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View from the Catwalks: How did we get here? 1880s to WW2

As we wait for baseball to come to its senses, it’s worth asking: How did we get here?

MLB: JAN 09 MLB Lockout Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I am going to forgo the usual link dump. Partly because, there just isn’t much non-lockout news. And second, the lockout news is soooooooo depressing. Today is the last chance for a deal before the owners blow it all up. So how the heck did we get here? Below I’m going to try and give you a (mostly) quick rundown of pre-MLBPA labor conflicts. In a later post, I’ll bring us up to the present.

So who’s ready for some history!


The Reserve Clause

Briefly, the reserve clause was a clause in player contracts that bound a player to a single team from year to year. By signing this year, you are reserved for next year. And of course, this effectively stifled any player movement except by trade or unconditional release. You are ours until we don’t want you.

It would be pithy to say that baseball’s original sin was the the reserve clause, but in truth, the earliest professional baseball leagues (the National Association and the early National League) allowed free player movement. It wasn’t until 1879 that the National League instituted a reserve list of five players per team, and until the 1880s that the list was expanded to cover the entire roster and a reserve clause added to the standard contract. This clause led directly and indirectly to over a century of conflict between the players and owners.

1885 - Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players

John Montgomery Ward and eight other players formed the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players to oppose baseball’s reserve clause as well as to champion for other improvements in playing conditions. Clashes between this union and the National League led to the creation of the Players League in 1890. But though the Players League offered a good product on the field, they could not compete with the financial resources of the National League long term, and the Players League folded in 1891, with the Brotherhood fading away not long after.

​1900 - Players’ Protective Association

Led by Charles “Chief” Zimmer, the players again mounted a challenge to the reserve clause. Their demands were largely met with silence, in large part that the union lacked any real leverage. Union member Harry Taylor told the New York Times:

“Well, this is a conservative organization. There is nothing revolutionary about it, and we don’t propose to keep men from playing ball.”

You’re just not going to get far as a union that way. The Association did have some influence as the American League ascended to a second major league and players jumped to the new league that promised better salaries and working conditions. But once American League was a accepted as a new major league and peace between the two leagues was established — including honoring the each others player contracts — the Association faded from memory.

1912 - Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America

Led by former player Dave Fultz, this attempt to unionize sought not just an end to the reserve clause, but also more basic players’ rights, such as the right to a copy of their contract. Into this mix in 1914 came the Federal League, whose owners promised to recognize the union. The league lasted two years before folding, again due to an inability to match the AL and NL resources. One lasting influence from a management standpoint at least was the construction of several news parks, including Weeghman Park — now Wrigley Field — the home of the Chicago Whales,

Another interesting fall out of the Fraternity and the Federal League came as the League folded and the Baltimore Terrapins sued the American and National Leagues for antitrust violations. The Court ruled that baseball did not violate the Sherman Act because baseball did not qualify as interstate commerce. This is the root of baseball’s antitrust exemption.

Once the Federal League folded and the players returned to their old teams, the players considered striking. However, the Fraternity was denied entry to the American Federation of Labor when the vaudeville performers unions (weirdly) claimed jurisdiction over baseball. Without the AFL’s support, the Fraternity folded.

1946 - American Baseball Guild

Though baseball was booming at the gate following the end of the Depression and World War 2, players wages were stagnating. Robert Murphy, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, tried a new tactic. Rather than unionize the entirety of the Major Leagues, he planned to organize individual teams in the same way one might organize an individual shop in the steel industry. He made his test group the Pittsburgh Pirates, due to their playing in a strong pro-union city. He convinced nearly all the Pirates to join, and then attempted to negotiate with Pirate President William Benswanger. Those talks were unsuccessful despite Murphy threatening a strike by the Pirate players. Murphy then attempted to convince the Pirates to follow through on the strike threat. But though a majority of players voted in favor, it was less than the two-thirds majority necessary to authorize the strike. The Guild folded not long after.

More to come! Below is some interesting reading.

Sources

https://www.mlbplayers.com/history

https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Reserve_clause

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserve_clause

https://tht.fangraphs.com/the-unionization-of-baseball/

https://www.vice.com/en/article/d7mdxm/baseballs-forgotten-brotherhood-the-first-athlete-union-in-american-pro-sports

https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Brotherhood_of_Professional_Baseball_Players

https://baseballhistorydaily.com/2012/12/21/zimmer-and-the-players-protective-association/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Baseball_Guild

https://www.marcnormandin.com/2020/10/09/the-history-of-baseball-unionization-where-murphy-money-came-from/