A-Rod Needs a History Lesson

While Alex Rodriquez may be off the front pages for the moment, this hiatus will give him the opportunity to study up on the history of labor relations in the national pastime. He has railed against the labor arbitration process and the man who ran the process in his case, distinguished labor arbitrator Federic Horowitz. A-Rod is understandably upset about the prospect of losing the opportunity to earn $25 million for playing this coming season.

But how did A-Rod arrive in the position to be able to earn those mega-dollars? He certainly was a brilliant talent long before he may (or may not) have indulged in using performance-enhancing drugs. He was always much better than the average ballplayer of the 1950s or 1960s who earned $10-15,000 a year for a career that lasted only a few years at the Major League level. That was the state of baseball work life before the advent of the Major League Baseball Players Association and the arrival of player free agency.

How did this revolution occur? Now ballplayers earn a minimum of $490,000 a season and free agents can earn as much as A-Rod or even more. (The Dodgers just signed a seven-year contract with pitcher Clayton Kershaw for more than $30 million a year.) Did A-Rod's riches come through the federal court -- the place where he wants his complaint to be heard by a "fair" judge? Federal courts were historically hostile to labor unions in general and to baseball players in particular. In 1922, the United States Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion by Justice Holmes ruled that baseball was a state and local matter that did not affect interstate commerce. Therefore, baseball's pernicious personnel system did not have to comply with the antitrust laws. Although the decision was preposterous -- even in 1922 the interstate character of the game was evident -- it remained the law for almost 80 years until Congress clarified the reach of the antitrust laws.

The Players Association, which A-Rod also castigates in his pending federal court action, was the instrument that provided the first step up for the ballplayers. Backed by a majority of the players, the union demanded that the club owners bargain collectively over terms and conditions of employment and it supported its demands with repeated player strikes. In the resulting collective bargaining agreements, the union created, among other things, a non-judicial system for the resolution of disputes that would give the players a fair hearing. That private system of adjudication would ultimately set the players free of the reserve system, which, since 1879, had bound the athletes to the clubs that signed them for the duration of their careers or until they were traded at the club's discretion.

The next step that led to riches for A-Rod was a grievance filed in 1975 by the Players Association on behalf of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, brilliant pitchers and strong unionists. Their case was not heard in federal court, which three years earlier had denied Curt Flood's claim for player freedom. It was heard -- get ready for this, A-Rod -- by a labor arbitrator, the indomitable (and often quite irascible) Peter Seitz, who was the joint choice selected by the owners and the union to operate their labor arbitration system.

Around Christmas in 1975, arbitrator Seitz issued an award holding that, under the collective bargaining agreement and the terms of the uniform player contract, the owners' reserve system only bound a player to his prior club for one extra year rather than in perpetuity as the owners had claimed. The following year, the owners and the union agreed to a modified reserve system that freed players with six years of Major League service to negotiate with any baseball club that wanted him at whatever salary could be agreed upon. That was why A-Rod was able to sell his services to the Texas Rangers and then to the New York Yankees at unprecedented levels of compensation.

Labor arbitration and the MLB Players Association made A-Rod rich. His home runs, timely hitting and steady fielding would have been worth little had it not been for the union he now attacks and the labor arbitration process he castigates. How ironic that the targets of his wrath were the sources of his prosperity. Perhaps his regimen from Biogenesis should have included an ounce of labor history every time he took a testosterone "gummy"?