An Old Fashioned Game with Old Fashioned Traditions:

Baseball Labor History

Even as baseball changed through the decades--becoming less historic and old fashioned than its myth purported--its labor practices remained unquestionably antiquarian. The owners, who journalist Dick Young tabbed the "Lords of Baseball", were, for over 100 years, shrewd financial manipulators who championed the myth of baseball to establish the game and enrich their bank accounts (qtd. in Helyar xiii). With the paternalistic owners in place, the baseball plantation system lasted far into the twentieth century.

The first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Ball Players, formed in 1871. With little organizational structure, players jumped from team to team each year, campaigning for the best offer. The Association folded after five years (Ward).

In 1876, a coal baron named William A. Hulbert--determined to ensure power resided with the owners, not players--founded the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. To prevent the chaotic team-switching that had plagued the association, the teams agreed to secretly "reserve" five players at the end of each season. By the early 1880's the reserve clause officially came into existance. The clause stated that the club had the right to renew a player's contract following each season--effectively making the player's contract the property of the team that first acquired him for the rest of the player's life. While the contract, and hence player could be traded, a player could not choose to play for another team or effectively campaign for a salary raise (Ward).

A powerful new owner, Albert Goodwill Spalding, emerged during this time period. Complaining that baseball, "America's game", faced a disasterous decline, Spalding decided to instate baseball's first salary cap at $2,500 a year. In response to this and the reserve clause, John Montgomery Ward, a Columbia law school grad, organized baseball's first union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. In its manifesto, Ward wrote that "players had been bought, sold, and traded as though they were sheep instead of American citizens.... Like a fugitive slave law, the reserve clause denies him a harbor and a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape." Showing what would prove to be the usual degree of respect accorded baseball unions, Spalding and the rest of the owners responded by demanding the player's pay rent for their uniforms. Unwilling to be so disgraced, the players decided to form their own league (Ward).

Quickly termed "anarchists," the player's league fell victim to a crowded market, attendance dipped, and the league folded. After destroying the league and the brotherhood, Spalding used all the rhetoric of baseball lore to describe the league's fate: "When the spring comes and the grass is green upon the last resting place of anarchy, the national agreement will rise again in all its weight, and restore to America in all its purity--its national pastime--the great game of baseball" (qtd. in Ward). Replete with the language of baseball as American, historic, pure, and pastoral, Spalding adds another symbol to the mix--that of the national agreement. Without actually defining it, Spalding refers to "the national agreement" as the player's acceptance of the reserve clause. This agreement would prove to last almost one hundred years. Since most American citizens could only dream of playing baseball, the privilige Ward and all the rest have in playing it for a nice salary serves as reward for the signing of the reserve clause--the acceptance of what Ward called "slavery."

The "national agreement" would continue relatively unassailed until the early 1920s, when a baseball team from Baltimore sued the National League over what it saw as monopolistic practices--included, but not limited to, the reserve clause. The case, Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs et. al reached the Supreme Court in 1922. Although the Baltimore lawyers demonstrated several monopolistic practices prohibited by the Sherman Anti-Trust act, a unananimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of baseball. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the court's opinion that baseball failed to meet the definition of interstate commerce. Calling the transport of players across state lines "mere incident" to the business conducted at the individual ball parks, Holmes and the court found a shaky and peculiar loophole for baseball's antitrust exemption--a practice the Supreme Court would continue for the next half century.

Around mid-century another pair of cases challenged the legality of the reserve clause. The first, in 1946, involved Danny Gardella, who had turned down a contract with the New York Giants in order to play in the newly formed Mexican League. When the Mexican League failed shortly thereafter, Major League owners quickly punished those that had "defected," threatening the Good of the Great American Game. Although the teams eventually made exceptions, the clubs initially blacklisted each of the players for five years. Gardella, who had never even signed a contract in the majors seemed to offer the best case and sued baseball shortly thereafter. The owners, detecting an affront to the purity of the game, attacked Gardella in the press. In the typically exagerrated rhetoric owners would dip into when the game, and their pocketbooks, were threatened, Branch Rickey of the Dodgers proclaimed Gardella's attempt at free labor to possess a "communistic tendency" (qtd. in Miller 179). Few phrases could resonate louder in America with the Cold War just starting to heat up. Facing pressure from all directions, Gardella accepted a settlement that would allow him not only to play ball, but gain a considerable financial reward (Miller).

Shortly thereafter, George Toolson brought another suit against baseball's reserve system. Toolson, who had toiled in the Yankee farm system for years, believed the reserve clause kept him from catching on with another team and making the majors. In 1953, Toolson v. New York Yankees reached the Supreme Court. The court, despite radio and television now sending games all over the country, still ridiculously maintained that baseball did not constitute interstate commerce. In rejecting Toolson's appeal, although not unanimously, the court shifted the burgen to Congress to overturn baseball's antitrust legislation (Skully).

The baseball plantation system carried on unperturbed. Despite the game's growing popularity and enormous new income from radio and television rights, the average player salary stayed at almost exactly the same point--compared to the general population--as it had for a century. In 1966, Dodger pitching stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale decided they could obtain a more representative amount of money if they negotiated together and with agents. The owners were shocked. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley summed up the owners' view. "Baseball," he stated. "Is an old fashioned game with old fashioned traditions" (qtd. in Burns). The duo later signed, without agents, for a salary several times lower than they had demanded.

Later frustrated by the owners' failure to place the specified amount of money in the pension plan, player sentiments for a strong union grew rapidly. In 1966, the players decided that the union needed a strong leader. After the first candidate fell through, the players named Marvin Miller, Chief Economic Advisor to the United Steelworkers of America, the first executive director of the Players' Association. The owners, of course, were angered, but the players had finally found a battle-tested leader in their fight against the reserve clause. "The moment we found out that the owners didn't want Marvin Miller," Flood stated. "He was our guy" (qtd. in Burns).

The task for the players, however, still loomed large. The myth of baseball, at least the version peddled by the owners through the newspapers, seemed almost invincible. If a player refused to cooperate with the team or seeked greater pay, he challenged not the owners personally, but "the Good of the Game," the very integrity of our sacred national pastime (Flood 48). The player's dilemma proved great. The owners had spun the myths of baseball pastoral purity into Spalding's great "national agreement:" a player priviliged enough to play baseball had the duty to protect the Integrity of the Game--even if it meant accepting a reserve clause and a lower salary. "What burns" the player, Flood wrote, "is the awareness that certain of his contributions to the fables of baseball strengthen the employer's position and weaken his own" (50) Even with Miller at the union's helm, in the mid-1960s baseball seemed just as unassailable as it had a century earlier. A headline in the April 1964 edition of "Ebony" magazine read "Wanted: Abe Lincoln of baseball." Yet until the end of the decade, the no player had stepped to the forefront, and the "national agreement" remained largely undebated. Lincoln had freed the slaves, but he had died shortly thereafter. And he only had to contend with a small portion of the population; all of America loved baseball. Faced with an unwinnable cause, no one came forward to fight baseball's reserve clause until the end of the decade.


Introduction Baseball Myths Flood's Life Flood and the 60s Black Power Breaking the Deal The Courts Legacies

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: December 21, 1997