By John Smith
The 2018 baseball season is underway following a strange offseason in which many quality veteran free-agent players lingered without contracts for months. In the end, top picks such as Jake Arrieta, Greg Holland and Mike Moustakas were signed for far less than they would have wanted, in a series of moves that surprised players and the sports media alike.
In addition to these struggles for veterans, minor league players who have long experienced impoverishment saw their exploitation become legally enshrined into law as exempt from federal labor standards. These events are the logical consequence of the exploitative deal struck between the players’ union and team owners in which young players are wildly underpaid and hope for big contracts later in their careers. How did this problem occur? Why would the union agree to this system? This goes back to the nearly century-long fight to win free agency in the first place.
Major Leagues And the Reserve Clause
Baseball’s popularity exploded in the period after the Civil War, with amateur leagues all over the country. By the late 1800s, the ability to make money from baseball birthed professional leagues and club owners. Many leagues came and went, but only the National League (NL), founded in 1876, and the American League (AL), founded in 1901, survive today.
In the major leagues, the owners ultimately held all of the power over the players. They accomplished this with the reserve clause. This was a clause in player contracts that gave the team perpetual rights to a player, even after their contract ended. Players could be sold and traded without their input. Contracts were normally only offered for one year and players could either accept the owners’ terms or hold out and not get paid. There were no meaningful unions, with the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first players union, ultimately being crushed in 1891 by the financial power of the NL. The rise of the AL initially provided the ability for NL players to jump ship for higher wages, but much like a modern worker taking a higher salary at a different company in the same industry, the power remained in the hands of hostile ownership. After briefly attempting to crush the AL, the NL came to accept it was better for the agents of capital to work together. The two leagues recognized each other and their reserve clauses were mutually enforced. The duopoly of the two leagues was even legally supported by the Supreme Court, with the leagues being granted an exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act.
This situation made it so that only superstar players, such as Babe Ruth, could succeed when holding out for a better contract. There were always going to be more players available to replace non-superstars, and even the unfair salaries of a major league baseball player were far better than those available to most other workers. A player was only as valuable as their on-field contributions, and more importantly, their ability to draw ticket sales.
Baseball’s popularity grew throughout the 20th century, revenues increased, the owners got richer – but the player’s share remained suppressed. This labor-management reality would not be broken until the 1970s. A separate status quo, however, would change in the late 1940s.
The Color Line and Capital Breaking the Working Class
The rise of professional baseball and the money that came from it, led to the racist “gentleman’s agreement” of the Color Line. Black players, who were already in the ranks of professional baseball, were expelled. The brief period of advancement for African Americans in the United States after the end of slavery was facing backlash from whites who wanted to remain in control. The potential wealth as a professional baseball player was denied to Black players by the Color Line.
(Notable is the fact that the Color Line did not apply to other racial minorities. There were active Latin American and Native American players during this period.)
Baseball, matching the country at large, was full of outspoken racists who were unwilling to play with Black players under any circumstances. While not outspoken, a large number of players were complicit in their silence, accepting things as they were because it kept potential competitors out of the AL and NL.
Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were the first players to break the Color Line in the NL and AL respectively, both in 1947. Facing racism from both fans and fellow players, both of them would go on to have Hall of Fame careers and were followed by many other great Black players. But this was no act of altruism from owners.
The negro leagues, which had formed outside of the AL and NL, were significant Black-owned businesses. Integration meant that all of the best negro leagues players got absorbed into the white-owned major leagues – leading to the negro league eventual collapse. Integration, a morally correct step, was only allowed by capital when it allowed them to destroy competition and flood the labor market with new players to keep wages suppressed.
While the Color Line does not tie directly into the fight against the reserve clause, it is exemplary of how capital will find wedges to divide the working class. The episode was also the first major instance where players failed to act collectively in seeking the best deal for themselves.
The End of the Reserve Clause
Curt Flood was an Black baseball star for the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1960s, but was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. Flood refused to play for the Phillies and objected to the idea that the reserve clause allowed the owners to control the entirely of his baseball life. Marvin Miller, the head of the new player’s union, the MLBPA, recalled him saying, “I think the change in Black consciousness in recent years has made me more sensitive to injustice in every area of my life.” Flood considered himself a “well-paid slave” under this system. His experience with racial oppression gave him additional insight and drive to fight against economic injustice.
Flood and the MLBPA brought a lawsuit against the Commissioner of Baseball. Though they ultimately lost, this fight led to increased solidarity among the players. They ultimately succeeded in ending the reserve clause in arbitration in 1975. Players could now become free agents, but this deal came with significant strings attached.
Free Agency For Some, Exploitation For All
The reserve clause no longer exists for veteran players, but for all intents and purposes, remains in effect for prospects with under six full years of major league service. Players receive poverty wages in the minor leagues. And even for those that make it to the majors, the average career length is only 5.6 years. Most of the players will never benefit from the promise of riches in free agency, and except for extraordinary talents who can negotiate early contracts, all players get to experience six years of exploitation.
Surplus Value On the Sports Pages
The statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) attempts to measure how many wins a player creates for their team above (or below) an average AAA minor leaguer. One WAR in 2017 is worth $10.5 million to a team owner. In 2017, Aaron Judge was named the AL Rookie of the Year. He was worth 8.1 WAR and was paid the MLB minimum salary of $544,400. Next year, he will be paid $622,300, having been given a small raise by the Yankees. If he has a comparable 2018 season, the team’s owners will realize another $85 million of surplus value from his on-field performance.
The System Crashing Down
Why would the players ever agree to this system? The MLBPA is made up of major league players and power is heavily concentrated in the hands of veterans who have reaped the benefits of free agency. The needs of the majority are not being advocated for at the bargaining table. And without a voice, young players are used as bargaining chips in order to benefit those at the top. It is this dynamic that explains the low-balling of the most-recent offseason.
After seeing players’ share of total income grow since free agency began, it has now reversed course. By ignoring the needs of younger players, and by allowing bargaining to be directed by veterans with big contracts, players undermined their own position. A young player today is seen as having so much more (real or potential) surplus value, that owners no longer want to bother paying for expensive veterans. Owners are now using prospects’ cheaper salaries as a cudgel to extract concessions from the well-paid. The victory that took nearly a century to win has been rolled back – and it was a lack of solidarity that gave the ruling class the means to undo it.
Socialism and Solidarity
None of this is to say that Aaron Judge or anyone else needs $85 million, but as a worker, he deserves the value he creates. Under socialism, an incredible player like Judge could play for the love of the game. He wouldn’t have to worry about food, healthcare, or shelter, regardless of the length of his career. Similarly, the fans could enjoy watching him play without having to work long hours or multiple jobs to stay afloat themselves.
Victory over the reserve clause was a result of solidarity, while modern player losses stem from solidarity’s breakdown. Curt Flood, with his viewpoint shaped by the oppression he faced as a worker and as a Black man, was able to rally the players together and win. If today’s MLBPA followed suit and represented all of the players who make Major League Baseball possible, instead of just the well-heeled veterans, they wold be better prepared to avoid compromises that end up hurting them all in the long term.
Capital has done and will do everything that it can to divide and conquer the working class. We must hear the voices of those who suffer most under its weight to avoid having blind spots. Only by having an intersectional view, and by breaking the wedges of oppression that already exist between us, can we hope to save ourselves and the world.
Special thanks to Stuart P. Bentley for feedback and support to get this piece together