Article

Michael Hammond


Hairs vs. Squares

Baseball, social change, and tradition.

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The best Dodger of the 1960s was pitcher Sandy Koufax. He and fellow pitcher Don Drysdale held out for higher contracts together and discovered the leverage of collective bargaining. Drysdale and Koufax had each been offered Hollywood contracts and already appeared in television and film productions. When the Dodgers were faced with losing two of the top pitchers in baseball, they eventually moved toward the pair's demands. Koufax had greater success in pushing back against traditional power structures due to his great fame, enhanced by television appearances and coast to coast media coverage.

Leahy portrays the tension that Dodger players felt, even as they lived the dream of playing in the big leagues. They carried personal anxieties and national tragedies onto the playing field even as they looked for ways to spark a labor revolution of their own. The political and rights revolutions of the 1960s, the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the intensifying war in Vietnam were known throughout the world due to the medium of television. Baseball was changing as a result of broadcasts as well. Players were told that "pay TV" promised big paydays in the coming decade. But major leaguers were not prepared to negotiate a television contract, as they had not even claimed a fair share of profits from Topps baseball cards. In Baseball's Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture, Krister Swanson explains how the press and public opinion helped the players organize against the paternalistic system of baseball owners.

For baseball players to earn respect—and a more equitable share of the massive profits the game promised—they had to overcome decades of government and legal reinforcement of the reserve clause, which bound each player to one team unless that team decided to release or trade him. This was one of the longest-standing and most powerful traditions in baseball, and it gave all control over compensation and contracts to the team owners. Players were treated like a laborer in a manufacturing business; their work served the interests of the ownership. Fans saw players as something other than factory workers; their relationship was more like that of a patron to an artist. As athletes became more recognizable and familiar due to marketing and television, fans followed star players and tracked their individual success. This empowered players with leverage and public support as they started to organize.

Change came with Marvin Miller, the decidedly un-athletic labor lawyer who had represented the United Steelworkers, and led the MLB players union starting in 1966. His efforts to organize a powerful negotiating force were met with resistance by the owners, but also by some commentators, who saw in his work a reflection of anti-establishment protests over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. Yet, the players and Miller were also portrayed as greedy as they sought a larger share of team profits and control over their playing careers. A key turning point began a month after Richard Nixon's infamous "silent majority" speech in November 1969. Baseball owners had echoed Nixon's call for calm and respect for authority from the players. In December, centerfielder Curt Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. He was in the prime of his career, having won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards at one of the toughest defensive positions.

Flood admired Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he met on multiple occasions. A gifted artist, Flood painted a popular portrait of the slain leader. For Flood, the trade was a violation of his rights guaranteed by the 13th amendment that banned involuntary servitude. The Supreme Court ultimately heard Flood's case in 1972, ruling 5-3 against him and in favor of baseball's retention of the reserve clause. Thurgood Marshall authored the dissenting opinion, arguing that baseball players were just as deserving of their rights under the law as any other citizen. Although Flood lost his case, Marshall, Flood, and Miller pointed toward a strategy that would turn public opinion toward the rights of players to have a role in shaping their careers, and a means for collective bargaining. After Flood's holdout, more players and fans agreed that the reserve clause had to be altered to give some level of free agency to players. The tradition of keeping players subservient to ownership for their entire career was losing support.

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