Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture by Krister Swanson
The image of men, surrounded by smiling agents and GMs, as they sign two hundred million dollar contracts has recently been the popular depiction of baseball player. It is easy to forget that free agency and the ability for players to make maximum dollars is a relatively new phenomenon. In Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture, Krister Swanson takes a look at the history of this change. Historian Swanson places ballplayers into a larger context, arguing that it was difficult for baseball players to convince the fans that they needed union protection. He argues that baseball players were seen by the public as living the life of luxury and glamor and were lucky to be able to be where they are. Swanson states that "players needed to appeal to their public's sense of freedom, liberty, and capitalistic impulses, all without threatening the romantic traditions of the game and the business of baseball" (xv). As a result, Swanson argues, unionization fundamentally changed the game of baseball. It was through their union that the players finally destroyed the reserve clause, won the right to free agency, thus changing the image of the game for fans from one of tradition to one of a business.
To support these points, Swanson examines the history of the labor movement in Major League Baseball. In the first few chapters, Swanson gives an overview of the history of player unionization. He traces the failed tries and the sometimes extremes means that the owners took to fight back against any attempts from players to unionize. He then looks at the role of television and the impact that it had on revenues. He examines how the players wanted some of this revenue to start a pension plan. He looks at the resistance from owners to give in to any of the player demands. He also examines that despite the success of players such as Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax holding out against the Dodgers and demanding higher pay—demonstrating how collective bargaining could work—players saw very little change in their pay. [End Page 205]
Enter Marvin Miller (in 1966). Miller's role in the unionization process appealed to the common players in his approach to get them to vote to approve a union. He does his due diligence in reminding readers of Curt Flood's battle to get rid of the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams for life. What is different about Swanson is that he investigates the interaction with the fan base and the players. He argues that the owners seemed to hold an upper hand because they would argue ideas of tradition and allowing players to unionize would destroy baseball. They would tell fans that the reason their drinks cost a dollar more is because so and so demanded more money. The owners pleaded poverty. Players had to convince the fans that they were not being greedy and that most of the players did not make close to the salaries that the stars made. Swanson argues that they achieved this by at first concentrating their focus on more "bread and butter" type demands (xiv). Thus, it was easy to convince even the most traditionalist of fans that players needed a pension. This served as a bridge. Swanson argues that the main difficulty was that "players had to convince the fans that they were indeed highly skilled workers who deserved both freedom of contract and a larger share of the ever-increasing revenue streams generated by their on-field work" (xv). As players gained more pay and benefits through their union, they had more difficulty convincing fans that what they were asking was fair. In his final chapter, Swanson looks at how the players finally succeeded in crushing the reserve clause and earning their right to free agency.
Swanson is extremely successful in supporting his argument that ballplayers needed the support of the fan base to be able to unionization. The primary sources support his narrative that these men had trouble gaining the acceptance from fans that they needed because many fans saw the players as living the dream. It appeared to fans that ballplayers were living a life of luxury and were idolized. He also argues convincingly that the owners did a great job of convincing fans that players didn't appreciate the life that they had and that there were being greedy. Swanson's effort showcases the agency of the players as they fought for the ability for self-determination and the ability to have some control over their lives. His use of examples that demonstrated the hardships of the average player (versus the stars) and prompts the reader to think of them as individuals rather than a generalized group. Baseball's Power Shift is not a fully comprehensive study of labor in baseball, but it is not meant to be. Swanson's work takes an interesting new look at the player's labor movement and free agency. With it, he lays groundwork for other historians to build upon as more historians examine dichotomy between fans, media, players, and owners. [End Page 206]