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Become a fan of Major League Baseball for any significant amount of time, and without a doubt you will run across the term collective bargaining agreement, or CBA. While it may seem like a rather legalistic term, that’s because … it is.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement is a written contract between MLB as a business organization and the Major League Baseball Players Players Association, a trade union representing the interests of the league’s players.
The CBA is a document, changed and ratified periodically, putting in writing the MLB’s rules for play (and pay) for the subsequent years. The current CBA was approved by owners and players in spring 2022, and the contract lasts through the end of the 2026 season.
The first CBA in baseball was approved in 1968 and was the first such contract between players and owners in all of professional sports.
Fans typically hear the term “bargaining agreement” more often as a CBA’s expiration date approaches, or during labor disputes, including before, during, and after player strikes.
What precisely are the details of the CBA, and what does it mean watching MLB games?
Let’s use the most recent CBA to try to explain how the terms of the CBA being played under affects the product on the field, that is, regular-season MLB games.
First off, starting in 2023 for the first time ever in MLB history there will be clocks attached to play on the field. In a broad effort to shorten the length of games and avoid breaks in action, a “pitch clock” was instituted to force pitchers to start the throwing motion before a certain time expires.
Pitchers now have 15 seconds to initiate the pitch when no runners are on base; or 20 seconds with runners on.
On the flip side, hitters now must get into the box all ready within 15 seconds.
A clock forcing play has never been involved with MLB play since its inception, in 1876. That is how monumental these changes are ~ and it wouldn’t have happened without owners and players agreeing to it in writing in the new CBA.
Another change with the 2022-26 CBA that is quite significant is to enlarge the size of the actual bases that lend themselves to the name of the sport. The white squares out on the field will be larger by 3 inches, from 12-inches across to 15 inches.
This change was implemented for player safety, but in reality it was another change in professional baseball related to escalating player salaries.
Not that this is a bad thing; safety of players and avoiding serious injuries should always be pursued. So players now have more of an eye toward future years, when player salaries will be a lot higher, during current play.
In the MLB today you see way more players spending time on 7-day and 15-day injured lists (IL), and fewer “playing through” the pain. If a player can remain in the big leagues into his 40s, who knows what the salaries will be then?
It’s the current business of baseball, where players are assets to be protected.
Prior to baseball’s initial CBA of 1968, professional athletes acted on their own, individually, with team owners when negotiating what they would be paid for the following season(s), or other details like working conditions.
To do otherwise would require organizing between players, or, in other words, to unionize.
Major league ballplayers had toyed with the concept of unionizing as early as the late 1800s. Almost always then and now, the major point of contention was pay for players.
Notable efforts through the years:
- Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, founded in 1885 by John Montgomery Ward, was the first indication of the coming labor strife that would become an ongoing part of Major League Baseball.
- Just 3 years later, players on the popular Baltimore Orioles, including John McGraw, Willie Keeler, and Hughie Jennings, created a “mutual defense organization,” basically an attempt at a trade union to represent players’ interests.
- The Players’ Protective Association was yet another organizing attempt, in 1900.
- Followed by the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America, in 1912.
- A decade went by before Raymond Joseph Cannon tried the National Baseball Players Association of the United States, in 1922.
- The American Baseball Guild was attempted in 1946 by labor attorney Robert Murphy.
It wasn’t until 1956 that the organization now known as the MLBPA organized, with Bob Feller serving as its original president. However, the operation was not recognized as a union until 1966.
It was then that players elected a man from the United Steel Workers of America, Marvin Miller, to become their original executive director. He served in that capacity until 1983 and during that period helped open free agency for players to choose the team they played for, a dramatic change in a league where for a century, teams controlled players’ futures.
Free agency meant, of course, much-higher salaries, and eventually the mega-business that Major League Baseball is today. Miller and the organized players were able to fight for pension funds and licensing rights, and help the game grow through a period of mass increases in revenue.
Miller negotiated the 1st CBA with MLB owners in 1968. What got noticed most was a raise in the minimum salary for players, from $6,000 to $10,000 per year. (salaries of 5 figures no longer exist).
Baseball historians, however, will point to the establishment of a procedure as the most important element of the 1968 CBA: formal structure for the relationship of players with the owners, something that never existed before. This included a process to bring player grievances before the MLB commissioner.
The very first player strike occurred in 1972, when owners balked at increasing player pension funds. (Games lost in this strike were not rescheduled, resulting in the Detroit Tigers winning the American League East by a half game because they played 1 more game than the Boston Red Sox).
It was the courts in the next few years of the 1970s that finally freed players to pursue their own contracts with other teams in a free market. This concept, free agency, is what began the process of the multi-million-dollar, 10-year contracts of today.
It is important to separate the components of collective bargaining to understand how the parts of MLB fit in:
- A Bargaining unit is a group of employees, e.g. baseball players, recognized by the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) as appropriate to be represented by a union, for the purposes of collective bargaining.
- Collective bargaining is a process involving management (team owners), and representatives for the union of employees (players’ representatives), to work together collectively to establish conditions of employment for the bargaining unit, for an agreed-upon time period. Baseball fans who have endured MLB players strikes have heard the terms “contract bargaining” or “negotiations,” which means this players-owners work together toward a new contract.
- The result of negotiations between the players and the owners is the collective bargaining agreement, a document that outlines in writing the terms the players will live by over a period of time.
- 1972, the abovementioned, brief players strike.
- 1981, which lasted 51 days, postponed the All Star Game by about a month, and split the season into 2 halves, resulting in different division winners and an additional round of playoffs to determine league champions.
- 1994, which canceled the latter half of the season, resulting in cancellation of the World Series, the only such loss since 1902. This remains the biggest regular season scheduling disruption in MLB history, from its longest player strike.
- 2021, the negotiations took so long it pushed the start of the season back a week. This resulted in an expanded postseason, and some major rule change allowances such as addition of clocks to time initiation of pitching and hitting.
Quality Offer in Baseball Player Negotiations
Starting in 2012, the CBA added what is known as a qualifying offer for free agents. It means after the last out of the World Series, teams have a week to make their best contract-salary offer to players whose contracts just ended. That is, they play their hand with players who could leave to sign elsewhere.
If you wondered, Can players say no to these short-term “qualifying” offers, the answer is yes. And they do. Which brings us to the next item.
These offers are 1-year contracts offered by teams to basically keep the player, but push off talks for a multi-year deal. To date, over 100 offers have been made (124 through 2022) ~ and only 13 players have accepted their qualifying offer.
The qualifying offer, in essence, is a stall tactic for the clubs for players they want but do not want to pay too much for.
The whole qualifying offer system was invented as something to work toward competitive balance, by compensating teams that lose free agent players to other teams. The compensation is future amateur draft picks, the value of which depends on the size of the player’s new contract.
Clubs don’t automatically get these draft picks. In fact, they must make the qualifying offer in order to get the draft pick compensation. By rule the 1-year offers are worth the mean salary of the MLB’s 125 highest-paid players.
Qualifying offers can be made only to players who have never received one before; and that player has spent the entire season on the current team’s roster. (This means player acquisitions made in mid-season do not count).
Players who accept the offer are signed at the rate predetermined as mentioned before.
Players who reject the qualifying offer ~ which the vast majority of them ~ are free to pursue contract deals with other teams in the free market.
There is a detailed and complicated system to decide which draft picks are awarded to teams that lose free agents.
Since a CBA is negotiated by 2 parties, you could assume everyone would be happy with the end result. While happy may be the wrong word to use ~ few people get everything they want in disputes, after all ~ usually everyone involved benefits. At least to an extent:
- Players get increased minimum salaries, and other concessions such as more funding for pensions, plus the peace of mind to know exactly what the working conditions will be for several years.
- Owners get an updated, organized system in which to retain players or gain new ones, with rules clear enough to work with for business planning purposes, e.g. roster management. They also usually get something for competitive balance, like a “luxury tax” teams that spend the most on salaries must pay, with the funding distributed to the small-market clubs.
- Fans benefit when CBAs are approved by both parties. They get peace of mind for 5 years with each new CBA.
Losers in the CBA system are most often the fans, when an agreement cannot be reached, and either the players go on strike, or the owners lock them out of their facilities. Both situations have happened too often in the MLB.
Question: Why are small bases dangerous in baseball?
Answer: Collisions between runners and fielders. The main culprit is at 1st base, where a runner is in full sprint to the base while the 1st baseman has no control over where a throw might go. If the fielder is forced to cross the base or baseline somehow (to reach for an errantly thrown ball, for instance, while keeping a foot on the bag) the runner has little time to adjust his path or slow down. The result can be horrific collisions ~ and bad injuries.
Q.: Is it dangerous at 2nd and 3rd base for runners and fielders?
A.: It’s perilous at any time to be running full speed while people in the vicinity pay attention elsewhere (to the ball) and now you as a runner. The answer is yes, 2nd and 3rd base have dangers, but not as much as 1st base. The double play puts middle infielders at risk at 2nd base, when runners slide hard to try to stop the twin killing. Another element of injuries is runners hurting ankles or knees while “rounding” a base, which is especially hard at 3rd base.
Q.: Who is the executive director of the players union now?
A.: Tony Clark, who played for the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, both the New York Mets and Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, and San Diego Padres before retiring in 2009.