When Baseball Players Formed Their Own League

Robert B. Ross

Major League Baseball is mired in a lockout, as team owners refuse to budge just weeks before Opening Day. It’s a perfect time to look back at when the players revolted against the owners and started their own league: the 1890 Players’ League.

The New York Giants Players’ League team plays an intrasquad game at the Polo Grounds in New York City in 1890. (Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images)

Interview by
Michael Arria

Just weeks away from Opening Day, the 2022 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is still in limbo. The players’ union and team owners continued talks this week, with both sides offering proposals and neither willing to budge. Tuesday’s meeting lasted a mere hour. MLB says a deal must be reached by February 28, or regular-season games will begin to be canceled. “The deadline is the deadline,” a league spokesman said. “Missed games are missed games, and salary will not be paid for those games.”

While the negotiations are complicated (involving everything from a “competitive balance tax” to a “pre-arbitration bonus pool”), the fundamental situation is not. As baseball writer Jay Jaffe recently summarized:

This is a lockout, not a strike. It is entirely of the owners’ doing — you could say they own it — and entirely unnecessary, because the 2022 season could be played under the terms of the previous [collective bargaining agreement] until a new one is in place.

The owners have been trying to claw back power from the players since 1975, when St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood — backed by the Players Association and its leader, Marvin Miller — successfully challenged the reserve clause. That rule, which was developed back in 1879, effectively bound players to a team for their entire careers. They could be sold, released, reassigned, or kept in the minor leagues without any say in the matter.

“After twelve years in the major leagues,” Flood wrote to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1969 after being traded against his wishes,

I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

One crucial, if often overlooked, forerunner to Flood’s fight was an upstart league founded in 1889. That year, fed up with the amount of control the owners had over their lives, a large swath of players broke away and created a renegade league. Their goal was to set up an organization where the players would share the profits and help control the teams. It was called the Players’ League. It was immensely popular. But it was dead within a year.

In 2016, scholar Robert B. Ross published the definitive book on the subject, The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League. Jacobin contributor Michael Arria spoke to Ross about the league’s rise and fall, the century-long struggle between owners and players, and what the Players’ League can teach us about baseball’s ongoing lockout.

Michael Arria

What did professional baseball look like in the late nineteenth century? How popular was it, and what kind of money were the players making?

Robert B. Ross

By many accounts, it was the most popular sport in America. Horse racing and boxing were up there as well, but baseball was reaching new peaks of popularity, especially after the National League was formed in 1876.

The players were making middle-class salaries for the most part, with some making quite a bit more. In 1889, there was a salary cap of $2,500, about $75,000 in today’s money. So, they were making a living, but they weren’t wealthy by any standard. There wasn’t a minor league system like there is today, but there were other leagues that players would play in before they went to the National League. The players in those lower leagues were making peanuts. Even the lesser players in the National League needed to have second jobs.

Michael Arria

What motivated the players to create their own league?

Robert B. Ross

The National League’s profitability in the 1880s was enabled by two things. One, they created territorial monopolies around each city where there was a team: they were the only league that could have baseball in Philadelphia or Chicago, for instance. That cut down any competition.

Then, they had the reserve rule, which was gradually rolled out across the 1880s. First, it was just a couple players, then four or five, and then eventually the whole roster was bound to a team for life unless they were sold by that team. Players couldn’t negotiate for a better contract. They had no mobility. Once you were signed by, say, the New York Giants, you were a New York Giant and had no control over that.

This enabled owners to keep salaries down. At a moment’s notice, players would be told, “You’re not playing in Philadelphia anymore, you’re playing in Chicago, so you and your family have to move there.” The players found that dehumanizing.

Then, in 1889, John Brush, the owner of the National League club in Indianapolis, developed a new scheme where every player would be graded A through E — not just by their play, but on their character and off-the-field habits. So, if they were going out to saloons or were in the press because they got in a fight, that could put them in a lower class. Their class would determine how much money they would make, and the maximum was going to be $2,500.

In 1885, the players had organized their first union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. The National League refused to recognize them and refused to meet with them.

So, by 1889, you had the Brush classification scheme, the salary cap, the buying and selling of players, the fact that the league was not going to meet with the union, and the fact that players knew they were the reason the league was so profitable. They were the talent. No one paid the 50 cents admission fee to watch the owner sit in his box — they paid to see these gifted athletes play this sport. So, the players said, “Screw it. We’re going to form our own league.”

Michael Arria

The Players’ League only lasted one season, so there might be an assumption that it failed to generate an audience. However, you write that the league was extremely popular — that’s not at all why it fell apart.

Robert B. Ross

It’s so fascinating and depressing at the same time. They created eight new teams in the off-season with investors who seemed sympathetic to the players’ cause. Players could be part owners of the club. They built new ballparks that were nicer than the National League ballparks by all accounts. If any still existed today, they would be among those Field of Dreams pilgrimage sites. The Players’ League actually built the Polo Grounds [the legendary Manhattan ballpark], where Willie Mays would play years later.

So, they had better parks and were playing in a lot of the same cities that the National League teams played in, with far better players. Something like 85 percent of the National League players from 1889 ended up playing in the Players’ League in 1890. There was a great pennant race between Boston and Chicago. There was the first-ever no-hitter in which the team who threw the no-hitter lost the game. There was great hitting, great defense.

By the end of the year, the players were celebrating — and not just Boston, who ended up winning the championship. By all accounts, the Players’ League was drawing more fans than the National League.

However, behind their backs, the nonplaying investors were colluding with the National League owners and trying to find a way to consolidate ownership of the clubs. There were even a couple player spies who were feeding the National League owners with information.

Things fell apart very quickly. These investors, who had pledged their economic and ideological support, joined forces with the National League and essentially said, “We want to make more money.” They wanted to go back to a monopoly system where there was only one league operating in each city. It was a big betrayal. The league was really taken down by greedy investors who wanted more money.

Most of the investors were real estate investors or connected to railway lines. It was in their best interest to build ballparks strategically. They’d build them at the edge of a city, and that could justify a railway line being built there or people buying property around the ballparks.

So, the investors had an interest in making money off baseball, but also using baseball to grow their other businesses.

Michael Arria

I wanted to talk about John Montgomery Ward a little. He was a Hall of Fame player who had over two thousand hits and managed some teams, but his crucial role in the Players’ League isn’t even mentioned on his Hall of Fame plaque. Who was he, and what was his legacy?

Robert B. Ross

He was such an interesting guy. He was from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He went to Penn State and was expelled for stealing chickens.

John Montgomery Ward, photographed between 1877 and 1894. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like many baseball players, he began playing for small clubs and getting off-season jobs. When he was playing in New York, he went to Columbia Law School. He dated and married a very famous Broadway actress named Helen Dauvray. So, he was in with the New York theater crowd, he had this intellectual life, and he really spearheaded the founding of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players.

He was great as an organizer because it was easy for him to convince players to join the Players’ League and impossible for the National League to hurt him in the press because he was so respected and knew the law better than most of the owners. Creating the Players’ League was the highlight of his career, which is why it was so upsetting to him when it failed. He was just totally despondent. He went on to play longer and live a happy life, but the Players’ League was his pinnacle.

Michael Arria

What impact did the Players’ League have on the owners and players and on labor relations between the two sides going forward?

Robert B. Ross

My impression, based on the testimony of players, is that it was exhausting to create the Players’ League and demoralizing to see it fall apart. No one wanted to go through all that again, because it was such an expenditure of energy and money. I think that explains why players from that generation didn’t attempt it again. Beyond that generation, the Players’ League was really written out of baseball’s history. It would be interesting to know whether the players who organized the Major League Baseball Players Association [in the 1960s] had even heard of the Players’ League.

I think it set a precedent on two levels. One, if the players revolt, then the dominant league is going to pull out all the stops to keep it from succeeding. It also alerted the National League that creating another league was not difficult. The American League was created about a decade after the Players’ League.

It’s also worth noting that the structure that Ward and the Players’ League created is similar to current free agency. They were looking for the ability to move from team to team. They were looking for multiyear contracts. In that sense, what Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, and the Players Association created, by abolishing the reserve clause in 1975, was very much how the Players’ League envisioned themselves. The obvious difference is that players today don’t have shared governance of the league and they don’t share directly in the profits of the league, even if collective bargaining has enabled the players to reap some of those benefits.

Michael Arria

What do you think current players can glean from the Players’ League? Is there anything from that fight we could apply to present-day labor disputes, whether it’s the ongoing lockout or the poor labor conditions of minor league baseball players?

Robert B. Ross

I started researching this book in grad school — it was my dissertation. I was a big baseball fan, so when I heard about the Players’ League, I thought it was a really interesting way to use a Marxist framework to understand how this part of capitalism works.

I think the Players’ League shows that workers create the value of the commodity they are producing. As the creators of that value they should have, at the very least, a big share of it, if not total control of it. The Players’ League wasn’t using that language, and they weren’t remotely Marxist, but they were making these arguments. They were saying, “We are the ones making this beautiful product, why shouldn’t we have more control over it?”

I hope my book could be instructive to any worker. We are the ones who create value, and it’s up to us to struggle to capture more of that value. The Players’ League had that class consciousness, but they failed to include the off-the-field workers. There was no mention of the carpenters and bricklayers who built the stadiums, or the ticket-takers, or the other workers who should have shared the profits of the game.

I think that’s a big lesson. I wish more professional athletes today would connect their labor struggles with other labor struggles, especially the ones that are directly connected to their industry. Concession salespeople, ushers, the people who make the merchandise — I think there’s an opportunity to use the spotlight of baseball, and the billions it generates, to draw attention to these workers. They’re part of the production process as well.

Writing this book, I also thought a lot about college athletes, who are generating millions for their schools and not getting paid for it. Minor league baseball players are making pennies on the dollar, compared to Major League players. All these struggles are relevant to the Players’ League. The players, but also all these other workers, are the folks who create the value, and they should control more of that value.

I support the players’ union, and I hope they get the best deal they can possibly get, but I hope they don’t make the same mistake that the Players’ League did and see themselves in a tunnel. They’re connected to all these other labor struggles.