Baseball's Lockout Shows the Growing Power of LaborRoundup
tags: baseball, sports, labor history, Curt Flood, Reserve Clause
Gwendolyn Lockman is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin studying labor and leisure in 19th and 20th century America. She is an affiliate of the UT Austin Center for Sports Communication and Media.
More than a quarter century of “labor peace” in Major League Baseball died on Dec. 2, when owners locked the players out after the sport’s collective bargaining agreement expired without the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association reaching a new deal.
While the imposition of a lockout was jarring after this long period of harmony, it was simply the latest chapter in a battle that dates back to the 1870s — one that included a whopping eight work stoppages between 1972 and 1995.
In many ways, the twists and turns of baseball’s labor battle over salaries, pensions and more have reflected the ebbs and flows of labor power in the United States.
In 1879, National League team owners established the then-secret “reserve clause” as part of players’ contracts. Teams could reserve five players on their rosters to prevent other teams from poaching them. Owners claimed they could exercise their option to renew these players in perpetuity. By the 1890s, they inserted this reserve clause in every player contract.
Players balked over this absolute control — just as workers in other industries were battling corporate control as part of the nascent and growing union movement. Players were well aware of the changes in labor in the United States, in part because professional baseball was not a full-time career: players held regular jobs in the offseason.
In 1890, John Montgomery Ward sued the New York Mets. The New York Supreme Court decided in Ward's favor, ruling that his 1889 contract was “harsh and inequitable.” Ward had played the 1890 season in the upstart Players League, but the player-led league folded after one season and the Ward decision faded into obscurity.
Instead, MLB won five cases over the next 60 years — Chase v. White Sox (1914), Federal Baseball v. National League (1922), Gardella v. Chandler (1949), Toolson v. New York Yankees (1953) and Flood v. Kuhn (1972) — strengthening the grip of the reserve clause. These victories reflected how the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) became a tool for corporations to bust unions, despite Congress intending for it to enable breaking up business monopolies.
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