I've been reading a book called A Well-Paid Slave. It follows former major league outfielder Curt Flood, who helped bring an end to baseball's reserve clause.
Under the clause, a player was bound for life to the team that drafted him; he could either accept the team's salary offer at the end of each season or sit out the season. He could not freely negotiate with other teams.
After the 1969 season, Flood sued Major League Baseball, arguing that his reserve-clause salary of $90,000 was analogous to slavery. For more details, follow the links or read the book.
The reserve clause was toppled in 1975, bringing about the era of free agency. Under free agency, salaries have exploded, driven up by teams bidding against one another for the services of the best players.
Outside of baseball, organized labor had been making tremendous strides for decades. Why did it take baseball players so long to organize successfully?
Athletes have comparatively less leverage in labor contracts for several reasons:
- Short careers. Athletes age quickly. For a major leaguer in the prime of his career, a labor dispute that costs him even a year of his career could prove devastating. For instance, Curt Flood had to sit out the entire 1970 season. It is rare for players to play into their 40s, so they only have a few years to cash in on their lifetime's worth of practice. Similarly, a minor leaguer would be unwise to miss time practicing and vying for the attention of scouts amid the literally thousands of other young players hoping to break into the bigs (each MLB team has about six minor league squads, in addition to independent leagues and college teams). If a young player is proving to be too much of a problem, the club may just shift its attention to the next kid in line.
- Few alternative opportunities. If workers at a steel mill lose their jobs because of a failed attempt at organization, they can find similar employment elsewhere. In contrast, a displaced baseball player cannot find other opportunities that are quite as lucrative or prestigious.
- Public relations. Workers making near minimum wage are often successful in tarnishing a company's image by appealing to appeal to its customers for support. It's harder for professional baseball players, who make several times the national average for playing a children's game, to vilify the owners by appealing to the fans, many of whom can barely afford to go to a game as it is. Indeed, Flood's analogy comparing the reserve clause to slavery has been widely ridiculed.