The key concepts in labor-management relations during the history of baseball have been the reserve clause, exemption from antitrust laws, and unionization. Working within the parameters of these concepts, baseball has been at various times in line with, behind, and ahead of the labor movement in the rest of American society. Players, as workers, have moved from a position of being almost indentured servants (albeit well paid ones at times) to members of perhaps the most powerful trade union in the United States. That progression has had enormous ramifications within baseball and society, leading to such varied results as huge leaps in salary, work stoppages, and fan animosity toward both players and owners. A challenge of labor-management relations continues to be whether fan loyalty can be retained as attending a baseball game becomes increasingly expensive and star players individually make in one year many times the amount of money that a fan will earn in a lifetime.
The reserve clause was the owners’ primary tool to control player salaries. The reserve clause was embedded in the basic contract between owner and player and was backed up by the threat of permanent blacklisting. It secured a player to the team that originally signed him for the duration of his career or until the team sold, traded, or released him. The clause was in force within the National League by the late 1870s, binding five players of the owner’s choice to each team, and was extended to 11 players per team by the National League and the new American Association in 1883, when team rosters usually numbered only about 14. The major leagues extended the reserve system during the 1888 offseason to cover all players. The system remained in place until the 1970s despite several legal attacks.
Workers were beginning to organize to secure better working conditions and wages in American society by about the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1869, the year when the Cincinnati Red Stockings, usually considered the first professional team, demonstrated their superiority with an unbeaten season, the Knights of Labor were formed. By 1886, the Knights, profiting from their success against the railroad industry, numbered