From the Red Side of the Field: The American Baseball Guild

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Written By Dispatch contributor: Mickey GallagherNOTE: Dispatches represent the views of writers and do not represent official positions of Seattle DSA at large. “The players have been offered an apple, … Read more

Written By Dispatch contributor: Mickey Gallagher
NOTE: Dispatches represent the views of writers and do not represent official positions of Seattle DSA at large.

“The players have been offered an apple, but they could have had an orchard.”
                                                                            — Robert Murphy

You’ve probably heard it said — and you may have said it yourself — “Baseball players make way too much money.” And it’s hard to disagree. When the least important player on a major league team has a minimum salary of $545,000 a year, and there are — conservatively — 50 million people in this country who live in poverty, the contrast is obscene. But baseball players haven’t always been so fortunate. In fact, up until 1968, almost all major leaguers had to work at a second job during the off-season (October – February) in order to make ends meet.

In 1966, Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer won 15 games for Baltimore but he had to spend the off-season working as a salesman at Hamburgers Clothing for $150 a week to pay for his mortgage and his first child. Stan Musial and Willie Mays, both members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, had postseason jobs in 1957: Musial sold Christmas trees and Mays was a car salesman. This wasn’t a matter of greed — it was a matter of survival.

In 1946 there was no minimum salary in major league baseball. Players were paid whatever team owners decided to give them and they could either take it or leave it. And then along came Robert Murphy. A Harvard-educated lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board, Murphy thought this was wrong and decided to change the imbalance of power by creating a union for baseball players — all by himself. Author Leo Lowenfish in the “The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars” saw Murphy’s decision as “undertaking one of the most quixotic crusades in baseball history: organizing on his own the major league baseball players into a modern union.” Murphy was incensed that a number of players made less than $3,500, that players weren’t paid to attend spring training, had no medical coverage, and could find themselves out of a job with only a 10-day warning.

And so on April 17, 1946, Murphy registered the American Baseball Guild as an official labor union. In a press conference the next day, Murphy said “the Guild’s purpose is to right the injustices of professional baseball and to give a square deal to the players, the men who make possible the big dividends and high salaries for stockholders and club executives.” 

Murphy outlined an eight-point program which included a minimum salary of $6,500 ($85,364 in 2019 dollars) with no maximum, salary arbitration, 50% of a player’s sale price to another team, medical insurance and performance incentives. He did not call for abolition of the reserve clause, but did want it modified. The reserve clause in a player’s contract meant that he was the property of that team virtually forever. Even if a player’s contract had expired, hs still wasn’t able to sign with another team. In effect, baseball players were indentured servants to the team owners. It wasn’t until 1975 — 30 years later — that the reserve clause was effectively ended.

The initial response to the Guild from the owners was silence, as it seemed unlikely that one man with no financial support or staff could be a threat. But Murphy didn’t go away and his strategy of organizing players one team at a time seemed to have found a foothold in Pittsburgh. Murphy knew that Pittsburgh was a strong union town and he hoped that public support would be a factor in influencing the players to create the first Guild chapter. Local and state CIO leaders gave him that support, with regional CIO director Andrew J. Federoff saying, “No red-blooded American man or woman carrying a union card will go to a ball game while there is a strike of players.”

The Pirate players were very receptive to the idea, and by May Murphy believed that a majority of the team would vote to make the Guild its representative in collective bargaining with ownership. Pirates owner William Benswanger was obviously not interested in having to deal with a union and he tried to stall and kept putting off the election. Murphy gave him a deadline of June 5 to set a date for the vote.

When Benswanger didn’t respond on the 5th, the players were outraged and wanted to strike immediately, but Murphy persuaded them not to, which he later realized was a huge mistake. Before their next game two days later, the players did take a strike vote. Predictably, a management representative spoke to the team before the vote, while Murphy was not even allowed in the clubhouse. The tally was 20-16 in favor of a strike (trainers and coaches could also vote), but the players had agreed that a 2/3 majority was needed in order for the team to refuse to play. Although almost all of the Pirates were in favor of the Guild, many were afraid that ownership would retaliate by demoting pro-strike voters to the minor leagues or releasing them. Pitcher Rip Sewell, a Southerner, was one player who was virulently anti-Guild and who argued vociferously against a strike. As a reward for his loyalty to ownership, the Commisioner of Baseball gave Sewell a gold watch.

The Pirates’ pro-union vote got management’s attention, and in early July a joint committee of owners from both leagues was formed to come up with a response to the Guild’s demands. They invited a few players to a couple of their meetings, ostensibly to hear what changes players wanted. But in reality it was mostly for show, although the committee did agree to the players’ request for a pension plan. Their recommendations to the other owners was to give the players some concessions: a minimum salary of $5,500; $25 a week for expenses at spring training (later known as “Murphy money”); and the creation of a pension, which would be largely funded by the owners and accessible to players over the age of fifty who had played more than five full seasons.

When word of the committee’s proposals were made public, the enthusiasm for the Guild was significantly diminished. The owners had successfully used the carrot-and-stick strategy: give the players something but keep them from wanting more through the threat of sending pro-union players to the minor leagues or releasing them outright. So it was not surprising that on August 21 the Pirate players voted 15-3 (with 13 abstentions) against representation by the Guild. Murphy reacted to the news by saying, “the players will eventually realize that the club owners who have had seventy years to change the one-sidedness of the baseball picture never acted until the American Baseball Guild threatened the very foundation — sometimes rotten — of their baseball empire.” The struggle to establish a baseball players union was over.

Murphy knew that the owners had no intention of keeping their promises once the Guild was no longer a viable option. On August 21, the owners announced that the minimum salary would be $5,000 a year — not $5,500 — and a section was added to each contract which made it virtually impossible for a player to challenge the legality of the contract in court. The reserve clause continued to be in force, much to the players’ displeasure and the owners’ relief. The vaunted pension plan was a sham: it was woefully underfunded from the start, and within three years it was almost bankrupt. The failure of the owners to follow through on the pension plan ended up being a major factor in the eventual success of the players’ union today, the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Robert Murphy’s attempt to unionize professional baseball players has been considered a failure as it did not achieve its goal. But its existence forced the owners to make concessions that they never would have if there had been no American Baseball Guild. As lefty songwriter Leon Rosselson sang, “Don’t you know bosses give nothing away.” Something all of us would be wise to remember.