Baseball's Labor History

19th Century: The "Reserve Clause"

Although baseball rapidly evolved in the 19th century, its labor practices remained arcane. The owners were clever financial manipulators who championed the myth of baseball to establish the game in a way which also enriched their bank accounts. 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 five years later in 1875. In 1876, a coal baron named William A. Hulbert, determined to ensure control resided with the owners, and not the players, founded the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.

To prevent the chaotic team-switching that had plagued the previous association, the teams agreed to secretly "reserve" five players at the end of each season. By the early 1880's, however, the Reserve Clause officially came into existence. 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 thus the player could be traded, a player could not choose to play for another team or effectively campaign for a salary raise. A powerful new owner, Albert G. Spalding, emerged during this time period. Complaining that baseball was facing a disastrous decline, Spalding decided to establish baseball's first salary cap at $2,500 a year.

1889: The First Player's Union

In response to this and the unpopular reserve clause, John M. 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.

The player's league, however, fell victim to a crowded market and the constant public pressures of the National League owners. Attendance dipped, and the league folded. After successfully 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". Complete with the language of baseball as American, historic, pure, and pastoral, Spalding added another symbol to the mix - that of the national agreement. Without actually defining it, Spalding referred to "the national agreement" as the player's acceptance of the reserve clause. This “agreement” would prove to last almost one hundred years.

1922: Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League of Professional Baseball Club

The national agreement would continue relatively un-assailed 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, reached the Supreme Court in 1922. Although the Baltimore lawyers demonstrated several monopolistic practices prohibited by the Sherman Anti-Trust act, a unanimous 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.

1946: Danny Gardella

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 "America's Game". The clubs blacklisted each of the defectors for five years (although they did grant some exceptions). Gardella, who had never signed a contract in the majors, seemed to have the best case against the league, and he filed suit shortly thereafter. The owners, detecting an affront to the purity of the game, attacked Gardella in the press. In the typically exaggerated 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". Few phrases could resonate louder in America with the Cold War just starting to heat up.

1953: George Toolson

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, maintained that baseball did not constitute interstate commerce. In rejecting Toolson's appeal, although not unanimously, the court shifted the burden to Congress to overturn baseball's antitrust legislation.

1966: Marvin Miller

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". 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". 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 players' dilemma proved great. The owners had spun the myths of baseball pastoral purity into Spalding's great "national agreement". A player privileged 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 me", Curt Flood wrote, "is the awareness that certain of his contributions to the fables of baseball strengthen the employer's position and weaken his own". 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, no player had stepped to the forefront, and the "national agreement" remained largely un-debated.

1970: Curt Flood

On January 16, 1970, Curt Flood shocked the baseball world and America by filing suit against Major League Baseball and its reserve clause. Baseball had faced legal challenges in the past, but never had a player of Flood's caliber attempted to assail the game's sacred clause. And beyond that, he was black. The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder had earned three All-Star appearances, seven Gold Gloves, and a pair of World Series championships. Furthermore, Flood earned $90,000 a year, yet accused baseball of violating of the 13th amendment, barring slavery and involuntary servitude. With a few exceptions, the public and the media initially reacted to Flood's action in utter disbelief, branding the outfielder an ingrate, even a blasphemer.

Flood's case eventually climbed all the way to the Supreme Court. In the arguments, Flood's lawyer, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, put forth evidence that baseball's reserve clause violated the antitrust laws by depressing wages and limiting a player to one team. Baseball's defense lawyers countered Goldberg's broad arguments for human and labor rights point-by-point, but the crux of baseball's argument dealt with such ideas as tradition and "The Good of the Game." Through the course of the case, Flood gained more of the public's sympathy as the truly antiquarian nature of the reserve clause became known. The remarkable thing was that Flood lost the case. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of baseball 5-3, not on the strength of their case, but on a strange line of thought that combined a liberal use of stare decisis with a belief that baseball simply should stay the way it is.

The End of the “National Agreement”

Despite suits of a few no-name players like Gardella and Toolson and the contract protests of a couple of baseball's highest stars, the reserve system and Spalding's "national agreement" had remained firmly in place for almost a century. Despite sporadic protests, the system was designed so that, as Flood stated, "When truth challenges mythology, a wise ball player keeps his mouth shut". When Flood brought his suit in 1970, his greatest challenge, if not a Supreme Court neck-deep in baseball lore, stood as the American baseball fan with little time for the claims of a "$90,000-a-year slave." Flood later reflected on this: "It was so difficult for the fans to understand my problems with baseball. I was telling my story to deaf ears, because I was telling my story to a person who would give their first-born child to be doing what I was doing". In order for Flood to break the deal that had bound the owners, players, and American public for almost a hundred years, he had to debunk the most powerful of baseball myths and establish the baseball player as an example of the American working man.

As Flood realized, for his cause to even hold a chance, baseball could not be seen as high, holy, and sacred; it must be brought back down to real life, where he always had felt it correctly belonged. Flood attacked baseball myths, and through them the baseball establishment, in several ways. In order to improve his own "corner of society," he must first destroy some of baseball and America's most sacred myths. Through showing baseball's antiquarian ways and prominent racism, he crafted a picture of baseball as the refuge from little but common sense. Like civil rights leaders of the early sixties, Flood sought no revolutionary change but more a fulfillment of the values that America had so long supposedly championed.

The Court of Public Opinion

In his attempt to bring baseball down from myth to reality, Flood turned to one of the classic methods for ending illusions. He described the baseball player's life in complete and vivid detail. How long, he must have wondered, could the purity of the game endure after his descriptions of a life of wild nights, drugs, and sleazy women? Flood vividly described the daily drug intake needed to fuel a player through the long season and the matter-of-fact sexual arrangements made with the myriad baseball groupies in every city on the road. "The baseball establishment is permissive about revelry," Flood wrote, and suddenly the game did not seem quite so pure.

Flood similarly attempted to ground baseball in the rhetoric of the working man. Players were not gods patrolling the lush, pastoral fields but just men striving for security and stability. Flood variously described the ballplayer as "a consignment of goods," "poultry," "chattel," and "a car". "As usual," he wrote, "baseball's terminology betrays its essential attitudes, which are those of animal husbandry. Baseball regards us as sheep". In choosing "sheep," the exact word choice of Ward in his 19th century critique of the reserve clause, Flood illustrated how little baseball players had progressed in a century where labor reforms had swept the nation. As Flood took one more swing at baseball and its pedestal, the "national agreement" stood on its last leg. As Flood's case hurtled toward the Supreme Court, he neared the close of what Miller called an "assault on the handful of words that had held baseball players in bondage for a century". And although the Supreme Court would side with the baseball owners, Flood had set the stage. Even in Flood's defeat, baseball would never be the same. The Court made clear it had only freed baseball on a technicality and urged congress to take action. Although some of the owners celebrated, most realized a defeat for Flood only slightly postponed the inevitable. The reserve clause, although still in existence, had little life left. Even the conservative commissioner Kuhn remarked that "change was in the wind".

1975: Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally

Despite promises to debate and modify the reserve clause after the Flood case, the owners, as always behind the time, decided to sit on the reserve clause for a few more years. In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally filed grievances against the reserve clause. The case eventually reached arbitration and Peter Seitz. With Flood's arguments now well established and much more accepted throughout America, Seitz ruled in favor of the players and against baseball - stating that the reserve clause only kept players with their team for one year. The reserve clause's reign had ended.

Today

Since the origins of professional baseball until 1976, player salaries hovered around eight times that of the average American working man. By 1994, baseball players on average made 50 times the average worker. In 2003, the mean salary stands at over one million dollars. Near the end of Flood's life, when salaries soared into amazingly high numbers, he stated that today's players were finally receiving what the players of his day had deserved.

Thanks to Wikipedia and SABR's Business of Baseball Committee for providing much of the information in this article.

Footnotes

stare decisis - [Latin] "to stand by that which is decided." The principal that the precedent decisions are to be followed by the courts. To abide or adhere to decided cases. It is a general maxim that when a point has been settled by decision, it forms a precedent which is not afterwards to be departed from.