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THE END OF BASEBALL AS WE KNEW ITTHE PLAYERS UNION, 1960-81
By Charles P. Korr
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2002 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Introduction"'This will be the end of baseball, as we knew it,'" announced Paul Richards, the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, at a press conference held during the 1967 winter meeting of Major League Baseball club owners. A veteran of more than thirty years in organized baseball, Richards had been a major league player, manager, and general manager. He was warning his fellow executives, owners, and the assembled baseball writers against the dangers of negotiating an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement between the clubs and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).
The MLBPA was the legally constituted bargaining agent for the major league players, a union in all but name. It certainly did not fit popular definitions of a labor union, since most people did not regard major league players as workers. It is not clear how many players, even those involved in the association, thought of it as a union. Even the word "union" did not come easily to the vocabulary of the players; "association" and "players' group" were the preferred terms. The association had been in existence for more than a decade, but it attracted little attention until April, when itappointed Marvin J. Miller, an executive with the Steelworkers Union, as its first full-time executive director.
The union was composed of hundreds of men who were competitive by nature. Their job was to beat other members of the union on the field. The players had short careers, and they scrambled to maintain their position on the roster. The threat of being released or sent down to the minor leagues hung over many of their heads, and being traded was an occupational hazard that faced all but a few of them. Even stars were not immune. From the time players were in the minor leagues, they knew they were part of a system where it made little sense to challenge the power of their clubs and even less to think about organizing to challenge the system itself.
The historian of early baseball Warren Goldstein has pointed out the dual nature of the sport's development. Fans got an emotional lift from the performance of the players, and owners were recognized as civic-minded sportsmen and reaped profits from what the players did on the field. But the players were involved in much more than a game or contest. They were "playing for keeps," trying to earn a living, maintain a lifestyle, and ensure a special status for themselves. They needed the sport for their success, but the sport, the fans, and the owners needed players for profit and pleasure. When the players recognized the possibility of capitalizing on this equation, they transferred their "playing for keeps" attitude beyond the field. After 1966 they created their own team to win a contest against the owners, teams, and structure of Major League Baseball.
From 1954 the MLBPA represented the players in dealings with the owners on issues including the pension fund and some working conditions. Frank Scott, who was the part-time director of the association for almost a decade, commented in 1992 that before 1966 the association had been "a 'House Union' guided by a member of the Commissioner's office and the most influential owner of that time."
In 1960 the MLBPA hired a part-time legal consultant, Judge Robert Cannon of Milwaukee, to work with Scott. For the next six years Cannon represented the public face of the organized players. He has become an important footnote in the history of baseball. A serious fan of the sport might see some similarities between Cannon and Wally Pipp, the Yankee first baseman who sat down for Lou Gehrig and never got back his position. The historian Robert Burk is dismissive of Cannon, stating that the "new counsel craved the magnates' respect and approval," and Marvin Miller describes him as a man "who never met an owner he didn't like." Some of Miller's most thoughtful and articulate allies among the players have a less harsh assessment of Cannon. One of the leaders in the association, Joe Torre, stated that Cannon was "the necessary prelude to Miller" and that the judge's cozy relationship with the owners gave them "a false sense of security" that enabled Miller and the new-style association to "sneak up on them." That might be reading some of the post-1966 world into Cannon's actions. Torre's view that Cannon "was like-able and probably trying to do what he thought was best" recognizes that Cannon had genuine, however misguided, feelings about the need to protect the traditions of baseball.
After 1966 the MLBPA transformed itself from a loose group with no full-time staff and no positive agenda into an assertive force that set a whole new pattern for labor relations in baseball and achieved all of its important objectives. It set the standard and the goals for unions in other professional sports. Over the next fifteen years there was a power struggle between the association and ownership during which the union maintained what a prominent labor economist characterizes as the longest winning streak in the history of baseball.
The changes that resulted from the union's activities were enormous. In 1966 a player had no right to have an attorney or agent represent him in contract negotiations. When a player received his contract for the following season he had limited options: he could sign the contract, he could hold out and try to force the club to change the terms or trade him, or he could retire from the profession. He could not market his services to any other club within the realm of organized baseball; he could be traded or sold to any other major league club. He had no control over the process, nor did he gain any financial benefits from it. The club could fine or suspend him for disciplinary purposes, and his only right of appeal in such cases was to the league presidents or the commissioner of baseball, all of whom were selected and employed by the owners of the clubs.
In 1981 every player had the contractual right to be represented in negotiations by anyone of his choice, and the clubs had to meet with that person. Any player who had been in the major leagues for ten years and with his current club for a minimum of five had the right to turn down a trade involving him. Any player who had been in the major leagues for at least two years had the right to demand that the salary offered to him for the following season should be referred for binding arbitration by an impartial party agreed upon by both sides. Any player who was fined or suspended by his club had the right to appeal that action to a grievance panel, whose deciding vote would be cast by an impartial arbitrator chosen from a panel of names agreed upon by the two bodies.
The most noticeable change for the players between 1966 and 1981 involved their salaries. In 1966 the minimum salary for major league players was six thousand dollars, seven thousand if they were on the roster by the end of June. It had increased by only one thousand dollars in more than a decade; the average salary was nineteen thousand dollars. In 1981 the minimum salary was $32,500, and the average salary was $185,651. Even when adjusted for inflation, it is clear that the players had made enormous economic gains.
Once the players decided that the association was in a contest against the owners, "playing for keeps" became the essence of the union. Its leadership was playing for high stakes, and winning was essential. It was the job of the union's Executive Board (made up of the player representatives elected by each club) and the executive director and counsel, whom they employed, to seek out every legitimate weapon in the arsenal of labor law.
When this contest started, there was a huge power differential between the players and their employers and a history of failed efforts on the part of the players to get concessions from the owners. The bedrock of baseball ownership's control over the players was the reserve system. It had originated in 1879, when the club owners in the recently formed National League agreed that each team could "reserve" five of its players for its roster. The other teams agreed not to employ these reserved players or compete against teams that did. Within a few years, the concept was extended to include all the players on every club. The reserve system stabilized the business side of baseball. It allowed the owners to control salaries and other aspects of the players' lives and gave the players no alternative but to accept the terms offered to them or find another occupation. Between 1900 and 1903, the newly formed American League presented a challenge to the monopoly status of the National League, but when the leagues merged, a new version of the reserve system was instituted.
Various aspects of the system had been tested in court. In 1922 the Supreme Court ruled that organized baseball was exempt from the provisions of federal antitrust legislation. Justice Holmes's decision was more a panegyric to the virtues of baseball and its important role in American culture than an informed commentary on antitrust law.
By the late 1960s there were different opinions about the desirability or necessity of the reserve system but little disagreement about its effect. John Gaherin, the owners' representative, accurately pointed out that the reserve system "permits each club to retain exclusive employment rights to a player within organized baseball until and unless the player is released, retires, or until his contract is assigned to another club."
Miller brought to the union the belief that it had to change "an employment relationship held together by compulsion and the power of the employer [that] inevitably results in certain abuses." This went against the prevailing sentiment, typified in a 1970 New York radio station editorial: "Professional sports is facing a challenge that threatens its existence. ... Under the existing system, a baseball player must perform for the club that owns him if he plays at all ... professional sports can not work without it [the reserve system] or something like it. More to the point, any player not in favor of the ground rules has no business entering the game."
The combination of the reserve system, the limited number of major league jobs, and the extremely short careers gave the owners enormous leverage-the financial and psychological advantages all lay with the ownership. Players were proud to be major leaguers and thought of themselves as professionals who did not see union activities as part of their lifestyle. Many players gave little consideration to the business realities of being a ballplayer. They were in the big leagues, where they were making good money and living out boyhood dreams. One veteran player and manager, Harry Walker, summed it up in 1971: "When we enter the profession, we know the conditions, including the reserve clause." Walker's comment echoes one made twenty years earlier by one of baseball's most popular players, his brother Dixie: players "should not run it [baseball] into the ground through neglect or arrogance."
Baseball officials who had grown up with the sport regarded the reserve system as much more than contractual provisions to retain economic advantage and ensure stability. It was what made baseball special. Baseball without a reserve system was almost a contradiction in terms. In 1967 the New York journalist Leonard Shecter correctly predicted that if the union raised issues about the current situation, the owners would do everything possible to ensure that no one "tampers with their holy grail, the reserve clause."
The depth of management's attachment to the reserve system was enunciated articulately and forcefully over the years by Bob Howsam, the highly successful and respected general manager of the Cardinals and the Reds. He was part of the inner councils of baseball, and his opinions carried enormous weight with other executives and baseball writers. In 1973 he warned about men who threatened baseball, "the institution that reflects all that is America ... the freedoms we cherish and the liberties we defend." His solution was "to ensure that the reserve clause and territorial rights be protected." Howsam expressed dismay that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was willing to consider any changes in the reserve system, especially those that would allow "free agency after a certain number of years' service in the major leagues if a club was unwilling to meet a minimum salary." Howsam was reassured when negotiations with the players resulted in "no concession towards free agency, not even a study of the reserve system." He made it clear that he was "against any form of free agency" that limited "the freedom [of a club] to use veteran players so you can build the kind of club you want."
While the battle between the association and the owners was about power, legal restrictions, and money, their differences were fundamental. They had two incompatible visions of the history of baseball and what was necessary to ensure its future success. Whatever other divisions existed among the owners, they shared a common concept that they alone had the responsibility to protect "the good of the game." Bowie Kuhn, a long-time attorney for the National League and the commissioner of baseball from 1969 to 1984, made this point clear in 1980: "'I will say that the greatest long-term interest in the game is held by the club people. Their financial interest is longest and deepest. They'll still be around as the generations of players pass.'" Compare this with Miller's belief that "players will always be the core of the sport, even if it's different players," and one can see the difficulty of reconciling the positions of the union and the hierarchy of baseball. In 1967 Jack Fisher, a player who was active in the union, told a meeting of players and owners, "It's a matter of taking pride in your profession.... We don't think we'd be fighting for ourselves. We'd be fighting for baseball."
Commissioner Kuhn believed he would render decisions that were impartial, fair, and "in the best interests of baseball." Miller made his differences with the commissioner clear: "My problem with Bowie ... is his constant refusal to admit what he is-spokesman for management. He insists on projecting the myth that he is a judge who listens to all parties objectively, when in fact, he speaks for the people who pay him-the owners."
A year after Miller's selection by the players, the owners created the Player Relations Committee (PRC) to handle their relationship with the union. The PRC hired a veteran labor negotiator, John Gaherin. One of the first newspaper articles to analyze the new situation in baseball greeted the arrival of Gaherin with the comment, "having such capable and intelligent men [Miller and Gaherin] doing the negotiations should, in the long run, be a good thing for baseball. It certainly would be something new."
Excerpted from THE END OF BASEBALL AS WE KNEW IT by Charles P. Korr Copyright © 2002 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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