Review of Baseball’s Power Shift

Swanson, Krister. Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. xvii + 287. Notes, Bibliography, and Index. $29.95 Hardback.

Reviewed by Nick Sacco

As an enthusiastic fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, I was saddened and disappointed to see one of my favorite players sign with the Chicago Cubs during the 2015-2016 offseason. Although Jason Heyward played only one year with the Cardinals, his skill on the field and his character off it endeared him to many fans who hoped to see him sign with the team long-term instead of entering into free agency. Citing the Cubs deep pool of young talent and welcoming clubhouse culture, Heyward turned down larger offers in excess of $200 million from the Cardinals and numerous other teams to play in Chicago for eight years at $182 million. When the news hit of Heyward’s departure, Cardinals fans voiced their displeasure on social media, with some engaging in embarrassing displays of hyperbole, outrage, and even racism.

The various reactions of Cardinals fans to Heyward’s signing with the Cubs—whether justified or not—reflect larger anxieties about the relationship between fans and professional athletes in the free agency era. We the fans demand a high degree of unquestioned loyalty from our favorite team’s players, who are often seen as public goods above politics and economics. In addition to their performance on the field, players are expected to give back their time and money to the local community, act as role models for our youth, and play the role of civic booster by saying nice things about our hometowns during interviews. (Fans in St. Louis even boast about the high number of athletes who choose to live in the city during and after their playing days). And yet when these same athletes struggle on the field and don’t live up to expectations, they are often discussed by fans in terms of property to be traded, sold, bought out, and released in exchange for better commodities. Fan loyalty to the athletes is contingent upon one’s performance on the field.

The establishment of free agency in sports has often led fans to lament today’s sporting culture as too business-like and the players as “greedy” money-grubbers who worry more about the name on the back of their jersey instead of the one on the front. The idea that Jason Heyward and athletes like him are laborers with highly specialized skills who possess a right to pursue contract terms that best maximize their value—just like workers in other fields—is often under-appreciated by fans. Perhaps this mentality still exists because the onset of free agency in sports is still of recent vintage. With regards to baseball, the evolution of the sport’s labor history from complete owner control of the means of production to today’s strong players’ union with collective bargaining powers for players like Heyward has urgently needed a comprehensive historical analysis. Krister Swanson’s timely publication offers sports historians a valuable contribution to the history of the relationship between sports, capital, and labor.

Baseball Power Shifts

University of Nebraska Press, 2016

In a narrative that covers baseball’s labor relations from the Gilded Age of the 1880s to the 1981 Players’ Strike, Swanson argues in Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture that the power of the Major League Baseball Players’ Union (MLBPA) in shaping the labor conditions of today’s ballplayers is attributable to a generations-long battle among the players to chip away at the monopolistic powers of team owners who controlled everything from playing conditions to player contracts. Only through the workings of MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller and a successful but prolonged public relations battle with owners in newspapers and television throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, were players able to successfully unionize and collectively bargain for fair contracts. Relying heavily on contemporary newspaper accounts and the autobiographies of Miller and a number of baseball owners and officials, Swanson concludes that public acceptance of player unionization was critical to the emergence of free agency in the early 1980s. The book is organized chronologically and gives particular focus to four key periods in baseball’s evolving labor relations, including the late nineteenth century, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the early 1980s.

Player attempts at unionization began in 1885 with baseball star John Montgomery Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players and the creation of a short-lived “Player’s League” in 1890. The players, however, faced an uphill battle in challenging the control of the owners. “Team owners,” according to Swanson, “sought to exercise the same control over their players as factory owners enjoyed over their workforce” (p. x). The owners colluded to keep player salaries low and utilized the power of the reserve clause, which allowed teams to unilaterally retain a player’s contract and services for the next playing year. The owners argued that the reserve clause kept ticket prices low and allowed for competitive balance within baseball, since smaller, low-revenue teams could hypothetically retain a star player’s services for the duration of his playing career.

In these efforts the owners received widespread support from what Swanson describes as “traditionalist” baseball fans. These fans were generally skeptical of unions and believed that baseball transcended the values of a free-labor economy. The players, in their mind, should feel fortunate to be making a living playing “a boys’ game.” The Traditionalists looked upon free agency with horror and believed that player greed would financially destroy baseball. Many players also bought into this line of thinking and refused to unionize, especially well-paid stars like Ty Cobb who demanded that their teammates support team owners. Moreover, legal challenges to the reserve clause such as the 1922 Supreme Court Case Federal Baseball Club v. National League gave more power to the owners by exempting baseball from all federal antitrust and antimonopoly legislation.

While team owners continued to maintain a stronghold on labor following the 1922 case, they ran into serious financial hardships during World War II, when star players like Ted Williams and Stan Musial left to fight overseas. Fans stayed at home during the war as the quality of play on the field diminished. As the stars returned for the 1946 season, some players sought unionization as a way of establishing a higher minimum salary and a comprehensive pension system for veteran players. Labor organizer Robert Murphy worked with players in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and coordinated a vote on whether to strike for these provisions. Ultimately, however, most players were unwilling to strike and possibly delay the start of the baseball season. While the players did get a boost in minimum pay and pension benefits, Swanson argues that the players’ refusal to strike or collectively bargain led to continued owner hegemony of athletes’ labor conditions.

Swanson points to three crucial factors that changed baseball’s business model by 1966, when the MLBPA was formed with Marvin Miller as its head. First, by this time several family-run teams were being purchased by large corporations such as Columbia Broadcasting Company, which bought an 80 percent stake in the New York Yankees. Second, the emergence of television provided a new revenue stream for baseball. And third, the players—correctly sensing that team owners hoped to keep the revenues from TV broadcasting rights to themselves—believed that collective bargaining was necessary to ensure that these revenues would also benefit the players’ pay and pension system (p. 100-101).

Convincing the public of the need for a players’ union required the use of popular media to show how team owners prevented players from earning their fair share. Many fans were shocked to hear that more than one third of all MLB players in 1966 made less than $10,000 in a time when the average American worker earned $8,000 (p. 120). Further sympathy for the players emerged after veteran Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball over the reserve clause following a trade against his will to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood’s case prompted some sports reporters like Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times to lament that “the ‘reserve clause,’ the last vestige of slavery in America, binds the player to the club in perpetuity. He can be traded . . . but only at the whim of the slaveholder” (p. 169). This combination of Miller’s advocacy for collective bargaining, legal challenges to baseball’s monopolistic practices, and shifting public opinions towards the value of athletic labor led to the MLBPA becoming one of the strongest unions in the entire country by 1980, no small feat during a time when organized labor began a general decline that continues to this day.

Swanson writes in a clear, engaging style that will appeal to readers interested in sports and/or labor history. One minor quibble is that the book would have benefitted from a more thorough analysis of the context and politics of labor outside of baseball, such as the shifting attitudes towards organized labor after the 1935 Wagner Act and the aforementioned decline of labor unions during the 1980s Reagan years. Moreover, the narrative’s conclusion in 1981—as opposed to briefly extending the discussion to include the 1994-95 MLB strike over TV fees and a proposal salary cap—is a curious omission of more recent and noteworthy labor disputes between players and owners. Nevertheless, Baseball’s Power Shift is an important study that will be read for years to come by fans and scholars alike interested in understanding the history and economics of baseball’s labor practices.

Nick Sacco is a public historian and Park Guide with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He regularly blogs about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past.”

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