Collusion Allegations Not Without Precedent in MLB

When spring training opens this week, there will be 30 major league teams, but 31 camps.

One camp is dedicated to free agents who still haven’t found a team. It’s estimated more than 80 ballplayers will be there, more than enough to field its own team.

Because there are so many free agents still available, the specter of collusion – the idea that owners are conspiring to keep labor prices down by refraining from signing free agents – has been raised. It’s plausible if for no other reason than it’s not without precedent.

The most prominent – and most pernicious – example is the “gentlemen’s agreement” that kept African-American players out of the major leagues. They weren’t banned, owners could say with a straight face; no team has happened to sign one. And it happened again in the 1980s.

In 1984, Peter Ueberroth, fresh off his success organizing that year’s Los Angeles Olympics, was tapped to succeed Bowie Kuhn as baseball commissioner. Peter Bavasi, who was the Indians president from 1984 to 1987, said later that Ueberroth effectively told owners, “Be smart. You don’t run your businesses in a haphazard manner. Why wouldn’t you run your baseball businesses the same way.”

At the time, free agency was growing into its own, and strikes in 1981 and 1985 had further emboldened players, leading to higher salaries, more funding to baseball’s pension plan and no cap on arbitration amounts (it wasn’t coincidence that free agency came about because of an arbitration ruling after it had failed in court). Owners were spending more because they felt they were forced to spend more.

After the 1985 season, only four of 35 eligible free agents changed teams, and the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance. The following offseason was similarly slow, and the average player salary actually declined. The MLBPA filed another grievance, followed by a third one in 1988.

“I clearly haven’t seen any evidence of collusion,” Ueberroth said. “In fairness, however, I haven’t been in any position to see it.”

Ultimately, all three grievances were found to have merit, and a final settlement in November 1990 resulted in a payout of $280 million to the MLBPA.

Marvin Miller, the man who created the modern MLBPA and who was still a consultant to the union at the time, said “it may be the worst sports scandal in history.”

The settlement was split equally among all 26 major league teams, costing the Indians $11 million, no small amount of change for a team whose payroll hadn’t exceeded $10 million at any point in the preceding decade.
The Jacobs brothers had bought the team in 1987 and brought on Hank Peters as general manager. Peters, at that point, was committed to building through the draft, and hadn’t taken much interest in free agency. But at least one everyday Indians player claimed collusion affected him adversely.

“Collusion cut my career short by at least three years,” said Mike Hargrove, by then on the Indians coaching staff and soon to be named manager. “Conservatively it cost me about $1 million.”

Photo: Time Magazine (Jan. 7, 1985 issue); Paul Davis (cover credit)

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