The MLB All-Star Game’s ties to player pensions

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Major League Baseball players might have the best pension in American sports these days, but that wasn’t always the case. For one, they didn’t always have a pension at all, and secondly, MLB’s owners wanted nothing more than to never pay into the thing again immediately after creating one. The first strike in MLB history came in 1972, and due to disagreements over how to pay into the pension, which MLB’s owners were not giving cost of living adjustments to even though there was a way to do so that wouldn’t even cost them a dime of their own money.* Even before then, though, the pension was a point of contention.

*MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller realized the owners could simply redirect interest generated by the pension fund back into the pension fund itself: the owners told the players where to shove their pension despite this cost-free solution, so, the players went on strike, and won.

The creation of a pension fund for the players was a significant part of why the second MLB commissioner, Happy Chandler, served just the one term in office. It was a five-year agreement, with the pension funded by 80 percent of the television and radio revenues for the World Series broadcasts: the owners, predictably, hated that, even though Chandler’s goal was, in part, to appease the players to the point that they would quit mumbling about working conditions and put off any kind of large-scale organizing.

This was significant money the players were getting for the pension, too, even if “just” revenue from the World Series is all we’re talking about. The broadcast rights sold for $370,000 over seven years, starting in 1949, while the telecast rights went for a whopping $6 million over six years: adjusting for inflation, that $6 million in mid-century dollars is over $67 million today. Sure, MLB owners, especially those of the 1940s and 50s, were the kind that would shoot a player out of a cannon for asking for an extra 10 cents on their contract, but you can understand why they were so mad at Chandler for giving away 80 percent of that kind of cash to the players, who had decades and decades of failing to organize in any meaningful, long-lasting way behind them. Understanding, of course, is not the same as “agreeing with.”

In 1954, with the deal Chandler had put together expired even though the contracts signed to fund the pension itself were ongoing, the players began to lean on a proto version of the Major League Baseball Players Association, whose sole focus would be the pension. The owners were more willing to talk to the players when they realized this wasn’t a union that was going to start asking for the kinds of things unions asked for: they were happy to renegotiate the pension deal in a way that would better benefit the owners but still be better for the players than the current expired deal thing they had going on. (They might have disliked Chandler and run him out of town, but they still got what he was doing trying to appease the players.) So, the share of broadcast revenue for the pension fund would be reduced from 80 percent to 60 percent, but the players would now, according to John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm, also receive 60 percent from All-Star Game broadcast revenues, as well.

That was about all this early version of the MLBPA would accomplish other than a slight bump to the minimum salary, but they also figured out a way to increase pension payments further, later on in the decade: by creating a second All-Star Game. It’s possible you have heard about this brief period in MLB history before, where there were somehow two midsummer classics, and the entire point of it was to create an additional opportunity for revenue. The owners were happy, because they could create additional pension funding without having any more of what they already had in their pocket used for that purpose, and the players were happy because, well, more pension funding.

The game itself was a disorganized mess. There was no consistency to when it would be played: 1959’s first game was played four weeks before its second game, and in 1960, the second game was two days later. That wasn’t the new norm, though, as 1961’s games were played 20 days apart. As the New York Times pointed out, attendance wasn’t so great for the second game in 1960, with just 38,362 fans showing up to Yankee Stadium. That might not sound so bad to modern ears, but that version of Yankee Stadium, at that time in its history, could and did hold roughly 30,000 more people than that.

The last of these games could be played in 1962, on July 30, again 20 days after the first game. The owners would stop the two-game model that offseason, but they didn’t just take it away from the players, who were obviously interested in playing it so long as there were broadcast and telecast revenues to be made from it for the pension fund, regardless of what the attendance was like. The owners agreed to increase the percentage payout toward the pension fund from just the one All-Star Game, in exchange for dropping the second one.

The pension is still, obviously, an important part of player benefits, but everything else has come such a long way since the days of two All-Star Games, that you don’t hear about it very much anymore. It’s much better at self-funding, for one, since the income generated by the pension fund’s own existence is so much loftier than it was in the days where Marvin Miller was arguing for the owners to increase contributions and redirect pension income back toward the fund. That’s, in part, because the players make so much more money than they did back when the pension first began, which naturally means player contributions toward it will total more than they used to. But it also helps that the days of life-or-death arguments over what the owners were doing with the pension seem to be in the past, too: owners have instead focused on gutting basically anything else they could related to player income, as there are certainly areas that cost them much more than retirement and healthcare contributions thanks to the loosening of their grip over the players since the formation of the actual MLBPA.

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