History of Labor Struggles in MLB: Post World War II

photo: Robert Murphy (Historic Images)

The Cardinal Nation’s series highlighting the history of labor struggles in MLB continues with another attempt at unionization of players, undertaken just after World War II. The author is Marilyn Green, a retired attorney with background in employment law.

As detailed in Part 3 of this article series, the Supreme Court decision in Federal Baseball Club ushered in more than two decades of labor peace, but it was labor peace that decidedly favored the owners. Often referred to as the “Golden Age”, this era of baseball included the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and other greats. For Cardinals fans, this was the age of the “Gashouse Gang.”

During the period from 1922 through the end of World War II, Congress passed the Wagner Act of 1935, also known as the National Labor Relations Act. The Wagner Act is the foundation for the Labor Law we know today.

The Act established the legal right for workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining with their employer. It also instituted a ban on “company unions,” which were organizations influenced by employers whose purpose was to interfere with the organization and activities of independent unions. It also codified a set of unfair labor practices, some of which baseball owners had practiced in the past. One of the central such practices were tactics used to intimidate or coerce workers against forming or joining a union.

It should be noted that during this time, the Wagner Act was new, and the law was unsettled on how or if it applied to professional sports teams and more specifically Major League Baseball. Given that Federal Baseball Club had ruled the Sherman Act could not be applied to baseball and also given that the intersection of the Sherman Act and the Wagner Act was not clear at the time, the rules of engagement in terms of the Wagner Act for baseball were murky at best. Most of these issues would eventually be settled in the future by Congress and/or the Courts.

When the U.S went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the ranks of Major League Baseball teams were not left untouched. Between the draft and enlistment, the overwhelming majority of eligible baseball players entered the services. That left only older players and those who were medically unfit for one reason or another for the armed services to staff the rosters of major league teams.

To no one’s surprise, the quality of play of the major league teams was inferior to what fans were used to. Attendance dropped and team revenue suffered as well. On the return of the players post-war, a  labor surplus arose that teams had to deal with. Owners were quite ready to take advantage of the opportunity to keep salaries low given the reduced revenue during the war years coupled with the vast supply of labor suddenly available.

Yet the owners faced an unexpected source of competition for their returning players. This competition came from south of the border from the Mexican League, a league that had been first established in 1924 with teams in eight cities. The league drew from Latin America as well as the Negro Leagues in the U.S.

Jorge and Bernardo Pasquel

The most well-known Mexican League owners were the Pasquel brothers, who had long desired to grow their league into the ranks of the major leagues. The surplus of players newly available post war was a unique opportunity the Pasquel brothers could not pass up.

The initial targets were mid-tier players that major league owners brushed off as expendable. The brothers then began to get bolder by pursuing some big name players, and even made a run at Jackie Robinson, who at the time was in the Dodgers minor league system. The Mexican League raids eventually cooled, but in the meantime, the havoc that was caused ushered in another attempt to organize players.

In April 1946, a labor organizer named Robert Murphy announced he had formed the American Baseball Guild. Murphy was a former examiner for the National Labor Relations Board and was therefore armed with knowledge of the provisions of the Wagner Act, which he used to make veiled and eventually concrete threats against various club owners. All of this was part of a PR campaign on Murphy’s part to drum up interest in his Guild among players and he would announce at various times that he already had high profile players as members, players he would decline to name.

Murphy’s bluster turned into concrete action when shortly after going public he filed unfair labor practice charges against the owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith. Murphy charged Griffith with making public statements meant to coerce and intimidate players from joining the Guild. Griffith of course denied that his statements were for that purpose but were merely a public response to Murphy’s proposals. The Baltimore Labor Relations Board declined to hear the Guild’s charges, but Murphy remained resolute in his efforts.

The specific demands of the Guild were a $7,500 minimum salary with no salary limit at the top, salary arbitration, medical insurance, and a provision granting players a 50% cut of the sales price if the player was sold to another team. With these proposals Murphy hoped to cover his bases with both veteran players and younger players.

Murphy chose a team-by-team approach to his organizing efforts. His first target was the Pittsburgh Pirates, an industrial city that was labor friendly. In mid-May 1946, Murphy announced that a large majority of the Pirates players were members of the Guild and were ready to begin negotiations with management. The Pirates players announced demands that were somewhat less than what the Guild originally proposed. The players asked for a minimum salary of $6,000, a pension program, disability insurance and only a 10% cut from a player sale.

William Benswanger

At first, Pirates’ owner William Benswanger seemed ready to talk, as long as the requirements for a certification election were met. The Pirates front office engaged in stalling tactics in respect to setting up the certification election and in June informed the players they would not consider an election until after the season was over. This announcement was predictably met with outrage from Murphy, who rallied other local labor organizations around his cause to put pressure on Pirates management.

The tactic fell on deaf ears with the press, the public, and unfortunately many Pirates players. Baseball was still not ready for the type of militant labor action that Murphy engaged in, which included a threat to strike. The Players took a vote on June 7 and elected not to strike, with 20 players in favor and 16 opposed. The players had agreed a two-thirds vote was needed on the strong urging of one of their veteran players, Rip Sewell, and this tally fell short. The vote was held after a two-hour meeting that Murphy was prohibited from attending. A Pirates management representative was present and was allowed to address the players.

Sewell convinced the players that an outsider like Murphy was not what they needed. Outsiders did not understand the uniqueness of baseball and would threaten the competitive nature and structure of the game. Instead, Sewell believed they could form a committee amongst themselves with the help of a club attorney. What Sewell proposed was essentially a company union, specifically prohibited under the Wagner Act.

Rip Sewell

Murphy’s response was to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the Pirates, claiming the Pirates were attempting to replace the Guild with a company union. Murphy’s efforts came to naught as the NLRB ruled that they did not have jurisdiction because baseball was not interstate commerce pursuant to the Federal Baseball Club case.

Undaunted, Murphy took his case to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, which agreed to hear the charges. The Pirates’ legal counsel called for an immediate hearing to determine jurisdiction. The hearing was held, and the Pirates made the expected arguments of lack of jurisdiction because baseball was not interstate commerce. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board denied the jurisdictional arguments and scheduled a certification election for August 20.

In the meantime, Major League Baseball took Rip Sewell’s idea for a player’s committee much further, and at the All-Star break formed a Player Relations Committee. The Committee was to have representation from both players and owners and would seek to address the players concerns and formulate a new Major League uniform contract. Six representatives would be sent by the owners, and each of the 16 teams would be represented, nominations to be approved by Commissioner Happy Chandler. It was clear the committee was a move by the owners to forestall the Guild’s attempts at unionization.

Marty Marion

Sewell was one of the team representatives chosen for the committee, more proof that the Committee itself was a company union. Other players began to get involved and make proposals for concessions, including St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion, who made a pension proposal dubbed the “Marion Plan.”  This plan was for contributions into the plan by players and owners, and monies from the All-Star Game, World Series broadcast rights, and a series of interleague games.

By the end of July, various proposals were on the table, many of which were remarkably similar if not identical to the program initially presented by the Guild. What came out of the talks eventually was a $5,000 minimum salary, a $5 per day spring training per diem, and about $40,000 contributions to a pension fund. Though the players pushed hard for changes to the reserve clause, in the end that clause was left untouched, which was no doubt the ultimate goal of the owners from the beginning.

The agreement was lauded in the press as a breakthrough for players and the owners were praised for the great concessions they made, which were in truth very modest and did little to hurt the owners financially. Major League Baseball was able to keep the greatest prize intact, the reserve clause. With the post war economic boom to come, the owners reaped great benefits without any loss of the control they knew was necessary to keep the profits flowing.

When the anticipated certification election came on August 20, only three Pirates players voted to certify. Murphy and the Guild were soundly defeated and unionism in baseball was considered dead. The gains the players made in the 1946 agreement with the owners would turn out to be hollow and seven years later the players, unhappy with the lack of funding of their pension, would once again seek to organize to fight back.  Their eventual success would be a long time coming and fraught with mistakes.

To be continued…

Prior articles in this series

History of Labor Struggles in Major League Baseball: The Early Years

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Rise of the AL and Road to Antitrust Exemption

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Supreme Court and Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

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