Remembering the father of free agency

Courtesy of Flickr/Zane Hollingsworth

Those who study and follow the business side of sports are remembering the impact that Marvin Miller had on baseball and professional sports in general upon learning of his death earlier this week. Miller, the father of free agency in Major League Baseball, died on Nov. 27 at the age of 95.

As the president of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, Miller had a considerable hand in shaping the current landscape for players. His fight against baseball’s antitrust exemption has forever changed not only baseball, but other professional sports as well.

Labor relations expert Braham Dabsheck was among those who mourned the passing of Miller. Dabscheck recently published Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game. In his book, Dabsheck often references the importance Miller had in changing the rights of players, including the introduction of player free agency, a grievance procedure, and the sport’s first collective bargaining agreement.

“The Major League Baseball Players Association, under Miller’s leadership, transformed baseball industrial relations—virtually turned it on its head,” Dabsheck wrote in Reading Baseball (p. 13).

On the day of Miller’s death, Dabscheck, a senior fellow in the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne, provided a personal account of his memory of Miller.

“I corresponded with him on a number of occasions in the 1970s when I was embarking on my research into the operation of professional team sports,” Dabsheck said. “He was always helpful and encouraged me in my research. He was interested to learn that I was able to demonstrate how employment rules in Australian football, similar to those in baseball, were inconsistent with the attainment of sporting equality.

“It is clear that he was the most important figure in the history of baseball from the 1960s on. He not only transformed the economic lot of baseball players, but also those of other team sports. He has also been an inspiration for a number of leaders of Australian player associations.”

The Federal League’s Unsuccessful Challenge To Organized Baseball

[Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, published April 2011, by FiT. He has written extensively on many aspects of sport, and he continues with that tradition today by offering a review of The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy, as well as The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League. Dabscheck is a man proper from Down Under, and out of respect for his Australian English, no edits have been made to his vernacular.]

Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge And Its Legacy, Ivan R. Dee, Lanham (Maryland), 2012, hp. xvi + 314, pb, US $30.98.

Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League Of Base Ball Clubs: The History Of An Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915, McFarland & Company, Jefferson (North Carolina) and London, 2011 (First Published 2009), pp. vi + 362, pb, US $40.00.


Economics focuses on the operation of markets and the competition that exists between those associated with the production and consumption of various goods and services. Focusing on the production side, economics predicts (tautologically as it were) that those entities which are the more efficient and resourceful will prevail over those that are less efficient and resourceful. Competition here has a hard edge, with the less efficient and able being destroyed and/or driven out of the market. The insights of economics are nowhere better illustrated than in the two volumes being reviewed here, which examine an unsuccessful attempt by a group of baseball entrepreneurs, under the umbrella of the Federal League, to take on Organized Baseball in 1914 and 1915. The incumbents were more resourceful in terms of cash, knowledge and strategic verve, in striking out the upstarts.

American baseball was the first professional sport to develop a formal league structure with a regular fixture between competing teams in the form of the National League in 1876. English football formed the Football League in 1888. It had earlier developed a knock out competition in the form of the FA Cup in 1871. Following its formation, the National League was challenged by a number of rival leagues: the American Association (1882-1883), the Union Association (1883-1884), the Players League (1890), a second round with the American Association (1891), and the American League (1900-1903). The National League either defeated or merged with the more financially secure clubs of the challengers. The American League, under the leadership of its president Ban Johnson, constituted the most serious challenge to the National League. In the end, the two leagues decided to merge and form the current two league structure, with the champions of both playing off in a World Series, which has continued to this very day. In turn, these two leagues entered into arrangements with minor leagues and formed a ‘structure’ that became known as Organized Baseball.

The period after the Civil War to World War I was one of extensive population growth, urbanization, and economic expansion in America. It resulted in an increase in a stream of rich men outside ‘established,’ well-heeled families, what might be called nouveau riche, who were looking for new opportunities to advance themselves onto a more public stage. Baseball was such a vehicle for these new men of substance. One of the strengths of Daniel Levitt’s The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball is how he situates the rise of this new breed of entrepreneurs as they searched for their place in the American sun.

In 1913, a group of entrepreneurs formed the Federal League, which operated in the Midwest as a minor league. It hardly attracted the attention of Organized Baseball. In the period from 1900 to 1918 there was constant fluidity in the number of minor leagues that started and finished a season. [1] After a reasonably successful season, Federal League owners decided that they would seek to take on Organized Baseball and operate as a third major league.

The Federal League faced two major problems in this quest. The first was to find and/or build ballparks that would be regarded as being of major league caliber. Stadium construction, at this juncture, was in the process of being transformed from wooden to iron and concrete structures. The Federal League experienced problems in finding locations convenient for potential spectators and were faced with high capital costs in building ballparks; returns on which would only accrue in the long term.

The second problem was attracting players of appropriate caliber to its ranks. The Federal League experienced major problems on this score. Only a small number of major league players, on the margins or at the end of their careers, found their way to the Federal League. Organized Baseball had deeper pockets and was more resourceful and calculated than the Federal League in battles over players. Organized Baseball combined the carrot and the stick in keeping its hold on players. It offered higher salaries and threatened blacklisting to players who were tempted to jump ship. It also relocated players to other clubs who were motivated to move to The Federal League because of ‘run ins’ or poor treatment from their managers or owners, often at higher rates of pay. In Ban Johnson, Organized Baseball had a master tactician who employed injunctions and court cases to dissuade players from joining the upstart league. Mounting such cases and pointing out to players the potentially negative consequences of an adverse decision served to persuade those who had signed with Federal League clubs to hold on for a while, before they moved on. This in turn served to take the wind out of the sails of the Federal League, which was seeking to develop some momentum in attracting quality players and establishing its major league credentials. Johnson was also assiduous in choosing which battles to fight and which to leave alone, and in maintaining discipline within and between the National and American Leagues. The Federal League lacked anyone with the experience and ‘smarts’ who could counter Johnson.

There were falls in the attendance, income and profits of clubs of Organized Baseball in 1914. Attendance picked up somewhat in 1915. Competition drove up player salaries. The Federal League struggled in 1914, with all clubs losing money in 1914. Things were worse in 1915, with a rain-interrupted season and lower attendances. Both sides, especially the Federal League, bled money.

After the 1915 season, both sides sued for peace. A deal was worked out whereby some of the Federal League owners could buy out or merge with teams from Organized Baseball, while others would be absorbed into higher-grade minor leagues. The deal did not include the Baltimore club. It challenged Organized Baseball and the agreement as being inconsistent with the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. In 1922, the United States Supreme Court found that baseball did not constitute trade or commerce under the meaning of the Sherman Act, [2] and gave baseball, in distinction from other sports, an exemption from antitrust actions.

Levitt sees this league war as ‘forging modern baseball.’ It did not, in two senses. First, the battle did not change baseball in any meaningful sense. All it did was confirm the status quo that had been established when the National and American Leagues had merged in 1903. Second, the modern game, as it has been played since the mid-1970s (which is almost four decades ago and is more recent than 1915!) is significantly different from the way it was in the aftermath of the Federal League war. Threats from rival leagues in the 1950s and 1960s induced Organized Baseball to move teams westward to take advantage of new markets (and later southward) and to expend the number of teams that competed. What was once a 16-team competition has expanded into one of 30 teams. Second, the Major League Baseball Players Association has combined legal strategies and industrial action to substantially change the employment rules of baseball. Players, who once they signed with a club were unable to negotiate with other clubs, reduced to ‘mere chattels,’ found a way to force Organized Baseball to agree to a system of free agency (after six years of service) with concomitant increases in their economic freedom and income. [3]

These two books approach the Federal League war from different perspectives. Levitt’s The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball focuses on the off-field battles that occurred between the various protagonists. He not only examines the machinations that occurred between Organized Baseball and the Federal League but also the tensions that occurred within the respective leagues. Wiggins’s The Federal League Of Base Ball Clubs is more concerned with what happened on the field of play in the Federal League. He provides an essentially descriptive account of the highs and lows of teams and players and biographical information concerning players, managers, owners and other relevant personnel. His material is not as well organized and written as that of Levitt and is of less interest. Nonetheless, these two books together provide a comprehensive account of a major league war that occurred in American baseball almost a century ago.

Black History Month: Honoring African-American Heroes

With spring training already in full-swing, baseball season is right around the corner. It was baseball that brought one of the first professional African-American athletes, Jackie Robinson, to the forefront of the sports world. We now live in a society where African-American athletes are among the best in any sport, but it hasn’t always been easy for them. Robinson undoubtedly faced much ridicule and racism as he wowed people all over the country with his abilities. It is this month of February that we honor him and all those like him.

Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month, is an annual observance in the United States. It began in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced that the second week of February would be “Negro History Week.” Last week marked the birth dates of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both of whom played very influential parts in African-American history.

The United States federal government acknowledged and expanded Black History Week to Black History Month due to a few leaders at Kent State University (Ohio) who wanted the celebration to encompass the entire month in February 1969. The first official Black History Month was celebrated at Kent State University in 1970.

While there are far too many African-American heroes to be honored in only one month, some may debate the need for an entire month dedicated to the history of one race. Being that African-Americans have held leading roles in the shaping of American culture especially in the realm of sport, what sports enthusiast could argue the need for this celebration?

As we have learned from Dana Brooks and Ronald Althouse in Racism in College Athletic, “Sport has been a place of courage and achievement for African American athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators who have been given the chance to play, coach, and administer college sports… Deeds of the past need not be visited upon African Americans in the future, but for full equality and opportunity to be achieved for African American college athletes, coaches, and administrators, a number of still unresolved problems must be addressed.”

According to Richard Lapchick, author of 100 Pioneers: African-American Athletes Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport, “Sports and race relations have traveled throughout most of history on a parallel plane…Most importantly, sport is unique in the boundaries it crosses with both its participants and its audience. Differences in gender, race, physical and mental abilities, age, religion, and cultures are irrelevant in the huddle, on the field, in the gym, or in the water. Sport smashes these barriers like nothing else can.”

There has always existed a certain degree of racism in sport. However, professor and dean at WVU College of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences, Dana Brooks; and professor of sociology and director of the Survey and Research Center at WVU, Ronald Althouse, have edited a book that explores and researches Racism in College Athletics specifically.

Quite a few African-American athletes broke color barriers in their sport, and 100 of them are discussed in 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport.

Any reader with zeal for sport and its boundaries within race and ethnicity will grow significantly from reading Sport, Race, and Ethnicity: Narratives of Difference and Diversity, edited by Daryl Adair.

Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game provides a commentary on the history and evolution of baseball as a game and as a business. Reading Baseball also recognizes the importance of race and the Civil Rights Movement; and those larger than life characters, players, managers, owners and others who have been part of baseball’s grand parade.

Jersey Out for Deliberation

Fans change their clothes, rather than their seats, at Diamondbacks series opener (photo courtesy of

In a box seat just behind home plate, several fans watching the Arizona Diamondbacks battle it out in their series opener were asked to take it off. The fans, in prime viewing area, were wearing Los Angeles Dodgers gear.

Their seats, $3,250-$3,500 box seats, are consistently shown in photos, videos, and any shots of the batters. Anyone watching the game would have noticed the blue and white instead of Arizona’s grey and maroon. Ken Kendrick, a Diamondbacks owner, noticed this and requested the group either change seats or change clothes.

Rather than relocate to another box, where they were told they would be reimbursed for the difference, the fans elected to keep their seats and change into the Diamondbacks gear that was brought to them. This shift was noticed by many and is under much consideration: Was Ken Kendrick stepping over the line in requesting a change? Sure, no team wants the rival’s colors boldly exhibited at its field, but does that mean it’s right to ask paying customers to change their clothes or move?

It should be noted that these seats come with the request that the occupants wear the Diamondbacks’ colors. They may, of course, cheer for whomever they choose, but for the sake of appearance, fans are given that simple request. Paul Bender, a professor of law at Arizona State University said, “It sounds kind of small-minded, but I would think they probably have the legal right to do that, especially if they let people know in advance that that’s the rule.” As the fans were notified of the rule, Bender is right. Even if Kendrick comes off as the bad guy, legally, he’s in the clear.

Yahoo! Sports writer Mark Townsend said, “You already have their money, so as long as they’re not wearing something offensive (division rival colors and logos don’t count) why not let them wear what they want?” But he is missing the point. The request had nothing to do with money—the fans were going to be compensated for a move. It’s about appearances.

Professional sports, in an arena, are a sort of theater. Fans pay as much for the show as they do for the game. No game in the world is worth $3,500. This isn’t about the cost of the tickets or the team’s gains from sales. It’s about image.

A team can live and die by its image. A city can live or die by its team’s image. The Diamondbacks have every right to maintain their brand however they choose. Diamondback fans at home don’t want to see another team’s colors on show in the best seats in the house. Dress codes are perfectly acceptable anywhere. Restaurants, clubs, businesses, schools—all have a certain image to project, and in the interest of their own brand, they ask that people abide by their rules. People who don’t follow suit are sometimes provided with alternate options, sometimes denied admission. There’s no reason Ken Kendrick can’t instate the same policies for his prominent box seats.

That said, it may not be the best business practice. Rivals’ fans will feel unwelcome, and if enough sports writers continue to berate Kendrick for his decision, he may become less than popular.

Still, though, all the world’s a stage, and when you enter stage left at Chase Field, you’d best be in costume.

Fighting with Gender Identity

Fallon Fox faces more challenges outside the ring than inside. (courtesy of

Throughout the physical trials and tribulations of MMA fighting, fighter Fallon Fox has encountered a level of difficulty many of her competitors haven’t had to contend with.

Fox came out earlier this year as a transgendered woman. This has created quite a bit of controversy, as few viewers truly understand the implications of her gender.

UFC Fighter Mike Mitrione called Fox “a lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak” insisting, “he’s chromosomally a man. He had a gender change, not a sex change. He’s still a man.” The UFC has officially renounced these remarks, even suspending Mitrione, but what does the science say?

Fox had to take testosterone blockers before her transition. The average amount of testosterone in a man’s system is 300-1,000 nanograms, while the average woman has between 10 and 70 nanograms. Fox has revealed her testosterone levels are typically around 7.

Currently, she continues to take oral estrogen. At this point, if Fox would stop taking the estrogen, she would essentially experience postmenopausal hormone levels. Her testosterone wouldn’t rise.

With her higher levels of estrogen and lower testosterone, Fox finds it more difficult to drop weight–something that can be vital for MMA fighters. In fact, in her six years of transition, most professionals would say all physical advantages that Fox would have had as a man fighting women in MMA are gone, including strength, speed and bone density.

Gender roles have always been a strong part of the lens through which we view sports. Some sports are more or less manly than others, some are inappropriate for women, men must compete against men, and women must compete against women. So if a person later becomes either a man or a woman, what has changed? When does it change? Should it change?

Embodied Masculinities in Global Sport is a textbook in the works that takes a look at how these views of gender and masculinity affect our view of sports, as well as how our view of sport affects our ideas on gender and manhood. It tackles this in a worldwide perspective, including views from New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil, the U.S., and others.

Sometimes, these issues are obvious, at the forefront of the public view, like Fox. Occasionally, though, our ideals are so embedded into tradition that we may not even consider them. But the fact remains: sport and gender are closely linked in all societies.

Fox’s biggest challenges may not even be in the ring— in order to be successful as an athlete, she is going to have to fight outside her bouts. The resistance she will doubtless face holds the potential to further strengthen her. It’s just a matter of facing outside opponents like Mitrione who insist, “[s]he’s obviously got some mental issues and wants to beat up on women.”

As of now, the Florida Boxing Commission shows no signs of revoking Fox’s license, and fighters are still entering bouts with her. But one thing’s for sure: Fox has opened a national dialogue about transgendered athletes and gender in sport. And the people are talking.