As a new baseball season begins, a University of Illinois professor talks about the changes in the way players are treated. Daniel Gilbert is a cultural historian at the U. of I., and author of Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency, a book detailing the labor movement in the major leagues. He says team owners feared freedom for players would ruin the game, but it didn’t.
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“The rise of players unions, the ability of players to collectively bargain and to get a square deal for themselves and their fellow workers has not meant the end of their industry, but rather it has brought new profits and new successes all around,” he said. The book details the history of the reserve clause, which bound players to their clubs in perpetuity, until Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith won an arbitrator’s decision in 1975, paving the way for negotiations that produced free agency in 1976, and prompted a strike in 1981 when owners tried to un-negotiate the gains the players had made.
Gilbert says teams now look to the Dominican Republic to find players who can be signed for a pittance, and brought into the U.S. baseball structure only when it’s determined that they have talent. Players from Cuba and Japan, though, are in a better position, having established themselves as stars or at least top prospects, and major league teams get in bidding wars for them. The average salary in Major League Baseball in 1975 (adjusted for inflation) was $195,000. Last year it was $3.39 million.