Wednesday’s Book Review: “Never Just a Game”

Just a GameNever Just a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920. By Robert Fredrick Burk. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

This work is the first volume of a two-part study on labor relations in Major League Baseball (MLB). It deals with the nineteenth century experience, as well as the early years of the twentieth century through the “Black Sox” scandal and the appointment of Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the first MLB Commissioner. Burk notes in his preface how he decided upon a title: “for those who operate professional franchises, and for those employed by them in the sport, baseball has never been ‘just a game’.” Its history has been marked by “bitter off-field struggles between players and management over prestige, power, and profits.” It also included fights “over who would have access to its opportunities, how its profits would be divided, and…who would control its operations” (p. xi).

Mining several primary sources, many at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Burk fashions a narrative of divergent wills. He draws the familiar story of how companies formed in the 1860s and 1870s to field baseball teams, played each other, and eventually established leagues. The owners hired players, treating them like other labor groups in the United States. Like other workingmen, the players sought to maximize their salaries and benefits, and confrontation resulted. In virtually all instances, these disputes ended with the owners gaining greater authority over their employees, and the players gained resentment at these developments.

Burk also relates the already well-known rebellion led by John Montgomery Ward to invigorate the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and start a league of its own in 1890, as well as the establishment of several rival leagues whose competition served to raise the income of the players. Most of these efforts ended in failure, and the one instance when it did not, with the rise of the American League, the owners of both leagues combined to create a stable business climate.

Burk also spends considerable effort on the creation of the owners’ ingenious “reserve clause.” Arising in the “Gilded Age” of the latter 1870s, this became a seemingly inviolate section of all players’ contracts that allowed the team the right to reserve the services of their players for the next season even without a signed contract.

This clause was dreamed up by coal baron William A. Hulbert, whose intent was to ensure that the power in MLB resided with the owners rather than the players. The “reserve clause”  stated that the club had the right to renew a player’s contract following each season—effectively making the player’s contract the property of the team that first acquired him for the rest of the player’s career. While the contract and hence the player could be traded, a player could not unilaterally choose to play for another team even if he did not have a current signed contract. The manner in which owners erected this legal means of controlling players amounts to some of the most interesting sections of this book. It was not until the 1970s that the players finally overturned the “reserve clause” and entered the current age of “free agency.”

What resulted from these labor disputes was a stable business in which MLB owners made considerable profits and could exploit players without much fear of anything. For example, Burk discusses the manipulation of MLB rules to depress individual players’ statistics, thereby reducing their bargaining positions at contract negotiation time. In the process of presenting this narrative, Burk unpacks the economics of MLB in its first half century.

While there is much to praise in this book, I recommend caution when considering parts of it. First, Burk is working from sketchy economic records and his tables of salaries, club costs, etc., do not betray the fact that much of his analysis is based on educated guesses rather than on “hard data.”

Second, Burk is biased toward the players in these disputes and his narrative paints the owners as evil conspirators. While I also support the side of the players during this period of MLB history, one must be aware that the owners were probably neither as evil as sometimes contended nor were they necessarily well-organized enough to carry off massive collusion. That is not to argue that they were benevolent patricians, rather it suggests that the truth resides somewhere between the negative conceptions of the owners that the players promulgated and the saintly image that the owners tried to project.

Finally, the issue of a conspiracy of owners to beat down and control the players is certainly present, especially when reviewing the history of the “reserve clause” and the prohibition of African American players, but it is important to question the level of collusion that might have existed among the MLB owners. The premise that the owners acted in total agreement—in lock step so to speak—as a cartel to maximize their profits belies the inherent competition between them, both on and off the field. Rather, they often disagreed and fought each other fully as much as they fought the players. We have seen this in the period since 1920 as well, and it is an important point to consider when reading this very fine book.

Although I do not agree with everything in Never Just a Game, it is really quite a fine work and I recommend it as an important benchmark in the non-buff study of baseball history. It should find a place on the bookshelves of all those who take MLB history seriously.

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