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The Origins of Baseball (Part III)

Part III: Modern Era Labor Battles

Although professional baseball players had attempted to organize several times throughout baseball history, they were never as successful as other industries for their members. The Major League Baseball Players Association had been around for more than three decades, but was only dedicated to collecting and administering a small pension. Growing television revenues prompted the baseball players to strengthen their union in 1965.

Marvin Miller was a veteran labor organizer who had fought for the United Steelworkers union for years. The MLBPA decided to hire Miller, who knew there was more at stake than simply adding broadcasting money to the pension fund. First off, the players minimum salary was only $6,000, up only $1,000 from 1947. The more Miller researched, the more players were shocked at how poorly their earnings were. This research led to the first ever collective contract negotiations in 1968. It provided some improvements, but most importantly, it gave the players leverage. For the entire history of major league baseball, team owners had a ?like it or leave it? attitude towards their players. The union filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board when they were treated poorly. Players also won the right to have their grievances heard before an independent arbitrator.

Team owners were not happy with this. They didn?t want the union interfering with their business, nor did they appreciate the players standing up to them. One of the league?s major centerfielders, Curt Flood, refused to report to training camp in 1969, stating that the St. Louis Cardinals first needed to offer more than a $5000 raise. St. Louis gave in, but after a disappointing season, they traded Flood to Philadelphia. Flood had strong roots in the community and he did not want to go to Philadelphia, and filed a lawsuit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He stated that the Reserve Clause was illegal, and that he should be allowed to negotiate with other teams. Although he lost his court case, it started a lot of thinking amongst other players.

In 1975, two players, pitchers, decided to challenge the Reserve Clause for a second time. It said that the teams had the right to renew a player?s contract for one year. They said that should mean recurring, and that they should be allowed to renew every year. Two players, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith refused to sign their contracts. If the Reserve Clause bound them for the 1975 season, there was no contract that could be renewed for the 1976 season. An arbitrator upheld their case, and free agency was created.

At this point in time, players were still held to a team for the first few years of their careers, but after that, they were allowed to sign with any team. The owners were extremely happy over this, and spent the next few years bidding and outspending each other for different players. The players were satisfied, since their salaries were going up. But many owners were upset, because when a player left, they got nothing in return, and the money they had invested in that player?s career development was lost. The players countered that this would limit their freedom. The two sides couldn?t agree, so in the middle of the 1981 season, the players walked out.


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Although there had been a brief player?s strike at the start of the 1972 season, causing it to start late by 13 days, this was much more serious and little negotiations were taking place. After fifty days, the owners gave in and agreed to a modified compensation plan. In return, the players not eligible for free-agency could have their salaries decided by an arbitrator. The economic debate was growing more complicated , and the adversarial relationship between owners and players grew more intense.

By 1985, it was clear that the salary arbitration was not working in favor of the owners. Salaries went through the roof, and the owners wanted to see change. The players once again went on strike, and the owners, once again, relented to the players.

Following the 1986 season, players were suddenly not receiving bids for their talent. The free-agent market seemed to just dry up. Players were forced to resign with their teams for lower salaries. Finally, and arbitrator ruled that the owners had colluded, and since this was prohibited, the players were awarded damages.

This all led up to the worst battle of all. In 1992, the owners forced the commissioner to resign. The labor contract was about to expire, and the owners didn?t want the commissioner to be involved in negotiations. Turns out the players didn?t want any negotiations either. A strike or lockout had occurred every time the collective bargaining agreement expired, and the players weren?t willing to go through that again. They started the 1994 season without a contract, while the owners were insisting that a salary cap was imperative for teams to survive. They claimed free-agency and salary arbitration were ruining them. No progress was taking place, so the players went on strike in August.

For the first time in baseball history, the World Series was canceled. Fans all over the world were disgusted and heartbroken. Even after President Clinton appointed a mediator, no progress was made. The owners finally decided to implement a plan of action on their own. The assembled teams of replacement players and set out to start the 1995 season without the original players. The players asked for and got a restraining order, prohibiting the teams from going forward with their plan and forcing them to work under the terms of the old agreement until a new one was reached.

Almost two more years passed before a labor deal was to be reached. It happened in November of 1996. While we are still waiting to see if the deal will address the financial problems that face Major League Baseball, it does offer the hope that fans can enjoy the game again. Although baseball has fallen behind other American sports in popularity, and it will take a while to regain the prominence it once held in the American culture, there is a long history to build on. And baseball will enter its third century with reasons for optimism.


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More Great Baseball Articles:

Major League Baseball Rules - Rule 21: Misconduct
Baseball and Pine Tar Bats
Baseball During The War Time
The Origins of Baseball (Part I)
The Origins of Baseball (Part II)
The Origins of Baseball (Part III)
The Best Baseball Team Ever
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