Pirates Sunday Service – 005

Pirates Sunday Service

Good morning friends. I want to once again apologize for missing last week, I suppose everyone could have used something uplifting but I was too weak to deliver it at the time. Now, let’s get back to business.

Today I’d like to tell you a story, one that shows as much as things change, many of the trials we face stay the same.

The Guild of Baseball – 06-07-46 The Pirates shall play, but the hour was near. The game would change forever but not at this time.

It was June 7th, 1946 and Major League Baseball was in trouble, sounds familiar right? There had been efforts to unionize the players in the past, in fact this was the fourth attempt. Spearheaded by a Harvard-educated labor lawyer from Boston named Robert Murphy, this would be as close as they had ever come under the flag of the American Baseball Guild.

They needed 2/3 of the players to agree to strike and he focused on the Pittsburgh Pirates as they played in an extremely union heavy town.

First a little background, the first post-war season in 1945 saw several changes to the game, changes that prompted the inherent need to at least try. Fist of all, fans came back, and supported the sport like they hadn’t in recent history due to both war and the stifled economy. It was not lost on the players that their salaries did not reflect that growth. Additionally, there was a surplus of talent as many players who served in the armed forces returned and wanted to jump back into the rosters they had left behind to serve.  MLB tried to answer the bell, permitting teams to carry 36 players through June 15th and 30 after that date.

To make matters worse, as 1946 came about, the Mexican Baseball League, offering far more money than MLB had poached a few players like Mickey Owen the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher and openly set their sights on Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Bob Feller to name a few.

As a result, MLB had made some basic concessions in order to prevent a mass exodus, but they did lose 18 players to the rival league. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough to stop the wave. The players had been treated unfairly long enough and with many returning as wartime heroes, the time for being treated as kids who found something fun to do during the Summer were over.

The demands were fairly straight-forward but getting all the players on board was like herding cats.

  • Minimum salary of $7,500 per season
  • Owners may not institute a maximum salary
  • If a player disputed a salary or felt any treatment was unfair, they could seek arbitration
  • If a player was sold to another team, they wanted 50% of the price paid

There were others but these are the ones that were on the table when Mr. Murphy approached the Pittsburgh Pirates. They were set to play the Giants and the team held a vote to strike prior to the contest.

95% of the squad had taken out a guild card and Murphy attempted to bargain with the Pirates president William Benswanger even as he was trying to sell the family owned business. He begged the players to hold off trying to bargain until the end of the season and on June 7th before the game at Forbes Field, Murphy called for a vote to strike. He needed 24 or the 36 players to agree and the vote only netted 20, narrowly falling short.

The strike was killed and essentially so was the guild. Months later MLB would offer minimum salary of $5,500 and a pension plan.

As many of you know the MLBPA would form in 1966 and in 1969 the first successful strike would take place changing the game forever.

Friends, baseball has never been perfect, and it’s been to the precipice more than once. The overall fairness of player treatment improved and its even swung to the opposite in some ways. Fans have lost faith in the game and returned every time, but only a fool tempts fate and every instance of baseball hurting itself is another chance that this time it takes.

When we discuss baseball clubs from the 1940’s and disputes with the players, we certainly are not dealing with Billionaires vs Millionaires, even if you account for inflation, many of these teams had no income outside ticket sales. There was no newspaper empire supporting the Philadelphia A’s, just a family. And many of these players made more in the military. The economics of MLB and indeed professional sports has changed the dynamic, not only between the owners and players but the fans as well.

As a fan, I’d love to just have everyone do well and just watch baseball. As a writer, I’ve had to understand the issues and obstacles the game faces. There is one thing at everyone’s disposal, and I fear as a nation we fail to utilize it often enough, history. Our forefathers, even if you’re first generation American, have gone through things and found solutions to problems you can’t fathom. We didn’t just show up in 2020 and everything happened, and the past shows us the path we traveled.

We should be able to study the lessons of our predecessors and avoid falling prey to the same traps and pitfalls, but another lesson dictates that history is cyclical. How many times have we as a country faced the issue of racial injustice? How many ways have we tried to remedy the situation? Every time it gets a little better, not perfect, but better. I don’t expect that to be enough, but I do take comfort in the fact that rarely do we regress once we’ve gained ground as a people.

The 1946 Pirates were not the trailblazers they could have been, but they were the last failed attempt. Failure is just as much a part of progress as success itself. After all, what is there to overcome if there are not obstacles?

Blessings my friends, let’s make this week better than the last, and keep that train going as long as we can.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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