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Charles P. Korr, The End of Baseball as We Knew It. The Players Union, 1960-1981.

Charles P. Korr, The End of Baseball as We Knew It. The Players Union, 1960-1981 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2002)

SOME 40 YEARS ago baseball columnist Furman Bisher expressed sentiments that, except for the dollar figure attached, remain commonplace today. Why, he asked, "should anyone have sympathy for men who are paid an average of twenty-two to twenty-three thousand dollars a year, get to live in fine hotels, and spend each spring in Florida?" (44) Even today, many people have difficulty thinking of major league baseball players as workers in the conventional sense. Seemingly exorbitant salaries, the seasonality of the game, the relatively short careers of professional athletes, and the difficulty in comprehending how the business of sport reconstitutes play as work, all contribute to the understanding of professional sport as a unique industry.

In this compelling history of the emergence of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Chuck Korr rejects the idea of sport's exceptionalism. Instead he addresses how professional baseball players--like workers in other industries--organized themselves into a union, and used the collective bargaining process to overcome the exploitative practices of owners. Korr's sympathies clearly lie with the players. Baseball's owners, he argues, failed to comprehend the limits of their power and lacked the ability to work together to defend their own interests. Players on the other hand intuitively understood the importance of team-work and of winning. Once convinced of the need to come together to defend their interests, the players proved too much for the owners to handle. Working collectively to reform the player-owner relationship, baseball players brought about "the end of baseball as we knew it," and in the process helped transform the professional sport industry throughout the world.

Although the book focuses primarily on the period between 1960, when the Players Association opened a permanent office, and the 1981 players' strike, the story begins earlier. At the end of World War II baseball owners exercised massive control over their players, supported by a sympathetic sporting press and public that romanticized the idyllic lives of those playing a boy's game for money. Tied to their clubs by baseball's reserve clause, players had little leverage in negotiating salaries, working conditions, or pension benefits. Owners dealt cavalierly with "trouble makers" and ignored player grievances. During the 1950s, a number of players' representatives, among them Ralph Kiner, Allie Reynolds, Harvey Kuenn, Bob Friend, and Robin Roberts, worked hard on behalf of the players, able to do so only because of their stature as star players. Even then, however, owners treated them dismissively. When Kiner, a slugging outfielder on the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, complained that his 1953 contract included a 25 per cent pay cut despite his having drawn many fans to the ballpark, Pirate owner Branch Rickey brushed off his complaints. Rickey's response, "we can finish last without you," delighted baseball writers, most of whom shared the widespread anti-union sentiments of the owners.

Players of the 1950s and early 1960s, Korr points out, had limited expectations. So did the first full-time executive director of the Players Association, Judge Roberr Cannon, hired by the players in 1965. According to Korr, Cannon misinterpreted the owners' willingness to lessen the control they exercised over the players. His belief that he could cultivate a harmonious relationship between the two parties was built upon a mixture of wishful thinking, a romanticized vision of the owners as benevolent patriarchs with the best interests of the game in mind, and perhaps even a desire to become Commissioner of Baseball at some future date.

Cannon's collaborationist position stood in sharp contrast to the hard-headed pragmatism of his successor, Marvin Miller. Miller's willingness to confront the owners resulted in his vilification as "Comrade Miller" or Marvin Millerinski, and as an evil Svengali who supposedly mesmerized and brainwashed his players into believing that they were mistreated. (43) According to Korr, Miller deserves to be considered one of the most effective labour leaders of the 20th century. His earlier experience in the steel industry, his familiarity with labour law, his negotiating expertise, his quiet demeanour, and democratic sensibilities gained the respect of the players, as he urged them to identify what issues were most important to them and the future they envisaged for themselves. Miller approached bargaining as would any other union official, asserting that both parties in the bargaining process were equal and that agreements had to be negotiated.

What is particularly impressive about this book is its presentation in a clear and coherent manner of the tangled legal and technical issues that owners and players fought over. Drawing upon interviews with most of the participants, exhaustive archival records, including correspondence between the principals, and press and magazine commentary, Korr constructs a marvelous overview of the emergence of the players' union in the troubled period leading down to the 1981 strike. The most important issues arising out of the collective bargaining process included the development of grievance and arbitration procedures, the reserve and option clause, and ultimately the principle of limited free agency. Korr takes us through the struggle that followed Curt Flood's unsuccessful court challenge of the reserve clause, and the importance of the option clause and of arbitration in ultimately ushering in the idea of free agency. Despite the ruling of arbitrator Kenneth Seitz that granted Jim "Catfish" Hunter free agent status (and subsequent cases of a similar sort), Korr argues that the owners refused to understand the implications of the decision, and attempted to proceed as though nothing had changed. As owners dug in their heels, eventually acquired strike insurance, and prepared for the defeat of the union, the players were driven reluctantly to consider the strike option. The result, according to Korr, was a defensive strike that the players won, but which turned public opinion against them. Of course, the struggles between players and owners have continued to the present, until many baseball fans have wished a pox on both their houses.

In sum, this is a fine book that makes a significant contribution to both sport and labour history. At the same time, it should be noted that the very strength of the book (i.e. its ability to address the baseball players' union as it operated within the conventional framework of collective bargaining) is also its weakness. Korr gives short shrift to some of the exceptional or atypical characteristics of the professional sport industry. For example, the very principle of free agency, even limited free agency as it is in this instance, suggests the uniqueness of a union which creates through the collective bargaining process the ability of individual workers to negotiate their own contracts. It would also have been helpful if Korr had more effectively addressed the complex emotional ties players have with a game that serves as rite of passage from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. In many ways, that same trajectory revealed itself in the development of the players' union itself.

Colin Howell

Saint Mary's University
COPYRIGHT 2004 Canadian Committee on Labour History
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Author:Howell, Colin
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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