The Owner-Player Conflict

This article was written by David Q. Voigt

This article was published in 1973 Baseball Research Journal

The rhetorical examples on the opposite page furnish a vivid indication of a social institution’s troubles escalating into a strident national issue. On April 1, 1972, major league baseball players embarked on an all-out strike against the 24 franchise owners over the matter of pension benefits. Before the strike was ended 13 days later, the 1972 playing schedule was shortened by several games for each team, with subsequent impact on the outcomes of four divisional pennant races.

During the course of the strike, volleys of rhetoric thundered from trenchant partisans of one or the other embattled forces. Thin on facts for the most part, much of the rhetoric was confusion, reflecting general bewilderment over what the strike was all about. Some expressed horror over the apocalyptic consequences of what they thought was America’s first baseball strike. Some saw the player demands as an indicator of dog-in-the-manger greed that permeates the nation, underlying the moral fiber. Some saw in the strike the death of American baseball as a sports spectacular; others saw it as a rebirth. But all these opinions, long on emotion and short on fact, challenge the student of sports.

The history of major league baseball shows a repetitive pattern of hostility between players and owners dating back to the establishment of the first major league. Beginning in 1871, the struggle swirled about the issues of pay and power. After 1871, each decade saw a renewed flareup. As always the players sought freedom to move where pay was highest, to organize to defend their collective interests, to improve playing conditions, and more recently to secure pension rights. In opposition owner interests aimed at securing and holding territorial rights and control over player services which early led them to adopt the controversial reserve clause.

The struggle began with the founding of the first major league, the National Association in 1871. A player-controlled league, its structure afforded players freedom of bargaining, which they used. When the Association collapsed in 1876, it was a cabal of owners who did it in, charging player leaders with the sins of mal-discipline and profitlessness. The owners moved in with their own structure. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, and went on to rewrite baseball history so as to deny any claims of the old Association to pioneer major league status.

But individually and collectively players fought back. In 1882 catcher Charles Bennett challenged the reserve clause in a state court; in winning he scored the first of several such victories on behalf of player interests. But always the owners managed to deflect the impact of such decisions, and continued to employ the illegal reserve clause. The persistence of this clause, binding a player to a single team, became a major casus belli between players and owners.

Collectively players also seized opportunities to restore their lost power with the most promising opportunities arising when rival leagues challenged the National’s monopoly. In the 1880’s two rival major leagues, the American Association and the Union Association, vied for major league status and initially each of the interlopers offered players freedom from the reserve clause. In the case of the American Association the National League owners used diplomacy to persuade the interlopers to sign a National Agreement which kept the clause. In 1884 these allies jointly froze out the Union Association in a season-long struggle at the gate.

As for class action strikes, the grandest of all baseball strikes was launched by organized players in 1890.

Under the leadership of John M. Ward, a player, lawyer, and president of the Brotherhood of Base Ball Players, collective action was taken against the reserve clause and a threat by owners to limit salaries to a $2000 maximum. After securing financial backing, the players in 1890 ran their own major league. For a single season the Players National League staged its own race (won by Boston) and outdrew its National League rivals at the gate. But the revolutionary league collapsed when its timid backers withdrew after sustaining losses.

Having defeated the players’ Brotherhood, the victorious National League owners turned on their American Association allies, ruining that league in an 1891 price war. Victory gave the National a monopoly which they maintained for a decade. Although the hated salary rule was invoked, its impact was blunted by individual owners refusing to abide by their own agreement. Still the overall effect of the single league monopoly was to cow the players until the American League war of 1901-03 afforded one more opportunity for players to bargain for higher pay and to escape for the moment from reservations. But in 1903 the embattled leagues formed a new national agreement which restored reservation rights. In 1914 the Federal League invasion mounted another serious challenge to the major league status quo, once again providing opportunity for player independence. But the movement collapsed after the 1915 season.

Although rival major leagues provided the best opportunities for players to redress the balance of power and gain salary advantages, most such movements were temporary and abortive. After 1915 these opportunities virtually dried up, except for the Mexican League challenge in 1946, Branch Rickey’s Continental. League threat of the early 1960’s, and baseball playing opportunities in Japan or Latin America. As always the owners fenced off these springs; branding players who availed as outlaws and blacklisting them. But in the case of Danny Gardella, blacklisted after jumping to the Mexican League, a suit settled out of court to Gardella’s advantage exposed the shaky legal ground of the owners.

Meanwhile, players still had the option of banding together into a union for collective bargaining. The Brotherhood of Base Ball Players was the first such attempt and it faded after 1890. In the late 1890’s a player, N. Fred Pfeffer, unsuccessfully sought to organize players, and in 1901 the Players Protective Association was organized by player Charles Zimmer with help from Harry Taylor, a former player turned lawyer. Notwithstanding the blessing given the Association by American Federation of Labor chieftain Samuel Gompers, the movement floundered and its leaders were discredited.

In 1912 with the Federal league threat mounting, major league players banded together for a third time. Under the leadership of David Fultz, another player turned lawyer, the short-lived Baseball Players Fraternity was launched. Included in its 17 demands were the rights of players to receive copies of their contracts and for castoff players to have the right to bargain for re-employment. These rights and others were won, including limited severance pay and improved work conditions. But the collapse of the Federal League and a rising salary trend after 1920 weakened the movement and restored power to the owners who once again divided and conquered by insisting on a policy of dealing with each player individually. Nevertheless the Fraternity established a precedent for collective bargaining.

As a counterweight to owner power, player unionization gained new strength after World War II. Early in 1946 the American Baseball Guild was organized under the leadership of Robert Murphy, a lawyer and former examiner for the National Labor Relations Board. This fourth attempt at unionization drew strength from the Mexican league threat. Striking at the reserve clause and at poor pay and working conditions, Murphy reminded players of their rights under Federal law to bargain collectively. The Guild sought to organize players by teams, each with an elected spokesman. Many joined, but an abortive test case in Pittsburgh failed to carry off a strike threat. But owners were fearful, and in the summer of 1946 met with player representatives and conceded a $5,500 minimum salary, severance pay, expense money, and contractual adjustments.

Such gains came at the price of forfeiting the Guild and excluding Murphy from player councils. In effect a company union policy now existed. But the principle of collective bargaining was even more firmly established. Moreover, the players scored a portentious victory when they secured the first all-out pension plan for players. An idea first hatched in 1946 by Martin Marion, shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, it was publicized and eventually supported by four club owners, who persuaded the others to grant the concession. Receipts from All-Star games, World Series matches, radio, and TV helped to finance the plan which took effect in 1947. The plan enabled players with four or more years major league playing experience to draw a pension beginning at age 45. A portent of demands to come, it was the pension, with its emphasis on security, that formed the focal point of conflict between players and owners in recent years.

Rising expectations prodded players into launching the fifth and present unionization, movement. Jaded by company unionism, the players formed the Major League Baseball Players Association in the late 1950’s. Initially Judge Robert Cannon of Milwaukee served as chief negotiator for the players, but he lacked salary and status. Also his style of “personal diplomacy,” emphasizing mediation, soured players, who, in 1966, hired a full time labor representative, tough-minded Marvin Miller, a steel union economist, at a salary of more than $50,000 a year.

To most of the two dozen owners the Miller appointment was a gauntlet flung in their faces. Stiffening their resolve, they forbade the use of pension funds to finance Miller’s salary, a move that raised association dues to well over $300 per player. Owners also seized opportunities to bad-mouth Miller, but the battle-wise adviser remained unruffled. As a result, the owners were obliged to recognize an executive committee of the Players Association, headed by Miller, as a bargaining agency. As a counterweight, the owners in 1967 named John J. Gaherin, the president of the Publishers Association of New York City, as chief negotiator for their interests. Thus, each of the embattled powers had now its own high-priced, specialist-negotiator. And their first task was to debate the comprehensive demands which Miller in 1967 drew up on behalf of the players.

Heading the list was the demand for a substantial raise in minimum salary, a challenge to the reserve clause, a proposal for arbitration procedures that would bypass the Commissioner of Baseball, and a demand for reviewing the extended schedule of games.

By uniting players behind a strike threat, Miller in 1969 scored a victory for the players by winning an increase in minimum salary to $13,500 and an increase in pension payments. Meanwhile, from another front major league umpires were organizing and flexing their muscles with strike threats. Thoroughly alarmed, many owners viewed Miller and the Association as a major threat to baseball’s status quo.

Taking a much tougher stance, the owners stiffened their resolve against concessions in the 1972 round of negotiations. Rejecting Miller’s contention that inflationary pressures mandated a cost of living increase in pension payments, the owners refused to allow players to use income earned by investing a portion of the pension fund to increase pension payments. Thus, the issue was joined and the 1972 strike resulted when both sides remained immovable.

The strike lasted for 13 days in April 1972 and ended with a compromise which allowed $500,000 of the investment earnings to be turned over to the pension fund. The settlement found both sides claiming victory, but the shortened baseball season cost the owners an estimated $5 million in lost gate receipts and the players lost a portion of their salaries. Moreover, animosities generated by the strike widened the rift between players and owners, increasing the likelihood of renewed warfare in the near future.




PLAYERS: “Maybe the average fan couldn’t sympathize with us. But we thought it was important. The important thing is, we stuck together.”

— Frank Robinson, LA Dodgers.


OLD TINE PLAYER: I never sent a contract back in my life. The most I ever got was $25,000 . . . They cut me to $21,500 the next year.” “I think the players are biting the hand that feeds them.”

— Enos Slaughter, now Duke University Baseball Coach.


MARVIN MILLER, PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: “Money is not the issue. The real issue is the owners’ attempt to punish the players for having the audacity not to crawl.”


FRANCHISE OWNERS: “Since Mr. Miller has become associated with the players, I’ve heard nothing but threats. I think the players have been misled by Marvin theGreat.”

— Charles Finley, Oakland A’s.


GENERAL MANAGER: “The players are … damn greedy…I’m disgusted with the whole lot of them. This game has been pretty good to them. I think baseball deserves something better.”

— Jim Campbell, Detroit Tigers.


FANS: “The greedy bastards. Row could they do it?”

— Reading Pa. beer distributor

“The first 400 readers to send in ballots say the strike was not justified.”

— The Sporting News April 15, 1972


SPORTSWRITERS: “April 1, 1972 will go down as a black date in sports to mark the first general strike.”

— Oscar Kahan, The Sporting News


BROADCASTERS: “This strike was not for the Hank Aarons or the Willie Mays’. It was for the four-year players who pass up college, spend three to five years to make the majors, and have a career ruined by a dead arm or leg.”

— Howard Cosell, ABC


BASEBALL COMMISSIONER: “Obviously the losers in the strike action taken are the sports fans of America.”

— Bowie Kuhn