A captivating history of the baseball reformers and revolutionaries who challenged their sport and society—and in turn helped change America.
Athletes have often used their platform to respond to and protest injustices, from Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick to Billie Jean King and Megan Rapinoe. Compared to their counterparts, baseball players have often been more cautious about speaking out on controversial issues; but throughout the sport’s history, there have been many players who were willing to stand up and fight for what was right.
In Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles over Workers' Rights and American Empire, Robert Elias and Peter Dreier reveal a little-known yet important history of rebellion among professional ballplayers. These reformers took inspiration from the country’s dissenters and progressive movements, speaking and acting against abuses within their profession and their country. Elias and Dreier profile the courageous players who demanded better working conditions, battled against corporate power, and challenged America’s unjust wars, imperialism, and foreign policies, resisting the brash patriotism that many link with the “national pastime.”
American history can be seen as an ongoing battle over wealth and income inequality, corporate power versus workers’ rights, what it means to be a “patriotic” American, and the role of the United States outside its borders. For over 100 years, baseball activists have challenged the status quo, contributing to the kind of dissent that creates a more humane society. Major League Rebels tells their inspiring stories.
Robert Elias is Dean’s Scholar and Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco. His baseball books include The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad; Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender and the National Pastime; The Deadly Tools of Ignorance; and Baseball Rebels. His baseball essays have appeared in Nine, Jacobin, Baseball Research Journal, Pacific Historical Review, Diplomatic History, International Journal of the History of Sport, and Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. He’s also been published in the Washington Post, The Progressive, The Humanist, Social Policy, Peace Review, Counterpunch, Transatlantica, and many other periodicals and books. He is a longtime Society of American Baseball Research and Baseball Reliquary member. He lives in Mill Valley, CA, near San Francisco.
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and founding chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. A former newspaper reporter, community organizer, and senior policy advisor to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, he has authored, coauthored, or edited eight books, including The 100 Greatest Americans of the Twentieth Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame and Place Matters: Metro Politics for the Twenty-First Century. A member of SABR and the Baseball Reliquary, Dreier has published hundreds of articles, op-ed columns, and essays on baseball, politics and social movements for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Nation, American Prospect, Dissent, New Republic, Huffington Post, Salon, Talking Points Memo, the Progressive, and elsewhere. He frequently appears in the national media and has been interviewed by Bill Moyers, Travis Smiley, Rachel Maddow, and Bill O’Reilly, among others. He lives in Pasadena, CA.
Foreword, by Bill Lee
Resisting Labor Exploitation
1. The Players Revolt Against Gilded Age Baseball
2. Challenging Baseball’s Corporate Monopoly
3. Ending Indentured Servitude
Contesting the American Empire
4. Resisting War, Fighting for Peace
5. The Latino Battle Against Baseball Colonialism and Racism
6. Protesting America’s War on Terrorism
7. Rebels for All Seasons
8. Baseball Justice: An Unfinished Agenda
About the Authors
Since baseball’s inception as a professional sport, the entities that control it have sought to wring the maximum profit from the game, argue Elias and Dreier. Their book outlines myriad ways in which MLB team owners and league officials have manipulated laws and ignored morality in favor of money—often at players’ expense. Elias and Dreier also recount moments when players have countered major-league machinations. For instance, in the 1880s, hall-of-famer John Montgomery Ward organized possibly the first professional sports players union, in an ultimately failed attempt to secure fair wages for himself and his peers; the union hoped to do away with the reserve clause that forever tied players to a given team. Ninety years later, All-Star center fielder Curt Flood took a bold stance that helped bring about free agency and a new, stronger players union, headed by the extremely competent Marvin Miller. The book also examines the MLB’s decades of alignment with and tacit support of the U.S. military. Elias and Drier have exceptional insight on behind-the-scenes labor fights in the MLB; a fine depiction of capitalist avarice. A must for baseball fans.
You're not seeing the whole game until you read Major League Rebels, a fascinating, eye-opening history of the real heroes of baseball, the ones who stood up to racists, war-mongers and their own greedy owners.
This wonderful book by veteran baseball writers and political scientists Robert Elias and Peter Dreier offers a fascinating account of the historic rebels who challenged the labor exploitation and corporate monopoly of professional baseball. What makes this book such a good read is that the story is told principally of the players and others who fought team owners, the commissioner’s office, and corporate scoundrels in the decades-long struggle for fair pay, the abolition of the reserve clause, and social justice.
Major League Rebels is as radical and important a baseball book as I’ve read in a long time. It restores a history the minders of baseball would soon have us forget: battles over not only race, gender, and sexuality but also over worker rights and the uses of baseball as a tool for U.S. empire.
In Major League Rebels, Elias and Dreier focus on the fascinating and often forgotten stories of the players, managers, and promoters who challenged Major League Baseball’s labor, financial, and political policies.
Baseball began in the cities, from a nostalgic longing for an agrarian paradise more ideal than real. That idealism—a wish for fairness and harmony on a level playing field—animated all that came after and is splendidly delineated in Robert Elias and Peter Dreier’s new book. Who is in, who is out, and who gets to decide: that has been the banner under which all baseball's rebels have marched.
Most sports fans today know about Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James and how they have stood up for equal treatment for Blacks. They don’t know that there’s a long pedigree of professional athletes who have fought for player rights and worker rights for all Americans. Major League Rebels compellingly tells the story of these heroes from the 1870s to the 2020s and how their struggles have helped shape U.S. culture and politics.
While Major League Baseball is often perceived as a bastion of conservatism and traditionalism, this work by baseball scholars Robert Elias and Peter Dreier makes the case that the sport also embodies a progressive legacy of reform and dissent. The baseball rebels portrayed by Elias and Dreier range from the renowned Roberto Clemente to the more obscure James “Orator” O’Rourke as they battle for workers’ rights and social justice while challenging corporate monopoly and colonialism. Elias and Drier place these struggles within historical context, but they also establish that the fight for social justice within Major League Baseball is an unfinished agenda, articulating the framework for a more progressive future for baseball and America. Major League Rebels provides an essential corrective to the assumption that the “national pastime” is a bastion of conservatism.
Get ready to sink your teeth into shocking stories of baseball heroes of a different stripe who withstood blacklists, violence, and other forms of intimidation by owners to create a better life and working conditions for players. Major League Rebels is a must for every serious baseball library.
For decades, baseball lovers have heard plenty of stories about greedy team owners and racist players like Ty Cobb. Major League Rebels gives us another, much-needed side of the baseball story: how courageous players like Curt Flood, Robert Clemente, Sandy Koufax and many others held out, walked out, and spoke out (or just stood up) to demand fair treatment and better pay—and ultimately built a powerful labor union. This well-researched book is full of moving stories, juicy details, and fascinating history—for instance, about the very first baseball players’ union, formed in 1885. Major League Rebels is a welcome breath of fresh air about baseball and the brave men who fought to ensure that the “greedy” team owners treat these gifted athletes with the respect they deserve.
Major League Rebels is not a standard history of baseball. It is about the rebels who have pushed the national pastime forward in terms of social, economic, and political consciousness. Elias and Dreier bring them all together in one uniquely constructed history.
Major League Rebels is as rare, fair, and fascinating as an unassisted triple play. Before notable actions by Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, and Andy Messersmith, dozens of major leaguers risked their baseball careers to protest various forms of social injustice and to advocate for players rights. Some organized and played in competing leagues while others protested Organized Baseball’s racist practices, its cozy support of wars, and its shackling reserve clause. In this crisp and compelling narrative, Dreier and Elias profile an impressive roster of often unfamiliar players who pursued justice and routinely suffered harsh repercussions for their lawful actions.
Major League Rebels is major league American history: a deeply researched, compelling read that tells the story of the ballplayers—going all the way back to the 1880s—who, while idols to their fans, have had to struggle with their owners to win their rights, respect, and independence. It also chronicles the protests that ballplayers have conducted against the nation's unjust wars and discriminatory practices. It's a must read for anyone who loves baseball and the quest for worker and social justice.
Major League Rebels offers a timely look at two underappreciated sides of baseball history—attempts to organize ballplayers as employees, and the roles that the business of baseball plays in the world order. Elias and Dreier describe the efforts of well-known players like Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Bunning but also those of lesser-known figures like Mark Baldwin, Tim Keefe, Danny Gardella, and Tony Lupien to challenge the baseball establishment. In their final chapter, “Baseball Justice,” the authors shift from descriptive to prescriptive, outlining ways that baseball can become more of a force for social change in the future.
Major League Rebels is a must-read book for anyone who loves baseball. You’ll learn a lot about people you didn’t know about before—the mavericks and dissenters who made baseball a better game and America a better country.
Baseball fans will definitely want to read at least one of [Peter Dreier and Robert Elias'] books. Both offer politically nuanced and deeply researched accounts of how Major League Baseball’s racial and social justice politics mirrored the broader society’s. The authors give powerful accounts of how stars like Jackie Robinson, Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Dick Allen along with lesser known players like George Gmelch and “Subway” Sam Nahem challenged the status quo.... Major League Rebels uncover[s] a treasure trove of lost American history. I want to thank the authors for reclaiming this lost history and setting the historical record straight.
[O]ffer[s] a rich mixture of individual heroism, collective protest and organizing—along with the inevitable “stats,” without which no baseball volume would seem acceptable to fan-readers... [A] clear political view of the quasi-class struggle, in part because the paternalist, patriarchal nature of ownership is seen so clearly.
The text is full of stories of players whose careers were ended because of their outspokenness on social issues or their insistence on fairness and labor rights for the players. Regarding the authors: both men are much more than casual fans of the game. Dreier is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research and Elias has written extensively about the sport. Their love of the game is apparent. The history they dissect and the stories they tell provide the reader with more than an alternative version of US baseball. In fact, Major League Rebels is also an alternative version of US history in the tradition of historians such as Howard Zinn and Eric Foner. Given that baseball is still sold as America’s game, it would make sense that it too has an uglier side to its history, as well.
Major League Rebels makes an enormous contribution to our historical understanding by detailing the role both of baseball owners and dissenting baseball players in resisting war and fighting for peace.
Foreword by Bill “Spaceman” Lee, former major league pitcher, Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos
3/28/22, Dissent: Peter Dreier wrote a piece on baseball’s labor wars.
4/6/22, Pasadena Star-News:The book was featured in a piece about new baseball books releasing just in time for Opening Day.
4/8/22, Living in the USA with Jon Wiener: Peter Dreier appeared on this podcast to discuss the book.
4/15/22, Capital & Main: Peter Dreier was interviewed about baseball’s long history of being a vehicle for social movements.
4/13/22, AirTalk/KPCC Southern California Public Radio: Peter Dreier joined host Larry Mantle to talk about the book and figures in baseball who challenged the status quo.
5/25/22, Jacobin: Peter Dreier was interviewed about the book and how America’s pastime has been shaped by rebels and radicals.
6/10/22, Edge of Sports Podcast: Robert Elias joined The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin to talk about the book.
The University of Chicago Magazine, Summer issue: Peter Dreier was interviewed about the book.
12/1/22, Sports Collectors Digest: This book was highlighted as one of the best baseball books of 2022.