- Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture by Krister Swanson, and: Players: The Story of Sports and Money and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution by Matthew Futterman
In November 2015, the Kansas City Royals’ victory over the New York Mets in the World Series spawned a bevy of headlines celebrating that a small-market team could prevail on baseball’s biggest stage. However, the Royals’ recent run of success notwithstanding, money has become increasingly central to professional sports in the United States over the last hundred years. Two new works help explain precisely why this is the case. Krister Swanson’s Baseball’s Power Shift provides a labor history of professional baseball from the late nineteenth century through the early 1980s. Examining players as workers and owners as bosses, Baseball’s Power Shift argues that, as baseball players attempted to unionize, “they actively worked to shape public opinion in order to win the backing of the baseball public” (x). Thus, in addition to the details of the negotiations between team owners and player representatives—particularly Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from 1966 to 1982—Swanson documents the media reaction to baseball’s labor strife as well as the cultural and political conditions that facilitated or impeded public support for increased player say over the game.
Rather than adhere to a simplistic story of ascending salaries and a march from the reserve clause to free agency, Swanson charts a nonlinear narrative of expanding and contracting players’ rights. Even as they were trapped in the infamous reserve clause, baseball players made multiple attempts to organize decades before Miller reinvigorated the MLBPA. Similarly, players benefited from trade wars that followed the formation of new professional baseball leagues in the early twentieth century. However, these challenges to owner supremacy were ultimately short-lived and did not fundamentally alter the terms of the player–owner relationship. Players’ failures to organize were due in part to the plethora of antiunion practices utilized by owners. Among the most common tactics were threatening players with demotion to the minor leagues, blacklisting unruly players, turning stars against [End Page 129] their teammates, and framing players as greedy enemies of the game of baseball in appeals to the public via the press.
The public relations battles between owners and players represent an important but largely unfulfilled promise of Swanson’s work. Swanson argues that “[p]ublic acceptance . . . was always critical to any attempt to unionize Major League Baseball” (279), and he carefully documents the ways owners and players fought over unionization, salaries, and pensions both in courts of law and in the court of public opinion. For example, Swanson aptly illustrates fans’ response to the 1972 MLBPA strike. However, Swanson never specifically explains why fan opinion mattered in a material or political sense. As he astutely notes, the fan–player relationship differs greatly from that between other workers and consumers. Nonetheless, the ultimate agents of change in Swanson’s narrative are figures such as Miller who were directly involved in player–owner negotiations, not the fans or the media. While Baseball’s Power Shift does not achieve all of its stated goals, Swanson has, nonetheless, produced a well-written and important work that should become the new, definitive take on baseball labor history in the hundred years before free agency.
Matthew Futterman’s Players also examines the business side of sports, charting the growth of the sports industry from 1960 to the present. Players tells two intertwined stories: how sports became big business in the post–World War II period and how athletes came to receive a larger share of the industry’s growing revenue. Specifically, Futterman’s narrative...