By Evan Henerson
There was a time when Major League Baseball players were treated like property. They were not permitted to hire a lawyer or agent to negotiate their contracts and the right to change employers – which we know as free agency - did not exist. They had no control over where they were traded. They were forced to play when injured, had meager per diem for meals, brutal traveling schedules. The list goes on.
Practically from the dawn of the sport in the 19th century, players have tried to band together to fight what they perceived to be unfair labor conditions including salary caps and the reserve clause which bound them to their respective clubs. The formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) in 1966 signaled the dawn of a new era in player-owner relations.
“If you start at the beginning of the union’s history, it’s a story of players trying to stand up for what they think is right and fair as workers and in the sport,” said Ian Penny, general counsel to the MLBPA. “Through the many sacrifices of players over the years, it managed to create a level playing field between baseball management and the players, and every generation of player owes a debt of gratitude to the players who came before and wants to make sure they leave the game better for the future generations of players. That dynamic has enabled the players to maintain a strong union over time and negotiate fair and equitable deals with management.”
The union has had four executive directors beginning with former United Steelworkers of America economist Marvin Miller to Kansas City attorney Donald Fehr to former counsel Michael Weiner who died of brain cancer a few years into the position. In hiring Tony Clark for the post at the end of 2013, the MLBPA brought in its first former player.
In an excellent retrospective on the life and career of baseball player, union leader and politician Jim Bunning for AlterNet, author Peter Dreier calls the MLBPA “the most powerful and most respected labor union in the country.” The players enjoy regular contact with their union before and after the season as well as daily reports through the players app. Each team designates a player representative to the union and usually one alternate.
According to Penny, there is no defining characteristic that draws a player to become heavily involved with the union. Young players and veterans, American and foreign-born players alike will all participate.
“I think it’s just an interest in union affairs and also an interest in looking out for their teammates and their rights,” Penny said.
Union Night at Dodger Stadium celebrates the accomplishments of labor, with more than 2,500 union members and their families expected to attend. The pre-game ceremonies will feature union leaders being honored on the field and Isreal Guillen from the Second Chances Pre-Apprenticeship Bootcamp throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.
For tickets and more information, click here.