The History of Baseball Unionization: The MLBPA before it was the MLBPA

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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 2part 3, and part 4

You would think the formation of what we know now as the Major League Baseball Players Association would be something to celebrate without the caveats of the previous entries in this series, but that proto-MLBPA was a mess. Obviously, things improved — thanks, Marvin Miller — but that all took time. The initial version of the MLBPA formed back in 1953, and it wasn’t actually officially recognized as a union for another 13 years after that. And it wouldn’t have its first collective bargaining agreement for another two years, right before the 1968 season began.

This disorganized “union,” made up of player reps selected by each team, came out of concern for the players’ pension. This pension was one of the few things that had been won from all of the noise that Robert Murphy and the American Baseball Guild had made in its very short existence, just a few years earlier. The players funded the pension plan, and also received additional revenue for it from television and radio deals for the World Series, but it wasn’t much of a pension at all.

The players wanted to speak with the team owners about the pension, and the teams eventually allowed this conversation to take place. Each team selected a player rep, but nothing actually came of any of this at first, besides the players getting more annoyed about the lack of action and information. This would begin to change when they hired an attorney — there was no player/attorney around this time, like had happened on a couple of occasions in baseball unionizations past. Jonas Norman Lewis might have been hired by the players to represent them in legal talks, but the owners saw no reason to speak with him, and actually initially barred him from meeting with them.

As SABR’s look at Marvin Miller and the early MLBPA points out, the players were actually the more embarrassing ones here, as they hired a labor lawyer from the wrong side of the divide:

Lewis had been with a law firm that represented the New York Giants for many years, and one of his clients was the Harry Stevens concession firm. His selection was an indication of the naiveté of the players in all matters legal. In an April 1954 article in the Labor Law Journal Lewis described himself as “a lawyer primarily interested in labor cases from management’s side,” and opined that strikes were an unfair labor practice. He defended baseball’s reserve system and the antitrust exemption baseball enjoyed, as well as expressing the opinion that ballplayers should feel lucky to have their jobs and enviable wages. Walter O’Malley, who abhorred the very idea of a players union, reminded Lewis that he was an “owners’ man,” and tried in vain to talk him out of accepting the position.

To Lewis’ credit, per SABR’s account, he took his job seriously and advised the players enough that the owners tired of his assistance: he did help the players improve the pension by getting 60 percent of the net gate from the All-Star game added to the funding, and the minimum salary did jump $1,000 per year. However, his disinterest in a full-time position with them is part of the reason that this early Players Association remained disorganized for as long as it did. Then again, it worked both ways: the players didn’t want a real union, even though that’s where the power they lacked was. It took Marvin Miller convincing them again and again about what a union could actually do for them to get that to change. That, and letting them know they wouldn’t automatically be communists if they were union men, despite what years of red-baiting McCarthyist bullshit had told them and everyone else.

Lewis ended up fired for not committing more to a group of players who couldn’t commit themselves. What happened next was a mix of good news and bad news: the good was hiring a part-time Executive Director in Frank Scott, who convinced the players to open a central office and hire a legal advisor. The central office would give the players somewhere to bring their questions and concerns, while the legal advisor would help them to answer the questions and concerns that required a legal mind. The pension, of course, was the primary concern.

The list of people who were considered for this role of legal advisor is… well, that’s the bad news. Former MLB commissioner Happy Chandler was under consideration, as was the future owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Edward Bennett Williams. It was Judge Robert Cannon who ended up with the position, and if you haven’t heard his name before, you’re about to learn that he wasn’t a much better choice than a former commissioner or future owner.

Cannon tried to become MLB commissioner himself at one point, and missed out by just one vote: MLB’s owners thought enough of what this guy could do for them that they nearly made him their representative and central authority figure! As it was, he did plenty for them while working for the other side: Cannon’s legal advice was based around one idea, and it was to avoid rocking the boat. No, really, his mission statement was “make no demands, no public statements”:

When Cannon started meeting the players as he toured spring training camps, his message was simple: work with the owners. He constantly reminded the men how good they had it. He wanted the players to make no waves. Above all, the players should foster a greater relationship with the benevolent owners. In essence Cannon was preaching to the players from the beginning, before he even met everyone and understood the demands and responsibilities entrusted to him. He never did grasp the industry from a player’s perspective.

No wonder the owners loved the guy! He was on their side, keeping the proto-MLBPA in a position to be more of a company union with no actual rights or representation or power than an actual threat to the status quo. It’s incredible, too, because his father, Raymond Cannon, actually attempted to form a union over 30 years before this, but, sadly, the National Baseball Players Association of the United States achieved nothing. That’s not hyperbole: it was nothing to the point that the NBPA didn’t get an entry in this series.

The players didn’t see the problem with Cannon, though. In fact, they offered him the full-time Executive Director role Marvin Miller eventually ended up with, when they had decided a part-timer wasn’t cutting it. MLB responded by offering to pay $150,000 toward his salary and necessary expenses. They were going to save money by keeping Cannon around rather than someone who might actually let the players know the score in the battle between the bosses and the workers.

Cannon didn’t want to move to New York for the job, so the MLBPA ended up with Marvin Miller in part because Cannon didn’t feel like relocating. The owners rescinded the $150,000 offer, of course, as it was illegal and meant to keep the players unwittingly under their thumb in a very the call is coming from inside the house situation. From there, the MLBPA as we know it today formed: an actual union, an organized union, and one that soon began to understand the power that their organizing availed them.

The MLBPA has had its ups and downs since then, but there’s no question that this turning point changed baseball, and American professional sports in general, forever. The first decade-plus of the Players Association were rocky and mostly uneventful, but the accidental slow play might have ended up helping them out in the end. They were weak and oft-ineffective, but eventually ended up in a position where they wanted to do more, and were used to their own existence. Players came and went, but the organization remained, and that’s not a situation pro baseball unions had found themselves in before. They were usually beaten down by the owners and shuttered before then.

The PA, though, came after the owners had started to give some concessions for fear of having to give up even more should they avoid doing so. And with an established labor presence like Miller on the scene…he might have been an economist and not a labor lawyer, but his years working in union-heavy Pittsburgh in the steel industry meant he had the right culture and ethos with him, a culture and ethos that even the attorneys that had attempted to form unions in baseball’s past lacked. And it gave the players something they had never had before: power, and permanence.

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