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The history of the MLBPA, part one: The rise of sports’ strongest union

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The MLBPA emerged from nearly nothing, and quickly became an important counterweight to the owners.

Curt Flood
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood, the plaintiff in Flood v. Kuhn.
Photo by: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Mere days after the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league reached an agreement this past December, the consensus was in: the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), while not including provisions for an international draft, was a blow to labor, a result mostly of the Players Association’s own making.

Since the new CBA’s myriad rules and conditions resemble Ben Wyatt’s “Cones of Dunshire” board game from Parks and Recreation, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with the changes from a few different perspectives. There are a handful of good summaries and analyses of the agreement, including Craig Goldstein’s at Baseball Prospectus and Jeff Passan’s at Yahoo Sports. The less consequential changes are, in general, good for fans and good for the players. Most obviously, All-Star Game no longer determines home-field advantage in the World Series, the first unceremonious snuffing out of a Bud Selig pet project in the Rob Manfred era. There’s a few extra days off tossed in mid-season, stretching the total number of calendar days from 183 to 187, and the 15-day disabled list has been reduced to 10 days, giving teams more flexibility when a player has a minor injury.

The more impactful changes are those that affect wallets, however. There are a variety of caps on spending in different ways, and of differing hardness, that will dramatically change the way that organizations acquire and pay players, all to the detriment of the players. The luxury tax is going to be comprised of much harsher penalties, discouraging front offices of big marker teams from shelling out money to free agents. The qualifying offer system, in place since the last CBA, becomes significantly more convoluted, as the new agreement institutes a soft cap on free agent spending at $50 million, disincentivizing teams from giving contracts larger than that number because they risk losing significant draft picks and advantaging their opponents, and likewise preventing teams from improving their on-field performance in the quickest way. The penalties a team incurs by signing a player to a $50 million or more contract is now contingent on their luxury tax status and their market size, shifting the onus of the penalty from teams who have had success (as it is under the current system) to teams who merely spend money.

Perhaps most alarming are the new international spending limits. The international draft is dead, at least for another five years, but reports peg each team’s hard international spending cap around $5 million, again contingent on market size, with smaller market teams getting about 20 percent more spending money than big market teams. The age at which international free agents become “professionals” is raised from 23 to 25, subjecting international players to these rules for a longer period (a change that will greatly discourage Cuban and Japanese players from coming to the U.S. at the risk of their earning potential). Trading international bonus allotments is still allowed, and a team may trade for up to 75 percent of its total spending limit, although not until the signing period begins on July 2 of each year. Players signing bonuses for $10,000 or less do not count toward the limit. These changes make for an absolute limit on total MLB spending around $150 million, which gets close to the amount spent on international free agents, minus penalties paid to the league, in each of the past few seasons.

With hard caps on spending, no international free agent will garner the amount of money that the top drafted talent gets (although the top bonus slot in the Rule 4 domestic draft has also been reduced). While international free agents retain the right to negotiate with any team, a vital right, the spending limits effectively place them under similar restrictions to that of a draft. Middle- and bottom-tier amateurs will not be affected as much as those at the top of their respective classes, who will now be hard-pressed to find $5 million bonuses in most cases. On the team side, it’s unlikely that the new rules will spur action from conservative or disinterested teams on the international market, like the Orioles. The resonating effects of the agreement are hard to discern at this point, and the likelihood of some players signing million-dollar deals might actually increase with spending spread evenly, but one thing is certain: the agreement systematically disadvantages Latin American players, often the most financially vulnerable amateurs, setting a scary and unpalatable precedent along racial, linguistic, and geographic lines.

The players and owners avoided a lockout, but the players once again conceded on key points and failed to bring any radical changes in their favor to the negotiating table. In recent years, the MLBPA has become an organization searching for a purpose. Or, rather, they’re now an organization with a singular purpose: the preservation of labor-management peace. Gone are the days of the combative union that fought fiercely for players. When the other side wields the sword of the international draft and defends its own interests with vigor, then an organization geared toward peace at any cost will lose every time.

The union was blindsided by a prepared and solidified owners group, and they lost where they should have won. In short, it didn’t have to be this way.

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The genesis of the players’ association is humble, to the point that discussion of it is almost inane. An attempt at a Player’s League in 1890 failed due to lack of financiers. Wildcat, upstart leagues, who poached players from the established major leagues while offering better wages, died out with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Federal League case of 1922, granting MLB antitrust exemption. Challenges to the reserve clause failed time after time. But, after decades of life under the thumb of the owners, and with frustration boiling over as salaries stagnated and working conditions deteriorated, a players’ union did form.

At first, the union served almost solely to negotiate a meager pension plan. By the mid-1960s, though, the players sought a stronger leader for their fledgling organization, as the incumbent, de facto leader, association counsel Robert Cannon, proved inept. Despite being passed over in the initial players’ vote, a former steelworkers’ union economic adviser and avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan named Marvin Miller curried the support of the players, a partial reaction to Cannon’s intransigence when asked to move his offices from Milwaukee to New York. The players voted Miller as the first executive director of the MLBPA, and gained status as a true union in 1966.

It was under Miller that the players rose from their status as, as Miller would say, “the most exploited group of workers I had ever seen—more exploited than the grape pickers of Cesar Chavez,” to a collection of workers with significant power as a foe of the owners. The new MLBPA head’s first move was to maneuver around the owners’ revocation of their previous subsidization of the association. Subsidization by management was illegal, and the owners sought to pull the rug out from under the union by stopping payment before a new financial structure could be implemented, effectively leaving Miller without a contract and forcing the players to negotiate headlessly. Miller, however, saw it as an opportunity to bring MLB and the union under the applicable federal labor laws, most notably the Wagner Act and Taft-Hartley Act, whereas organized baseball had previously flouted such legal mandates. To tide the union’s finances over while a vote on dues waited at the end of the 1966 season, Miller negotiated a group licensing deal with Coca-Cola (after being spurned by Topps in an attempt to renegotiate their contract) and won a higher percentage of All-Star Game and television revenue for the players’ pension fund. In the players’ opposition to the owners’ ploy, union solidarity grew. The result of these initial struggles was a union more traditionally constructed and autonomous, with committees and educational meetings, dependent on dues and poised as a true adversary to management. It was the dawn of a contentious era in baseball business, and one that saw the greatest gains for major-league players in the history of the sport.

Within the first two years of Miller’s strengthened MLBPA, the players won several key battles: they became a party to approving scheduling, required owners to justify player suspensions and other discipline, and ensured traveling and parking would be first-rate. A two-year Basic Agreement arrived after intense negotiations in 1968, the first real labor-management pact in MLB history to reach beyond pension stipulations. A hard fought victory for a $10,000 minimum player salary, up from $6,000 two years prior, was the centerpiece of the agreement.

The subsequent negotiations over pensions also proved fruitful for the union, having won greater contributions from the owners with a growing player pool due to expansion and the lowering of service time requirements. With the new pension rules in place, Miller was even able to help secure a pension for the legendary Satchel Paige, who had recently been brought into the Atlanta organization as a pitching instructor. It was a small gesture that meant a lot to an aging legend who was in danger of being left behind, and an indicator of the union’s growing health and status as an agent for many employees subject to the whims of MLB’s owners.

These victories, elementary and foundational in nature and aimed at bringing organized baseball closer to the labor-management relationship existent in other industries, paled in comparison to the war over the reserve clause that was on the horizon—the war that Miller was eager to fight soon after he joined up with the players, but was usually seen as a bridge too far.

For the duration of organized baseball’s existence, since the professionalization of the game in the late-nineteenth century, clubs had effectively employed players in perpetuity due to their generous interpretation of the “reserve clause.” The clause stated that all players, at the termination of the season, could have their contracts renewed by the team for the coming year with no input from the player, creating a system in which teams exercised one-year options and paid players well under what would be their market value. Players only could switch employers if they were traded, and in that they also had no say.

Shortly after the 1969 season, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood was notified of his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood balked, citing a dozen years of cultivating his life in St. Louis, and Marvin Miller quickly brought to Flood the opportunity to challenge the reserve clause’s legality. Flood, advised closely by Marvin Miller but staunch in his own opposition to his status as a self-titled “well-paid slave,” penned a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn asking the league to grant him free agency, and the players’ union voted to cover all legal expenses for Flood’s effort. Flood drew upon the rhetoric and tradition of the ongoing Civil Rights movement, and, along with renowned lawyer, former Supreme Court Justice, and former Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldman, mounted a succession of offenses in front of several courts, culminating at the U.S. Supreme Court in Flood v. Kuhn.

Citing the 1922 Federal League case granting MLB antitrust exemption, and with Flood underserved by the uncharacteristically bumbling Goldberg, the court sided with organized baseball, and Flood’s career waned quickly. The assault on the reserve clause did have the effect of bringing about the “10/5” trade veto rules, whereby a player with ten years of service time and five with one team can quash any trade.

The Flood decision, rather than set back union efforts to dismantle the reserve clause, emboldened Miller. The task at hand was to find a player willing to challenge the clause by sitting out a season, the player’s “option year,” and then obtain free agency through the arbitration system. In 1975, after a few years of candidate players signing relatively lucrative deals early in their careers and bittersweetly torpedoing Miller’s hopes at a challenge, the executive director tapped young Dodgers hurler Andy Messersmith and retiring Orioles ace Dave McNally as his partners in a calculated gambit.

Following a successful quest for free agency by former Athletics hurler Catfish Hunter in 1974, after Oakland owner Charles O. Finley violated the pitcher’s contract, the climate appeared right for another serious challenge to the reserve clause. Miller stewarded Messersmith and McNally to victories in their arbitration cases, with renowned arbiter Peter Seitz presiding, and the reserve clause’s perpetual quality died. Limited free agency, whereby players with the necessary service time were subject to being drafted by up to eight teams and eligible to negotiate with any of those clubs, comprised the 1976 Basic Agreement, a radical change and hard-fought victory for a union only a decade old.

The following decade proved significantly quieter, as the MLBPA sought to guard their significant gains from the always clawing owners, who pushed hard for various union “givebacks” with every new agreement. The ownership vanguard wanted to scrap salary arbitration, the vital predecessor and partner of free agency; conspired to suppress salaries prior to free agency, promising players better security once they reached their free agents years if they relented on the matter; and, most importantly, desired a more robust system of compensation for teams losing free agents. It was the latter point that led to the 1981 strike, the first regular-season strike since a short-lived work stoppage early in 1972. Again, the union, led by Miller and strong player representatives who vigilantly tried to keep the rank and file solid, emerged victorious, and that form of free agent compensation would die an unceremonious death by the mid-1980s.

For unions in the United States, it was a tumultuous and dire era. In August of 1981, the same month that Major League Baseball resumed play following the strike, President Ronald Reagan fired over 10,000 air traffic controllers, whose union went on strike in violation of federal law. It was only the most publicized and theatrical of management victories over labor, though: givebacks became the norm across the nation, and wages for union workers stagnated. In a move that portended much to come, Chrysler received a $1.5 billion government bailout in 1979-80, while auto workers felt most acutely losses at the hands of management.

A sign of its own health and the relative uniqueness of professional sports as an industry, the MLBPA fought management successfully for much of the decade, even as Miller left his executive director position after 15 years. The iconoclastic leader took on a role as counsel to new director Donald Fehr, but eventually left the union completely due to health reasons and age by the mid-’80s.

The union needed to draw upon all of its strength for what was to come in the latter half of the decade, as it faced one of its most trying tests since its inception: collusion.

For several offseasons in the late-’80s, team owners waged an illegal war against the institution of free agency. Owners had already achieved a significant victory in the 1985 CBA negotiations, when the union agreed to bump the required service time for players seeking salary arbitration from two years to three. It was a giveback reminiscent of those found in other industries throughout the Reagan era, albeit one much less impactful.

The owners and their new ringleader, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, were not sated with their CBA gains. Rather, they decided to conspire against the players, refusing to sign free agents to multi-year contracts. Star players and journeymen alike were shut out by teams on the free agent market, receiving lowball offers at best, and rarely from organizations other than their incumbent team. Only four of the 62 free agents in 1985 switched teams, strong enough circumstantial evidence to raise suspicions of collusion.

Players like Tim Raines and Andre Dawson, stars at the top of their game, failed to land the lucrative contracts they deserved. Raines was forced to sit out a month of the 1987 season, despite his MVP-like performances over the several seasons prior, because no team other than the Montreal Expos offered him a contract. Ultimately, Raines received a contract from the club after the MLBPA filed a grievance. Dawson, famously, rejected a $2 million offer from Montreal, ending the long Raines-Dawson tandem on the turf of Olympic Stadium in expectation of a better contract elsewhere (and away from the turf’s disastrous effects on his knees). The right fielder made clear his interest to play for the Cubs, and, after a long negotiation process, offered his services to Chicago for whatever price GM Dallas Green was willing to pay, a so-called “blank contract.” The following offseason, Dawson and the Cubs went to salary arbitration. The arbiter ruled in favor of the club, and Dawson received $1.8 million, less than he would have received from the Expos.

The plights of Raines and Dawson, as well as those of countless other players, formed the basis of the union’s many legal salvos against the owners. Combined with many owners’ public comments on their apprehension to sign players long-term, the evidence of collusion was strong. Fehr and the union desired compensation for the players affected, although the union head denied the possibility of a strike. In the end, nearly $300 million in damages were awarded to the players for the owners’ collusion in a series of decisions covering the several offseasons in which owners illegally acted.

Players’ trust of the owners eroded considerably through these years, and Ueberroth resigned his office in 1989. This contentious period gave way to a veneer of labor-management peace, headed by anti-collusion commissioners Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent, but it was merely a delay in the inevitable, which would come in the late summer of 1994.

As the mutual trust between ownership and players ebbed, the relationship between the commissioner’s office and the owners endured a period of rockiness, with a coup leading to the installation of Bud Selig as acting commissioner in 1992. It was a brazenly antagonistic move, as Selig’s ownership of the Milwaukee Brewers included participation in collusion, and the owners immediately launched an offensive against the MLBPA. Their CBA proposal in 1994 included a host of openly confrontational conditions, including a hard salary cap, the abolition of salary arbitration, and a restriction of free agency and those eligible. Rather than retreat with their tails between their legs, the owners emerged from a tumultuous period emboldened to roll back player gains at least to their late-’70s status.

The owners withheld a multimillion dollar deposit into the players’ pension fund as a negotiation ploy in July 1994, the final shove the union needed to strike. On August 12, they did; by September, the remainder of the season, including the World Series, was canceled. Negotiations failed to bear fruit for months, and owners moved to use replacement players (except the Blue Jays, by virtue of Canadian law, and Peter Angelos’s Orioles). It took a National Labor Relations Board ruling to stop the strike, and play finally resumed with delayed Spring Training at the beginning of April 1995. The owners failed to implement any of their reactionary changes in the next CBA.

There hasn’t been a work stoppage in MLB since the 1994-1995 strike. The period of relative peace, however, has been marked by significant concessions from the union, including assent on the vital performance enhancing drugs issue. All three other major professional sports leagues in North America have had work stoppages due to strikes or lockouts since 1995, and management across industries and in government has eroded union power even further, a continuation of 1980s trends.

Part two will cover the slow softening of Donald Fehr and the MLBPA’s aggressiveness on economic issues, and the subsequent acceleration of the union’s decline in the past few years under the leadership of Tony Clark.

Notes:

Burke, Robert F. Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2015). 99-216 for Miller’s involvement in the MLBPA.

Chass, Murray. “8 Baseball Free Agents Are Pioneers.” New York Times, Jan. 10, 1987.

Kurkjian, Tim. “Arbitrator: Clubs Acted in Collusion.” Baltimore Sun, Sep. 22, 1987.

Newhan, Ross. “Baseball Players, Owners Collide on ‘Collusion.’” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9, 1987; and Newhan, “Collusion? Or a New Coercion?” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1987.

Snyder, Brad. A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports (New York, Viking, 2006).