For many comrades, harmonizing the appreciation and enjoyment of high-level baseball with an utter disdain for the highly profitable blend of mega-capitalism and corporate socialism that Major League Baseball’s team owners exploit.
And on the face of it, supporting the efforts of Major League Baseball (MLB) players, unionized or not, for greater financial remuneration, is also a difficult proposition for the American socialist. After all, the guaranteed minimum salary for an MLB player is currently $700,000; the average MLB salary is just over $4.4 million per year.
But for the 2023 professional baseball season, we may applaud the efforts of our local minor-league club both on the field and off as Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players have agreed to join the major leaguers’ players association (the MLBPA) – and this victory should be noted by US workers of all stripes looking for fair compensation and representation through union leadership.
Salaries of major league ballplayers today may appear completely disproportionate to their tangible
societal benefit – “They’re being paid millions to play a kid’s game!” is a common-enough complaint. When baseball fans realize this and are honest with themselves, they should also realize that this payday was a long time coming.
The National League was founded in 1876; its original membership was comprised of eight professional teams which had been to this point mostly travelling, “barnstorming” clubs. From the start, National League club owners imposed some incredibly restrictive rules on their labor force: Blacklisting was common and a “gentlemen’s agreement” against offering another team’s players better contracts was reached.
In 1879, the so-called “reserve clause” was codified into National League rules. The reserve clause essentially stated that a player, once signed to a contract, was owned by the club: Team management was allowed to trade, release or (later) send any player down to an affiliated minor-league team; players could do nothing about it.
The reserve clause was codified explicitly as a cap on player salaries – and it was very effective. As late as 1969, superstar Willie Mays was drawing $135,000 (approximately $1.1 million today) while the minimum salary was $10,000 (app. $82,000) and the average was $24,900 (app. $204,200). (Incidentally, when the all-time great Mays asked San Francisco Giants management for a raise in 1972, he was traded to the New York Mets instead.) For contrast, the average worker in the US made just under $5,200 (app. $42,600) per year in 1969.
But the Major League Players Association would change everything. After attempts to unionize MLB ballplayers in 1890, 1900, 1912 and 1946 failed, the MLBPA was officially recognized as a workers union in 1966 – and the floodgates were open.
Following the 1969 season, the St. Louis Cardinals attempted to trade Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies, Flood fought the club in court with the tacit backing of the MLBPA, finally getting the case Flood v Kuhn heard before the Supreme Court. Flood ultimately became American pro sports’ first “free agent” and was signed by the Washington Senators for the 1971 season.
In 1972, MLB players went on strike for two weeks, ultimately winning an increase to their pension fund and the right to arbitration hearings in contract disputes. And in 1975, the Supreme Court in a case brought by MLB players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally brought down the reserve clause once and for all.
But for nearly 50 years, players on Minor League Baseball teams – nearly all of which are owned by Major League Baseball clubs and whose combined rosters of over 5,500 represent seven times more players than in MLB – have remained under the tyranny of an unofficial reserve clause with few individual rights. The minimum salary in minor league ball in 2022 was, incredibly enough, $10,400; in fact, MLB in August 2022 was forced to settle a court case alleging violations of minimum-wage laws for $185 million. On top of this, the typical minor league player can count on constant uprooting, as the parent club trades him or moves him to another team within the parent club’s minor league system.
All this is about to change. On September 14, 2022, MLB officials announced that a majority of MiLB players had signed authorization cards to join the MLBPA, with all related benefits to begin as of Opening Day 2023. Better yet for them, minor leaguers will have the autonomy of a separate voting bloc within the players union.
Upon announcing the success, MLBPA president Tony Clark stated that “This historic achievement required the right group of players at the right moment to succeed. Minor leaguers have courageously seized that moment.”
Indeed they did, and we congratulate the players for striking this blow for workers rights – particularly in the fashion in which they did so. The outreach effort to get about 2,800 onboard took just 17 days to complete from start to finish – an incredible achievement, considering not only the forces allied against any such workers union’s formation but also that the 5,600 ballplayers involved are from innumerable hometowns and are spread across 206 teams in North America.
What’s more, this victory by MiLB players can be just as inspiring as any win of the pennant. According to a piece in the Nation by Dave Zirin, much of the players’ success may be attributed to “grassroots organizing, which much of the media is ignoring.” Historian Peter Rachleff in the same piece commented in part that “The seemingly sudden unionization of 5,000 minor league baseball players is best understood as part and parcel of the impressive upsurge of organizing by workers who are securing the pandemic’s place as a compelling chapter in American labor history.”
And *now* you can take us out to the ball game...
–written by David Landry