Dan Gilbert GRD ’08 thinks America’s pastime can also be a case study for American culture.
Gilbert spent more than seven years at Yale working on his Ph.D., and came back to the Elm City yesterday to discuss his book, “Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency,” at the Hall of Graduate Studies. The book, which began as Gilbert’s American Studies dissertation, connects a cultural shift among Major League ballplayers to the development of modern free agency and the rise of the MLB’s recruitment in the Dominican Republic.
Gilbert discussed the term “free agency” not just as a technical term for players without a team contract, but also as the “agency” of Major League and Dominican baseball players to have power over their baseball careers.
“I was interested in these early moments of militancy in the newly organized Players Association and what they revealed about the idiosyncratic form of unions, with the players finding collective power by organizing around the sale of their own images,” Gilbert said in his talk.
Prior to 1975, the MLB’s reserve clause gave players no say over what team they played for, even after their contracts expired. Teams could renew contracts and trade players at will regardless of how many years the player had been on the team, Gilbert said.
Gilbert said that the MLB Players Association, led by Marvin Miller, pushed for players to have control over their future after their contracts expired. The association saw no success for years, but finally an arbitration court ruled in the players’ favor after two players played for the entire 1975 season without a contract.
MLB’s arbitrator named the two players free agents, officially ending the reserve clause and allowing players to become free agents after playing a full year without a contract.
Gilbert noted the connection between the free agency decision and player representation in baseball that occurred at the same time.
He added that players in the 1970s became more independent by creating their own public images and marketing themselves.
“The generation of ballplayers who struggled to create the existing free agency did so by refusing to allow team owners, sports writers and television announcers to confine them to prescribed identities,” Gilbert said. “The stances that they took … in the press box were signposts of a new brand of baseball.”
He used the example of Reggie Jackson, who marketed himself to other teams with an “electrifying” personality on the field in the 1970s. Jackson even called himself a “cocky, money-making machine” in one of his own memoirs.
Gilbert also discussed Curt Flood, who helped the movement toward free agency in 1969 by suing the commissioner of baseball after he was forcibly traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Flood lost his case at the Supreme Court, but Gilbert said that he helped create the success that players achieved six years later.
In the second part of his talk, Gilbert explained a shift in agency that went on in the Dominican Republic in the same time period.
In the 1970s, MLB team owners started using Dominican baseball academies, which were designed to train prospects and recruit them to the Major Leagues.
Gilbert explained the development of academies as an effort by the MLB to expand its “territory” in the world and control the market for players.
“United States interests had exerted considerable influence in Dominican baseball,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert noted that Dominican players were torn between the desire to play in their hometown league and to make it big overseas in America.
The MLB increasingly limited the “agency” of Dominican players to play where they wanted to play. When the commissioner of baseball discovered in 1962 that the Dominican government planned three exhibition games against Cuba, he warned that Major League players would be fined for playing in the game.
Gilbert took the talk’s attendees through the history of the MLB’s influence in the Dominican Republic, including case studies of players such as Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and Julián Javier.
He explained how each of these three figures took a stand against the MLB’s increasing influence and restored some of the agency to Dominican baseball players.
“The period from the ’50s to the ’70s was defined by Dominican ballplayers building power for and within national baseball institutions,” Gilbert said. “While they were also engaged with their fellow Major Leaguers in the struggle for free agency in the States, that generation carved out the terrain of agency with and within Dominican national baseball.”
Gilbert began research for his dissertation in 2004 and finished the book in 2008.
Michael Denning, a professor in the American Studies Department and Gilbert’s director for the dissertation, said that he thinks the book is going to change how people think about the history of baseball.
“[Gilbert] not only opened up a kind of scholarship in sports, but I think he’s taken the thinking about baseball outside the U.S. context,” Denning said. “And [he’s put] together the history of baseball in the U.S. with … the industry of baseball in different parts of the world, which I think is really outstanding.”
The book was published on Aug. 31.