The book: “Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans and the Media Changed American Sports Culture”
The author: Krister Swanson
The vital statistics: University of Nebraska Press, 290 pages, $29.95. Released March 1
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com. And at the publisher’s website.
The pitch: The Major League Baseball Players Association wants you to know it is celebrating its 50th year as a labor organization.
Facts be damned.
The players actually did form an imperfect union in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t “recognized” until April 11, 1966 when they hired Marvin Miller, who had been working for the Steelworkers Union, as their first executive director. It came a little too late to help Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale when they held their famous dual Dodgers holdout in the spring of ’66.
On its golden anniversary, what golden moments does the union have to show for itself, in its pursuit of gold?
It, of course, supported Curt Flood’s legal case against the owners in 1969 when he challenged the reserve clause – something that also been attempted in 1890 with little success as we just read in “The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League.”
This led to the 1975 situation where Andy Messersmith (and Dave McNally) launched free agency. In 1996, it created the Players Trust, a non-profit that has so far contributed more than $20 million to causes around the world. It helped launch the World Baseball Classic in 2005. It got the MLB and players alumni association to help players between 1947 and ’79 with financial support. Last year, it helped create a $30 million youth imitative for minority regions.
Most of this is all up on the MLBPlayers.com website.
We don’t see much about what happened with the 1981 players strike that cut the season in half. Or one that wiped out the 1994 World Series and bled into the ’95 spring training of “replacement players.” Are we calling what happened in 1972, ’73, ’76, ’85 and ’90 a “strike” or a “lockout.” You pick the poison.
So where did this all this power-hungry grief come from?
We’ve pushed through several books over the years about Miller’s life and times, and how he got this organization rolling, but Swanson takes the approach that there was more of a cultural shove from fans and the media to steer the direction of its fruit cart from contract to contract.
And we have a Thousand Oaks High history and government teacher with a (former) Twitter handle of “Swandizzle” to thank for this story insight.
We became more aware of Swanson and his work back when doing a story on Cal Lutheran University president Dr. Chris Kimball’s “U.S. History Through Baseball” class. Kimball mentioned how he would like to incorporate Swanson’s just published book into the curriculum or even have him teach a class itself based on the fact he’s so close by (he also once taught at Hart High and Moorpark College and is a UC Santa Barbara PhD grad in U.S. History) and is a board chair for the CLU Alumni Association, having got his MA and BA from the school in educational administration and economics/history.
Swanson’s focus is the MLBPA’s crawling-to-standing years from 1966 to ’81 (after laying the historical groundwork in the first three chapters). He then shows how his research uncovers layers of opinion from fans and mostly newspaper columnists that chimed in on the labor issues through their power of the spending dollar and the infusion of intelligent conversation.
Both those factions could be swayed by arguments by the players and owners, but ultimately they had their own best interests to look out for and could weigh their need for the sport and its outlet versus how much they could afford to pay for a ticket, or spend on their monthly cable bill to see it on TV.
The media’s ongoing debate, as Swanson cites, evolved over the years, and he uses an example of that with the L.A. Times’ Jim Murray and Mark Heisler as their perception of the 1981 issues. Swanson finds a Murray column that shows how nine years earlier he was burying Miller’s leadership, but was now offering praise and comparing free agent guarantees as something that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson stood for.
“Murray’s connection of free agency to the ideological origins of the nation is especially intriguing,” Swanson writes on page 247, “because he was a staunch member of the ‘old school’ of sports writing, a group of reporters so caught up in the beauty of the game that they were in virtual denial of the business side of professional sports. Murray’s shift in attitude between 1972 and 1981, similar to that of his counterpart Red Smith, a man who once testified to a congressional committee in favor of the reserve clause, exemplified the way that media coverage shifted in favor of the players during the 1981 strike.”
Then Swanson finds the writing of Heisler, Murray’s “younger colleague” and current columnist for the Southern California News Group, reflected “the new approach of more business-minded sportswriters. The headline on one of Heisler’s columns made this position clear: ‘No Good Reasons for This Strike: The Players Don’t Want It and the Owners Don’t Need It.’ … Heisler recast the 1972 strike as ‘necessary’ ” and then used examples of new-age free agency as to how the Angels mistakenly allowed Nolan Ryan to go to Houston for $1 million versus how Peter O’Malley made mistakes in signing free agents to help his Dodgers pitching staff in 1979.
It’s a tricky subject to present as nothing more than a lot of dry facts, dates and events. There’s not a lot of charm involved in this part of history, or fond recollections. Swanson wades through it all and presents enough compelling stories and situations that help make this side of the game’s past worth pondering and reassessing again as it no doubt goes forward into critical labor decision making in the near future.
== Updated reference: AP story on Clark and how retired MLB players have trouble finding jobs in the real world.
== For more perspective on a current group of former MLB players who aren’t being helped these days by their MLBPA union, re-read Doug Gladstone’s 2010 book, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve,” which includes many still living in Southern California. We did a story on this in 2011.
== Current MLBPA director Tony Clark isn’t happy with the media over its reporting in the recent spring training.