J. D. Thorne, speaker and author of the new book Baseball’s Winning Ways  (Available on Amazon Books).

The Player’s League

 How great is the 1890’s attempt by the players to manage baseball itself as opposed to the owners? How noble were their aspirations?  How heroic was the effort!  The baseball-caring public is now about to witness “what gives” in the current collective bargaining negotiations.  Is it great theater or the making of sausage we don’t want to witness?

Baseball fans are now closer to meaningful decisions after about 50 days of the players being “locked-out” by management during the hiatus following the end of the contract without agreement.  If a Collective Bargaining Agreement can be reached by the parties, it can include resolution of any losses by the union as a result of the “lock-out.”  Anything is possible if the owners and the players can agree upon it?  So what are the issues preventing agreement?

It is always encouraging when management agrees to meet and confer in good faith with the other party to reach agreement on the issues involving the wages, hours, and working conditions.  Do I think the players’ union is going to agree with management on the negotiations scheduled again in a few days?  Don’t ask.

At times like this, I think about the 1889-1890 “Players Union.”  Antipathy to management built up among the players in late summer 1889.  Then, as maybe now, the issue motivating resistance twirled around the “reserve clause” in player contracts which bound a player to his team the following year, and beyond.

For the 1890 season, the players took real action.  The players didn’t just strike after vehemently opposing what they called an “illegal trust” and a “scheme by the owners for a monopoly of the business of baseball.”  In “the Brotherhood War” as it was called, players sought out and found investors to form the “Players League” which operated without the dreaded “reserve clause” and what they considered other salary limitations. Many of the players bolted the National League and the American Association.    New franchise owners agreed to share their profits 50 – 50 at the season’s end. It started competing with teams in 7 of the 8 National League cities such as Chicago, Boston, and New York.

Indeed, recruiting players with its new and better benefits was not difficult despite legal efforts by the old league’s wealthier owners to enforce its old contracts.  During the season, the quality of play in the Players League was superior to its established rival, and it attracted slightly more fans to its games.  However, although the Players League teams won the attendance battle, it effectively split the gate revenues between the two leagues.  It was disastrous for both.  But the wealthier owners banded together to support its weaker teams.  In Boston, stars such as Ned “King” Kelly helped the Players League become more popular than the competing National League franchise Boston Red Stockings.  The New York Giants were teetering on bankruptcy by July, before receiving a $100 thousand loan from the other National League owners to keep it from folding.

At the 1890 season’s end, the superior financial position of the National League owners won out.  Players League owners got skittish about taking on a second season of financial disaster in red ink.  Ultimately, every Players League owner sold their franchise to a wealthier National League owner, who promptly folded each new team’s operations.  This led to the collapse of the entire league in short order for the coming 1891 season.  The leadership of the National League led by the pride of Rockford, Illinois, A. G. Spaulding, was too much to overcome.  Spaulding was quoted at the time telling one news reporter, “Let ‘em [new owners] come if they think baseball is a bonanza, but before they start they should get a capital of $500,000.”

Spaulding also ridiculed the new owners for having embarked on “a business of which they knew not the A.B.C.  Observe what they do.  They take all the risks; they make all the original investments; they advance all the money; they pay their employees fabulously high salaries and in addition to all they agree to divide with them the profits of the business half and half . . . . A shrewd businessman would laugh in their faces at their temerity.”

The criticism of “rash capitalists in a rush to make a dollar,” did not rule out denunciations of players who joined the new league.  The Brotherhood players were castigated as “conspirators” who “hatched their plans in secret council” and employed “special pleadings, false statements, and a system of terrorism peculiar to revolutionary movements” to achieve their ends.  This rhetoric did not fall on deaf ears either for a public experiencing other labor relations turmoil such as the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago. I am glad I am not hearing rhetoric like that now.

For players now there is a “free agent” stipulation as an exception to a strict interpretation of the reserve clause.  It is the limited extent of the exception that may be a strike issue for the players?  Current players would like it to start earlier in a player’s career, among other changes.  There also may be tweaks that can be made to other owner systems that limit salary competition for players, such as the “luxury tax.”  Somehow, I just can’t help thinking of all the money that can be lost and the fan disapproval that may come in the event of a real lockout or strike that cause actual games to be lost if these parties can’t equitably “split the booty” that the opportunity to compete provides.

In fact, I know a fan planning a spring training trip to Arizona that may soon cancel her flight reservations because of the prospect there may be no games to watch!  Spring training opens for pitchers and catchers in a month.  I just don’t hear much compassion for the fans who support baseball in all of this.

Sporting Chance Press includes books on sports including baseball. Our baseball books:

The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy’s Principles for Baseball (and Life)  also by J. D. Thorne

Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball’s Fred Merkle

Baseball’s Winning Ways