- Interview by
- Michael Arria
“I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” St Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood wrote to Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1969. “I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights.”
When Kuhn balked at his request to stay in St Louis, Flood partnered up with Marvin Miller, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and former economist for the United Steelworkers of America. Their fight made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and although they lost that battle, they prevailed in the wider war. MLB’s “reserve clause” —which barred players from switching teams — was broken and the era of free agency was ushered in.
There had been multiple attempts to organize MLB before Flood and Miller came along, some of them dating back to the league’s birth in the late nineteenth century. In his book Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture, Krister Swanson documents these efforts and explains how the players ultimately prevailed over the owners, winning more control over their pay and working conditions.
If Swanson’s research dates back over one hundred years ago, the themes still resonate today. In recent years, the ownership of the Oakland A’s sought to squeeze a multibillion-dollar ballpark out of the city. When they met opposition, ownership turned to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who has enthusiastically paved the way for the team to flee to Las Vegas. Oakland fans have been holding “reverse boycott” nights at the stadium this summer, calling out Manfred and demanding that owner John Fisher sell the team. Swanson sees a parallel between the John Fishers of the world and the owners of yesteryear who fought tooth and nail to maintain strict control over the players that fans paid to see.
Jacobin contributor Michael Arria spoke to Swanson about baseball’s early labor fights, the rise of the MLB players union, and how the opinions of fans have changed over time.
I want to start with the Players’ League, a renegade league that was started by professional baseball players in the late nineteenth century (though the teams themselves were still owned by rich investors). It had good attendance and big stars. Why do you think it failed?
It’s this really interesting moment. You have some great players and some of them are very popular. However, the National League already has some cultural sway, even though it had only been around for about a decade at that point. It’s already an entity that people count on to see their baseball, so even when some of the best players leave it, it remains pretty popular.
The owners who are financing the Players’ League clubs aren’t ready to tough it out with the National League. There’s a lack of willingness to hang with the players financially and absorb the losses. It becomes readily apparent pretty quick. I think they also lacked the structure to figure out how they wanted to run the league: Do we want to go head-to-head with the National League in terms of scheduling? Do we want to look at expansion? Do we want to look at other practices that might build fan loyalty?
The National League wasn’t as vulnerable in 1890 [the year of the Players’ League’s one season] as it was in 1900 when Ban Johnson came along with the American League. I think that’s an interesting contrast if you’re trying to figure out why the Players’ League failed — why did the American League succeed? One of the reasons the National League was more vulnerable in 1900 was gambling scandals. In a lot of cities, fans viewed the National League as the immoral league. The perception was that it was a league of drinking, gambling, cussing, and spitting. The battle cry becomes, “You wouldn’t take your family to a National League game,” and Johnson takes advantage of that.
If you rewind to 1890 and the Players’ League, the National League is not as embroiled in all that stuff yet. However, I think the biggest reason is the Players’ League owners, who were often referred to as “the Capitalists” in contemporary journalism. Sports owners in general crack me up because they all see themselves as this benevolent community patriarch, this person who brings enjoyment to the masses. But when the going got tough and they had to put more money on the line, they were no different than someone like [Los Angeles Chargers’ owner] Dean Spanos refusing to shell out for a stadium in San Diego and deciding to have his team become second tenant at SoFi Stadium in LA. You can go back to 1890 and see those same impulses from owners.
My youngest son and I are actually about to go to Oakland for the reverse boycott game. I love that movement because it’s calling out [Oakland A’s owner] John Fisher and saying, “You think you’re a major force in a huge industry, but you’re not ready to be that.” The same was true of the magnates that the players had rounded up to finance the Players’ League. They had no real willingness to stay the course. You also have the banking panics of that era, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those guys were overly speculative. When the National League owners came in to buy them out, I think they were probably glad for the lifeline.
Can you talk about the tumultuous nature of baseball finances during World War II and the immediate postwar period? I am particularly interested in the Mexican League, which ended up signing some of the Major League talent.
That’s a really overlooked period in sports history. During the war we pulled all these young people into military service, and they serve two, three, four years in the military. You take away the most valuable earning years for some of them. After the war, when the players are coming back, the owners are seeing this huge surplus of labor in the market and want to take advantage of it. They suppress salaries. These guys are on year-to-year contracts. They have no leverage because the owners can probably get someone who is willing to take less money. The owners know the public is itching to see baseball go back to normal.
So you have the owners of the Mexican League. They are willing to make fantastic promises to players and lure American stars away. There are some ulterior motives here, there were some political motivations at work, but you have to love the brashness of it. They’re offering new stadiums, big contracts, luxurious living conditions for the players and their families. Baseball teams didn’t do this stuff for their players in the United States.
Certain members of the press loved all this. Maybe not the conservative mainstream writers, but there are some reporters that appreciate the players’ circumstances and are having a lot of fun covering all this. A lot of the Mexican owners are interesting characters, and people know the baseball stars that are coming over. They even make a run at Babe Ruth at one point.
So the Mexican League increases the players’ leverage, and at the same time you have the American Baseball Guild being formed [a short-lived union that attempted to organize Major League players in 1946].
I wonder if you could share some thoughts on Marvin Miller, the Major League Baseball Players Association executive director from 1966–82. Some people argue that he turned the MLBPA into the most successful labor union in United States history. What made him so good at his job?
We were lucky enough to have [former Detroit Tigers manager] Sparky Anderson as a family friend. When I started working on this book, I sat down with Sparky in his kitchen. He was between being a major league player and a major league manager when Miller took over. He was managing a minor league team. Miller gained the trust of the players by making the union financially independent. In 1968, Miller told the owners: the players aren’t going to spring training until they get an issue with their pensions settled.
Sparky told me that as soon as Miller convinced the players to do that, they did it, and it worked. You weren’t going to find a single player who was going to contradict him after that. The players had this sense that Marvin was so far ahead of where the owners were in their ability to collectively bargain — that his message of unity and cohesion within the union worked, whereas the owners had all kinds of divisions. A lot of disagreements between the big market teams and the small market teams.
Miller had all his experience working for the United Steelworkers. He was calm, strategic, and tactical. Miller knew that Flood’s case wouldn’t ultimately be successful, but in presenting all the legal arguments around Flood they cornered Major League Baseball into acknowledging that things like the reserve clause, free agency, and arbitration were subject to collective bargaining. Those were all issues that needed to be handled in the collective bargaining process, not in the courts. He got the owners to corner themselves via the arguments they made in the Flood case. Flood’s fight creates a structural basis for Miller to push forward on these issues.
He was just a master tactician. We’re also not in the [Ronald] Reagan era yet so the players had watched workers in other unions gain wage increases, health benefits, pensions, and other things through labor organizing. Miller starts with the popular bread-and-butter issues. He doesn’t start with something like salary arbitration, he starts with pensions and health benefits. In 1968, a lot of baseball fans are also members of unions, and they can appreciate those fights.
What did fans think of Flood’s fight, and how did that perception impact the union’s success? This was obviously happening during a time of political and social upheaval in the country.
It’s tricky, because there were still so many fans that couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that professional athletes didn’t have freedom of contract. Flood drew sympathizers, but there were always fans who refused to sympathize with someone playing sports for a living.
It would have been fascinating to see what the public perception of Flood would have been if he hadn’t been African American. There was definitely a racist element of the public who viewed him as an “uppity negro.” Obviously that’s horrific, but I think it’s also obvious that Flood would have gotten more sympathy if he was white.
I should add that Flood was fighting to manage the end of his career and control his destiny. We see that play out in sports all the time now. I think LeBron James is the master of managing his own career in terms of where he wants to play and who he plays with. Flood was a predecessor to that, and some people didn’t like it.
I am wondering what you think of the fan perception of pro sports unions now. Has the understanding of these issues shifted?
I think there are more fans now who are openly confident that the players are in the right. We’ve had so much research done on the economics of professional sports during this era. So now when the A’s are threatening to move to Las Vegas, you have a lot more fans calling BS on the owners’ claim that he needs public funding. Fans also no longer expect to see the same players on their team every year. They understand when a player takes a big contract somewhere else.
However, I do think the popularity of fantasy sports has created a psychological alignment with ownership. If you play fantasy sports, you are acting like a general manager. Many leagues have salary caps, and so there is the thinking that certain teams are bad because they have a “small market” and they allegedly don’t have the resources to pay players.
One of my least favorite things I hear from fans is, “I’m paying $15 for a beer because we are paying one of our players a lot of money.” No, you’re not. You’re paying $15 because the owners know you will pay $15. The owners are great at playing this card. “Woe is me, resources are scarce. We can’t compete.” I don’t think everyone who plays fantasy sports thinks that way, but it can reinforce some of the ideas. You hear a lot of terms from the reserve clause era like “team control.”
But there are a lot of fans who understand the economics of the game better than they ever did. That’s a big part of the fanbase, more than ever before — 50 percent or more, I’d guess. That’s encouraging to me, but we still have a lot of fans that stick their heads in the sand. You can’t convince them that a new stadium or a salary cap is a bad idea. They’re just not going to have it.