Explaining the Baseball Revolution
65 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2014 Last revised: 27 Mar 2014
Date Written: 2013
Between 1966 and 1976, Major League Baseball players won from their club owners a dramatic redistribution of the game’s operational control and revenues. A new era was born, with athletes regularly moving between teams in search of multi-million dollar contracts, periodic strikes, and collective bargaining as the sports industry’s primary policy-making mechanism. In this Article, I offer a new interpretation of how the baseball revolution happened.
In contrast to most accounts, which attribute baseball’s transformation to a convergence of strong personalities and serendipity, I argue that the baseball revolution was the culmination of a reform campaign that is best understood as an instance of what sociolegal scholars call legal mobilization. This campaign revolved around a basic legal claim: that baseball’s “reserve” system denied fundamental rights to the players. This claim failed in court — most famously in Flood v. Kuhn (1972) — yet it resonated elsewhere. The leaders of the baseball revolution — beginning with Marvin Miller, the head of the players’ union — drew upon this rights-based claim for purposes other than winning litigation challenges. In essence, the language of the law allowed the players to reframe the terms of the debate over the reserve system. A struggle that was essentially over power and money became widely understood as a battle for individual freedom. In this way, an improbable legal argument served both to unite and mobilize the players and to secure enough outside support so as to ultimately force the team owners to concede to their demands. Considered through the lens of sociolegal analysis, with its appreciation for the ways in which legal norms function in diverse settings, the baseball revolution offers a valuable case study of the complex interrelation between legal claims, legal institutions, and movement mobilization.
Keywords: baseball, legal history, legal mobilization, law and society, sports law, labor law, Flood v. Kuhn, free agency, reserve clause, sociolegal
JEL Classification: K30, K31, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation