Swans Commentary » swans.com November 7, 2011  



Class Struggle On The Baseball Diamond


by Gregory Elich


Books Review



Labor and Capital in 19th Century Baseball, by Robert P. Gelzheiser. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006. Paper, $29.95, pp 213

The Players League: History, Clubs, Ballplayers and Statistics, by Ed Koszarek, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006. Paper, $35.00, pp 378

Turbulent Seasons: Baseball in 1890-1891, by Charles C. Alexander, Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 2011. Cloth, $24.95, pp 232
Pic: "Labor and Capital" - Size: 10k
Pic: "The Players League" - Size: 7k
Pic: "Turbulent Seasons" - Size: 12k

(Swans - November 7, 2011)   For nearly a century, baseball players were chained to their teams through contracts that included a reserve clause, under which a player was not free to sell his services to another team once his contract had expired. Only two options were open: a player could either sign another contract with the same team, or he could retire. The effect of this arrangement was to hold player salaries down.

In 1922, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the reserve clause did not violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. Baseball was a game, not a business, the Court averred and as such it was exempt from anti-trust laws. So firmly entrenched did the reserve clause become as a result of this decision, that baseball fans can be forgiven for thinking that no serious challenge had been mounted prior to Curt Flood's legal battle in 1970 and the arbitration decision five years later that ruled Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free-agents.

But the reserve clause was contested from its very inception. Although little-remembered today, players and club owners battled over the issue throughout the 19th century, culminating in a dramatic mass revolt by the majority of ballplayers in 1890 as they departed en masse from the two major leagues, the National League and the American Association, and formed their own league. It was a bold move, which shook the sport to its roots, and had it succeeded it would have transformed the course of baseball history.

The three books under review, each in their own way, provide the first in-depth accounts of that rebellion.

It appears that Labor and Capital in 19th Century Baseball has never been reviewed, which astonishes me, in that author Robert P. Gelzheiser has written a gem of a book. Backed by impressive research and beautifully and fluidly written, the topic has never been better covered.

In the early days of professional baseball, players enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy. For profit-minded owners, this was an objectionable state of affairs. As Gelzheiser explains their mindset, "Players, it was believed, had to be kept out of the decision-making process and become strictly salary-earning employees." And so the reserve clause came into being. At first each team was allowed to place only five players under the reserve rule. But over time, the net was inexorably cast wider until every player was placed under its control. National League team owners were blunt in stating that the reserve rule was intended to limit player salaries, and it fulfilled that goal quite effectively. In 1877, the average annual salary exceeded $2,000. But three years later, when the reserve rule first went into effect, the average had dipped below $1,400. By 1883, team owners were crowing that they were enjoying "financial success beyond precedence." But even that was not enough to satisfy the owners, and in 1887, the National League imposed a salary cap of $2,000. Although the limit was sometimes bypassed through the use of bonuses, the overall effect was to further dampen pay levels.

From the first, the stronger of the two major leagues, the National League, aimed at appealing to a middle-class audience. Admission was 50 cents, which was a bit high for workers. Ballparks were often located in middle-class neighborhoods and not always easily accessible from working-class neighborhoods. And at a time when the workweek lasted 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, the National League forbade play on Sunday, out of deference to middle-class native-born Protestants, who objected to play on the Sabbath. The heavily immigrant working class had a more varied religious background and generally had no dispute with concept of enjoying a ballgame on Sunday. Furthermore, alcohol was banned at games, to appeal to the "better class" of people, particularly those involved in the Temperance movement. These were all deliberate measures to exclude working-class fans. Businessman William Hulbert, who founded the National League and wielded great power in its affairs, explained the motivation for those policies: "You cannot afford to bid for the patronage of the degraded; if you are to be successful you must secure recognition by the respectable."

The American Association, which was born a few years later than the National League, adopted a contrary approach: ticket admissions were set at 25 cents, beer was sold at its ballparks, and games were scheduled on Sundays -- all measures that engendered a good deal of friction with the more staid National League.

Ballplayers labored under harsh conditions in the 19th century. Substitutions were not allowed unless a ballplayer became seriously injured, so players were encouraged to continue in the game after becoming injured. Inevitably, many players saw their careers cut short due to injuries that were not allowed to heal. Being of no further use, such players were unceremoniously booted from their teams. A pitcher was expected to continue pitching with a sore arm, and it was not unusual for players to continue performing despite broken bones. Gloves did not come into general use until late in the century and even then they were crude and provided minimal protection. For a fielder to spear a line drive bare-handed, or a catcher to handle a fastball without a glove, was an invitation to injury. Anyone who has ever encountered the photograph of catcher Charlie Bennett's mangled hands will have seen unforgettable evidence of this brutal aspect of the game in this era.

Teams generally relied on only two pitchers to carry most of the pitching duties. As a result, pitchers of the time often compiled remarkable records. More than 200 times in the 19th century, individual pitchers logged over 400 innings in a season, and it was the norm in any given season for some pitchers to surpass 500 or even 600 innings pitched. Not surprisingly, pitchers tended to burn out quickly, and many pitching careers ended in less than five years.

When Chicago pitching ace Larry Corcoran asked owner Albert Spalding for time off to rest a sore arm, Spalding dismissed him as a "little sniveler." Corcoran's career essentially ended in any meaningful sense after only five full seasons, the last of which he pitched a grueling 516 innings. Following that season, he was never the same again, and was little used.

Fines were imposed on players for a variety of infractions, both serious and petty. A player could be fined for an offense as mild as having bad table manners. These fines were a backdoor means of cutting salaries. Many teams hired private detectives to follow their ballplayers, in search of "offenses" that could result in a fine. Players could appeal a fine to the League Board of Directors, but they had to pay $200 for the privilege of doing so, a sum that constituted a significant portion of a player's annual salary. That money was refundable only if the player won his appeal, and since the Board of Directors was comprised solely of team owners, a player had little chance of success.

"This controlling attitude of the National League towards its employees," writes Gelzheiser, "mirrored the posture of capital toward labor in the United States during this period. Not only did owners want to control their workforce and wages, but they wanted to reduce employees to the status of dependent children who felt subordinate to employers and therefore would likely be passive and malleable."

Those not playing on a particular day had to help with ticket-taking or groundskeeping chores. Ballplayers had to buy their own uniforms and pay for their cleaning. In addition, when players were on the road playing in other cities, they were required to reimburse the team 50 cents a day for expenses, a not insignificant sum in those days, and one that would add up over the course of a season.

The rival American Association wasted little time in adopting many of the National League's policies towards ballplayers. The National Agreement of 1883, signed by both leagues, obligated each to respect the reserve placed on players and to not sign a player who was bound to a team, eliminating any possibility of a bidding war.

In answer to these abuses, players formed a union in 1885, called the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, under the leadership of baseball star John Montgomery Ward. Gelzheiser provides a superb analysis of the nature of the Brotherhood, its strengths and its weaknesses, and how the union fit into the broader pattern of the labor movement of the late 19th century.

The Brotherhood faced unremitting hostility from the National League owners, who refused to acknowledge that the union had a right to bargain on behalf of its members. Through persistent effort, the union was able to eventually win some concessions: a promise to end the salary cap, and an end to players being required to pay 50 cents a day to their club owner for travel expenses. And no longer would players have to buy their own uniforms.

The clubs still exercised near-total control over their players, however. Chicago owner Albert Spalding organized a worldwide baseball tour after the end of the 1888 season, inviting Brotherhood president Ward and other prominent union members along. While the players were abroad, National League owners at home took the opportunity to launch a plan to classify ballplayers at five levels, based on ability and "living habits." Each classification level had a salary range assigned to it. The owners had promised to end the salary cap, only to devise a plan that was more restrictive. Salary reductions for most players were mandated to meet the new rules. Spalding would later admit that the world tour was organized partly with the intent of getting Brotherhood leaders out of the country, so that the classification plan could be implemented without opposition. The owners were truculent, and Ward reacted with outrage. The "classification law," he said, "with its attendant evils and breach of faith, was the last straw." Patience with the arrogance of the owners had worn thin. Gelzheiser points out that John Montgomery Ward was not the only union leader of the time who started off with a fairly conservative craft union outlook, only to become radicalized by the intransigence and hostility of capital. Ward was about to take a remarkable step: open rebellion.

During the 1889-90 offseason, Ward and the Brotherhood set about organizing a new league, the Players' National League of Base Ball Clubs, popularly referred to as the Players' League. A new league required capital, and so it was deemed necessary to bring aboard businessmen as owners. Some of the more well-off players had sufficient funds that allowed them to invest and become part-owners in their new teams, but the launch of a new league called for the kind of capital that only businessmen could muster. "All of the new league's owners were capitalists out to make a profit," writes Gelzheiser, "and there is little evidence that any of them was especially progressive when it came to dealing with labor." These owners, as time would tell, would prove to be the Achilles' heel of the Players' League. They did not share the same values as the players, and they failed to bring sufficient startup capital into the endeavor, a grievous oversight given the need to quickly build new stadiums before the start of the season.

Despite the necessity of including businessmen, the Players' League became a league with a difference. As opposed to the total dictatorship of the National League owners, each team in the Players' League was run by a board consisting of four players and four capitalists. The league was governed by a committee of 16, with one representative chosen by each team's players, and one by each team's owners. That committee selected the league's president, and players were represented on all decision-making bodies. A revenue-sharing plan was implemented, for greater balance among the teams. There was no reserve rule, although players were obligated to sign three-year contracts to start with. Players could not be traded or sold without their permission. Of the 127 players who joined the Players' League, 72 came from the National League and 22 from the American Association. Most of the star players jumped to the Players' League, leaving the two older leagues scrambling to assemble teams from the few who remained and from the minor leagues.

The National League, as was to be expected, reacted with fury. Spalding formed a "war committee." Knowing that all three leagues were certain to lose money, he calculated that National League owners were better positioned financially to weather the storm. Along those lines, in those cities where both the National League and the Players' League had teams, the National League deliberately scheduled its home games on the same dates as Players' League home games. "I am for war without quarter," vowed Spalding. "I want to fight until one of us drops dead." National League owners excoriated the Brotherhood as "reds" and "subversives," and mounted several legal challenges against individual ballplayers.

The Players' League hurt its chances for survival in a misplaced bid for "respectability," following the National League's practice of charging 50 cents admission, banning alcohol, and not scheduling games on Sunday, thus tending to exclude workers, its most natural audience, from attendance. All three leagues lost money during the 1890 season, but the Players' League, with most of the best talent, fared less poorly than the National League and American Association. The Players' League would have done better had it adopted more inclusive policies.

As teams in the three leagues continued to lose money, Players' League owners started meeting secretly with owners of the older leagues. In contravention of league policy, the Players' League owners did not involve players. "The great weakness of the Players' League," explains Gelzheiser, "was that when losses mounted, the new league's owners tried to save only themselves, showing little concern for the welfare of the league." Talks were aimed at consolidation into two leagues. Once this became known, players assumed that they would play a part in the talks, as league policy mandated player involvement in all decisions. But this was not to be.

The Players' League owners, under pressure, finally added three players, including Ward, to their negotiating team. National League owners were outraged. Spalding insisted that only "money men" should participate, and the addition of ballplayers to the negotiations was "an insult to himself and other members of the committee." Spalding refused to proceed as long as the ballplayers were present, and the three Players' League owners agreed to put the matter to a vote, in which their three votes were easily outmatched by the votes of the six National League owners in attendance. From there, matters followed their course as consolidation was agreed upon, and each Players' League owner made the best deal he could. The Players' League capitalists had sold out the players. In the end, there were once again two leagues, the National League and the American Association, with the owners operating in full control. The Players' League was dead.

Most players, Gelzheiser notes, had regarded the new league as "a chance to gain more control, freedom, and money, but not worker ownership of their industry." They were craft unionists. "True visionaries would have seen the potential of a baseball world without the National League and the immense possibilities of a Players' League unopposed and structured to divide profits and powers with players. The genius of Ward was that he saw this potential, but the genius of Spalding was that he saw his rivals for what they were and realized that with sufficient losses they would run to capital rather than to the new order that Ward dreamed of creating."

With the players once again under the domination of team owners, a salary cap was mandated in 1893. Even those players who were under multi-year contracts for specified sums saw their pay slashed to conform to the salary cap. By 1894, average salaries had plunged 40 percent since 1890, and rookies often were paid a mere $600 annual salary. The National League was unforgiving. Well over half of the ballplayers who had belonged to the Players' League were out of baseball altogether by 1893. And to block any possibility of a recurrence of rebellion, the league passed a resolution in 1893 that required that any player who would again play for a team outside of the National Agreement (governing the reserve rule) would be blacklisted for life. Players were once again being abused, and those who spoke out against ill treatment were consequently blacklisted from baseball for life. Players would be treated as chattel for decades to come, until Curt Flood sacrificed his career in 1970 to open the door once again for change.

Robert P. Gelzheiser's book is a joy to read. His fascinating book is brimming with insight and deeply researched detail. There are a few books, such as The Glory of Their Times, Eight Men Out, and The Boys of Summer that have earned a reputation as belonging to the short list of great baseball books. In my opinion, Labor and Capital in 19h Century Baseball belongs on that short list. The book is that good. The author has a real flair for writing history, and one hopes to see more from this fine historian in the future.

Ed Koszarek has produced a very different work with The Players League. Koszarek devotes the bulk of his book to a biographical dictionary of every player who appeared in the Players' League, as well as some of the more prominent players on National League and American Association teams in 1890. The author, who did not live to see his book appear in print, clearly put a great deal of work into his book. The biographical section is heavily geared to statistics. Much of this information can be obtained from a good baseball encyclopedia, but Koszarek includes some alternative statistical measures not commonly found, and Koszarek presents his analyses of the statistics.

The biographical section is preceded by an opening chapter on the origins of the Players' League. While there is interesting information here, it is not as well organized as it could be, and the author often gets sidetracked onto subjects that are not particularly relevant to the gestation of the Players' League, such as details of specific games. The writing style in the opening chapter is occasionally awkward, but not unduly so. This book is intended for the hardcore baseball fan with a special interest in the 19th century. Much foreknowledge is presumed on the part of the reader, and it helps to have some familiarity with at least the more prominent players of the time. For that reader, Koszarek's diligent research provides interesting tidbits to be learned about various players. I had not known, for instance, that Dave Orr, after narrowly missing by a fraction of a percent winning the lead in the Players' League for batting average at .373, saw his career come to an abrupt end in the post-season with a disabling stroke. He was only 31 years of age. Nor did I know that Cannonball Ed Crane, just six years after the Players' League, had fallen on such hard times that he got behind on his rent, was served an eviction notice, and with no perceived alternative, committed suicide by drinking a bottle of chloral hydrate.

Koszarek's sympathy for the Players' League lends some measure of charm to a largely statistically oriented work. For those who want to get their hands on everything having to do with the Players' League or who have a penchant for baseball statistics, this book can be recommended. For others, either of the other two books reviewed is sufficient.

Charles C. Alexander has earned a reputation as one of our foremost baseball historians, and this is his first foray into the ever-interesting subject of the 19th century game. Alexander's approach falls mid-way between Gelzheiser's and Koszarek's, in that he gives equal weight to on field play and off field labor issues and maneuvers. As a result, he cannot match the rich level of detail that Gelzheiser provides relating to the capital-labor battle but Alexander's book is not lacking in that regard. This is a well-written account concentrating more narrowly on the years of sharpest conflict, 1889-1891, and should satisfy those readers who are as interested in what happened on the ball fields as in the meeting rooms.

At moments, Alexander's accounts of individual games during pennant races threaten to become too detailed, but the blow-by-blow descriptions of the seasons are enlivened by entertaining stories of the colorful behavior of ballplayers, something the era had in abundance.

Alexander gives a full account of the differences in play between the Players' League and the two older leagues. In order to encourage more offense, the Player's League introduced a livelier ball and moved the back line of the pitcher's box by a foot and a half. More importantly, the Players' League went to a two-umpire crew in each game, in contrast to the older leagues, which continued to rely on a single, harried, umpire.

Turbulent seasons is especially strong on the lengths the National League owners went in trying to woo stars away from the Players' League, and for all their avowed devotion to the sanctity of the reserve rule, they demonstrated a remarkable lack of respect for the contracts that ballplayers had signed with the Players' League.

After the demise of the Players' League, most ballplayers preferred to join the American Association due to understandable animosity towards the National League. The American Association, however, would not long survive, and 1891 was to be its final season. Of the three books under review, it is only Alexander's that covers in detail the back-room deals that killed the Association -- in itself as compelling a story as the events that led to the Players' League. In the end, four teams from the American Association joined the National League, which grew to 12 teams, and the other A.A. teams were bought out. The stated motivation of many owners in seeking consolidation of the two leagues was to limit player salaries, that perennial ambition.

For the most part, the policies of the National League remained unchanged by the absorption of A.A. clubs. This was a takeover, not a merge. The National League now had a monopoly, which it fully exploited as ballplayers were placed at the mercy of whatever terms the team owners chose to dictate. "Baseball feudalism was in full swing," observes Alexander.

The consolidation agreement between the two leagues specified that the new league would retain all 12 teams intact for a period of at least ten years. Predictably, that clause was not honored and before a decade had passed, three of the teams that came from the A.A. were dropped, and the fourth was purchased by a National League owner, who dropped his own less desirable club.

In 1901, the American League would be established, but it differed not at all in policies from the National League, and for another three quarters of a century ballplayers would continue to be treated as chattel until the reserve clause was finally overturned. That a revolt by ballplayers in 1890 nearly succeeded in achieving that objective, and so much more than that, is a story that deserves to be better known by those who are interested in the sport. It remains one of the most crucial events in baseball history.

Charles C. Alexander writes with his customary polish, and tells his story well. His book is beautifully done, and can be confidently recommended. Both his book and Gelzheiser's should be read by those who truly want to understand the subject. Each book is so well researched that there is much to be learned from both, all the more so in that their foci differ. Alexander has added another admirable work of baseball history to his impressive list of accomplishments. But let us welcome Robert P. Gelzheiser to the ranks of top baseball historians, for he has produced an extraordinary work.


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Published November 7, 2011