Baseball's Forgotten Brotherhood, The First Athlete Union in American Pro Sports

In 1885, baseball players revolted against low pay and the reserve clause, forming a union and creating their own league. They ultimately failed, but their struggle still resonates.

by Brian Blickenstaff
Oct 20 2016, 4:20pm


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The meeting was held in secret. John Montgomery Ward, a shortstop with the New York Giants, presided. It was October 22, 1885, and Ward and some of his teammates had gathered to discuss two grievances: low wages in an era when baseball's popularity was skyrocketing, and a rule known as the "reserve clause." The reserve clause bound players to a team for near perpetuity, even if the player's contract was short-term, as most of them were back then.

The meeting ended with an important decision: the players would unionize. The Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players—baseball's first labor union—was born. Although little-known today, the Brotherhood altered the course of baseball history. In an ironic twist, the group ultimately failed to force the National League to change its labor practices, and instead helped the NL consolidate its power over America's pastime.

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In the 1880s, two major leagues dominated baseball—the National League, and the American Association (the latter is not the same as the American League, which didn't form until 1901). The two leagues had three main differences. First, the Association played on Sundays, while the National League observed the sabbath. Second, the Association sold booze, which earned it the nickname "the beer and whiskey league"; by contrast, the National League teetotaled. Finally, the Association charged a quarter for a ticket, while the National League charged $0.50. "So they were going for a different class of patron," says Scott D. Peterson, an associate professor of communications at Wright State University and the author of Reporting Baseball's Sensation Season of 1890.

But baseball's class divide extended beyond the people who attended the games. Many of the players were working class, often laborers of some kind. The owners, just as they are today, were wealthy, outspoken capitalists, titans of industry.

Given this split, Ward may have been the perfect union organizer. A former pitcher converted to infielder, he was one of the best ballplayers of his generation. But he also had an Ivy League law degree, and he practiced law extensively. When he wasn't playing ball, he was running in the the same Manhattan circles as the team owners. He had a foot in both worlds, and everyone respected him.

"He wasn't an activist," says Robert Ross, an associate professor of global cultural studies at Point Park University and author of The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League, "He didn't really have radical politics. He was really just looking out for his profession and his colleagues."

John Montgomery Ward. Squint a bit, and he's raising a fist in labor solidarity. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the 1880s, the labor movement in the United States was "starting to explode," says Ross. "It was quite common for workers to be in unions, so it made all the sense in the world that baseball players would join a union."

After meeting with his Giants teammates, Ward began holding secret meetings with other teams. In two years, almost every player in the National League and a number of Association players had joined the Brotherhood. It was time to go public.

In August of 1887, Philadelphia's Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, published an essay written by Ward entitled "Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?" The term "chattel" means personal property—in fact, "chattel slavery" is the precise term for the kind of slavery practiced in the United States until 1865.

The essay dealt primarily with the reserve clause, with Ward warning that "the system has become so rooted that heroic treatment may be necessary to remove it; but go it must, like every other, founded upon so great injustice and misuse of power. The only question is, Whence shall the remedy proceed? Shall it come from the clubs, or from the players, or from both conjointly?"

Ward and the Brotherhood first moved for a conjoined resolution. They met with representatives of the National League on November 17, 1888. Things did not go well. The National League refused to even recognize the Brotherhood. The situation became more strained in 1889, when baseball adopted the "Brush Classification Plan," which assigned player wages based on a number of metrics and capped salaries at $2,500 a year, about $65,700 in today's money.

Ward decided he had no choice but to force the league's hand. The Brotherhood announced it would start a league of its own, which they called the Players' League. About two thirds of the players in the National League joined, in addition to several from the Association. In 1890, the Players' League fielded clubs in almost every city where there was a National League team, directly challenging the National League for ticket revenue. And the Players' League did well—after all, it had all the best players.

The National League first responded by suing individual players for breach of contract. "They lost all of those legal cases," says Ross. "In fact, the biggest one was against John Ward, and a judge threw out that case." Next, the National League tried to poach individual star players, which largely failed.

Finally, the National League went after the Players' League owners. As you might expect, the Players' League was owned by the players, but to run the league they had to build stadiums. In order to finance the league's infrastructure, Ward pitched Wall Street speculators and other wealthy businessmen, who came on as part owners.

The financiers, however, weren't as wedded to the cause as the players were. Many of them thought the Players' League amounted to a kind of get-rich-quick scheme. When they hadn't recouped their investments by the end of the 1890 season, they started to get cold feet. National League management saw an opening, and offered the Players' League investors a seat at the National League table. At the end of the first Players' League season, the investors turned their backs on the players, defecting to the National League.

After just one year, the Players' League folded. The American Association soon followed suit. The Association had played second fiddle to the National League for years, but it lost many of its best players to the Player's League and couldn't cope with a three-way battle for ticket revenue.

The Association's demise, which was made final after the 1891 season, "left the National League as the only top, or major, league from 1892 to the advent of the American League in 1901," Peterson says.

National League president Nicholas Young, a lover of base-ball and monoposony power. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the Players' League's one season, salaries skyrocketed from the 1889 cap of $2,500 to as much a $7,000, according to Ross. And following the league's demise, salaries remained high. But by 1892, after the American Association folded, salaries fell below pre-Brotherhood figures.

There were no specific repercussions for Ward, who joined the Brooklyn Grooms in 1891, the team that would eventually become the Dodgers. And beyond slashing player pay, the National League didn't punish any other dissenting players. According to both Ross and Peterson, however, there remained a great deal of bad blood between the Brotherhood members and those who either decided not to join the union, or left for the National League during the 1890 season. Baseball players would not successfully unionize again for another 76 years, when they created the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.

Even today, the issues the Brotherhood fought for—fair compensation for their value and free agency—remain unresolved in a number of American sports. Major League Soccer players achieved limited free agency in 2015. The United States women's national soccer team is taking collective action to achieve parity with the men's team in compensation and working conditions. And then there's college sports, where athletes have challenged NCAA amateurism though antitrust lawsuits and—sound familiar?—a unionization effort by Northwestern University football players. "These athletes are creating just billions of dollars," Ross says, "and they're not able to get any of that back ...The Players' League showed, at least temporarily, that's it's possible to fight back."

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