. The clause placed each player in a one-bidder system when it came time to negotiate his salary for the upcoming season. The only factor that prevented a club from paying a player more than mere subsistence wages was the desire to keep the player relatively happy. The salary of a star player no longer had any connection to the free market, and player salaries dropped 10 percent with the clause's implementation.


Excerpted from Baseball's Power Shift by Krister Swanson. Copyright © 2016 Krister Swanson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Magnates, "Their Boys," and the Birth of a Pastime,
2. Monopoly and Trade War,
3. 1946, a Year of Postwar Tumult,
4. The Birth of the MLBPA,
5. The Players Grow a Backbone,
6. Magnates' Worst Fears Confirmed,
7. "Strike" Gets a Whole New Meaning,
8. Freedom at Last?,
Annotated Bibliography,

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