When Mexico Was a Threat to Major League Baseball
By Evan Weiner
May 15, 2010
(New York, N. Y.)Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig doesn't plan to ask his owners to move the 2011 All-Star Game from Phoenix to another venue in some other city in response to Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer signing of (Arizona) Senate Bill 1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act on April 23. The law will take effect later this summer and has set off a torrent of opposition and the backlash has included a call for a boycott of the state to hurt Arizona in the pocketbook.
Selig defended Major League Baseball's record when it comes to minority hirings under his tenure earlier this week but is resisting a call for moving the game from Phoenix from various groups that claim the Brewer's signature on SB 1070 gives police the green light to go after anyone who is suspected of being in Arizona illegally in asking them for official papers and that the most likely target of the crackdown are people who appear to be Mexican.
Baseball hires many non-Americans who come to the country who need to have seasonal visas to work in the United States and Selig needs to be sensitive to the Latin American employees who work legally for Major League Baseball and for Major League Baseball subsidiaries including the minor league teams of the 30 Major League Baseball franchises.
Oddly enough, it was Mexico that almost brought the American and National League owners to their collective knees in the years after World War II. Jorge Pasquel ended up with Club Azules de Vera Cruz. Pasquel signed Satchel Paige in 1938. Pasquel also added three players who would eventually be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge and Monte Irvin.
Pasquel took many of the Negro Leagues best players and by 1946; he was raiding Major League Baseball. The Mexican Baseball League eventually would force the American and National League owners to integrate although a good many teams including the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were very slow in adding African-American players. Pasquel also changed some of the working conditions for the players employed by the 16 teams in the American and National Leagues.
Boston was the last team to add an African-American player to the roster. Tom Yawkey's franchise finally used Pumpsie Green in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
When Bob Feller came to the major leagues in 1936 as an 18 year old pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, players had no freedom. Maybe a Babe Ruth could command a huge salary, but the Babe was bigger than the game. Feller had a choice of 16 teams when he signed, but once the signature went on the contract, he was an Indians employee for life or until a General Manager decided he could not use his services anymore.
"Before the war, the Reserve Clause kept the players on the same ball club. Unless you had clout maybe like Hank Greenberg, Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig and many other players of consequences on teams. They had some leverage in their salaries and it made a big difference at that time," said Feller. "After the war we started the pension plan."
The Mexican signings of major league players included Junior Stephens, Sal Maglie, Hal Lanier, Mickey Owen and others. Pasquel brothers made a run at Phil Rizzuto, Ted Williams, Feller and Stan Musial but their plan ultimately collapsed.
"They wanted to get the players who jumped to Mexico back here," Feller said. "Pasquel down there. He was a dictator. He and his four brothers ran the country. George Pasquel, I knew him quite well. I played ball for him in 1947 in October against teams in Mexico. So Happy Chandler and Larry Mc Phail figured out they had to give the players a pension plan and get the players back. They gave them (the players who jumped to Mexico) amnesty.
"At that time, Johnny Murphy of the American League, a relief pitcher with the Yankees and a very good one and Dixie Walker of the Dodgers was the National League representative. It was the first time the players were allowed to have their own representatives. They had to be active players and one a roster. That started the pension plan and they had $800,000 on the pension plan. Television made the baseball players pension plan."
World War II was a turning point for the American and National Leagues. Returning players put their life on the line in Europe and in the Pacific and they were no longer afraid of owners who controlled every aspect of their professional athletic life.
The Pittsburgh Pirates nearly became the first team in the 20th Century to strike over working conditions. In 1946, a Boston attorney named Robert Murphy tried to organize Major League Baseball Players.
"It all started in 1946 after World War II," said Ralph Kiner who was a young player with the Pirates at the time. "There was a guy named Bob Murphy who organized a players union and he picked the Pittsburgh Pirates as a place to start because Pittsburgh was a highly unionized city at that time. I was involved as a player then and I later on became the National League representative.
"It was a matter of fact that the players got no money. It was in the aftermath of World War II, where black players were coming into the game and the minimum salary was nothing. Like two or three thousand dollars a year. They wanted to get more money and in 1947, the minimum went to $5,000 a year and the players wanted to have other benefits like better playing conditions, and better dugouts."
But Major League owners really did not react to Murphy's threats. The biggest problem was coming from Mexico where the Mexican League was flexing its muscle.
"One thing that started the whole beginning of the pension plan was the Pasquel Brothers in Mexico who offered large amounts of money to some of the players to jump from the ranks of professional baseball in the states to Mexico. That didn't work, but it started the beginning of unionized baseball."
While Mexico was becoming a problem, it was just a matter of time before Major League Baseball was going to be desegregated. The Brooklyn Dodgers did sign Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier, but there was more to the story than just signing Robinson to right a social wrong. It came down to plain old dollars and cents.
It was economics that also crashed the color barrier.
"I don't think Branch Rickey should get the credit," said Kiner. "There was a movement at the time that they were going to bring black players into the game. He jumped the gun and got Jackie Robinson.
"But the reason for Branch Rickey obtaining and bringing black players in was economical. He didn't have to pay the black players any money to sign them and they were bought from the Negro Leagues at that time and Robinson was the choice. Rickey was the man who picked Robinson and that was a brilliant choice."
Teams could get black players on the cheap because black players were just grateful to get the chance.
"It was just another part of the changeover of baseball. It had to happen sooner or later. It was really an aftermath of World War II where the black players, or as they were called in those days, the Negroes, fought for our side. They had to be recognized," said Kiner.
Baseball was fighting on two front in 1946. There was the threat of Pasquel signing big names and the players were no longer just happy to put on a big league baseball uniform. They wanted to share in the revenues.
Pittsburgh was the top target because it was a huge union city loaded with steelworkers. The very same steelworkers that Marvin Miller would join in 1950 as an associate director of research and in 1960 would become the Assistant to the President of the United Steelworkers of America.
"We had a vote, we were going to strike on the field and not play against the New York Giants. We had a vote whether or not we were going to unionize and the vote failed. We ended up playing that game. It took a long time to unionize.
In 1953, the pension plan became a hot topic again. Kiner and Allie Reynolds hired New York attorney J. Norman Lewis to represent the player's interests and Lewis went to work on gaining increases in player's pensions.
The players proposed increases from $50 to $80 a month for five year players and from $100 to $150 a month for 10 year players and that pension payments begin at 45 instead of the age of 50. The players also wanted to make sure that the pension plan was funded by the Baseball's Central Fund and that monies from radio, TV, gate receipts from the All-Star Game and World Series TV and Radio rights fees were funneled into the Central Fund.
An agreement between the players and owners was struck on February 16, 1954 with the players getting 60 percent of the monies generated from radio, TV, gate receipts from the All-Star Game and World Series TV and Radio rights fees were funneled into the Central Fund.
The players also asked for changes in winter ball regulations, the elimination of twi-night double headers, a hike in the minimum salary from $5,000 to $8,000 and that eight year players get the same benefits as 10 year veterans.
The owners upped the minimum salary to $6,000, gave the players $8 a day in meal money and provided moving expenses for traded players at other meetings.
Mexicans had a profound effect on Major League Baseball. If Selig and the 30 Major League Baseball owners do keep the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, they should start an educational program about the history of Mexico and the United States baseball and civil rights relations and how the events in the late 1930s and the 1940s changed the game forever.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and lecturer on the "Politics of Sports Business." He is available for speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org