Unionization in baseball goes back almost as far as the professional game itself. Opposed to baseball’s reserve clause and a growing movement led by Albert Spalding to cap players’ salaries, John Montgomery Ward and eight other players in 1885 formed the first players union in baseball — the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Player.
That was nine years after the creation of the National League and six years before the American League came into existence. Other attempts to organize players included the creation of the Players’ Protective Association in 1900, the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America in 1912 and the American Baseball Guild in 1946.
None of those efforts proved sufficient in bringing an end to the reserve clause, which bound players to their respective clubs.
Players, however, regrouped again in 1965 and sought outside expertise to help their cause. Their search led them to Marvin Miller, a highly respected economist for the United Steelworkers of America who immediately began to mold the players into a bona fide labor union. His first steps were to shore up the union’s finances by beginning a group licensing program and educating the players about the fundamentals of organizing and solidarity.
In 1968, Miller helped players negotiate the first-ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in professional sports. The agreement raised the minimum salary in baseball from $6,000 — the level at which it had been stuck for two decades — to $10,000 and set the tone for future advances. In 1970, Miller helped players negotiate the right to arbitration to resolve grievances — an achievement Miller considered the most significant of the union’s early years because the process paved the way for future gains.
The successful founding of the MLBPA changed the landscape of professional sports forever, serving notice that highly skilled athletes would seek the same basic employment rights that people in other professions had long taken for granted. Miller served as the MLBPA’s executive director from 1966 through 1983, and during his tenure base salaries, pension funds, licensing rights and revenues were brought to new levels, laying the groundwork that helped create what is widely considered one of the strongest unions in the country.
Among the many milestones achieved under Miller’s watch was the advent of free agency right.
Curt Flood’s unsuccessful challenge of the reserve clause got the ball rolling toward free agency. Funded by his fellow players, Flood sued Major League Baseball privately. Flood eventually lost his case in the U.S. Supreme Court, but the battle educated countless players and millions of Americans about the fundamental inequity of the reserve system, which perpetually renewed a player’s contract, essentially binding the player to one club for life, or until that club decided to get rid of the player.
Just three years after Flood vs. Kuhn, players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally once again challenged the reserve clause. This time, instead of a trial in a court of law, an independent arbitrator heard the case. And in December 1975, the players finally won the right to free agency, when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that the reserve clause granted a team only one additional year of service from a player, putting an end to perpetual renewal right the clubs had claimed for so long.
It was during the Messersmith/McNally hearing, and the clubs’ attempt to overturn the ruling, that Miller met Don Fehr, who would later become the MLBPA’s executive director. Fehr assisted the MLBPA’s defense as a Kansas City-based attorney, and two years later, in 1977, Miller hired Fehr to join the Association as general counsel.
Fehr served in this capacity until 1986, when the players named him executive director following the short-lived tenure of Ken Moffett as Miller’s successor. Fehr continued Miller’s legacy of keeping players united by keeping them informed, listening and developing a strong consensus on issues important to them as a group.
Fehr led the players during a period of unprecedented growth in which industry revenues climbed to $6.5 billion, while players’ salaries went from an average of $413,000 in 1986 to nearly $3 million when he retired from the position in 2009.
Despite industry growth, owners repeatedly tried to find ways to thwart free-agency rights won by the players. None of those efforts was more cynical than when owners collectively decided not to pursue free agents in the player markets following the 1985, ’86 and ’87 seasons.
Only four of 35 free agents signed with new teams following the 1985 season. Players the caliber of Kirk Gibson, Tommy John and Phil Neikro were not offered contracts. The next season, the owners acted in concert again to restrain the free-agent market when players like Tim Raines, Bob Boone and Jack Morris were unable to get offers from other clubs.
The MLBPA filed grievances alleging ownership collusion in early 1986 and again in February 1987. In September 1987, arbitrator Tom Roberts ruled that the owners had violated the Basic Agreement in the first collusion case, and later, in January 1988, determined damages of $10.5 million. In October 1989, arbitrator George Nicolau ruled that owners had again violated the Basic Agreement in the second collusion case, awarding damages of $38 million.
In January 1988, the MLBPA filed a third collusion grievance after an offseason players market for which the owners created an “information bank” to share information and restrain salaries.
The players prevailed in that grievance, too, and, in November 1990, reached a final settlement to all three collusion cases in which $280 million in damages was awarded to players.
Fehr also guided the players through a 32-day lockout by owners in the spring of 1990 and a 232-day strike in 1994-95 in which players stuck together to fight off an attempt by owners to break their union and implement cuts in pay and benefits. Owners went so far as to even try dressing replacement players, but still the union would not bend. It was perhaps the greatest show of union solidarity in modern sports history.
After work stoppages in each of the eight rounds of bargaining between 1972 through 1995, the next round of bargaining, in 2002, brought a contract without a strike or lockout and the same was true for the agreement reached in 2006. That was Fehr’s final contract negotiation as executive director and it ensured 16 years of labor peace in baseball. .
Fehr also played an important part in spreading the popularity of baseball beyond North America, including efforts to help create and develop the World Baseball Classic, the sport’s first World Cup-styled international tournament featuring active Major Leaguers.
Fehr announced his impending retirement in June 2009, and at Fehr’s recommendation, the players named Michael Weiner, a longtime counsel with the MLBPA, as their new executive director in December 2009. Weiner inherited from Fehr a union that was united, powerful and effective.
Weiner was the lead negotiator when the sides reached agreement on their 2006 CBA, which extended through the 2011 season. Weiner negotiated his first agreement as executive director in 2011, steering an unprecedented level of player involvement to reach perhaps the most comprehensive agreement in the union’s history. More than 230 different players attended at least one bargaining session on the way toward negotiating a deal that addressed, among many issues, league realignment, expansion of post-season play, numerous health and safety issues, and benefit plan increases for current and former players, to name a few of the issues covered. This latest agreement was settled more than a month before the previous agreement expired, and will ensure uninterrupted play through 2016.
Weiner’s tenure as executive director was cut short, however, when he died in November 2013 after a courageous and inspiring 15-month battle with brain cancer. He was only 51, but he left on the baseball community a lasting impression of his warmth, compassion, sense of fairness and fierce intellect. His brief tenure as executive director was a period in which, at Weiner’s urging, the players strengthened their involvement in union affairs and collective bargaining, yielding significant improvement in the Basic Agreement and the game.
In December 2013, the executive board voted unanimously to appoint Tony Clark as the union’s next executive director. Clark, 41 who had joined the MLBPA staff in March 2010 as director of player relations and was promoted to deputy executive director in July 2013, is the first former player to lead the Players Association. He played for six clubs over a productive 15-year career as a switch-hitting first baseman and designated hitter.
From Miller to Fehr to Weiner to Clark one constant has remained: Each generation of players has passed along a legacy and a responsibility to the next generation — a legacy built on equality, loyalty and fair play.