A Minute With...

Daniel Gilbert, expert on labor history

10/9/2013  8:00 am

Daniel Gilbert is a labor professor and expert on the labor history of the modern baseball industry. His book, “Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency,” was recently published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

Gilbert, a cultural historian with special interests in work, global mass culture and social movements, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about some of the significant changes to professional baseball in the modern era.

How did the Major League Baseball Players Association start and how has it evolved?

Daniel GilbertThe organization actually has its roots in a failed unionization attempt in 1946, after which team owners agreed to meet annually with representatives from each club to discuss their concerns. Players formed the MLBPA in the early 1950s as a collective voice in these yearly discussions with the owners, but the association didn’t really amount to much until the mid-1960s. By then, the players had grown concerned that that they were being left out of their industry’s rapidly increasing television revenue.

In 1966, the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller as its first executive director. In his previous role as chief economist with the United Steelworkers, Miller had helped negotiate some of the most important collective bargaining agreements in U.S. history. He helped major league ballplayers transform their old association into an extraordinarily powerful and successful union.

How did free agency arise in professional baseball?

Until 1976, major league teams effectively controlled contractual rights to their players in perpetuity. Under that system, the only leverage an individual player had in his annual contract negotiations was to refuse to play.

And many did. Babe Ruth, for example, staged multiple holdouts during his career. But if holding out could sometimes work for stars like Ruth, it really wasn’t an option for the vast majority of players. In 1976, after an independent arbitrator ruled that MLB’s longstanding way of doing business actually violated the terms of the standard player contract, team owners were forced to negotiate a new system with the union – limited free agency for veteran players. Once a player has logged six years of big league service, he is free to entertain offers from any interested teams. This system has allowed star players to negotiate larger and larger contracts over the years, and has pushed up the average major league salary considerably.

But one of the things I find most interesting about the longer history of free agency is the fact that it really was much more than a new system of contracts or new dollar figures. The players who brought about free agency, who built the MLBPA into a strong union, also transformed the place of Major League Baseball in U.S. popular culture. Players like Reggie Jackson shook up what had been an extraordinarily conservative game, and really remade it into something much more vibrant and exciting. Reggie was quoted – and derided – for saying that if he ever signed a free agent deal with the Yankees to play in New York someone would name a candy bar after him. Yankee Stadium, Reggie figured, would be the perfect stage for his brand of stardom.

As it turned out, he was right – the Reggie Bar hit stores in early 1978.

More than 28 percent of MLB players on the 25-man opening day rosters in 2013 were born outside of the U.S., with players from the Dominican Republic accounting for over one-third of foreign-born players. Why do so many professional baseball players originate from this relatively small island nation?

With the rise in player salaries sparked by free agency and the growing power of the union, MLB teams sought out new strategies to recruit and develop cheap young talent. As a nation with a rich baseball history dating to the 19th century, and minimal restrictions on MLB scouts’ ability to sign young players (unlike both Cuba and Mexico), the Dominican Republic was an ideal home for one of the most influential institutions of the modern baseball industry: the recruiting academy.

MLB teams invested in academies, or camps, in which they could try out, train and sign top young prospects for very little money. Since MLB excluded “foreign territories” from the annual amateur draft, individual teams could develop real competitive advantages by having a strong presence in the Dominican Republic. The great Toronto Blue Jays teams of the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, featured a number of great Dominican players who came out of the team’s academy, one of the first of its kind. As an expansion franchise, Toronto needed every edge it could get in building a roster.

What has been the MLBPA’s stance on performance-enhancing drugs and testing? How has it evolved? What shape is it taking now?

Like any union worth its salt, the MLBPA has always been committed to protecting its members’ rights to privacy and due process, not just with regard to the issue of drug testing, but as fundamental to creating a fair work environment. In addition, having been through several contentious strikes and lockouts over the years, the union was strongly opposed to re-opening the collective bargaining agreement to address a single issue, for fear of establishing a potentially damaging precedent. But as more and more accusations and revelations about steroids emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the players faced increasing pressure to come to a new agreement with team owners over testing for performance-enhancing drugs, which they did in 2005.

What has been especially interesting over the last few years has been a shift in the ways in which players and union staff have approached the issue of PEDs. While due process concerns remain important baseline considerations, players have become much more vocal advocates of stringent testing and strong punishment. Clearly, players have more of an interest than anyone else in making sure their industry is safe and fair, as well as profitable.

You just published a book on baseball and the changes wrought by free agency. What was your favorite part of the research?

The greatest moment I have ever experienced in a ballpark was when I saw David Ortiz play his first game back in the Dominican winter league after becoming a star with the Red Sox. I was there doing some interviews about the academy system and the history of the Dominican players association, and was lucky enough to land a ticket to see this game between the two rival teams (Licey and Escogido) that are both based in Santo Domingo, the capital city.

As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I was hardly an objective observer, only months removed from the euphoria of the 2004 World Series. But I have never heard anything quite so glorious as the roar that greeted him the first time he stepped up to the plate in his Escogido uniform. Being there that night only got me more interested in learning about the role of Dominican athletes in the baseball industry, and the place of nations like the Dominican Republic in the larger baseball world.

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