Enterprise & Society 4.2 (2003) 376-378
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Charles P. Korr. The End of Baseball as We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-1981. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. xviii + 336 pp. ISBN 0-252-02752-3, $34.95.
Free market should be the only way to set value.
—Donald Fehr, MLBPA legal counsel, 1980
The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) has been called the most "successful union in modern American history" (p. 9). Over the past four decades the strength and membership of most private-sector unions have withered, and union members have found it difficult to hold on to above-market wages. Meanwhile, the players' union has blossomed and players' salaries have soared. Ironically, the MLBPA's success has come primarily from forcing employers to extend competition to the labor market, rather than from adopting the traditional union strategy of overcoming the prospect of individual bargaining and the forces of competition.
Charles Korr's book is a superb narrative and analysis of the MLBPA's struggle to assure ballplayers the benefits of competition by breaking the power of the "reserve clause," which denied players free agency and forced them either to take a club's offer or to leave the Major Leagues. Although the popular press and scholars other than Korr have recently and thoroughly covered this ground, Korr's work offers important new information and insights through the author's use of MLBPA files and his interviews with men involved on both sides of the negotiations.
Korr's narrative begins with Robert Murphy's failed attempt to organize the American Baseball Guild in 1946, the employer-initiated negotiations that followed it, and the evolution of the players' Pension Fund Committee into the Players Association in the 1950s. By 1960 the association had established a permanent central office and selected Judge Robert Cannon as its legal advisor. In the early 1960s the union's leaders became increasingly frustrated by the owners' dismissive attitude and their insincerity about the pension plan [End Page 376] and by the overall labor relations regime, which gave management the upper hand in almost all matters. Years later Judge Cannon, who sought harmony (and aspired to become the Major League's commissioner), lamented that "the leadership of the Association, not the rank and file, wanted [me] to go punch the owners in the nose, but don't tell them we told you to do it" (p. 29). Korr identifies former Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts as the most important force behind this growing militancy and instrumental in the selection of Marvin Miller as the union's first executive director in 1966.
Miller, a former Steelworkers Union official, won the confidence of players by his attentive demeanor and was granted an invaluable gift when Sports Illustrated published a series of articles by Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi describing his lopsided power and hardball tactics in contract negotiations. Dissatisfaction spread to the rank-and-file as the union demonstrated the potential gains from unity by negotiating a lucrative collective deal with card maker Topps. By the late 1960s the union leadership's credibility, the players' unity, and the added job security resulting from expansion gave the players a strong bargaining position. Labor law forced the owners to bargain, which culminated in the union's first Basic Agreement (1968). It was the agreement's inclusion of grievance arbitration that ultimately destroyed the reserve clause: arbitrator Peter Seitz's 1975 ruling handed players the possibility of gaining free agency after playing out their option year.
The book concludes by charting the road to free agency (through Curt Flood, Ted Simmons, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally) and the strikes, which demonstrated the players' unity and power and ultimately protected and codified their gains. Along the way Korr makes insightful arguments about the self-destructive behavior of chronically divided management, the antiunion bias of the media, and why the National Football League players' union fared less successfully.
Korr rejects three "commonly held assumptions": that the success of the union was inevitable, that it had a well-defined...