What is interesting here is that, as Yogi Berra might put it, we’ve got deja vu all over again: What is happening in the minor leagues is what the Major Leagues had to go through starting in the late 19th century, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that MLB began to see salary increases for players, many of whom worked second jobs in the off-season just to make ends meet.
Given the frankly unimaginable salaries that top MLB players command today, it may be hard to muster sympathy for this issue, but I think that the minors are going through the same situation that MLB faced for nearly a century–and it was very much a labor versus management/ownership struggle even if the “good guys” don’t resemble Cesar Chavez or Mother Jones.
Starting in 1879, owners of baseball teams began writing contracts for players’ services that included a Reserve Clause, or a stipulation that the team retained ownership of the player even after the contract expired, in essence making the player the team’s property in perpetuity.
Opposition began almost immediately, from the formation of rival leagues that inevitably folded to court decisions. In 1922, the US Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision that ruled that the Reserve Clause did not violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act because baseball was not involved in interstate commerce.
It was very much a semantical contortion–players indeed crossed state lines to play other teams–but the Supreme Court determined that the essence of the team remained within the state. Yes, mull that one over, and also mull over that the Chief Justice was baseball-loving William Howard Taft, who as President instituted the tradition of throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season. (Ah, the old Washington Senators. As the saying went, “Washington: First in peace, first in war–and last in the American League.”)
By 1948, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned a lower-court decision that had denied one player’s right to sue MLB; the Second Circuit Court excoriated the Reserve Clause, which it called “shockingly repugnant to moral principles that . . . have been basic in America . . . [since] the Thirteenth Amendment” (which abolished slavery in 1865), and it likened the Reserve Clause to involuntary servitude that “results in something resembling peonage of the baseball player.”
Fearing the abolition of the Reserve Clause, baseball owners fought back, even stooping to Red Scare tactics by declaring “that the Reserve Clause was opposed by people with avowed Communist tendencies.” By the way, that quote is from Branch Rickey, who as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers had integrated baseball by hiring Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in MLB in the 20th century.
In other words, black or white are welcome to play baseball–just don’t complain about the pay scale because that makes you a commie. This brings us to Curt Flood. A fine center fielder of the 1960s, Flood had begun feuding with his employer, the St. Louis Cardinals, over his salary, and reputedly in retaliation, the Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. This was the fiat afforded the team because of the Reserve Clause.
Flood opposed the trade. He wrote a letter to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stating that he would field offers from teams willing to bid on his services for the 1970 season while stating that he, Flood, did not consider himself to be “property”—and as Flood was African-American, that term had deep and painful historical resonance, as Flood articulated in his letter: “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
Flood took his case all the way to the US Supreme Court, which in 1972 had ruled against Flood in a 5-to-3 decision. The majority opinion was written by Justice Harry Blackmun, who prefaced his opinion with a glowing hosanna to baseball that would make Ken Burns blush. Dissenters included Justices Thurgood Marshall, who faulted the courts for allowing the anti-trust exemption to persevere, and William O. Douglas, who agreed with Flood that the Reserve Clause unlawfully benefited owners at the players’ expense while scoffing at Blackmun’s flowery defense of baseball history: “This is not a romantic history baseball enjoys as a business. It is a sordid history.”
Flood effectively ended his career in a losing cause, but his effort was not in vain. He enjoyed the support of Marvin Miller, who as the director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, the players’ union, had begun to chip away at the Reserve Clause through arbitration and free agency, which by the mid-1970s had made it possible for players to negotiate with teams directly for their services, with a corresponding increase in salaries across all of MLB as teams were now willing to pay players better wages simply to retain their services and not have them look elsewhere.
With respect to salaries, one can argue that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, but it is important to note, as this article does, that this applies to MLB only. Minor-league salaries are pittance wages, and although some players get a substantial signing bonus, most only get a nominal bonus. And with 150 or so minor-league teams, across three minor league levels (single A to triple A), compared to 30 MLB teams, only about 10 percent of minor leaguers are going to make “the Show,” using the phrase popularized by the Kevin Costner film Bull Durham, written and directed by Ron Shelton, who spent five years in the Baltimore Orioles farm system without ever making it to the Show.
Can the minor leagues unionize, or achieve some sort of labor victory? That is going to be a harder job than what had happened in MLB–and look how long that took. Still, if this article from 2014 from, appropriately enough, Mother Jones magazine is any indication, similar rumblings are occurring:
Minor League Players Make Poverty-Level Wages
Again, this might not be the textbook labor struggle progressives typically embrace, but sometimes you have to swing at the pitch you’re thrown to keep from striking out.