Free Agency and Labor Politics Bruised the Spirit of Baseball
Baseball is more than a game. It is a mirror; a crystal pool that perfectly reflects the great nation that gave it birth. Baseball is an American invention, the only people who would tell you otherwise don’t understand the spirit of the game or the spirit of this country. The truth of the matter is that baseball is America personified, and that personification has led to the development of social, political, economic, and spiritual movements within the sport that are far more complex and riveting than the actions of any politician.
Baseball has reflected much of the good in American life, and that is why the game is so beloved by those who still find pride in being both American and genuinely human. There are however aspects of the game’s history that reflect the poorer moments of American life. Baseball has been integrated, then segregated, and then reintegrated. It has undergone periods of economic turmoil and astounding prosperity. It has seen class struggles, movements of personal freedom, and labor struggles. This essay is concerned with the latter.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has grown to be recognized as a virtual monopoly of American baseball. Of course MLB is not an actual monopoly. There are many independent leagues still active throughout the nation, but these leagues do not pose the same kind of competitive threat to MLB as others have in the past. One would have to look back to the early 1900s and the Federal League in order to find an example of the last major threat to the market dominance of MLB.
The Federal League was a “third major league” that briefly thrived due to frustration with the lower wages of the National and American Leagues. During the days of the Federal League, MLB players were held to a single team by contracts that contained a reserve clause. The reserve clause allowed a baseball club to hold exclusive rights to a player throughout their career. Some ballplayers were frustrated with the perceived low wages that resulted from the reserve clause system, so they decided to jump ship to the Federal League.
Eventually the Federal League folded, and members of the league went on to unsuccessfully sue the National League on the grounds that the antitrust exemption of MLB should be removed. Without the alternative employment avenue offered by the Federal League, the best ballplayers from the deceased organization returned to MLB and their reserve clause contracts.
For the majority of the 20th century the reserve clause system reigned supreme. The system provided a variety of benefits to American baseball. For one, the reserve clause held the best players to a single team throughout their career. This allowed fans to build an emotional attachment to their hometown heroes without the worry that a bigger market team would snatch them away. Another major benefit of the reserve clause was that it prevented the teams with the largest payrolls from simply buying up all the best players. The reserve clause gave ballclubs a strong incentive to farm their own exceptional players that could then be signed and held in reserve throughout their career.
The reserve clause had always been a point of contention for ballplayers in MLB. After all, the lifting of the reserve clause would open the door for free agency and higher salaries. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want a higher salary? Throughout the late-19th century and first half of the 20th century, MLB players made multiple attempts to overthrow the reserve clause. Their efforts proved unsuccessful, however by the second half of the 20th century the Major League Baseball Player’s Associate (MLBPA) had gained enough momentum to support a full elimination of the reserve clause. However, it was not the MLBPA that forced the initial move to the free agency system.
Curt Flood was a centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals who in 1969 resisted the reserve clause and filed suit against MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but it led to further action by the MLBPA which eventually resulted in the legal abolition of the reserve clause in favor of a free agency system that heavily favored the players. The MLBPA helped to develop the new system which allowed for a slight reserve that added further economic protections to the players. In a period of one year, player’s salaries skyrocketed to ridiculously inflated levels.
It can be stated objectively that player salaries under the current system of free agency are immensely inflated due to the fact that MLB no longer operates under a free market system. The “free” in free agency has little to do with the free market and a lot to do with socialism. Free agency was forced upon the MLB owners by government power. It did not arise naturally as a product of capitalism. It is an artificial construct that has created a game filled with overpaid players and overpriced tickets.
One of the chief fears of the MLB owners in regards to the free agency system was that it would lead to a concentration of the best players on a handful of big market teams. These fears came true. Just take a look at the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team with a payroll that dwarfs even the New York Yankees. In 2017 the Dodgers essentially bought a National League Championship, and they are currently in the running for a World Series Championship.
Of course it is not the rule that the best players will move to the big market teams under free agency, but more often than not this is what occurs. Players rarely form a long-term connection with their hometown fanbase anymore. In most cases, MLB players are simply hired guns, shifting their uniforms many times before retirement. This bruises the soul of the game. It disconnects the fans from the pride, localism, and folk hero development that has played such an important role in the history of baseball.
Free agency, like so many other things in baseball, is a reflection of American life. Unfortunately, it is a reflection of an aspect of American life that is wholly undesirable, that being the obtainment of an unfair advantage through government leverage. The free agency system is a product of socialism, and like any system that is touched by socialism, baseball has become a game that rewards the rich at the expense of the common man.
If free agency had arisen naturally in the free market, then I would find little reason to criticize it. After all, the natural development would have required an exodus of talent to yet another third league. Eventually this theoretical third league would have placed enough pressure on MLB to force free agency. The fact that no third league was ever able to accomplish this feat is evidence for the economic superiority of the reserve clause.
Those who have criticized the reserve clause system by claiming that it is a form of slavery and indentured servitude lack a basic understanding of these concepts. The reserve clause system was voluntary in nature. No player was forced to sign a contract with a ballclub. The simple fact of the matter was that the player’s union recognized that human beings tend to prefer more money over less money. They used this basic information to rile support for free agency. Contemporary critics of the bloated salaries of big league players are justified in their criticism. If something seems unnatural about the amount of money dished out for even the lowliest of ballplayers, it’s because the whole system is divorced from the natural way of things.
My views on this subject are not popular in baseball. This is unsurprising. Why would any MLB player criticize free agency if that system is the only reason why they were able to afford their third home and fifteenth sportscar? For those who disagree with me and believe that free agency is good for baseball I would like to pose a question: What about the independent leagues? The forcing of free agency on MLB by the government led to a shift in the historical development of the sport. If the reserve clause system would have continued naturally there may have been a major shift of players to the independent leagues. This would have boosted the health of the independent market, and the unaffiliated ballclubs of today would be much better off in a financial sense. Free agency only solidified the iron grip of MLB on the baseball industry, and in the end the winners are the few big market clubs who have abandoned the spirit of the game for the love of money.
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