The 1890 Players’ League

It’s Spring again and that means baseball season is underway.  One may ask why Socialist Appeal is writing an article on such a topic. In fact, many leftists in the U.S. and around the world take a rather disdainful attitude towards sports.  Noam Chomsky writes of sports:

“[T]hat’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it – you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about – [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about.”

Such a view may get you applause at gatherings of university students and “activist” types, but the fact remains that the majority of workers read about, listen to, attend, and/or watch sports, many quite fanatically. However, his criticism extends beyond professional sports to amateur sports. He identifies cheering for a local team as “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements – in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports.”

There may be more than a grain of truth in Chomsky’s argument about the way that sports are used by the ruling class, but the fact is that sports are an intimate part of the life and culture of the working class, despite the way that commercialism, mass marketing, high salaries, unaffordable ticket prices, and patriotic half-time shows and seventh inning stretches have perverted the “love of the game.”  So is it true that sports in general and baseball in particular are some alien force, simply some “indoctrination force” dropped on the workers from capitalists bent on teaching “submission to authority” and “irrational jingoism”?

Baseball’s history is intertwined with the history of America. It is the history of labor struggles and against racism and segregation.  Particularly in its early years, the struggle between the owners and the players was particularly sharp.  As one anonymous player put it in 1915, “The only way to teach a magnate anything is with a club.”  Most baseball fans are unaware of the history of struggle that is part and parcel of the history of their game (and their class).  In this article, I would like to draw attention to a particularly important event in baseball and labor history: the experience of the 1890 “Players League.”  It is important for us to not only draw the lessons from experiments like the PL, but also, we must reclaim the working class legacy of the so-called “National Pastime,” or what was referred to in the 19th Century as the “People’s Game.”

Modern Baseball can trace its origins to Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in New York City, so named for the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12 of the New York City Fire Department in the 1840s. The majority of the players at this time were volunteer firefighters and petty bourgeois professionals. Just a decade passed before some of these players organized the first official league, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players in 1857.

The newly-founded “Association” was a loose confederation, with an entry fee of $10 ($200 in modern money), effectively run by the players, as the name suggests. Over time, however, the more powerful, influential, and wealthier players progressively were transforming themselves from players to managers and then to owners, essentially expropriating the rest of the players, in a process seen elsewhere in the mid-19th Century, as capitalism’s development demanded greater and greater concentration and consolidation of wealth and power.

By 1876, a group of outside entrepreneurs and player-owners saw an opportunity to further consolidate and disempower the players, i.e. their workforce. They took advantage of various “controversies” in the “Association” to form the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, or the National League. A simple comparison of the names of these organizations (Association…of Players vs. League…of Clubs) shows a clear transformation in the balance of forces at this point.  The new league was not a loose confederation, but an organization with power vested not in the players, but rather in the owners (or “magnates”) and a central ruling body with autocratic powers of enforcement.

The players under attack

In response, the players founded the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in an attempt to fight for their interests, but by the end of the 1880s, the owners felt strong enough to further crack down on the players. The introduced a “Classification Plan,” what we would today call a tier system, which classified players into categories of “A” through “E.” “E” players would be paid less than $1,500 per year and would also be required to perform menial tasks such as sweeping up the stadium after the game or working the turnstiles, without additional pay. They also began fining players for missing games (even in one case on his wedding day!), attempted to save money on foul balls by having players retrieve souvenirs from the “customers,” forced players to pay for the use of uniforms and for hotel stays on the road, etc. The list of draconian measures was endless.

Also introduced during this period was the infamous “reserve clause,” which was required by the league to be present in every player’s contract. This clause bound a player at the end of the term of contract to the team for whom the contract was signed. This meant that, despite a current contract having expired, the worker/player was not free to seek different employment. The choice was either to re-sign for their current employer, seek consensual release from the contract, or a trade to another team. As John Montgomery Ward, he president of the players’ union, described the clause, “Like a fugitive slave law, the reserve rule denies [the player] a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape.” While the comparison to slavery is clearly one of hyperbole, the unfair nature of the reserve clause was universally agreed by players.

In 1887, “Deacon” White and Jack Rowe decided to resist, attempting to leave their team in Pittsburgh to play for Buffalo. The reaction of management was swift, with Frederick Stearns, the owner of the Detroit team declaring that White would play for Pittsburgh or “he’ll get off the earth.”

White, having an education background in law, had faith in the niceties of the bosses’ legal system and believed that “[t]he laws of this country will stop people from preventing me from making an honest living.” However, despite “Deacon’s” faith, the final result was the two being added to baseball’s extensive blacklist.

At a meeting of the Brotherhood on Bastille Day, July 14th, 1889, a date not chosen by accident, Ward unleashed his response, which was the formation of a player-, i.e. worker-run league. The Brotherhood released a statement, under the title “The Brotherhood Manifesto,” which stated: “Players have been bought, sold and exchanged as though they were sheep instead of American citizens.”  It concluded with a call to arms and an appeal for support:

“We believe it is possible to conduct our national game upon lines which will not infringe upon individual or natural rights. We ask to be judged solely upon our work, and believing that the game can be played more fairly and its business conducted more intelligently under a plan which excludes everything arbitrary and un-American, we look forward with confidence to the support of the public and the future of the national game.”

James “the Orator” O’Rourke summed up the idealistic vision of the new proposed league:

We have endeavored to build on a foundation even more substantial than Earth itself.  Our ascension from thralldom is positive, uncoupled from all doubts, notwithstanding the warning of the master magnates and the snapping of their whip, which has no more terror for the players as they stand today shorn of all physical strength to use them.

Who were the players and were they workers?

The demographics of the players were widely varied. Baseball had originated amongst the educated intelligentsia and middle-class, petty bourgeois layers in the 1840s, but the Civil War had largely proletarianized the sport and given to it a national character. The composition of the professional game reflected this process. There was a base of largely immigrant, industrial workers, mostly of Irish descent, which formed the majority in the league, while the more refined, university-educated layers still had a noticeable presence. It was these more educated players that disproportionately had a say in the conduct of the Brotherhood and the setting up of the new league.

Were the players workers, as they claimed? The average pay for players during this period is difficult to know with any certainty. The salary maximum was set at $2,500, with the lowest players making considerably less. The average manual laborer during the period earned around $479 a year assuming they worked about two-thirds of it. A skilled-worker could make the same or even more than a professional athlete during this era. All of this said, for Marxists, the definition of a “worker” does not come down to how much someone is paid; in the last analysis, but rather what relations they have to production. Ward, despite not being a Marxist, understood this and made the case in public speeches that the players be regarded as workers:

That we receive larger salaries and that our hours of work are shorter leaves us none the less workingmen. We are hired men, skilled in a particular employment, who work not only for the profit, but the amusement of our employers… I would rather work for $10 a week and keep my personality, i.e. have some volition in the conduct of my own affairs than be made a monkey of or simply an animated being by such methods of government as used by the [National] League, for $100 a week.

The “Players League”

“The Players League,” as it was now known to the public, established itself on what it believed to be “cooperative” principles. In practice, however, the proposal, while bold in a number of ways, was ultimately utopian and flawed from the start. The union’s proposal, despite expressing the players’ intuition that they could run their workplace without the owners, was faced with the problem that the players alone did not have the resources to make such an experiment possible. They were thus forced to enlist the support of venture capitalists, i.e. owners, although they refused to refer to them as such. They were to be known as “backers” and were to have an equal say with the players in the running of the league, with power shared through a board of directors. This utopian scheme still relied heavily on the capitalists, who could sink the league at any time they wished.

The idea for a unified interest of workers/players and owners/backers, i.e. building a “classless” system of “fair dealing,” was influenced by the utopian socialism of the times, which had a major effect on the popular consciousness of the educated layers of American society, through novels such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and the Owenite and Bellamy societies, which dotted the Midwest. As with the Players League,  all of these experiments shared the common belief that an alternative to the degrading and clearly uneven balance of power represented by the rising industrial system could be combated through isolated communes or cooperatively run enterprises. While such experiments can often be inspiring and have positive lessons for those seeking an alternative to the current system of exploitation, so long as capitalist property relations predominate in the economy, the pressures of the system will ultimately come to bear on any such experiment. It is impossible to build an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism, much less build an island of socialism on the foundations of different classes with different interests.

Despite these flaws, the league immediately brought with it nearly all of the talent from the NL (only 25 players returned to work in 1890!).  Albert Spalding, one-time player and now president of the National League, responded to the formation of the PL by attempting to offer concessions to stem the tide of players jumping ship for the new league. The NL dropped the $2,500 maximum salary and the proposed classification program.

In reality, Spalding’s concessions were not charity, and he had not “seen the light.”  Rather, he saw only the potential drop in his gate revenues. He actually saw things much as they were, as the intelligent members of the ruling class often do. As he put it, labor and capital were “irrepressible enemies.” His views could be summed up by a statement he made in March of 1890: “I am for war without quarter.  I was opposed to [the “Players League”] at first, but now I want to fight until one of us drops dead.”

A propaganda campaign was begun with the intent of crushing the PL. As Lee Lowenfish puts it in his The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars, the point of attack for Spalding was on “the very idea of a league run by players.” The very concept had to be crushed. The example in such a public enterprise as professional baseball, even if severely flawed, would have implications and reverberations throughout American society, far beyond the sport. Spalding enlisted sportswriters like Henry Chadwick to denounce the PL and the Brotherhood as a “secret terrorist organization.”

The results

Despite all the attempts of the NL owners to crush the PL before it got off the ground, both leagues completed the 1890 season. Was the PL a success?  In terms of sheer comparative numbers, the answer is a clear “yes!” The players outdrew the mainstream NL, which had the advantage of more money, better stadiums, etc., 913,000 to 853,000. This not only shows that the league offered entertainment people wanted to see, better players and competition, but one can reasonably assume that the fans, mostly workers, probably sympathized to a considerable degree with the struggle of the players.

This is a far-cry from the relationship fans have to players today when there is a strike, with most fans simply wanting their favorite teams and players to “stop whining and get back out there.”  Although there was a wage gap between players and the average fan in 1890, it was far smaller than it is today.  Although we may admire their talents, it is difficult for the average worker to identify with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, or Joe Mauer, whose contracts are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite everything it had going for it, the PL was ultimately defeated, not by its failure to draw fans or because of any inherent inability of the players to run things, but rather, due to the futility of trying to build an alternative to capitalist exploitation which included the capitalists themselves. After the 1890 season, Spalding called a meeting with the PL –  well, actually, not the PL. He only invited the “backers.” John Montgomery Ward demanded that the meeting include himself and other representatives of the Brotherhood, in accordance with the PL’s own founding principles of power-sharing. However, Spalding refused to conduct the meeting as long as the players were allowed to sit at the table.

The PL backers, despite their success relative to the NL, had suffered financially throughout the season due to a splitting of attendance between the two leagues in several cities, and thus, since they did not have the same moral commitment to the struggle as the players themselves, they gave in entirely. They agreed to the meeting, at which point they sold out their players, i.e., their “equal” partners in the PL. Spalding got everything he wanted. The new league was dissolved, its best teams gobbled up by the NL, the Brotherhood smashed and outlawed, the reserve clause reinstated, etc.

Although very few players were actually blacklisted, the overall effect was a total defeat and a lasting demoralization of the players and a loss of their willingness to struggle, which had lasting effects. Some of the leaders of the PL and the Brotherhood, the more well-educated, aspiring bourgeois types, even became owners in the NL and forgot all about their experience in the “Players’ Rebellion of 1890.” Ward became a lawyer and continued to represent players against mistreatment by owners in the NL. He would resurface to play a role as an official in the second players’ revolt, the short-lived Federal League of 1914. As an aside, Ward was also a talented player and is also notable as the only player ever to have 100 wins as a pitcher and 2,000 hits during their career.

Why did the “Players League” fail?

So, the result of the PL experiment was the total ruin of the players’ union for generations and ultimately total surrender to the owners’ demands. Does this mean that baseball and other professional sports are doomed to be capitalist enterprises and that a more equitable and just organization of professional sports will inevitably produce the same result?  Not at all!

Top players’ salaries are, of course, out of control, but it is not enough to simply call for a cap or an overall reduction in salaries. What this would mean in practice is that the money saved would simply go into the owners’ pockets. Playing baseball at the caliber of the Major Leagues is a job that should be well-paid, like all others jobs. Any reduction in the pay of the highest-paid players must result in an immediate drop in ticket prices, in order to make the game more accessible, and an immediate increase in the pay of the stadium staff (ticket takers, concession workers, janitors, etc.).  However, this is, of course, incompatible with the continued private ownership and control of the teams in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, whether unabashed profiteers or well-intentioned “backers.”

Ultimately, in 1890 as today, only the nationalization of the existing major leagues, i.e. placing the huge social resources currently owned and at the disposal of a few owners, under public ownership and control, can show the real way forward for the players, the stadium staff, the fans, and the community. Teams should be run democratically. One possible arrangement would be a board made up of one-third players/stadium workers, one-third local government officials, and one-third the broader community. We should not forget about the people who really make the games possible. Any profits should be used to make sure there are decent facilities as well as quality union jobs for groundskeepers, ushers, janitors, concession staff, etc.

The need for such a radical transformation in the relationship of teams to their respective communities is clearer than ever, as cities fork out millions of dollars in public funds to build new facilities, which are then utilized for the private profit of a few. We must demand that if we pay for it, we own it! Communities should see the benefits of their investment in the form of profits from ticket and merchandise sales going to build quality parks, schools, infrastructure and housing, rather than lining the pockets of the Steinbrenners and Dewitts. Also, when not being used by the professional teams, sporting facilities should be made available for free training for youth and adult sporting clubs, public meetings, etc.

Baseball was (and still is) played by immigrant and industrial workers, in small towns and urban centers from New York to San Francisco. Local industrial teams dotted the landscape through the late 1800s and into the 20th Century, with workers forming teams and leagues to foster friendly competition between neighboring towns, industries, and factories. Such activities encouraged exercise and physical health amongst the class, while offering much needed recreational activity and a break from the factory floor. The need for such leisure activity and entertainment is not lessened by the urgent need to overthrow capitalism. It’s high time we took back the “People’s Game.”

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