As Black History Month gets under way, we recognize all the players who have thrilled and inspired us through the years with their talent, commitment and dedication to baseball. They are trailblazers, groundbreakers, teammates and leaders, superstars, role players and role models. They have advanced the game on and off the field for generations, continue to shape it in the present and will help take it to greater heights in the years to come.
A complete retelling of baseball history would be remiss without reflection on the athletic excellence of the Negro Leagues and the venerable legacy etched into the grass of Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. On June 20, the day after Juneteenth, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals will head south to play a special regular season game, a tribute to the rich history of Rickwood and the enduring impact of Black players on the game of baseball.
By Jalen Martin
We recognize some of the African-American players who have had an influential role in the formation, evolution and growth of the Major League Baseball Players Association, from its inception in 1966 through today. Their leadership, engagement and impact have been, and remain, pivotal to the success of the union.
In the spring of 1966, after Dodgers pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale made headlines by holding out in a contract dispute, Wills, their teammate, sat next to Marvin Miller on a flight and shared the frustrations that Black players faced while trying to find unsegregated housing, restaurants and other amenities during spring training in Florida. “Wills’ intensity and sincerity made an impression on me,’’ Miller wrote in his autobiography. The support of Wills and other prominent players helped Miller easily win election as the MLBPA’s first full-time executive director on March 5, 1966.
After several years as a 200-inning mainstay in the Yankees’ rotation, Al Downing was beset by injuries and limited to a 3-3 record in 15 starts in 1968. The following spring, when the Yankees wanted to give him a pay cut, Downing refused to sign, and the team automatically renewed his contract. The situation was eventually resolved and Downing went on to pitch nine more seasons and post a career record of 123-107 with a 3.22 ERA.. His early act of defiance epitomized a new-found awareness on the part of players of their rights under the protection of the union.
In 1969, after the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia, All-Star outfielder Curt Flood refused to report and filed a suit against Major League Baseball to challenge the reserve system, which tied a player to his team for eternity. “After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,’’ he wrote in a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled against Flood. But his legal challenge was a seminal event in the effort by players to eliminate the reserve clause, which was struck down in 1975 in a case involving pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith.
Reggie Jackson, who became a full-fledged star after hitting 47 home runs with the Oakland Athletics at age 23, was an early and vocal supporter of the Players Association. When players went on strike for the first time in 1972 over a dispute revolving around pension benefits, Jackson was among the most forceful voices in the room. He remained engaged and involved through two forays into free agency and strikes in 1980, 1981 and 1985. “Reggie was an active, devoted and effective player rep for many years,’’ Marvin Miller wrote in his autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game.’’
Dawson, frustrated by the lack of offers during his free agency in the spring of 1987, agreed to sign a blank contract with the Chicago Cubs that paid him $500,000 plus incentives. He went on to hit 49 homers, win the National League MVP Award and sign a three-year, $6 million deal with the Cubs. In 1990, players were awarded a $280 million collusion settlement from owners for damages they incurred during the 1985-87 free agent markets. In 2020, Dawson received the inaugural Curt Flood Award, which goes to “a former player, living or deceased, who in the image of Flood demonstrated a selfless, longtime devotion to the Players Association and advancement of Players' rights.”
Don Baylor received an early lesson in the importance of standing up for principle as a teenager in Austin, Texas, when he was one of three Black students to integrate O. Henry Junior High School. As a young player with the Baltimore Orioles, he followed in the path of Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Doug DeCinces and other veterans and became active in the Players Association. He rose to the top of PA leadership and remained a strong, influential and respected presence in subsequent stops with the A’s, Angels, Yankees, Red Sox and Twins.
Dave Winfield became involved in the MLBPA as a young player, served as a player rep for 15 years and preached the importance of unity among union members until his retirement in 1995. After Winfield gave an inspirational speech to his fellow players during the 1994 work stoppage that led to the cancellation of the World Series, Eddie Murray reportedly responded, “Thank you, Reverend Winfield.’’ In 2013, Winfield joined the Players Association as special assistant to executive director Tony Clark. He continues to serve the union and impart his knowledge and experience to the next generation of players.
Tony Clark made his big-league debut with the Tigers in 1995, after the longest strike in history. He was profoundly influenced by Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and the team’s other veterans, and became immersed in the union after attending his first executive board meeting in 1999. Clark earned the respect of his peers during labor negotiations and played a key role in helping to broker the 2002 CBA. In 2013, when his close friend Michael Weiner died of a brain tumor, Clark was unanimously elected as the PA’s fourth executive director. He has since guided the union through two CBA negotiations, the unionization of minor leaguers and a rapidly changing economic landscape.
Phil Bradley was a young outfielder with the Seattle Mariners in August 1985 when the players went on strike for two days. “That formed a mindset that I will always fight for the young guys,’’ he said. Bradley’s union involvement increased in subsequent years, and he played an active role as a member of the negotiating committee during the 1990 lockout. A year later he was playing in Japan, and some observers believed that his tough and forceful approach with the owners had hastened the end of his MLB career. In 1999, then-executive director Donald Fehr hired Bradley to work at the MLBPA. He is still with the union as a special assistant, and in 2023 he was honored with the Curt Flood Award.
LaTroy Hawkins grew up in blue collar Gary, Ind., and received a lesson in the value of unions from his grandfather, who spent years working at a local steel mill. In November of 1994, Hawkins listened intently while Greg Maddux, Kenny Lofton and Kirby Puckett discussed the ongoing strike during a players’ meeting in Phoenix. He arrived in the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins the following spring at the conclusion of the strike and spent the next 21 years attending meetings, educating himself on the issues and making his mark as an engaged teammate in 11 big-league clubhouses.
Curtis Granderson attended his first executive board meeting as a young outfielder with the Tigers in 2006, and his dedication never wavered. He rose through the ranks of player leadership and contributed as a committed and thoughtful voice on everything from labor negotiations to scheduling to health and safety issues. He was equally passionate in his charity work and dedication to children’s causes. Granderson was the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award recipient and a four-time winner of the Marvin Miller Award, given to the player "whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement."
Marcus Semien is at the top of union leadership as one of two Association Reps -- the highest elected position in the MLBPA. His involvement was crucial during the 2020 Covid season and the 2021-2022 lockout. Semien is a three-time Marvin Miller Award nominee and a two-time winner of the honor. He has been an advocate for increased diversity in baseball and is a two-time club recipient of the MLBPAA’s Heart and Hustle Award. Semien’s philanthropic efforts extend from his new home in Texas to youth baseball initiatives in his native El Cerrito, Calif., in San Francisco’s East Bay.