Lockouts, Strikeouts, and Baseball’s Missed Opportunity

Lockouts, Strikeouts, and Baseball’s Missed Opportunity

Lockouts, Strikeouts, and Baseball’s Missed Opportunity

Learning from the 1890 Players League.


As the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) is locked out and mired in a protracted bargaining process with a group of billionaire owners, it might be instructive to look back at one of the sport’s first organized labor struggles for some valuable lessons on work, solidarity, inclusion, and class consciousness.

In the early weeks of the 1889 National League season, baseball’s biggest stars spoke openly in the press of a potential work stoppage. A future Hall of Famer, pitcher-turned-shortstop John Ward, told The New York Clipper that “demands [will] be made upon the magnates during the championship season, when, if necessary, a strike could be made effective.” Ward had just met with the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, the sport’s first labor union, which included nearly every player in the league, including Ward, who served as its president. “When the players got together,” Ward later wrote, “their indignation was extreme.” They discussed striking on July 4, when each team would be playing a double-header in front of expected sellout crowds.

It had taken the National League several years since its inception in 1876 to reach a point of profitability. But by the late 1880s the league held monopoly power over most of the country’s biggest markets and the contracts of most of the nation’s best players. Baseball had become wildly popular, and the National League was cashing in.

While the National League’s owners saw increasing profits for most of its franchises throughout the 1880s, the salaries of the league’s players remained relatively stagnant. A “reserve rule” prevented players from moving from one team to another and thus from negotiating for better contracts. Players were bound to their clubs for life unless they were sold, often against their wishes, to another club.

The straw that broke the camel’s back in 1889 was a scheme developed by Indianapolis owner John Brush that assigned one of five grades to each player based on both their level of play and their “habits, earnestness, and special qualifications.” A-level players would earn no more than $2,500 (about $75,000 in 2022), while E-graded players would make $1,500 and be required to also work as ticket takers or on the grounds crew.

But the Brotherhood did not strike on July 4 or any other day during the 1889 season. Instead, it embarked on something more ambitious—it secretly planned to launch a new league, called the “Players League.”

The Players League would feature teams that were cooperatively owned by players and seemingly sympathetic investors. Located in seven of the same eight cities, and playing an almost identical schedule, the new league stood in direct economic competition with the National League. Unlike the National League, though, the Players League offered players an equal say in the governance of the league and a majority of its profits. The new league did not include the reserve rule.

The vast majority of the National League’s players in 1889, including several who would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame, played for the Players League in 1890. Equipped with better players and new, more attractive ballparks, the Players League drew significantly more fans to its games than did the National League.

The Players League marketed itself as a union league, one that would appeal to skilled tradesmen as well as the middle-class gentlemen the National League had long attracted. In a climate of increased agitation from industrial workers, the Players League curried favor with organized labor. The American Federation of Trade and Labor Unions endorsed the proposed league at its December 1889 annual meeting. Several other local and national bodies of organized labor offered their solidarity as well.

Ward told a reporter from Sporting Life in 1889, “We have the sympathy of the labor organizations. The [Players League] is an experiment on our part to have the men who do the work participate in the profits of the pastime. If we are successful, it will be a demonstration that such a principle can succeed. That we receive larger salaries and that our hours of work are shorter leaves us none the less workingmen.”

But who were the people “who did the work” of producing professional baseball? For Ward and his Players League brethren, it was only the men on the field in uniform who did the work that generated value for the sport. And so it was the players, and the players alone, who should “participate in the profits of the pastime.”

While a baseball game has always depended on the labor of baseball players, they are not the only ones who “do the work” to make it happen, whether in the 19th century or the 21st. The Players League needed to hire carpenters, bricklayers, and other working people to construct and maintain a new ballpark for each team. The players depended on workers to manufacture their uniforms, bats, balls, and gloves. Musical bands needed to be hired to entertain crowds during breaks in the action. Someone had to sell fruit, tobacco, and scorecards to the fans. And a cadre of sportswriters relayed the details of the game to newspaper readers across the country.

That labor force has expanded in the modern era, as ballparks are bigger and more complex, the array of food and merchandise is more plentiful, and the media requires a much more complicated infrastructure to broadcast games. Thousands of workers, in other words, “do the work” of producing professional baseball. And most of these people are, at varying degrees, both then and now, exploited and underpaid.

While the Players League welcomed the solidarity offered by off-the-field workers, they failed to provide much solidarity in return. In Chicago, the Players League hired scab carpenters to finish constructing their ballpark during a citywide strike for better pay and an eight-hour workday. “I went to [Players League Secretary, Frank] Brunell, and made a kick, a hard one,” said T.G. Howard, the secretary of Chicago’s United Carpenters’ Council. But the Players League continued to hire nonunion workers for the job, even providing them police protection after a group of union carpenters stormed the job site to intimidate the scabs to stop working.

Moreover, the Players League upheld baseball’s racist “color line,” refusing to even consider the admission of Black players to its ranks, even though there were numerous players of color who were, by all accounts, as talented as anyone in the sport. Nor did the Players League’s scheme include the hundreds of professional baseball players who were toiling in the sport’s many other, less prominent leagues.

The Players League may have branded itself as a progressive, working-class league, but it failed to develop a more inclusive class consciousness. It failed to see how its members’ plight was, quite literally sometimes, in the same ballpark as that of other workers.

The Players League expected, instead, that the handful of investors who helped back the league would operate in the best interests of the players. They foolishly thought these moneyed men, all of whom had made fortunes exploiting workers in other industries, would relinquish their capitalist class consciousness and work in solidarity with the players.

This was a big mistake. Just after the 1890 season ended, when Boston was awarded the championship pennant, the league’s non-playing capitalists announced that they were going to join forces with the National League’s owners to consolidate the two leagues into one. While many of the players were part-owners of their clubs, they did not own a large enough portion of any of the teams to prevent their non-playing investors from jumping ship. By January 1891, the Players League officially folded. Most of the players went back to the National League. The reserve rule was reinstated. Salaries soon fell to their pre-1890 figures. Baseball’s reserve rule remained in place until 1975, when the MLBPA, led by Marvin Miller and Curt Flood, forced Major League Baseball to abolish the rule and open a new era of free agency.

As today’s clash between baseball’s owners and players escalates, many workers and progressives are expressing solidarity with the MLBPA, as they should. UNITE HERE, the union that represents thousands of baseball’s stadium workers, for example, recently wrote a statement of solidarity with the players’ union: “Our industries may differ, but our fight for a level playing field between owners and the workers that generate the owners’ wealth is the same.”

While such gestures of solidarity are important, players and their fellow workers both on and off the field should heed the lessons of the Players League—solidarity needs to run both ways and across racial and industrial divisions. And workers should identify with one another, not their bosses. The MLBPA retweeted UNITE HERE’s statement, and free-agent pitcher Sean Doolittle tweeted in response, “Solidarity! Baseball would not be the same without the stadium workers, transportation, hospitality, and garment workers.” But time will tell the extent to which this solidarity will materialize on a larger scale.

The Players Alliance has been speaking out for racial justice and working to make baseball at all levels more racially inclusive ever since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. But as the 150 African American players who make up the Players Alliance will be the first to tell you, there is still a lot more work to do in this regard.

Several Major League players have pledged support for Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which seeks economic justice for the sport’s underpaid minor league players. Without union representation, however, these players are largely dependent on the generosity of MLB’s billionaire owners, which has not been forthcoming.

While the MLBPA deserves everything it is seeking, there is still a lot more to do beyond the current collective bargaining process to ensure that all the people “who do the work can participate in the profits of the pastime.”

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