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 Clippers 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 hero 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.