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Chained to the game: professional baseball and the reserve clause, part two

The war between owner and player was largely relegated to the courts in the twentieth century. But it was not old men in robes who finally handed the players a long-deserved victory.

Curt Flood in 1968

The reserve clause persevered through much of the 20th century. The conflict between the players and owners led to another war between Congress and the courts, as neither wanted to assume responsibility for such a monumental labor dispute. For decades, the owners took advantage of the players’ unfamiliarity with legal proceedings to strip them of their fundamental freedoms. But eventually, behind the courage of several players and the installation of a legal network in the forms of the MLBPA and player agents, professional baseball players pulled off an improbable victory that granted them the freedom they had sought since the 19th century.

In 1910, Congress formally declared professional baseball exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act (passed by Congress in 1890 to break up monopolies), asserting it was not a business, but rather an amusement and therefore did not qualify as commerce under this act. The exemption delighted many fans and writers who had grown to believe baseball was an exception in that it could not function without the reserve clause. The satisfaction of these people soon turned to befuddlement and rage, as in 1914, the Federal League was created in direct opposition to the NL and AA. However, like the Players’ League, it folded after one year of operation and an inability to work around the reserve clause, which it challenged in federal court, but could not defeat. In 1915, it reached agreement with the NL on a buyout package for each team.

Baltimore’s Federal League owner, unsatisfied with his compensation, sued the NL to remove the reserve clause. In the federal courts, Judge Clarence Sessions found the reserve clause unenforceable, but the contract morally enforceable.[1] The result of this lawsuit created the most powerful mechanism the owners could use to control the players: an antitrust exemption for professional baseball. The Federal League magnates put forth similar arguments as the Brotherhood, accusing the MLB of treating the players like chattel and trying to exempt organized baseball from the law, but America of the 1920s was owned by big business, and so these arguments proved fruitless. Indeed, in the Supreme Court’s opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted that baseball did not constitute interstate commerce and was not considered a business, thus exempting it from the Sherman Antitrust Act. This declaration settled the matter for the next several decades, as players were preoccupied with the Great Depression and WWII.

The court-mandated ceasefire ended In the 1950s, when a number of high-profile players hired an agent. Frank Scott, focusing on endorsement deals and extra-baseball contracts, acquired big-name clients such as Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra, who believed if they were not getting paid their worth by the owners, they should use their names to make up the difference. The owners did not approve of the players exerting such monetary independence, and the two sides again found themselves in court in 1953 after Yankees Triple-A pitcher George Toolson found himself unable to pitch in the major leagues due to the reserve clause granting the Yankees full control of his career. The Supreme Court, in the Toolson v. New York Yankees case, upheld the MLB’s antitrust exemption, much to the surprise of many who thought the Warren Court would side with the players’ individual rights. However, rather than rule in favor of the MLB, the Court merely declared the case a legislative issue unfit for resolution via the judiciary.[2] But Congress seemed equally unwilling to contemplate overturning the exemption.

Fearing more court losses, the players banded together to create a pseudo-union in 1953 and then an official one in 1966, under the leadership of Marvin Miller, who had been a force with the United Steel Workers. Under Miller, the MLB Players Association negotiated a 66% increase in salary, topping out at $10,000, and created arbitration systems that removed some control from the owners. Those who supported the players believed the MLBPA to be too weak to make a significant enough impact on players’ rights, and their opponents attacked the movement for forcing elitism into baseball, as though the multi-millionaire owners were plentiful in society.[3] Though its supporters were correct during the first several years, the PA eventually gained enough power to stand up to the owners.

Much of the MLBPA’s power derived from Curt Flood’s 1969 Supreme Court challenge of the reserve clause. That year, center fielder Curt Flood was traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies On October 7th, as part of a multi-player trade. Angry about the Cardinals’ ability to trade him despite his fulfillment of his contract with them, Flood refused to report to the Phillies, opting out of a $100,000 contract and instead seeking legal action against the reserve clause. Flood wrote on the matter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, saying:

After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.

Kuhn, of course, denied this request, prompting Flood to file a $1 million lawsuit against the MLB, and the reserve clause was challenged in court for the third time. Both Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg agreed to testify for Flood. The case challenged the clause on the basis of it violating antitrust laws and the 13th Amendment, the Civil War-era provision which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. However, during a period of civil unrest and high unemployment in the country, and with a conservative court that sought to undo much of the Warren Court’s extension into legislative matters, the Justices ruled 5-3 in favor of stare decisis, again asserting the matter was better dealt with in Congress than in the courts.

Though Flood legally lost and it cost him the remainder of his career, his actions spurred an increase in player freedom and spelled the eventual end of the reserve clause. Throughout the following years, players gained autonomy and began to hit free agency. The reserve clause faced its largest post-Flood trial in 1975 when a pair of pitchers acquired an agent to negotiate free agency for them. Andy Messersmith, who wanted a no-trade clause in his contract extension with the Dodgers, and Dave McNally, who was traded from the Orioles to the Expos on the promise Montreal would sign him to a two-year, $250,000 contract but only received a 1-year, $115,000 one, both hired lawyer Herb Osmond to represent them in negotiations with MLB.[6] Again, the players took their cause to the court of public opinion. Messersmith gave a number of interviews leading up to the negotiations in which he espoused his love for southern California and his desire to play the entirety of his career with the Dodgers.

The pitchers argued that since they had both pitched in a season in which they did not have a contract, they were now entitled to free agency. Numerous writers throughout the country echoed this opinion, adding, like Osmond, that otherwise it was akin to slavery. This voracious public support provided the leverage necessary to frighten the owners enough to open up negotiations. The teams offered the players salaries far more than each was worth, but it was too late. The Civil Rights movement had once again entered baseball, and despite Osmond’s public insistence the players were open to negotiation, it was abolish the reserve clause or bust.

Until 1968, the dispute would have been settled by a three-person committee headed by the MLB commissioner, but the MLBPA negotiated to have an independent professional arbitrator assume that role in exchange for dropping the early stages of yet another reserve clause dispute. This negotiation proved monumental in the eventual dissolution of the reserve clause, as the first person to fill the role was Peter Seitz, who granted Catfish Hunter’s free agency in 1974 and then heard Osmond’s cases. As usual, owners, like Braves’ VP Eddie Robinson, who did not win over Hunter, quickly condemned free agency, asserting that without the reserve clause, “baseball would be torn down.” However, fans of all teams had begun to enjoy the thrilling process of free agency, finding comfort in the notion that their team could so quickly acquire one player who would reverse their team’s fortunes. Taking all of this into consideration, Seitz ruled in favor of Messersmith and McNally, a move that cost him his job.

Reeling from this loss, the owners explored legal routes for revenge, first asking a federal court in Federal Court to grant the an injunction on Seitz’s decision and then appealing the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court in St. Louis. Both courts, however, sided with the players, each instructing the owners to leave behind 19th century business practices. The owners, connoisseurs of petty, locked players out of spring training complexes while negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The owners wanted a “six-and-one” clause wherein the clubs would control players for a total of seven years. The players countered with “five-and-one,” and the sides eventually settled with a “one-and-one” for current players and a “six-and-one” for future players, granting all existing players free agency after the 1976 season while retaining control of prospects for seven years.[7]

Though negotiations dragged on throughout the years and encompassed a partial strike season, the players’ victory proved a remarkable feat for both ending almost a century-long struggle and doing so in a time that was particularly unfriendly to labor unions. President Reagan’s crackdown following the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization) strike sent waves throughout the country, warning labor unions he would not tolerate any activity that he believed resembled Communism. In conjunction with Reagan’s actions, various courts struck down cases supporting labor movements and workers’ rights, ushering in a period of great economic instability that did much to destroy the working class. Thus, the players’ improbable victory spoke to the dedication of the MLBPA to protecting its players and displayed the great strides made due to the introduction of skilled legal counsel.

Behind the skilled negotiation of contract lawyers and agents, the MLBPA gained strength and paved the way for other player associations. The reserve clause was officially dead, and in the ensuing years, players saw salary increases of 300 percent. After 100 years of indentured servitude, players were finally free to obtain their worth in salary. But if anything is to be learned from this century-long struggle, it is that the wealthy will always choose their perceived self-interest over the rights of their source of labor. And though one bitter war had ended, like every war, its impact still resonates through society, and such will remain the case forever. But with time and diligence the fragments could become victorious reminders of how far baseball, and society, has come, rather than the sinister instruments of enslavement they remain today.


[1] Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1914.

[2] Toolson v. New York Yankees, 346 U.S. 356 (1953).

[3] Waco News-Tribune, October 7, 1966, p.8.

[4] William C. Rhoden, New York Times, June 20th, 1972.

[5] Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1975, p. 5.

[6] Swanson, 221.

[7] Ibid., 230.

Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.