Nationalizing the Pastime: Why Socialists Want Billionaires Out of Baseball

Recording of DSA Inside Baseball: on Baseball, Socialism, and the Workers Who Make It All Happen with SEIU organizer Max Gerboc, minor league player Simon Rosenblum-Larson, and DSA member & World Series Champion Sean Doolittle

 

Baseball has a reputation as a sport with a conservative fan base; nearly half of ‘avid fans’ are white men over the age of 45, according to Major League Baseball (MLB) statistics. The billionaires that run the Supreme Court-sanctioned monopoly trust on professional baseball range from Little Caesar’s Pizza mogul Christopher Ilitch (owner of the Detroit Tigers) to hedge fund manager and luxury tax namesake Steve Cohen (owner of the New York Mets). Stadium construction is often a sinkhole for public money with few (if any) rewards for the community in return.So why do so many socialists love the national pastime?

It may seem unusual that baseball and socialism should intersect, but this sport contains a rich history of labor struggle, not just for the players but for the workers who are a part of making the sport what it is in the lives of millions of working-class people across the globe. Much of the struggle is ongoing; recent contract negotiations in the MLB for both players and stadium workers, and the recent victory in unionizing the Minor Leagues has reignited discussions about labor in baseball. It is also, of course, the best sport, in the express opinion of the DSA Baseball Caucus, although not necessarily DSA as a whole (soccer, basketball and professional wrestling all vie for the title).

The history of labor struggles in baseball is not unlike that of many other workers – folks from all backgrounds demanding fair wages for the labor they produce from the bosses exploiting them. While it may seem unusual to consider playing a professional sport as “labor” when compared to other sectors,  we must recognize that players are producing something for others’ consumption, in this case a sports competition for our entertainment, and are entitled to the fruits of that labor. The owners get filthy rich off the labor produced, raking in billions in revenue through all those things associated with the sport – merchandise, concessions, television and radio broadcasts, and more recently, multi-billion dollar streaming deals with companies like Amazon or Apple.

While some owner apologists may cite individual players who have become wealthy through the sport, superstar players are the exception and not the rule, with more players on average making less than a million dollars a year over the course of their career, pennies in comparison to the owners’ billions. Additionally, many more thousands of Minor League, college and amateur players will spend years attempting to make it to the “big leagues” only to struggle in the poverty wages paid of the minors, never to be called up. 

Stadium workers are employed seasonally, serving us overpriced hot dogs and beer, all while barely being able to pay their rent. Many who work as dishwashers, cashiers, and cooks make an average of $24k annually. Stadium workers tend to be retirees with different interests or dedicated fans willing to suffer through it for the love of the game, but unions organizing stadium workers like SEIU and UNITE-HERE have shown that they are also willing and able to stand up for their rights and organize for power when confronted with malfeasance from the bosses. 

The recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) won this year by SEIU at the Detroit Tigers stadium saw raises from the minimum wage in Michigan of $9.87 per hour for ushers, the lowest paid position, to an average of $15 per hour after the union initially walked out of negotiations. There’s more left to win, like allowing cash tips for stadium workers (which we encourage all members to do anyway), but the victories of stadium unions prove the power of labor in the ballpark in this year of intensified worker militancy. 

Though the focus has been on recent contract fights, the cause of labor in baseball has a long and storied history. The first union for professional athletes in any sport began with the formation of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players (BPBP) in 1885 as a protest of the “reserve clause,” which controlled players’ salaries and ability to change teams. The clause, though upheld by the Supreme Court against Major League player Curt Flood in 1972, would eventually be defeated through union arbitration in 1975, establishing the modern free agent system. The same sort of union-busting tactics that persist today were leveraged against the Brotherhood. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) was formed in 1953 but was not officially recognized until 1966. In between the Brotherhood and the MLBPA, and continuing to this day is a labor history similar to that of many other industries–the fight for fair wages, benefits, and better working conditions.

Currently, all players, managers, coaches, and athletic trainers can be members of the MLBPA. Recently, in 2021, contract negotiations led to a lockout by the owners as players demanded better pay and more control over the terms of their contracts (specifically a shorter time to free agency), and protections against tanking, or intentional non-competitiveness by teams to take advantage of league rules, which harms younger players.  

So what about the minor league players? The standard salary for a minor league player is between $4,800 and $15,400 annually. They are often moved around from team to team and were not provided housing until recently; even now not all players are covered. Perhaps the largest cause of exploitation in the Uniform Player Contract: players must remain with the major league team with which they are affiliated and cannot shop around for better working conditions for seven seasons. Additionally, they must grant their name, image, and likeness to their employer, who can then exploit it for additional profits with no money going to the player. 

However, the groundwork for change has been laid: on August 29th of 2022, the MLBPA announced its campaign to unionize all 5,000 minor league players across the 120 North American farm teams, absorbing the Advocates for Minor Leaguers (co-founded by our comrade Bill Fletcher, Jr) and their staff in the process. This may seem small in terms of “industrial” action, but it will significantly expand the size of the MLBPA, which currently only represents 1,200 members in teams nationwide despite being the strongest union in U.S. sports. The Minor League union will also throw a wrench into the centralizing schemes of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, a corporate-side labor lawyer who oversaw the shrinking of the Minor Leagues by 40 teams in 2020, a devastating blow to those cities and towns that hosted them. The MLBPA refused to concede to further roster cuts during the 2022 lockout and CBA negotiations.

As of this writing, Major League Baseball has announced its intent to voluntarily recognize the Minor League players union in a card check agreement with the MLBPA, a shocking acknowledgement of the union’s overwhelming support from the players, with MLBPA reporting over 50% of signatures just after Labor Day, and several Major League players stepping forward to show their support for the drive. To quote New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, “[Minor Leaguers] are the future and that is the beginning of every baseball player and they are the future of every major league team. We are hoping to protect them.”

The rise of socialist interest in baseball alongside the sports reinvigorated labor struggle is no coincidence. From DSA’s own informal Baseball Caucus organizing chapter events at ballgames from Akron, Ohio, to Hartford, Connecticut, to the socialist baseball labor podcast Tipping Pitches whose ‘Unionize The Minors’ shirts appear at stadiums nationwide, working-class people have found a home in the history of labor insurgency in the sport. Whether it’s fond memories of our parents gripping the edges of the seats at the ballpark or a fondness for pictures of Bernie, Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez  playing ball, socialists have taken their passions for the game forward, organizing chapter socials at stadiums and even socialist softball leagues of their own, carrying on a social-ist tradition that encourages us to merge with all aspects of working-class life, including the sports around which we spend our eight hours of free time.

Bernie Sanders is leading the charge in Congress to repeal MLB’s antitrust exemption through the Save American Baseball Act, a cause that has gained steam through the organizing of minor leaguers.(Click here to send a letter to your Senators to demand their support for the Save American Baseball Act). The Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry with both MLB and the Advocates for Minor Leaguers about  the impact of the SCOTUS-backed antitrust exemption enjoyed by MLB  may have contributed to management’s decision to voluntarily recognize the Minor League union.

Baseball, as an international sport played by working-class people from Korea, China and Japan to the United States and Latin America, offers us a chance to connect the struggle for worker power to the world around us in ways that break past the isolation forced on us by capitalism. The MLBPA continues to consider how to support players in the international farm system who will not be covered by the new CBA, particularly those in the Dominican Summer League where the plurality of international Minor Leaguers are recruited. As fans, we have an obligation to support these workers who make our pastime a reality. 

Baseball, as a sport that unites the working class of the Americas, can also be a sport that unites our socialist movements. We can look to our own organization’s history for inspiration: in 1981, just a year before its transformation into the DSA that we know today, DSOC founder Michael Harrington met Salvadoran exile and former president of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, Guillermo Ungo in the stands with some beers at the Brewers-Yankees in the Bronx. To quote Harrington, “I desperately wished that a photographer had been along to capture this image of these dangerous revolutionaries.” 

DSA chapters are using our DSA Baseball Toolkit to host chapter games & support baseball labor. As democratic socialists, we have the opportunity to use the labor struggles and organizing victories in baseball to highlight the only way that workers can beat their bosses, no matter if they’re a billionaire team owner, a coffee company, or factory manager: organizing with your coworkers and fighting to build your union.