The History of Baseball Unionization: Where Murphy Money came from

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Major League Baseball players had few rights before the signing of the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports in 1968. They didn’t get all of their current rights all at once, either: the battle was, and is, an ongoing one. Before the Players Association, before Marvin Miller, there were other attempts to organize baseball players against the bosses. In this series, we’ll investigate each of those attempts, and suss out what went wrong. Here’s part 1part 2, and part 3

It would be some time after the defeat of the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players before any more serious unionization efforts occurred in Major League Baseball. And the next one was extremely localized, too: rather than an entire union and then league sprouting up from it, or a union that briefly benefited from the attempt of a third league to form, the American Baseball Guild’s most notable moment existed with just one (1) team: the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The year 1946 was a massive one for labor in America: post-war, with soldiers returning home from Europe and the Pacific to their old lives and old jobs, there was basically no way there would not be some kind of labor strife. Because of the sudden influx of workers from this return, wages fell — Major League Baseball was not immune to this, as they, an industry that continued on through the Second World War, had replacement players that had become regulars in the mix with players returning to their old roster spots, necessitating an expansion of rosters from 25 to 36. To keep payrolls level, teams reduced individual pay.

Nationwide, this kind of thinking by management brought on the largest strike wave in American history. These strikes weren’t always necessarily ones that union leaders agreed with, but that was part of a major problem at the time, too: higher ups in unions would too often get chummy or overly in deference to the bosses and politicians they should have been rallying against, and to the detriment of the workers they were supposed to be representing.  For example, the New Deal wasn’t as radical as union rank-and-file workers wanted it to be, but it didn’t have to be, because too many union leaders believed too strongly in accepting half-measures from those in power rather than pushing for what their workers wanted.

(Anyway, y’all should read Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream sometime for more on how workers of this era were fighting not only their bosses and the politicians who despised the working class, but also the very people who were supposed to represent their interests.)

Eventually, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, or, the Taft-Hartley Act, came to pass as a way to quell the strikes and make it more difficult for future ones to organize. This act was meant to gain further control of the kinds of actions unions and their members could take should they want to shout at their bosses, by banning things like wildcat strikes or solidarity strikes, and also, for nearly 20 years before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, forced union leaders to declare that they were not supporters of the Communisty Party, nor were they seeking to overthrow the United States government.

It was in this environment that Robert Murphy, a Boston labor lawyer, decided that Major League Baseball players should once again make a go of organizing and unionizing themselves. There was unrest among players after the end of World War II, with the expanded rosters, as mentioned, reducing individual salaries despite the legions of fans who wanted to see pro baseball with all of its stars back once more driving an increase in gate revenue.

Murphy would begin the American Baseball Guild in an attempt to achieve his goal of organizing the players. The Hardball Times has some more specific info:

In the spring of 1946, Murphy proposed the American Baseball Guild, with himself as director, with the vision of “a square deal for players, the men who make possible big dividends and high salaries for shareholders and club executives.” Among the negotiating points he proclaimed were a minimum major league annual salary of $7,500, the right to arbitration in contract disputes, and one-half of the purchase price awarded to the player when his contract was sold. In addition, Murphy issued a vaguely worded complaint about the one-sided nature of the standard player contract, which could be interpreted as a long-term goal of eliminating the Reserve Clause.

Murphy made the rounds of spring training camps and successfully persuaded some players to join the Guild, with dues set at 50 cents per week. But for the Guild to have any clout, everyone understood the credible threat of a strike was essential. Murphy needed not just individual players here and there but the solidarity of at least one team in support of the Guild.

The reserve clause had been at the heart of previous unionization attempts — not the Fraternity, though, which wasn’t nearly radical enough for its own good — and the American Baseball Guild would have continued that tradition, if it didn’t almost immediately come to an end after forming.

Murphy chose the Pirates as the one team to focus on as a test case, thinking that Pittsburgh was clearly a workers’ town, one embroiled in strikes in the key union industries of steel and coal, and that support from fans would be there should the players go on strike against their bosses. He wasn’t wrong about the support from the fans, and we have actual proof of that we can get to momentarily, but he was wrong about the level of readiness the players had to strike when the time came.

Murphy warned then-Pirates owner William Benswanger, who refused to bargain with the players, that the club would not take the field if conditions didn’t improve. In a team meeting before a game against the New York Giants on June 7, though, they voted not to strike, in large part due to the anti-union voices of players like Rip Sewell and Jimmy Brown. While the majority of players were in favor of a strike, 16 of the 36 voted against: a two-thirds majority was necessary to actually refuse to take the field, so they fell short. Murphy took his shot and missed, and that was the end of his direct efforts to organize players.

As I said before, Murphy was right about Pittsburgh being the right town as far as fan support went, though. The workers in the stands Murphy expected support from booed the players for taking the field instead of striking, and after the game, some of them actually beat Brown up in the parking lot for his role in talking players out of striking.

And Murphy’s efforts weren’t entirely without reward for the players, either. They just took the form of concessions by the owners rather than organizing. As the New York Times put it back in 2012:

Owners, spurred by Murphy’s efforts as well as player raids conducted by the Mexican League and a tacit knowledge that the reserve clause would never stand up to a sustained legal challenge, made several concessions to the players, including the establishment of a $5,500 minimum salary and a pension plan. Another was per diem for spring training, which was called Murphy Money for decades afterward.

Murphy didn’t approve of the plan, knowing full well these concessions were meant to quell future attempts at organizing, much like every other industry that hoped to end a strike or break the organizing power of its workers. He told the Harvard Crimson that the players “have been offered an apple, but they could have had an orchard,” and that a new generation of players would recognize that “their greatest weapon is the strike, and will not hesitate to employ it.”

Again, Murphy wasn’t wrong: the greatest gains the players made were from striking, and the recognition of the owners that the players could strike, and strike effectively. It just would take until the Players Association formed — and Marvin Miller was at its head — before Murphy could be proven correct in that regard, too.

  • For Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about the continued heeling of the Astros, a team that is now whining as if they have been wronged, but are really just hoping to legitimize their 2017 championship with a win in 2020.

  • Here’s Evan Drellich on MLB’s “yeah we’ll deal with that if it comes up” response to the rising coronavirus cases in the city that is set to host the NLCS and World Series very soon.

  • R.J. Anderson wrote about the brain drain problem in MLB, one that existed before the coronavirus but has only been exacerbated by it since.

  • While Publication to be Named Later has reached its fundraising goal (thanks for that!), you can still donate to us to secure a pre-order copy. We’ll release the first issue of the quarterly on November 18.

  • And in case you missed it, I’m now writing about retro video games in a free newsletter, Retro XP. I’m kicking things off by ranking the top 101 Nintendo games ever, which is a project that’s going to take some time since I’m doing full write ups for each title in the rankings.

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