Skip to main content
Original Issue

How the Class Struggle Reached Left Field

A specter was haunting big-league baseball, the specter one was quite sure what. It sometimes acted like a union, but its solidarity, falling short of forever, lasted for one season

Salaries were getting out of hand. Chris von der Ahe, president of the St. Louis Browns, returned from a survey in the East, and he was shocked. "The Brooklyn club, "he said, "will pay Caruthers $5,000, Lovett $4,000, Foutz $3,500, Pinckney $3,000. In the year just past I paid out $50,000 for salaries alone. No club can stand such a drain and salaries must come down no matter what the consequences."

This was in the fall of 1888, and by the time spring blossomed in the land baseball had figured out what to do. Under the guiding hand of the tight-fisted John T. Brush, owner of the Indianapolis club, a Classification Plan had been introduced. Under this plan players were classified as to "habits, earnestness and special qualifications" and would be paid according to their classification thus:

unlimited power and have not hesitated to use it in the most arbitrary way...."

Ward had made his plans carefully. He had enlisted "capitalists" in eight cities who were willing to put up $20,000 each. This was adequate since all one needed to construct a ball park in those days was a grassy field, some wooden benches and a fence to keep out the people who could not pay 50¢. The capitalists had a variety of motives for making the investment. Cornelius Van Cott, one of the backers of the New York club, put it this way: "My interest in the Brotherhood is simply and purely a matter of principle. I don't believe in the buying and selling of men." On the other hand, Al Johnson of Cleveland was to admit, "I saw people paying $8,000 and $10,000 for players. I saw a chance to get them for nothing and I jumped at it."

The eight Brotherhood League cities (the official name of the league was the Players' National League of Base Ball Clubs), were Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. There were direct conflicts with the National League in every city but Buffalo. Philadelphia and Brooklyn had three teams, one of them in the American Association. Schedules were deliberately arranged for maximum conflict of dates. It was a war to the death.

There were four important differences in this league. There was no reserve clause; the players had equal representation on the club's board of directors and any player could, if he wished, buy stock in the club; the players were to share, according to a complicated formula, in the profits of the club and, finally, they could not be released or sold until the end of the season.

For those concessions the players were willing to make sacrifices. Charles A. Comiskey, who was to go on to own the Chicago White Sox, was offered the astounding sum of $12,000 to play with the Boston team in the NL. He turned it down to play for the Brotherhood team of Chicago at the same salary he had earned the year before.

The NL tried to fight back with other things beside money, which is so expensive. League contracts gave the clubs an option on the services of the players for the following season, and the courts were asked to enforce them. Most judges, however, said something like this: The League contract is one that binds a player for a number of years and the club for 10 days. They did not blame the player for skipping if he could.

As the season began the NL found itself with other problems just as serious. Since most of the star players elected to go with the new league the NL was losing the attendance war. It was playing with minor league players, hardly more than pickup teams. Nor was it a balanced pickup league. Pittsburgh finished with a record of 23-114. It had trouble meeting its payroll. The New York club was in such trouble it demanded and received a league subsidy. As the season ended, a near-bankrupt Cincinnati NL team sold out to the Brotherhood.

Of course, the Players' League had its problems, too. Things were so bad in Buffalo the team started to play its home games away. By midseason each club had to ante up an additional $2,500. There were not going to be any profits to share this season.

Things might have been worse. (The Philadelphia Athletics, of the American Association, ran into financial trouble and sold their franchise.) Even so, the combined attendance in both leagues (which was lied about furiously) failed to add up to what the single league had drawn the year before. This led a writer named Caspar W. Whitney to comment in the Fortnightly Review of September 1893, "...the people were...bored with newspaper recrimination and tiresome warfare.... It went from bad to worse until, in the last year or so, the better class of American sportsmen appear to have lost all interest in professional baseball; in fact, professional sports in the United States is dead."

Only two teams in the Brotherhood League—Boston, which won the pennant, and Chicago—made any money. Estimates of the amount lost ranged from as low as $30,000 all the way to $125,000. The National League dropped between $200,000 and $500,000. With a good pair of shoes going for $5 and a custom-made suit selling for $25, that was a lot of red ink. So the National League, now fighting for its life, appointed a committee to sue for peace. The committee was authorized to explore mergers, serious concessions to the players or any other measures that would save the investments made. On the committee were A. G. Spalding of Chicago, John B. Day of New York and C. H. Byrne of Brooklyn. The capitalists for the Brotherhood were Al Johnson of Cleveland, Wendell Goodwin of Brooklyn and Edward Talcott of New York.

They met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel and no one ever agreed on precisely what happened at that meeting. Either the Brotherhood representatives were totally outgeneraled or they sold out. "It was," The Sporting News complained bitterly, "a clear case of Talcott and Goodwin going over to the enemy." When they came out of the meeting the National League had the upper hand. Spalding was later able to write that to his great surprise the Brotherhood men accepted his demand for "unconditional surrender." This was like the man with the blindfold demanding that the firing squad surrender, but it happened.

At the next meeting the National Leaguers arrogantly refused to accept the presence of three players on the Brotherhood committee, and not long after that the Brotherhood men from New York and Brooklyn announced they had sold their clubs to their opposite numbers in the other league. The Brotherhood League was out of business before the next season began.

The National Leaguers pretended to make some concessions. One of them was that players could not be sold without permission. But all of that was soon forgotten. The only thing the players came away with was the end of the hated Classification Plan. The militant John Montgomery Ward the next season became manager for Brooklyn and somewhat conservative in his views about money for players. Later still he became a successful lawyer.

From time to time since then, union talk has been heard around the leagues. After World War II a lawyer named Robert Murphy almost succeeded in touching off a strike in Pittsburgh. The players came out of that abortive effort with a powerless players' association, a sort of company union, and a powerful pension plan. Now they are represented by Marvin J. Miller, the $55,000-a-year executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Miller has already made a target of the reserve clause and the way players are sold like cattle, or is it Army mules? So here we go again.