The history of the MLBPA

May 4, 2022


Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

Baseball may be America’s pastime, but players still have to fight for better treatment.

Baseball is a very storied sport, and each season is memorable in its own way. The league itself is also very storied for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is players fighting for equality.

Since the National League came into existence in 1876, players have fought for better pay, protection from owners, and some sort of organization to represent their values.

From not having a voice to calling their own shots, this is the story of the players’ fight for equality.

Players’ initial attempts to unionize


Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

Baseball card of the New York Giants’ John Montgomery Ward.

In 1885, the MLB didn’t exist yet; initially only the National League existed. The NL wasn’t the only league in America, but it was the most popular one.

The Chicago White Stockings and the New York Giants were the two best teams in the league. Players, however, weren’t happy. The reserve clause was created in 1879 and gave owners unlimited control over their players.

There was no free agency, there were no salary negotiations, there were no players with power. If players didn’t like their salary, tough. If they wanted to leave their team for another, they couldn’t. If they wanted more money and wouldn’t play under their current salary, they weren’t going to play another game. Owners owned their players.

1885 was a bad year for players. That year the NL instituted a salary cap which capped their salary at $2,000 a year. The salary cap has since been abolished, technically, but there is a luxury tax for ball clubs that act as a sort of salary cap. Hall of Famer Michael “King” Kelly had to get a job in the offseason to make ends meet. He hit .388 in 1886 and is a career .307 hitter, yet he still had to work multiple jobs, something that is unimaginable now.

After the salary cap was instituted, players were outraged. They banded together to create the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. The “Brotherhood” started with just 9 players with New York Giants player John Ward (a law graduate) serving as President.

The Brotherhood created a relief committee to help injured players still get money as they weren’t paid if they didn’t play, which enticed many other players to join the Brotherhood. The National League didn’t recognize the union until they agreed to have a meeting with them in 1887, but it didn’t go well.

In 1890, Ward and the union came up with a plan to revise the reserve clause. They proposed a reserve clause that allowed players to leave the team they played for after “x” amount of years. The NL didn’t want any part of that, so they struck down the proposal, dealing a big blow to the relatively new union.

The NL had a monopoly for many on professional baseball for many years, but in 1900, Ban Johnson created the American League. His plan to create a rival for the NL was better than the Players League was a decade earlier; he put teams in cities already occupied by the NL. In June of 1900, veteran catcher Chief Zimmer became president of the Players Protective Association, or PPA. Zimmer didn’t have a background in law, so they hired Harry Taylor.

The AL wanted to get players who were unhappy in the NL so the league didn’t institute a reserve clause. After that guarantee, 60% of the players in the AL had played in the NL.

Before the 1903 season, the AL “signed the National Agreement” and the first World Series was played between the two leagues. After 9 years of the two leagues playing nice, the players sought to create a new union. The Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America was formed in 1912, and former player Dave Fultz served as president. Fultz, however, wasn’t the most popular with the players because he didn’t like using the term “union” and wasn’t really interested in the players’ complaints. He did get teams to pay for players’ uniforms and change the color of the outfield walls to make the balls easier to see, but the Fraternity was overshadowed by a new problem.

The Federal League declared themselves a major league in 1914. The NL and AL sued them in 1915 for interfering in their operations. A historic lawsuit ensued that year: Federal Baseball Club v. National League. The Supreme Court ruled the Sherman Antitrust Act didn’t apply to the MLB, so the MLB was exempt from the antitrust act, a decision that affects players to this day.

After the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to players, they didn’t bother to start another union again until 1946. Many players, like Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, just to name a few, returned home from Europe. A lawyer based in Boston named Robert Murphy started the American Baseball Guild after hearing about the players unrest in an expanded league.

He knew teams had to strike to be taken seriously, so Murphy focused on the Pittsburgh Pirates because the town was full of union workers. Before he called on the Pirates to strike in June, he made a list of demands to the league. He wanted a minimum salary for players ($7,500), arbitration to be available to players in a wage dispute, players to receive 50% of the purchase price if their contract is sold to another team, no salary cap, bonuses and insurance to be offered in contracts, and that contracts couldn’t be “one sided.”

Again, the demands wouldn’t be taken seriously if teams didn’t strike, so he called on the Pirates to do so. On June 7, in a players only meeting the players needed a supermajority to go on strike. Of the 36 players they needed 24 players to vote yes, only 20 voted yes to strike. They went on to play, winning 10-5, but they were heavily booed by the union workers in attendance. After the game, third basemen Lee Handley said, “We played a dirty trick on Murphy. We let him down, and I was one of those who did it.”

After the failed strike attempt, Murphy and the union faded, but the MLB did eventually cave on some of their demands.

They instituted a minimum salary of 5,500 dollars, a pension plan, “the ability for one elected player representative from each league to appear before them to discuss issues and grievances,” and spring trading per diem.

Later, Murphy said players took an “apple” but “could have had an orchard.” The MLB ruled over their players for over another 20 years, but then came Marvin Miller, who would change the MLB and sports unions forever.

MLBPA origins under Marvin Miller

The players were upset with the way they were being treated by the owners, so in late 1965, they decided to try and unionize again.

Instead of having the union run by a player, like in previous attempts, they went out and got an economist from the United Steelworkers of America named Marvin Miller.

By March of 1966, the players announced they were nominating Marvin Miller for the position of Executive Director. In April, he was elected Executive Director by a vote of 489-136. Miller was not allowed to be funded by the hall clubs, and only had a bank balance of $5,700 and a single file cabinet. Before a new bargaining agreement could be negotiated, Miller improved the pension plan.

In 1968, Miller negotiated on behalf of the players and raised the minimum salary to $10,000. One of Miller’s crowning achievements was getting the league to allow players arbitration to resolve grievances.

In 1969 Curt Flood, a player for the Cardinals, was traded to the Phillies in the offseason. He challenged the trade, declaring ‘he wasn’t a piece of property’. At the time, free agency didn’t exist; the only way to leave a team was being traded or released.
Flood didn’t want to leave St. Louis after being there for 12 years, and at the time the Phillies weren’t a good team.

The commissioner didn’t intervene in the trade, forcing Flood to take the issue to MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller. Miller said he would fund Flood’s lawsuit and back him throughout the process.

The case was brought before the Supreme Court in 1972. Flood compared the reserve clause to slavery, but the Court decided in favor of the MLB 5-3. Flood was blackballed by baseball during and after the lawsuit, but his case paved the way for players getting to enter free agency.

Three years after the case, players Andy Messersmith and David McNally challenged the reserve clause. Instead of having the case heard in a court of law, it was heard by an independent arbitrator. Messersmith and McNally won their case, and players were granted the ability to enter free agency after a certain amount of years. During the case, attorney Donald Fehr assisted the players in their case.

He would develop a life long friendship with Miller and be an integral part in the MLBPA.  He served on the union’s general counsel until 1986, eventually becoming Executive Director.

When Fehr became Executive Director, the players’ median salary went from 413,000 to almost 3 million dollars when he retired in 2009.

The owners were still upset over the players’ right to free agency, so from 1985 through the 1987 offseason, the owners conspired to not sign any free agents. The MLBPA filed grievances in ‘86 and ‘87. Arbitrator Tom Roberts decided that the owners violated the Basic Agreement in the league’s first collusion case. In January 1988 10.5 million dollars was awarded to the players hurt by the collusion.

In 1989, another arbitrator, George Nicolau, ruled the owners violated the Basic Agreement in the league’s second collusion case, this time awarding the players 38 million dollars in damages. Another collusion grievance was filed by the MLBPA in Jan. 1988, claiming the owners created an “information bank” and attempted to restrain players’ salaries.

In November 1990, a settlement to all three cases was met, and 280 million dollars in total was awarded in damages.

Fehr led the union through a lockout in Spring Training in 1990, and famously through the 1994-1995 strike. Fehr retired in 2009, with the union as strong as ever.

Currently, Tony Clark is Executive Director and led the players through a 99 day lockout in which the owners tried to break the union up once again. The union is one of the strongest in the country, and it is a model example for unions everywhere.

The 1994-1995 MLB strike

On Aug. 11, 1994, Tony Gwynn was batting .394, the Montreal Expos were World Series favorites, and Ken Griffey Jr. had 40 home runs. On Aug. 12, none of that mattered: the players were on strike.

The most historic and famous strike in sports history began on Aug. 12 and didn’t conclude for another 232 days. The strike is also the most controversial baseball strike because it happened in the middle of the season. Fans were angry that no more baseball was going to be played; misguided, they blamed the players and the MLBPA, along with the owners, but to a lesser extent.

Many fans were upset Tony Gwynn’s potentially historic season was cut short, Yankee fans were upset Don Mattingly and the Yankees great season was cut short, and Montreal fans were upset because they knew the ‘94 Expos could’ve gone all the way (potentially saving their franchise from extinction).

The strike started because of the players’ growing distrust in the owners. Previously, the owners colluded to not sign free agents. The owners were also unhappy. In the 1990 lockout, owners were unhappy they weren’t able to implement a salary cap, and player salaries increased.

During that lockout Bud Selig entered the picture by arguing on behalf of the owners. He gained the trust of the owners, something then commissioner Fay Vincent didn’t have. Selig called for a vote of no confidence so Vincent would be removed as commissioner. The owners voted him out and Selig became the commissioner.

In Jan. 1994, the league approved a new revenue sharing, priming a salary cap. In June, the owners proposed a new CBA which introduced a salary cap, eliminated salary arbitration and gave the owners the right to keep free agents as long as they matched the best offer. The owners told them that the players would make more money in the aggregate but refused to show them their financial information. The players rejected that offer.

MLBPA executive director Don Fehr sought to strip the MLB’s antitrust exemption after the MLB withheld 7.8 million dollars worth of money they were required to pay. Congress didn’t strip their antitrust exemption, so Fehr set a strike date for Aug. 12.

The season, along with the World Series, was canceled in September, costing the owners 580 million dollars and collectively the players lost 230 million dollars in salary.

In the offseason, negotiations were slow, so slow that the then President Bill Clinton ordered them to get back to the negotiating table. They ignored him.

In January the owners decided to play the season with replacement players, aka “scabs.”

“We are committed to playing the 1995 season and will do so with the best players willing to play,” said Selig.

In February, replacement players showed up to spring training. In March, the players sued the MLB in federal court for violating labor laws. United States District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Sonia Sotomayor filed a preliminary injunction against the owners, stating the league cannot play the season with replacement players.

After the owners weren’t allowed to start the season with replacement players, they caved to the union’s requests. The season started with low fan attendance that continued throughout the season. The players suffered more than the owners. Fans booed players when they took the field, but the owners, for the longest time, got little of the blame.

There hasn’t been a strike in baseball since, but there has been a lockout, which happened from December 2021 to March 2022.

The 2021-2022 MLB Lockout


Arturo Pardavila III

Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Baseball.

A lockout is different from a strike. A lockout is when the owners prohibit their players from playing baseball whether the players like it or not.

This lockout lasted 99 days, and has officially soured fans on commissioner Robert Manfred (who was already quite unpopular) and on owners. Fans blamed the players in large part for the ’94-95 strike, but this time fans rightfully blamed the owners.

Owners wanted the CBT (collective bargaining tax) to remain the same with a bump after a few years. They didn’t want to share league revenues with players, meaning money they get from ad revenue or World Series promotions. The owners wanted to keep the salary minimum where it was at $570,500, but the players wanted the minimum salary at $725,00 with it getting raised every year. The owners were, however, okay with the salary minimum being raised as long as the MLBPA accepted a 14 team playoff bracket (the union did not agree to that).

A major issue was the pre-arbitration pool and how much money should be allocated. The owners wanted 30 million dollars a season, players wanted 85 million dollars with an annual increase. Ultimately, the CBT threshold was set at 230 million dollars, peaking at 244 million dollars in the final year of the CBA. The minimum salary was set at $700,000, peaking at $780,000 in the final year of the CBA. The pre-arbitration bonus pool was set at 50 million dollars. And the owners and union agreed to a 12 team playoff format.

Even though an agreement has been reached and fans have a date for Opening Day circled on their calendar, the damage has been done. Manfred is no longer considered a commissioner for the players; he’s considered a mouth piece for the owners.

“We worked hard to avoid an outcome that’s bad for our fans, bad for our players, and bad for our clubs,” said Manfred. “Our failure to reach an agreement was not due to a lack of effort by either party.”

Except, the owners didn’t agree to sit down with the players for over a month because they believed the players would cave as the season approached. The players didn’t cave, making Manfred and the owners not only look foolish, but also unprofessional.

Danny Vietti, a writer for CBS Sports, spoke to The Delphi about the lockout.

“Both sides are acting awfully childish and immature,” said Vietti. “Both sides need to swallow their pride.”

According to Vietti, the players are not entirely off the hook. They didn’t cause the work stoppage, but they weren’t demanding to be at the negotiating table back in December.

Players fought hard to get rid of the clause that allows owners to “own” players for the first six years of their career. Players aren’t allowed to enter free agency until after their sixth year in the league.

The MLB is very much still an owner-run league, as opposed to what we’re seeing in the NBA where players are sitting out if they don’t want to play for their team. Vietti voiced his thoughts regarding whether or not the league will tilt its rules in favor of the players.

“As long as teams control players for the first six years of their careers, that will be tough to overcome,” said Vietti.

Public opinion regarding the lockout has heavily favored the players. 45% of baseball fans said they blamed the owners for not reaching a deal, while only 21% of fans blamed the players. In 1994, 47% of fans supported the owners, with only 26% supporting the players. Times have changed, fans are more informed now, and owners no longer have the support or trust of the fans. The league has a problem on its hands, and it’s the owners.

Greg Hartung, a Phillies fan and Del Val student, shared his thoughts about who was to blame for the lockout?

“Rob Manfred is the only right answer here,” said Hartung. “He is to blame for everything. Because he’s an idiot and doesn’t know how to run baseball. He doesn’t care about the players. All he wants is to save money and get ratings up, and he’s failing at that.”

Hopefully, the owners and players can continue to put their differences aside for the best sport in the world: baseball.

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About the Contributor
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Joe Flynn, Sports Editor

Joe is a senior who is interested in sports. His favorite sport is baseball, and his second favorite sport is football. Joe joined The Delphi staff because...

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