The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League
by Robert B. Ross (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016)
Book review by Edward G. Mahoney, Ph.D. American Studies, University of New Mexico, 1985.
This off-season’s free agency market has been slow, recent baseball news reports. David Ortiz, now a commentator, has asked, “Who the hell is going to play?” (Brzezinski). Clayton Kershaw has expressed concern that this year’s free agents may not get “what they deserve” (Brown). Any fan who wants the back-story for such comments—and much more—should read Robert B. Ross, The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Ortiz, Kershaw, and all other modern baseball players since free agency began in 1976 owe a debt to one early baseball pioneer especially, Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward. Ward’s player leadership in the 1880s and early ‘90s set precedents that made the modern work of Marvin Miller and the MLB Players Association much easier, though it still was not easy, and more effective. Ward’s Cooperstown plaque notes his pitching and shortstop achievements and his NL managerial service from 1878 though 1894. Also revealing, however, are its omissions. Maybe they were still a bit too controversial by the date of Ward’s induction in 1964. Vaguely the citation concludes that Ward “played [an] important part in establishing modern professional baseball,” but it does not say how.
Ward founded the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players in 1885 and served as its president. He then led in the creation of the Players League (PL) for the 1890 season. Ross tells that story in great detail. His book also traces the evolution of amateur and then professional baseball from the 1840s into the 1890s. He locates that story within the rise of the American labor movement and its leading vehicles, the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, with particular attention to the United Carpenters Council (UCC). Most readers will learn more than they ever sought to know about the salaries and working conditions of carpenters in Boston and Chicago in 1889-90, but Ross makes clear why all that matters. The carpenters’ union provided a wedge for the AFL’s successful efforts toward the eight-hour day and the forty-hour week. Ross also explains the complicated relationship between the PL and the union and non-union labor it employed. The PL was a “workers’ revolt” against the dominance of NL owners since that league’s founding in 1876. Ward led the fight against the reserve clause, salary caps, and the buying and selling of players’ contracts. He helped establish shared franchise governance in the PL between investing capitalists and elected player representatives (Ross 110). The author notes that Ward’s language for the post-reserve clause policies of the PL is remarkably like that of free agency policies adopted by MLB about eighty years later in the 1970s (Ross 75-76). Ward had helped to set a precedent that would finally prevail.
So why did the PL fold after just one season, and what did the UCC have to do with it? The PL signed most of the best players of the time and outdrew the NL for the 1890 season. However, Ross cites two major reasons for the league’s demise. First, the capitalists who shared PL franchise governance with elected player representatives were impatient for profits on their investments (Ross 185). Despite outdrawing the NL, all but one PL team lost money for the 1890 season, as did all the NL franchises (Ross 184). In post-season negotiations about the fate of all three “major leagues” (including the weaker and lower-priced American Association), Ward was too trusting of the PL capitalist owners. He declared “implicit confidence in our financial backers” to represent the players’ interests (Ross 186). In the revealing language of Albert Spalding, the NL’s leading owner and spokesman, professional baseball after the 1890 season was restructured “by the moneyed people” on “business principles” (Ross 191). The elected PL player reps were excluded from key meetings and decisions, franchises in the same cities were consolidated, and the reserve clause was reaffirmed. Ward and the other player reps had been out-maneuvered. Second, though Ward argued for “the men who do the work” of playing the game on the field, Ross explains that because the PL no longer had the reserve clause to hold down players’ salaries, it had to economize in other ways to ensure profitability. One way was to bargain tightly with all the off-the-field workers who made professional baseball possible: carpenters and bricklayers who constructed new ballparks for the league, concession employees, musicians, maintenance staff, and many others. Ross asserts that the PL “workers’ movement” was partly an “intra-labor struggle” and not only a labor-management (players vs. owners) campaign (Ross 138). The PL did receive endorsements from various labor leaders, but its actual relations with workers, and with the carpenters especially, were not always labor-friendly. The league’s labor identity was compromised from the start. Spalding and his fellow owners understood that and maneuvered their way back into an owner dominance that would endure until the 1970s. By then, player wealth and power had become much greater, and the modern players union had gained leverage that Ward’s Brotherhood could hardly imagine. Recently, for example, retired player Derek Jeter has become CEO and part-owner Derek Jeter of the Miami Marlins. Just how player-friendly that ownership is or is not continues to generate plenty of baseball news.
Ross’s study is a far more detailed examination of baseball’s labor-management history than casual fans may want. With thirty-three pages of citations and a six-page bibliography of eighty-three sources, it is also thoroughly researched. This reviewer is not qualified to evaluate Ross’s detailed economic and political analysis of the Players League. However, I can say with confidence that as a contribution to our understanding of the role of athletes and sports leagues in American life, this text is outstanding. From it, I learned why I should care about economic details that at first did not interest me. I also learned what David Ortiz and Clayton Kershaw owe to John Montgomery Ward.
Brown, Tim. “Clayton Kershaw on MLB free agency . . .”
Yahoo Sports. Jan 26, 2018. Web. Feb 2, 2018.
Brzezinski, Alec. “Even David Ortiz is wondering . . . “
Sporting News. Jan 19, 2018. Web, Feb 2, 2018.
Ross, Robert B. The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall
of the 1890 Players League. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Print.