Major League Baseball Is Broken. Shall We Count The Ways?
The most obvious is the current owner-imposed lockout. The debate between franchise owners and the players union boils down to this.
Owners want to make more money, and players want more fairness - both for the players and the game itself.
The owners want permission to advertise on players’ jerseys, and they want to expand the playoffs.
The players union hopes to address a decline in the player salaries, despite big increases in broadcast revenue for owners.
The median player salary is $1.2 million, and the MLB minimum salary is $570,000.
These numbers seem high until one realizes that a player's average time in the majors is less than four years. Meanwhile, wages in the minor leagues are so low that many players rely on food stamps.
The player’s union isn’t just concerned about declining salaries. They are worried about something that the owners seem wholly indifferent to - the quality of gameplay in the MLB.
Players seem to be very concerned about the current system, which incentivizes teams to play poorly to cash in on a top draft pick.
The Player’s Union also seems wary of the owner’s desire to extend the playoffs. Expanding the playoffs would line the owner’s pockets, but would it improve the quality of the game for fans?
Does anyone want to see a playoff schedule that includes half of all MLB teams?
The players are concerned about the game's future, while the owners are worried about one thing and one thing alone - their own personal profit.
Historians and sportswriters have been drawing parallels between Baseball’s history and American history for many decades. Now, as American democracy faces unprecedented challenges, so too does Major League Baseball.
Are Baseball Cards a barometer of the Sport’s Popularity?
When the pandemic began in 2020, the market for baseball cards skyrocketed.
Card values are now higher than ever before, and the sports card industry is thriving.
Cards are viewed as investment commodities, with a whole crop of startups working to take financial advantage of this booming market.
Right here on this blog site, you can find numerous articles speculating about the investment value of individual cards.
The card boom is exhilarating for those who have been sitting on their childhood card collection for the past several decades.
It’s fun to see cards representing our favorite players increase in value. It feels like a validation of a player’s greatness to watch the card representing that player get a boost.
But are increasing baseball card values good for baseball itself?
I think there’s a solid argument to be made that skyrocketing card values are bad for baseball.
The Stock Market of Baseball
Baseball cards are like the stock market of baseball. They provide an opportunity for fans to “buy-in” to a player. If that player does well, the card’s value increases. If that player doesn’t do well, the value decreases.
But just like the stock market, one needs a certain amount of money to participate. Gone are the days of baseball card packs being purchased for a few cents as a pure expression of a kid’s love for the game.
These days, buying a pack of cards feels a bit like gambling. Are you excited about that Mike Trout card because Trout is your favorite player, or because of the monetary value associated with the card?
It used to be about the game, but now it’s about the money.
Before 2008, the stock market was considered a proxy for the economy's health. Now, it is clear that the stock market can perform well while millions languish in poverty and income inequality reaches unprecedented levels.
The stock market should NOT be viewed as a proxy for the economy's health, just like the baseball card industry should not be viewed as a proxy for the health of the MLB.
A growing number of economists and politicians are turning away from the traditional metrics that we use to measure the “health of the economy.”
Many intelligent economists consider new strategies for measuring people’s happiness a more helpful metric than GDP.
Baseball’s Dwindling Fan Base
To measure the health of baseball as a sport, one must look not at the owner’s profits but the happiness of the fans. While more money than ever is being spent by fans on baseball memorabilia, that fan base is dwindling.
Major League Baseball is well aware of this downward trend and has many ideas meant to help.
Most of these ideas involve tweaks to the rules that would increase the pace of games. A pitch clock is just one of the ideas that the MLB has been considering.
Of course, the bottom line is more important for the owners than the sport's health, as shown by the lockout.
It’s more important for the owners to get a little extra advertising revenue than to ensure that the game continues to appeal to the younger generation.
The Accessibility of Games
If Major League Baseball were serious about getting young people excited about baseball, they would be exploring ways to make the games more accessible.
Baseball has a long history of controlling game broadcasts to maximize profit. During the early days of radio, it was pretty common for owners to restrict radio broadcasts of games to encourage more people to attend in person.
These days, television broadcasts of games are restricted by the placement of paywalls.
Last year, with my interest in baseball renewed, I ordered a subscription to the MLB network to watch the games of my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox.
At $130 for the entire season, the price seemed steep, but it was the only way I could find to access the games without a cable subscription.
Then came the playoffs. The Red Sox were in, and I was excited! I waited for the start time of the first playoff game - a one-game wild card against the Yankees - only to find that the game was not available on the MLB Network app.
Some googling revealed the ridiculous broadcast schedule for the 2021 MLB playoffs. I would have to subscribe to multiple live TV streaming services besides my existing MLB subscription if I wanted to watch all the games.
I missed the first half of the Red Sox - Yankees wild card game as I couldn't find an inexpensive way to stream ESPN until I signed up for a free trial to YouTube TV. Live sports are a massive component of the streaming wars, and the MLB is cashing in at the expense of their fans.
Lack of Accessibility = Lack of Interest
Just think about the MLB’s current efforts to engage more young people of color with the sport. While baseball camps for low-income kids are certainly a great idea, they don’t necessarily address the root cause of the problem.
Why are today’s kids less interested in baseball than previous generations? Is it because the game has changed in some fundamental way? Or is it that kids no longer have the same kind of access to baseball games?
One way or another, Major League Baseball and the franchise owners will learn that they can’t have it both ways.
They can’t rake in record profits from exclusive broadcast and streaming deals that put games behind paywalls and have a popular baseball league in low-income communities. It’s one or the other, and it seems pretty clear that the owners have made their choice already.
The Heroes Of The MLB Player's Union (And Their Baseball Cards)
So in the spirit of this topic, I’ll share a few cool baseball cards representing heroes of the MLB player’s union. These are intentionally selected to be low-value cards that just about any collector could pick up for a few bucks.
Professional ballplayers have unionized several times throughout baseball's history. But, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a union made significant gains on the players’ behalf.
The players hired Marvin Miller in 1965 and he immediately began educating players about organizing. Miller soon helped players negotiate the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in professional sports.
Although the gains in salary that the players secured were modest, this set the stage for more significant improvements to follow.
Miller served as the Executive Director of the MLB Players Association from 1966 - 1983 when base salaries were raised. Pension programs were also improved, and the right to free agency was established.
Miller turned the MLBPA into one of the country’s most powerful unions. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2020 and became the fifth Jewish member of the hall.
Miller was never a player, and no baseball cards representing him were printed during his tenure as the MLBPA’s Executive Director.
His first card came in Upper Deck’s 1994 set, released alongside the famous Ken Burns baseball documentary. This 80-card set commemorates many of the historic moments celebrated in the documentary with a simple black and white design.
Miller wasn’t featured on another card until the 2005 Topps All-Time Fan Favorites set. This set featured new player photos on old card designs, and a few non-players were included.
Miller’s card features the gray borders of the 1970 Topps set, with a stylized photo of Miller speaking at a press conference. It’s a more attractive card than his ‘94 Upper Deck card, and it’s worth a bit more as well. A nice, ungraded copy will cost $12-20.
Another Topps card of Miller was printed in 2015, as a part of their Heritage set. This card celebrates Miller being elected as the player’s representative in 1966. It’s a neat card celebrating a critical moment in baseball history and can be picked up for just a few bucks.
Flood is at the top of many sportswriters’ lists of candidates most deserving to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Flood was on track to have a HOF career after 12 years in the MLB, when he was traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies at the end of the 1969 season.
Flood was baffled by a system that allowed owners to trade players irrespective of their wishes and refused to go to the Phillies. Instead, he went to meet with Marvin Miller.
After meeting with Miller and the board of the MLBPA and receiving their support, Flood formally challenged baseball’s reserve clause.
He wrote a letter to Major League Baseball’s commissioner informing him that he wished to play baseball in 1970. He believed that he had the right to consider offers from various teams before making a decision.
Flood took his case to the Supreme Court in 1972 and lost. But his advocacy educated many other players and opened up the door to free agency.
Given Flood's legendary status, Flood’s rookie card from the 1958 Topps set isn’t valued as highly as one might expect.
A PSA 9 will set you back over $3,000, but lower-grade copies are much more affordable. A PSA 3 can be found for under $50.
Flood will surely make it into the Hall at some point. When considering his outsized role in the history of the game and his exceptional playing, his induction feels like an inevitability.
This means that his card values will likely go up. (Of course, we’re buying Flood’s cards as an expression of our love for the game and in acknowledgment of his achievements, not because we want to turn a profit!)
There are so many wonderful Curt Flood cards from the classic Topps sets of the 1960s, and lower grade copies of all are within reach to just about any collector.
My favorites are Flood’s cards from the 1967 Topps set. This was when Flood and the Cardinals won the pennant and beat the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team in the World Series.
Flood has two cards in the set, one stand-alone card, and one card he shares with teammate Lou Brock (labeled “Cards Clubbers”). Both are great cards.
I also think that Curt Flood’s 1970 Topps card is an interesting one to pick up. This card lists Flood’s team as the Philadelphia Phillies, despite refusing to report and never playing a game in a Phillies uniform.
He sat out the entire 1970 season.
With his lawsuit against Major League Baseball ongoing, Flood was traded to the Washington Senators ahead of the 1971 season.
Ted Williams was the manager of the Senators at the time, and he expressed support for Flood’s controversial stance on the reserve clause.
Yet, Flood would play just a handful of games in the ‘71 season, and he was blackballed from the sport after losing his Supreme Court case in 1972.
So his 1971 Topps card showing him as a member of the Senators was his last card as an active player. His last card comes in one of the most classic baseball card sets, making this a particularly appealing card.
Just a few months after this card was released, Flood would have his day in the land's highest court.
McNally was a star pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles dynasty that won four pennants and two championships from 1966 to 1971. He was a three-time all-star and won 20 or more games for four consecutive seasons from ‘68-’71.
He was traded to the Montreal Expos after the 1974 season and played his last season with the Expos in ‘75. He was injured partway through the ‘75 season, but Marvin Miller asked him to add his name to a grievance he was filing with the MLB in opposition to the reserve clause.
Before McNally added his name, Andy Messersmith was the only name listed on this grievance. McNally and Messersmith were the only two players in 1975 playing under the one-year reserve clause as it existed at that time.
By adding his name, McNally ensured that the grievance would not be dismissed if Messersmith signed a contract with the team holding him under the reserve clause (the Dodgers).
McNally and Messersmith won their case, ending the reserve clause, and opening up the era of free agency.
Messersmith was at the peak of his pitching career in 1975 during the dispute over the reserve clause. Pitching without a contract in 1975 for the Dodgers, he led the league in complete games and shutouts and finished second in ERA.
When Messersmith and McNally won their case, McNally went into retirement, but Messersmith became a free agent and signed a 3-year, $1 million deal with the Braves.
Although both McNally and Messersmith have lots of great Topps cards from their playing years in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s their 1975 Topps cards that we care about here.
The colorful borders of the 1975 Topps set make it a classic, and both McNally and Messersmith have attractive and affordable cards from this year.
While it’s too bad that McNally’s card doesn’t show him in an Expos uniform, these are both great cards that represent a crucial turning point in baseball history.
Jim “Catfish” Hunter
Although McNally and Messersmith’s 1975 case ended the reserve clause, “Catfish” Hunter was the first free agent in baseball.
At the end of the 1974 season, Peter Seitz, the same arbiter who would decide McNally and Messersmith’s case one year later, declared that Hunter’s contract with the Athletics was void.
The Athletic's owner had failed to live up to the terms of Hunter’s contract, so Seitz declared it void, and Hunter was found in a very unusual position. Without a valid contract, he could take offers from other teams without a valid contract and shop around. He eventually signed with the Yankees for a historic 5-year $3.75 million contract.
Hunter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987, so his cards are valued a bit higher than McNally’s or Messersmith’s. His 1974 Topps card features a great action shot of Hunter mid-windup. 1974 was Hunter’s best season - he won the Cy Young award, led the league in wins and ERA, and took his team to a World Series victory.
Fehr assisted Marvin Miller in the McNally/Messersmith case and was hired as general counsel for the MLBPA in 1977. He then succeeded Miller as the Executive Director of the MLBPA in 1983 and continued in that position until 2009.
Fehr represented the players during the 1994-95 MLB strike. This infamous event had a huge negative effect on the game, leading to decreased popularity and angry fans.
The dispute was centered around the idea of a salary cap. The salary cap was proposed by the owners, and rejected by the players. The dispute was exacerbated however by a deep lack of trust between players and owners.
Bud Selig was the acting commissioner of baseball, and he was granted the authority to negotiate with the MLBPA. Selig, however, had been involved in a collusion scandal during the 1980s as an owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Collusion to Undermine Free Agency
After the advent of free agency, a series of scandals emerged as owners conspired to hamper the functioning of the new free agency system.
Backroom deals between owners led to star players not receiving any offers when they came up for free agency.
In 1985 Kirk Gibson, Tommy John, and Phil Niekro were all free agents, and none of them received a single offer from another team.
With suspicion about the collusion between owners mounting, Donald Fehr filed a grievance on behalf of the MLBPA in 1986.
This grievance ultimately resulted in the owners paying $250 million in damages to the players. Selig was a central player in this dispute - he was one of the “colluding owners”.
In 1994 when the player’s strike began, Fehr was once again facing off against Selig. This time, Selig wasn’t just an owner colluding to stymie free agency; he was the acting commissioner of Major League Baseball. So negotiations began in 1994 from a position of deep mistrust between Fehr and Selig.
Although Fehr became very unpopular for his role in representing the players during the 1994-95 strike, it’s unfair to place the blame on his shoulders.
Major League Baseball was fighting against free agency and the other benefits that players had recently gained as a result of the MLBPA’s work. Owners then, just like owners now, were fixated on one thing - making more money.
Fehr’s Only Baseball Card
Fehr is represented on only one baseball card, and it’s an unusual one. The American Jewish Historical Society has produced several sets of baseball cards labeled as “Jewish Major Leaguers”. The first of these sets was produced in 2003 and featured cards for every known Jewish baseball player at the time.
Fehr, who is Jewish, was featured on a card from the 2006 Jewish Major Leaguers set. The card features photos of both Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr. Although it’s not the most attractive card design, it's worth picking up a copy as the only card representing Fehr and his important role in baseball history.
Tony Clark became the first former MLB player to run the MLBPA when he was hired as the union’s executive director in 2013. Clark was active in the MLBPA as a player and became the union’s director of player relations soon after retiring as a player in 2010.
Clark made his debut as a player at the peak of the junk wax era in the mid-1990s. His first appearance on a baseball card came in the 1990 ProCards set and featured Clark as a member of the Bristol Tigers, a short season rookie league that was a part of the Detroit Tigers’ minor league system.
Lots of great players were featured in these minor leagues ProCards sets. I’ve still got my Frank Thomas card from this set, which I acquired as a kid.
Clark’s first card to feature him in a Detroit Tigers uniform came in the 1994 Bowman set. It’s an attractive card that can be picked up for a buck or two.
From Clark’s debut through the end of the 90s an absolute glut of cards representing him as a player were produced. These were his best years as a player, and they coincided with the peak of the junk wax era, which means the list of cards is enormous.
I’m going to skip right past all of that craziness to Clark’s time with the MLBPA.
In 2017 Topps issued a card representing Clark as the MLBPA executive director. It was a part of the 2017 Topps Archives set, and there are several variations, including an autographed version. The base card can be found for a buck or two, but you’ll spend $30-40 to get a signed copy.
Back to the Current Lockout
It’s important to remember that what’s happening now is not a player’s strike but a lockout initiated by the owners.
One of the central reasons cited by the MLB commissioner for initiating the lockout is to avoid a player’s strike like the one in ‘94 that canceled the postseason.
But was a player’s strike really imminent, as the owners and the commissioner are claiming?
Many commentators don’t believe that a player’s strike was imminent and that the real rationale for the lockout was to gain leverage over the players. Again, this is all about money.
Over the last ten years, the average value of an MLB franchise has increased by more than 350%, while the average team payroll has only increased by 15%.
This situation mirrors the larger political situation we face in the United States.
While its unlikely, over the longer term, I hope that baseball owners realize the errors of their ways.
There is a dire need to bring fans back to the game, and ultimately, if they can increase accessiblity (withough gouging consumers), I think this can lead to a better equilibrium in terms of baseball card prices.
What do you think? Is baseball too far gone to get the same sort of fan turnouts that they once did?
Will collectors keep paying exorbidant prices for cards of baseball players they might not be able to watch on TV?