The fascinating story of Major League Baseball's players union stimulated by the death of Jim Bunning

Jim Bunning's time as a union leader is a part of his legacy that is less well-known

Published June 3, 2017 9:00PM (EDT)

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (AP)
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (AP)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Jim Bunning, the former major league baseball star and U.S. Senator who died on Friday at age 85, was a union leader before he entered politics. In the 1960s, when team owners controlled almost every aspect of players’ lives, Bunning was a fighter for baseball players’ rights and a driving force in challenging management’s prerogatives. From almost the start of his major league career, Bunning was active with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), serving as the American League player pension representative and as a member of the union’s executive board for many years.   He helped transform MLBPA from a weak organization into what is now the most powerful labor union in the country.

But you would hardly know that aspect of Bunning’s career from the obituaries that appeared in the media after his death. The stories focused on his outstanding pitching career from 1955 to 1971, his 224 wins and two no-hitters (including a perfect game on June 21, 1964), his 2,855 career strikeouts (which put him in second place on the all-time list at the time of his retirement, behind only Walter Johnson), his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and his post-baseball political career.  NPR’s, CNN’s, and Reuters’ stories, as well as his obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal (Kentucky’s largest paper), didn’t even mention his role with the MLBPA.  The Washington Post, New York Times, and USA Today limited reference of his union activities to a single sentence.  Not one headline mentioned his important and long-term part in the players union.

Perhaps the media’s blind spot is understandable. After all, Bunning’s Hall of Fame plaque mentions his subsequent career in Congress but ignores his involvement with the players’ union.  Likewise, the 4,163 word biography of Bunning on the Society for American Baseball Research website, as well as his Wikipedia profile, ignores Bunning’s role with the MLBPA.

ESPN as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer (and Daily News) were among the few media outlets that gave Bunning his due as a union leader. Both quoted current MLBPA executive director Tony Clark’s praise for Bunning:  “Recognizing the need to ensure that all players receive fair representation in their dealings with major league club owners, Jim, along with a number of his peers, helped pave the way for generations of players.”

Even when he was active in his union, Bunning was a staunch Republican. In 1968, he led Athletes for Nixon.  Throughout his political career, Bunning was a conservative. During his 22 years representing Kentucky in Congress, Bunning backed gun owners’ rights, tax cuts, and the Iraq war, and opposed abortion and same-sex marriage.  The National Journal often ranked Bunning as one of the three most conservative United States Senators.

Bunning’s leadership in the players union didn’t extend to supporting other workers’ rights.  In Congress, he was an ardent foe of organized labor, earning a meager 12 (out of 100) lifetime score from the AFL-CIO for his votes on workers’ rights issues. Some years he earned a zero score from the labor federation.

Among other votes, the former union leader opposed a bill to restrict employers’ interference in union organizing, opposed increasing the minimum wage, and voted to repeal OSHA’s ergonomic rules to protect workers from repetitive stress disorders.  In 2010 Bunning led a filibuster to deny a desperately needed extension of unemployment insurance for millions of jobless workers.  At the time, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called Bunning a “one-man wrecking crew,” adding, “Senator Bunning embodies everything that is wrong with the U.S. Senate today: the ability of individual small-minded, selfish politicians to single-handedly prevent the majority from helping people who need help and solving our country’s problems.”  According to Politico, when Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) urged Bunning to relent, his response was, “Tough shit.”

The media missed this irony in Bunning’s career because it didn’t examine the important role he played in building what is today the most effective labor union in the country.

Although it was founded in 1953, until 1966 the MLBPA was a toothless tiger. It had no full-time staff and no office. The union had no system of player dues. It received a meager allocation of funds from the annual All Star game.  In 1966, it had only $5,700 in its bank account.

Players had no rights to determine the conditions of their employment.  Major League Baseball was an oligopoly. Since the late 1800s, the team owners, acting in unison, had successfully protected themselves against competition from other leagues.  In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court even declared baseball exempt from federal anti-trust laws. The owners conspired to hold down players’ salaries by use of a “reserve clause” in every player’s salary, which tethered them to their teams. A player was, in all matters that counted, the property of his team. He could only bargain with the team that originally signed him.  Teams could trade players to any team without their consent.

Players were not permitted to have agents or lawyers when they negotiated their individual contracts with their teams.   Those contracts were limited to one season. The contracts "reserved" the team's right to "retain" the player for the next season. Each year, the team owners told players: Take it or leave it.  Players had no leverage to negotiate better deals. Even superstars went hat-in-hand to owners at the end of the season, begging for a raise.  Although as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey helped break baseball’s color barrier by hiring Jackie Robinson, he once claimed that “baseball cannot endure” without the reserve clause and that those who opposed it had “avowed communist tendencies."

The owners’ resistance to a strong players union and support for the reserve clause had the intended effect.  In 1965, the minimum MLB salary was $6,000 ($46,724 in today’s dollars).  The average salary was $14,341. (The equivalent of $111,678 today).   Most players had jobs during the off-season to make ends meet.  Team owners routinely cut players’ salaries if they had a subpar year – and occasionally when they had a good year but not as outstanding as the season before. The league provided players with meager pensions over which the union had no control.

Players faced other indignities.  They received meager per-diem payments for meals.  They had to play when injured, fearing that they would otherwise be replaced. Their travel schedules were brutal.  Playing fields were often unsafe.  Many stadium locker rooms were dirty and cramped.  Black players for some teams still confronted segregated spring training facilities in Florida and had to stay in separate hotels from their white teammates in many cities.

After he was traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964, Bunning discovered that the team made the players pay for parking spaces at the ball park.  He complained to team executives, who soon allowed Bunning and his teammates to park for free.

In 1965, by then an established star, Bunning wrote an autobiography, The Story of Jim Bunning, in which he expressed his concern about the sport’s unfair economic playing field.  “We’re an entertainment providing relaxation for people,” he wrote, pointing out that while the teams were highly profitable, players were being shortchanged.  He worried that the owners would hoard almost all of the teams’ expected TV revenues for themselves rather than increasing the share going to the players’ pension fund.

In 1990, when he was in Congress, Bunning recalled: “We would take our requests to the owners at a joint meeting and then they would just laugh at us and say ‘sure, we’ll look at it,’ and that was the end of it. We didn’t know labor law. We didn’t know collective bargaining.”

Bunning -- who had a B.A. in economics from Xavier University and was one of the few college graduates among pro players in the 1950s and 1960s -- also saw that more and more teams were being purchased by big corporations, replacing local families.

“The nature of ownership groups was changing dramatically,” he told John Helyar, author of Lords of the Realm, a history of baseball’s labor relations. “We wanted to make sure we knew where we were going even if management didn’t.”

During his playing days, Bunning’s actions challenged the stereotype of ballplayers – widespread among sportswriters, owners, and fans – as uneducated, happy-go-lucky, and unwilling to speak out and act on their own behalf.

Bunning joined forces with Robin Roberts, another future Hall of Fame pitcher and college graduate (Michigan State), in trying to strengthen the union into a real bargaining force.   Roberts had been a founder of the MLBPA in 1953 and had been elected the National League’s player representative.  That experience with the union, like Bunning’s, opened his eyes to the MLBPA’s weakness vis-à-vis the team owners and management.

In 1965, Roberts and Bunning began looking for a full-time executive director to run the union. Bunning and fellow hiring committee members Harvey Kuenn and Bob Friend met with Richard Nixon to sound out his interest as a possible candidate, but the former Vice President declined.  Roberts, who spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies, asked George Taylor, a professor of labor studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, for recommendations.  He suggested Marvin Miller, an economist for the steelworkers union, for the job.

Roberts and Bunning met with Miller.  Roberts was fervently for Miller and Bunning soon agreed with that choice.  Despite some initial opposition from other members of the union’s hiring committee, the two pitchers prevailed.  With Miller in charge, they hoped to transform the sport’s outdated labor relations.  Initially, even some players, glad just to be getting paid to put on a uniform, resisted the idea of a stronger union. Most sportswriters at the time sided with the management, severely attacking Miller and the MLBPA.

Before the union could challenge the owners, however, Miller had to get the players to stand up for themselves. "People today don't understand how beaten down the players were back then," Miller once recalled. "The players had low self-esteem, as any people in their position would have—like baggage owned by the clubs."

With Bunning’s support, Miller instructed ballplayers in the ABCs of trade unionism: fight for your rights to be treated as more than property, stick together against management, work on behalf of players who came before you and who would come after you, prepare yourself--professionally and financially--for life after your playing days are over, and don't allow owners to divide players by race, income or their place in the celebrity pecking order.  Miller — who headed the union from 1966 until 1983 – taught players about labor history and labor law, gave them a sense of their own power, and trained them how to outmaneuver the owners during negotiating sessions. Under his leadership, the players won a democratic voice in their workplaces and dramatically improved their pay, pensions, and working conditions.

At first, the team owners and many sportswriters tried to turn the players against Miller. Some used his leftist and Jewish background as a weapon. But Bunning, a Southerner and a Republican, stood up for Miller.  In 1967, he and other members of the union’s executive board replaced Miller’s first contract (which had another year to run) with a three-year extension and a $5,000 raise to $55,000.  Speaking for the union, Bunning told the press about the board’s action, explaining: “I know that baseball people resent our new leader…I have news for them. Marvin Miller will be around for a long time.”

In 1968, two years after Miller took the union's reins, the players association negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement. It established players' rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. Players also won the right to have agents to negotiate their contracts. The agreement raised the minimum salary in baseball from $6,000 -- the level at which it had been stuck for two decades -- to $10,000.

Although the owners’ were adamant in refusing to eliminate the reserve clause, in 1969 the union pressured them to participate in a Joint Study Committee on the Reserve System.  Bunning was one of three MLBPA representatives on the committee (the other two were Miller and the union’s general counsel Richard Moss), along with five representatives of the owners, who insisted that ending the reserve clause would destroy professional baseball.

At the committee’s first meeting, Bunning discussed the need to protect players whose careers were stifled by the system, according to Charles Korr’s history of the MLBPA, The End of Baseball As We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-81. Bunning mentioned the union’s proposal to allow a player to leave his team if his salary did not reach a certain level.  The owners’ rejected this idea, claiming that it “would create an incentive to do poorly,” to which Bunning responded, “no one tries to have a bad year.”

Although Detroit was a strong union city, its newspapers’ sportswriters criticized Bunning’s involvement in the MLBPA.  Bunning suspected that the Tigers’ management planted some of these stories.  A reporter for the Detroit News, for example, labeled Bunning a “briefcase ballplayer” for his MLBPA activism. And when the Tigers traded him to the Phillies after the 1963 season, the Detroit Free Press ran a story headlined, “Was Player Rep  Bunning Too Busy?” warning that the trade “should serve as a lesson to the rest of  players on the Tigers” not to waste time with union activities.

Bunning was both a strong union loyalist and a fierce competitor.  St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver, who was a member of the union’s executive board with Bunning, told historian Korr how “Bunning would talk with you one day about the ‘righteousness of the cause the need for staying united’ and then knock you down with a fastball the next day.”

In at least one instance, Bunning was also an advocate for racial justice. Before the 1968 season began, even though he led the National League in strikeouts and innings pitched, the Phillies traded Bunning to the Pittsburgh Pirates – obviously in retaliation for his union activities. Bunning’s new teammates wanted to elect him as their player representative. But, according to Korr, Bunning was upset by the lack of black and Latino involvement in the union leadership and convinced his fellow players to elect superstar outfielder Roberto Clemente.

As a member of the union’s leadership, Bunning supported Curt Flood’s legal challenge to the reserve clause. In 1969, at age 31, the Cardinals’ star outfielder protested his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. He had built a life in St. Louis and dreaded having to relocate to Philadelphia, which he — as a black man -- regarded as the “nation’s northernmost southern city.” More importantly, he objected to being treated like what he called a “well-paid slave.”   The MLBPA backed Flood’s legal challenge and recruited former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to represent him, but in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Flood, upholding the reserve clause and maintaining baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust laws.

By the time Bunning retired from major league baseball in 1971, minimum salaries and average salaries had almost doubled in the first five years of Miller’s tenure --  to $12,750 (worth $76,979 today) and $31,543 ($190,444 today), respectively.

The players union didn’t overturn the reserve clause until 1975 when, in a case that involved pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, arbitrator Peter Seitz invalidated the dreaded clause and gave players the right to free agency. This gave players the ability to veto proposed trades, bargain for the best contract, and decide for themselves for which team they wanted to work. The players association also won increased per-diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions and better training facilities, locker room conditions and medical treatment.

The MLBPA is now the most successful union in the country.  The players share in major league baseball’s enormous profits.  In 2015, the minimum salary was $507,500 and the average salary was $4.2 million.  Even players who have short and less-than-illustrious careers have good retirement benefits.

But the MLBPA is quite isolated from the broader labor movement, a trait that reflects Bunning’s tunnel-vision brand of business unionism in contrast to Miller’s efforts to teach ballplayers the importance of lab0r solidarity. Even though many major league players come from low-income families, their union shows little concern for low-wage workers, including those who toil in the ballparks where they play, the hotels where they stay,  or the overseas sweatshops that manufacture their baseballs (in Costa Rica) and the bobble heads that generate revenues for the players (in China). Nor has the MLBPA done much to improve minor league players’ miserable pay and working conditions.

When his playing days ended, Bunning became a minor league manager, an agent for players, and a stockbroker before pursuing a political career.  He returned to his native northern Kentucky and was elected to the Fort Thomas City Council in 1977, then won a seat in 1979 in the Kentucky State Senate, where he was elected minority leader by his Republican colleagues in his first year. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1986 and to the U.S. Senate in 1998, serving for two terms.

In 2006, TIME magazine ranked Bunning as among the nation's "five worst senators," dubbing him "the underperformer" who was hostile to his staff and “shows little interest in policy unless it involves baseball."

For years Bunning pushed to repeal baseball’s anti-trust exemption, which the Supreme Court had three times upheld.  “All that exemption has done is allow a controlled monopoly to dictate for years to the fans, players, and taxpayers,” Bunning told Lords of the Realm author John Helyar in the early 1990s.  In 1998, with Bunning’s support,  Congress passed the Curt Flood Act, which overturned the exemption.  In 2005, Bunning co-authored legislation calling for stiff punishment for professional athletes caught using steroids, including a lifetime ban for a third positive test.

As a baseball pitcher, Bunning intimidated batters, but his abrasiveness rankled his fell0w Senators, including those within his own party. In 2010, Republican leaders, including his fellow Kentucky Senator Mitchell McConnell, pressured him to retire, fearing that he could lose his re-election race to a Democrat. Bunning accused his GOP colleagues of doing ‘‘everything in their power to dry up my fund-raising.’’  McConnell's hand-picked choice to succeed Bunning lost in the primary to Tea Party candidate Rand Paul, whom Bunning endorsed and who won the seat.

In his farewell address to the Senate in December 2010, Bunning defended his brusque personality and the distain many fell0w Senators felt toward him.

“I have been booed by 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium standing alone at the pitcher’s mound, so I have never really cared if I stood alone here in Congress as long as I stood by my beliefs and my values,” he said. “I have also thought that being able to throw a curveball never was a bad skill for a politician to have.”

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).


By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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