Book Review: Baseball’s Power Shift

In 1952, Ralph Kiner asked Pirates general manager Branch Rickey for a raise. Kiner, who was making $65,000 a year, figured he had a good bargaining chip after leading the National League in home runs for the seventh consecutive season.

The stingy Rickey didn’t see it that way, famously telling his star slugger, “We finished eighth with you, we can finish eighth without you.” The Pirates GM even complained, “If you had eight Ralph Kiners on an American Association team, it would finish last.”
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On June 4, 1953 Kiner was sent packing to the Chicago Cubs as part of a 10-player trade.

Holding out wasn’t an option for Kiner or any of his contemporaries who felt underappreciated. There was no players’ union going to bat for them.

In Baseball’s Power Shift, (Nebraska Press, $29.95, 320 pp) Krister Swanson shows how fans and the media became key players in baseball’s labor wars and paved the way for the explosive growth in the American sports economy.

Not until the mid-1960s, when Dodgers’ pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale staged a joint holdout for multiyear contracts and much higher salaries, did management take the players seriously. Their holdout quickly drew support from the public and for the first time, owners realized they could ill afford to alienate the fans, their primary source of revenue.

Baseball’s Power Shift chronicles the growth and development of the union movement in Major League Baseball and the key role of the press and public opinion in the players’ successes and failures in labor-management relations. Swanson focuses on the most turbulent years, 1966-81, which saw the birth of the Major League Baseball Players Association as well as three strikes, two lockouts, Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause in the Supreme Court, and the emergence of full free agency.

To defeat the owners, the players’ union needed support from the press, and perhaps more importantly, the public. With the public on their side, the players ushered in a new era in professional sports when salaries skyrocketed and fans began to care as much about the business dealings of their favorite team as they did about wins and losses.

When Marvin Miller became the executive director of the players’ union in 1966, the average player’s salary was $19,000. When Miller retired at the end of the 1982 season, the players were earning an average of $241,000 and the pension plan had become generous.

“Marvin Miller’s first two years of leadership allowed the MLBPA to establish a beachhead for unionization in the management-dominated world of Major League Baseball,” Swanson writes. “Miller had the organizational and strategic savvy needed to build public support for the union and strong collective consciousness among the vast majority of players, men historically proven to be difficult to organize.”

Considering Swanson has a Ph.D. in modern American history and is a high school teacher in California, it’s only natural Baseball’s Power Shift reads like a textbook. There are no graphics, illustrations or even documents that help tell the tale of one of the country’s strongest unions.

Swanson’s exhaustive research into his subject matter and his ability to take what could be a boring subject and make it interesting makes Baseball’s Power Shift a worthwhile read.

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