Baseball was known as one of the greatest pastimes for Americans since its emergence in the early 1840s. Americans from different races and economic backgrounds attended the various league games to spectate and socialize with others. Conversely, things were not always so great for the players, especially when it came to fair compensation. Many players were lowballed or stuck playing with one team for the duration of their career because the owners implemented the reserve clause in players’ contracts. The origins and demise of the reserve clause had a big impact on the game of baseball.
The reserve clause was defined as a part of the player’s contract that stated after the contract expired, the rights of the player remained with the team. Basically, it assured that players would be guaranteed to one team for the duration of their career in baseball. After the contract was signed, owners had the right to relocate, trade, or release the player at any time. The reserve clause was such an unfair stipulation that held many players back from being compensated fairly and relocating to experience other cities. Many of them opposed the clause by declining to play until their conditions were met. The clause was instituted as assurance for the owners to exert control and profit, much to the players’ displeasure.
Protesting the reserve clause
The first person to challenge the reserve clause was John Montgomery Ward. After an injury to his pitching arm, John Montgomery Ward was sold from the Providence Grays to the New York Gotham before the 1883 season. He attended the prestigious Columbia Law School and graduated in 1885. Using his attained legal skills, Ward formed the first labor union in professional sports by creating the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players and started the Player’s League in 1890. The union expressed that the reserve clause suppressed player’s salaries and limited their mobility. (Hasskamp, 2019 Baseball…para.10) Unfortunately, due to limited funds and participation from others, the Player’s League did not accomplish its goal to ban the reserve clause and disbanded the same year.
A New Era
In 1966, Marvin J. Miller was appointed as the head of the Player’s Union for the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). Many players felt that Miller was a great choice because he had many years of experience working with labor unions such as United Steel Workers dealing with negotiations, labor law and other issues (Rader, 2018). Miller’s goal was to facilitate an increase in players’ salaries, improve pensions, and mandate that team owners negotiate fair contracts.
Curt Flood, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, was a three time All-Star and 7 time Gold Glove Award winner. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, but he refused to report. Flood expressed that the Phillies fans were racist, the team and stadium were crummy. Because of the reserve clause, he had to choose between retiring and negotiating the terms of his contract. His goal was to become a free agent. June 10, 2017 author Mary Craig posted an article titled “Chained to the game: professional baseball and the reserve clause, part two.” In the article she referenced the letter Flood wrote to commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Flood said:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
Kuhn denied Flood’s request. So with the help of Marvin Miller, the Player’s Association, and former Supreme Court Justice, Arthur Goldberg as his lawyer, Curt Flood took his grievances to court. ‘The case challenged the clause on the basis of it violating antitrust laws and the 13th Amendment, the Civil War-era provision which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude.’ (Craig, 2017 para. 7)
The Supreme Court referenced the precedent of baseball’s exemption from antitrust law, and ruled five to three against Flood (Rader, 2018 p.211). After Flood’s loss in court, two years later the league players banded together and with the help of Marvin Miller and the MLBPA took action to improve the working conditions of players. In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenged the reserve clause in court. On December 23, 1975 they were declared the first free agents by an arbitrator. While Miller feared that free agency for all player might lead to fan dissatisfaction and ultimately, lower player salaries; he still fought to negotiate for the player’s rights and compensation. In July 1976, the owners and players reached a settlement that allowed a player to become eligible for free agency after six years. This was groundbreaking for the players as they would no longer be bound to one team for the rest of their athletic career.
Although there are many other events and people that impacted baseball, I believe that the banishment of the reserve clause is one of the most important ones. No one wants to devote many years of service to an organization where they are not compensated poorly and cannot advance, right? Since the start of free agency in 1976, an average salary for a major league player was $52,300. As of 2015, the average was $3,952,000 (Rader, 2018 p.213). What a drastic change 39 years can make! It is a shame that pioneers like John M. Ward and Curt Flood did not get the fair compensation they longed for while they were alive and active in baseball. Nevertheless, their inclination to oppose the unfairness of the reserve clause did lead others to follow in their footsteps and seek change. This is evident in today’s society looking at the salary of the average major league baseball player.