Note—Major League Baseball (MLB) recently reported that at the All Star Break attendance was up 9% over 2022. So was television, cable, and streaming viewership and was topping pre-pandemic levels. “Baseball is Back” crowed gloating press releases. The success was credited to the new rules this season, including the time clock, which have shortened game time and encouraged more action on the diamond. Maybe, but exciting playoff races and an emerging new generation of superstars also play a part. So does relative labor peace which has not disrupted regular season play. An owner’s lock-out in 2021 scrubbed most of Spring Training and delayed the season openers about a week.
On July 31, 1981 a strike against Major League Baseball (MLB) ended after the loss of 713 games—38% of the regular season. Negotiations between the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBA) were so bitter that MLB negotiator Ray Grebey and Players Association representative Marvin Miller refused to shake hands and pose with each other for a customary bury the hatchet photograph. Each would have rather buried a hatchet in the other’s skulls.
The relationship of Baseball to its employees had been bitter almost from the very beginning of the National League. Owners regarded players as virtual chattel bound indefinitely by iron-clad personal service contracts that forbad players from seeking higher pay at other teams. The result was an abnormally low pay scale which kept all but a handful of stars in near poverty and gave the stars not much more. Angry players sporadically struck individual teams without success, usually the so called ringleaders were banned for life from the sport.
As a result, the Players’ League was formed in 1890 with most of the National League’s top stars. Although the league had a successful season, it was under-funded and collapsed sending most of its players back to the NL with their tails between their legs and worse off than ever. Would-be rivals of the NL like the American Association, American League, and Federal League took advantage of player discontent to lure stars to their start-up challengers. Only the AL survived and was eventually accepted as a peer by the NL and absorbed into the entity that became Major League Baseball.
The short-lived Federal League offered players an escape from from bondage to the National and American Leagues. It's collapse indirectly let to the Supreme Court case which ruled that Major League Baseball was exempt from the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act handing unprecedented power to owners over players.
The fallout of the Federal League collapse left the players in worse shape than ever. The owners of the former Federal League franchise in Baltimore attempted to purchase an MLB franchise. They were not only rebuffed, but they were also blackballed. They had the same result when they tried to obtain a franchise in the International League, then the top level of the minor leagues which fed players into the Bigs. The Baltimoreans sued in Federal Court charging that MLB constituted an illegal Trust in restraint of trade. They had one a big victory at the Circuit Court level which was overturned on appeal. Eventually the case found its way to the Supreme Court in 1922 where, in what may have been the worst ruling since Dred Scott, the Court held that that baseball “was not the kind of commerce” that Federal law was intended to regulate. Alone of all American industries, Major League baseball was handed a golden exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
While the case was winding its way slowly through the courts, members of the stellar Chicago White Sox team chaffing under the notoriously tightfisted rule of Charles Comiskey demonstrated how damaging to baseball the players’ resentment could be. The team, or at least key members of it, accepted a bribe from gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The resulting Black Sox Scandal nearly derailed the game as the National Pastime.
To resurrect the tattered reputation of the game, the owners appointed Federal Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the Tsar-like Commissioner of Baseball. From the owners point of view Landis was the perfect candidate. He had won national acclaim for heavily fining Standard Oil of Indiana for attempting to fix freight rates, and was a rabid opponent of unionism, Socialism, and radicalism in any form. He had presided over World War I and Red Scare era trials of dissidents handing out draconian sentences and frequently stretching the law to do it. He presided over the trial of 101 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leadership for sedition, sending all to prison for long terms. He was also a devoted baseball fan who had maneuvered to avoid an earlier attempt to challenge organized baseball on anti-trust ground in a 1914 suit brought by the Federal League. Most significantly he was the presiding judge at the Federal trial of the disgraced White Sox players.
A proven anti-labor union buster and the presiding judge in the Blsck Sox Scandal trial Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was picked as the powerful first Commissioner of Baseball. He was the owners' creature from the beginning.
Although Landis theoretically represented the interests of all baseball, including players and fans, in fact at least on issues surrounding player salaries, working conditions, and ability offer their services freely to any team, he was steadfastly the owners’ man. He ruled the game until his death in 1944 blocking all reform.
It wasn’t until Landis was dead and Ford Frick was Commissioner that players tried to form their first organization since Landis crushed the National Baseball Players Association back in 1922. In 1952 the MLBPA was formed with highly respected Cleveland Indian pitcher Bob Feller as its first—and as it turned out—only President.
Under Feller the MLBPA attempted to function as a professional association advocating for improved conditions attempting to set up programs for retired and destitute members. However, the owners flatly refused to deal with them or modify any of the terms of employment that bound players to the whim of the teams that literally owned them.
In 1959 the organization decided it was time to get more aggressive. It eliminated the executive presidency and brought in a professional Executive Director to lead it. They really took the plunge to becoming a real labor union seven years later in 1966 when Marvin Miller, a former United Steelworkers economist, lead negotiator, and business agent was brought on board.
Miller meant business and set about to make the MPBLA one of the strongest unions in America. Broadcaster Red Barber would later categorize him with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as one of the most important figures in modern era baseball. Certainly, he shook things up.
In just two years Miller obtained the first collective bargaining agreement with the owners which raised the minimum pay—usually for rookies and journeymen utility players—for the first time in twenty years from $6,000 per season to $10,000. That won the players’ undying loyalty and built unshakeable solidarity.
Next, in 1970 Miller won arbitration. Previously when a player and his owner failed to reach agreement on terms for a new contract, the dispute would be referred to the Commissioner, the owner’s creature, who naturally tended to always side with them. Arbitration took it to an independent arbiter who picked between the two sides final offers. Increasingly the arbitrators found for underpaid veteran players. And the owners seeing that they had a lot to lose in the winner-takes-all system became more flexible in their negotiations. Salaries for veteran players started to rise.
Arbitration paid off in a big way in 1974 when Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley refused to honor a contractual agreement to pay a $50,000 insurance premium for his star pitcher Catfish Hunter. The arbiter ruled that Finley had thus voided the contract and allowed Hunter to become a free agent. The pitcher then was able to sign with the New York Yankees for a then astonishing 5-year, $3.5 million contract. That whetted the appetite of plays for effective free agency.
Curt Flood and Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller.
Curt Flood had famously sued MLB with the support of the players union claiming that the reserve clause which kept the “owning team” in control of a player for a solid year after his contract was up, meaning that the player could be kept from playing with any team without the original team’s consent, was an anti-trust violation. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the admittedly shaky ground of the anti-trust provision.
After the victory with Hunter, Miller encouraged two other players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the succeeding year without signing a contract. Then both players filed grievance arbitration. The players won the arbitration with a ruling that both had played out their obligations to their teams and were free agents. The notorious reserve clause was dead, and the era of free agency was ushered in.
With victory after victory under his belt, Miller was cordially hated by the owners, but they seemed powerless against the union. These years were punctuated with short work stoppages—strikes in 1972 which lasted 13 days and in 1980 plus two spring training two lockouts, in 1973 and 1976.
So, the table was set for an epic confrontation in 1981. The owners sought protections from the effects of free agency. In particular, they sought compensation for losing a free agent player to another team—a player selected from the signing team’s roster not including 12 protected players. The union held that any form of compensation would undermine the value of free agency.
With negotiations at an impasse the union Executive Board set a May 31 strike deadline. This was extended while a union complaint of unfair labor practices was heard by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Finally, on June 15 the players walked out.
Owners were stunned when most of the sporting press and fans seemed to take the side of the players. They could not believe that they were not viewed as beloved community leaders instead of as flinty hearted capitalists. A Sport Illustrated cover screamed “Strike! The Walkout the Owners Provoked.”
These two New York Post stories reflected the heavy economic impact of the strike and the disappointment of fans.
But as the strike wore on, fans became restless. And cities took a big economic hit. An estimated $146 million was lost in player salaries, ticket sales, broadcast revenues, and concession revenues. The players lost $4 million a week in salaries while the owners suffered a total loss of $72 million.
Faced with the possible loss of the entire season a compromise, which most considered favorable to the players, was finally reached. Teams that lost a premium free agent could be compensated by drawing from a pool of players left unprotected from all of the clubs rather than just the signing club and players agreed to restricting free agency to players with six or more years of major league service. Miller had never really wanted unlimited free agency anyway fearing that a glut of players on the market would drive compensation down.
Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Luis Tiant reads about the end of the strike.
Play resumed with the delayed All Star Game in Cleveland on August 8. Because the game was moved from its traditional mid-week slot to a Sunday, a record attendance of 72,086 led owners to hope that fans would return to the game. They were wrong. Bitter fans stayed away in droves through the rest of the season and TV and radio audiences shrank. Newspaper letter columns were filled with fans declaring that they were done with the game. It took some years for the game to recover from fan disillusion.
Some of that disillusion was stoked by the slapped together play-off system used to determine teams for the World Series. The leaders of the first half of the season would face the leaders of the second half of the season in a playoff. In case the same team won both halves, it would face the team with the second best record. But the system produced anomalies. The Cincinnati Reds of the National League West and St. Louis Cardinals of the National League East each failed to make the playoffs despite having the two best full-season records in the National League that season. On the other hand, the Kansas City Royals made the postseason despite owning the fourth-best full-season record in their division and posting a losing record overall.
Miller retired in 1982 but the union he built remained strong.
The MLBPA continued to frustrate the owners, particularly when they successfully proved in court that the owners and Commissioner were in collusion in attempting to circumvent the free movement of players under free agency. The collusion may also have affected the outcome of both the regular season series and World Series of 1985, ’86, and ’87. Owners were fined a staggering $64.5 million and had to compensate players for losses related to multi-year contracts and lost bonuses which eventually cost them another $280 million.
There was a one day strike in August of ’85 and owners locked out player for early spring training in 1990.
In 1994 players struck on August 12 wiping out the rest of the season and the World Series. The strike only ended the next spring when a U.S. District judge issued an injunction restoring terms and conditions of the expired agreement. That traumatic event did even more damage to baseball.
Eventually, fans came back and baseball also bounced back from the steroid scandal that damaged the reputations of stars like Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens.
Since then, contracts have been renewed despite some bluster. The union remains strong. Baseball remains the only sport without an effective salary cap. Player incomes and team profits are at an all-time high. Meanwhile the other major American sports—Football, Basketball, and Hockey have all had substantial labor turmoil—largely due to weak unions.
The Baseball Hall of Fame's Twitter announcement of the election of Marvin Miller in December 2019 on his eighth appearance on the ballot.
And what of Marvin Miller? He died on November 27, 2012 in New York City at the age of 95. Owners successfully fought repeated efforts to put him in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his undisputed impact on the game until a re-organized Modern Baseball Era Committee finally elected him in December 2019, his eighth appearance on the ballot. He was slated to be inducted with the Class of 2020, but the ceremony was delayed a year by the Coronavirus.