In today’s world of millionaire professional ballplayers, it’s hard to remember that the player’s union began for reasons that were actually noble. It was (among other issues specific to ballplayers) the combination of the need for a retired ballplayer’s pension fund and a desire to remove the so-called reserve clause that inspired the founders of the Major League Ball Player’s Association (MLBPA). For those of you unfamiliar with the association’s history, this clause essentially bound a ballplayer to the owner of the team that he was paid by. This meant he had no say over his salary, traveling conditions, playing time, or many other aspects of professional ball playing. Of course, one could argue that today’s market of free agents and arbitration is absurd in the other extreme. Many ballplayers demand and get ridiculous salaries and benefits while others take illegal performance enhancing drugs in the hope that they too can get similar contracts. In light of this (and before the 2004 season opens), now might be a good time to review the game’s history right before and immediately after the beginning of free agency. That way, when you hear of a ballplayer or a team owner complaining about money, at last there will be a bit of context to place that whining in.
Baseball has been around as a professional sport longer than any of America’s professional team sports. In fact its presence in American professional sports culture is second only to boxing. It is, as the talking heads of the sport like to say, “America’s pastime.” Its history is both a reflection of this country’s fears and ignorance, and its hopes and promises. Like almost any other cultural phenomenon of such prominence, it has served as solace and as a poke to our conscience. Even casual observers of the game know that the major leagues were all white until 1948. It took owner Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers to end this apartheid. He hired Jackie Robinson, who faced hostile crowds, teammates, and managers during the early part of his career, yet won the Rookie of the Year award his first season. As other black players came into the game, Robinson continued to excel at the sport.
By the 1960s, some of the major leagues’ biggest stars and best players were African-American. This didn’t mean that they were provided the same respect as white players, either in their wallets or from the fans. As we well know, racism and apartheid still reigned in America, especially in the south. We also know that people were fighting and dying to end it, including some athletes. Jackie Robinson put it this way when he went south to speak to civil rights workers: I’m not as bold as some of these little 4 and 10 year old kids in the south. I don’t like those big teeth I see on dogs. I don’t like to see the expressions of a policeman in Alabama and I don’t like to read about pregnant women being poked in the stomach by policemen with nightsticks…(so) I believe I must go down there and say to my people thank you for what you are doing not only for me and my children, but for America….”
In 1960, the great Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams retired by hitting a home run in his last at bat and the Yankees, who were (and continue to be) the richest Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise, lost the World Series to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates on a home run by Bill Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh and last game of the series. Meanwhile, under the direction of their owner Walter O’Malley, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. They would eventually play in a stadium that had been built on land stolen, bought and cajoled from its owners and tenants. This land, known as Chavez Ravine, had housed thousands of Mexican-American and Chicano poor and working class folks. The baseball that my father knew was rapidly going the way of the family farm, segregation and the “old America.” Players were tired of being controlled by the owners. Further disruption lay ahead.
In 1966 Dodgers’ pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax refused to report for spring training, holding out for more money and demanding that Dodger owner O’Malley negotiate with their agent. O’Malley refused to do so. Eventually O’Malley removed himself from the negotiations and the pitchers got 125,000 apiece for the year, more than any other players. Around the same time, the very first attempts at organizing the players began when lawyer and union organizer Marvin Miller set up his office.
Right before opening day in April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. The commissioner suggested that teams postpone their starts and some owners balked. Although some feared a loss of revenues if they postponed the start of the season, many others were driven solely by their racist country club outlook on life. IN response, many of the players-black, Latino and white–issued a statement saying that they would not play until after King’s funeral. The games were postponed.
Between the 1968 and 1969 season, Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood asked for a $30,000 raise from the Cardinals’ owner Gussie Busch of Budweiser fame. Busch was a notorious union buster and capitalist. He refused Flood’s request, despite Flood’s role as an integral part of the team’s winning runs in 1967 and 1968.
The 1969 season began with the threat of a strike, but started on time after the owners made some concessions. They were still trying to avoid the formation of a players’ union, which was by now a foregone conclusion. Baseball was starting to feel some pressure from the NFL–which garnered favor with television and was willing to change its format to work according to television’s rules. The Super Bowl only began in 1967, but by 1969 it already meant big time advertising dollars.
On October 15, 1969, the first nationwide moratorium against the Vietnam War took place. Even baseball was politicized. In Queens, New York, the Mets were playing the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Mayor John Lindsay had ordered all flags to fly at half-mast in support of the moratorium. However, the Marines color guard threatened to not perform the national anthem before the game unless the flag was raised to full height. Despite opposition, the stadium management gave in to the Marines. Antiwar fans distributed leaflets and buttons in the parking lot. Pitcher Tom Seaver mentioned that he opposed the war and was a champion to all antiwar baseball fans everywhere. The Mets won the series!
Players in all sports were looking more and more like the rest of the young people in America. Their hair was getting longer. Instead of coat and ties, they were wearing blue jeans and stylish clothing. As rumors of pot smoking and other drug use grew, the owners, being old school, got more upset. Eventually, the countercultural influences become flagrant, with folks like Red Sox pitcher Bill Spaceman Lee joking to the press in the mid-1970s that the reason he pitched so well was because he sprinkled pot on his Wheaties on the days that he was scheduled to pitch. Comments like this did not endear him or his buddies to the old school Red Sox management, nor did his political statements against the war and in favor of marijuana legalization.
After the season ended, Curt Flood was traded in a five-player deal to the Pirates. Now, the Pirates were not only a lowly team, the city itself was known for it’s particularly its racist fans. Flood, a black man, refused the trade. In his letter to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn stating the reasons for his refusal, he wrote: “After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood continued, asking Kuhn to abrogate the reserve clause-a clause that gave owners complete power over players until they were traded, whereupon the new owner then assumed the same power. Kuhn refused to do so. Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg signed on as Flood’s lawyer. They began a court challenge to the reserve clause. Many players testified in Flood’s behalf, including Jackie Robinson. Flood lost in New York Federal court and then in the US Supreme Court in 1972.
He wrote later:
I guess you have to understand who that person, who that Curt Flood was. I’m a child of the sixties, I’m a man of the sixties. During that period of time this country was coming apart at the seams. We were in SE Asia…good men were dying for America…In the southern part of the US we were marching for civil rights and Dr. King had been assassinated, and we lost the Kennedys. And to think that merely because I was a professional ballplayer, I could ignore what was going on outside Busch stadium was truly hypocrisy and now I found that all those great rights Americans were dying for, I didn’t have in my own profession…
In 1972 the players voted 633-10 in favor of a strike. The season started thirteen days late after owners break ranks and gave in-the profits to be made were more important than their capitalist principles. In 1975, the reserve clause was finally overturned after two players challenged it in arbitration. The arbitration panel turned over the clause and free agency began. Since then, the game has increased in popularity, cost to the fan, and individual performance. In addition, strikes are a regular occurrence. Numbers, which are so important to a certain breed of fan, are skewed by steroids taken by players who want the big contracts and might not get said contracts without the use of such drugs, since their natural talent would prevent that from happening. For every wealthy player, though, there is an even wealthier owner. Of course, many of those owners still cry poverty from their yachts off the Gulf Coast. Like virtually every other aspect of US culture, the desire for profit runs roughshod over the game’s pure beauty.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
He can be reached at: email@example.com