Do Not Fear The Lockout
What, if anything, will be baseball’s enduring legacy? When archaeologists, historians, and sociologists dissect
the impact the game of baseball had on 20th century American society, I highly doubt they will cite any iconic
game or moment, something that baseball announcers seem to miss out on when they opine about the
greatest games ever.
To be frank, those who study the past will likely remember three players from baseball as an intersection of
sport and society: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Curt Flood. Ruth was the creation of sport as popular
culture and the athlete as celebrity; Robinson broke the color barrier and showed how race can never truly be
ignored in sports; Flood showed that labor is an enduring legacy of the game.
On October 7, 1969, Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals, where he had been for nearly 12 years, to
the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood protested; he was not informed of the deal, nor was he consulted, and he
contested that the reserve clause was a violation of antitrust laws and the Thirteenth Amendment under
The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in the famous Flood v. Kuhn, where Associate Justice
Harry Blackmun, now famous for Roe v. Wade, and four other justices ruled against Flood, stating that even
though action should be taken through legislative means to right this wrong, they affirmed that baseball’s
reserve clause “enjoy[ed] exemption from the federal antitrust laws” and that “the aberration is an established
one, and one that has been recognized not only in Federal Baseball and Toolson, but in Shubert, International
Boxing, and Radovich, as well, a total of five consecutive cases in this Court.”
The case was a failure, but also a success. Flood v. Kuhn emboldened other ballplayers to challenge the
reserve clause in hopes it could be overturned by an arbitrator, and it indeed was, when arbitrator Peter Seitz
ruled in 1975 that “Absent such a contract, their clubs had no right or power, under the Basic Agreement, the
Uniform Player Contract or the Major League Rules to reserve their services for their exclusive use for any
period beyond the renewal year in the contracts which these players had heretofore signed with their clubs.”
This ruling brought about what we now understand as modern unrestricted free agency, whereby a player can
enter the free market and teams bid for their services. Gone are the days of the reserve clause, but it’s
important to remember, as we assess the modern day implications: Flood v. Kuhn is the law of the land, and
the only way for baseball to truly change is not through government intervention, but through the power of the
MLB Player’s Association.
Labor has pushed itself to the forefront once again, and for good reason. With the current Collective Bargaining
Agreement set to expire on December 1st, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that, according to “two
veteran players with knowledge of the talks”, labor peace might be over. According to these sources, owners
wanted to resolve two big issues by making a deal: in exchange for ending the qualifying offer system where
free agents have draft pick compensation attached to them, Major League Baseball will institute an
Let’s be clear: this is not a one-for-one swap. One player had it right that, “We aren’t giving them something
that affects 30 percent of big leaguers and probably 50 percent of minor leaguers in exchange for something
that affects less than 20 players every year, especially guys who are staring $17 million in the face.”
This is the crux of the debate: how much will the MLBPA, and especially Tony Clark, where this is his first time
negotiating a CBA, defend the rights of those yet to be in the union compared to those already in it? The
international draft, to put it mildly, would be a disaster in that young players (around 16 years-old) would no
longer be able to have any leverage in negotiations; they would be forced to take the bonus they’re handed, a
bonus that many of their families simply need, not desire.
This isn’t the only issue at hand, of course. There are minor league salaries, where players have contended
that their pay is in violation of minimum wage laws. There is also the manipulation of players’ service times,
which became an issue when Kris Bryant first came up to the major leagues. And, there are smaller issues too:
expanding roster sizes because of larger and more specialized bullpens, addressing the archaic standards for
arbitration-based salaries, and yes, addressing the qualifying offer system, whose death would create a truly
unrestricted free agency.
Some would say that labor strife and a lockout would be a bad thing, and I disagree. A time of prosperity is the
perfect time for a union to press for more benefits, especially when owners do not have the excuse that they’re
trying to cut corners. Imagine what would have happened if owners had their way and got a salary cap in
1994? The results for the players would have been disastrous.
Now is the time for the MLBPA to establish their legacy for the 21st century. Just as Curt Flood, albeit
unsuccessfully, challenged the reserve clause, the MLBPA too must challenge the amateur reserve clause
system, a relic of the original labor agreements of the 19th century. I don’t think there will be a strike—it could
just be the union’s bluster talking—but I wouldn’t fear it. In many eons from now, these negotiations will be
wildly more significant than the games the agreement is played under.