The History of Baseball Unionization: The Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players

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Major League Baseball players had few rights before the signing of the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports in 1968. They didn’t get all of their current rights all at once, either: the battle was, and is, an ongoing one. Before the Players Association, before Marvin Miller, there were other attempts to organize baseball players against the bosses. In this series, we’ll investigate each of those attempts, and suss out what went wrong.

There was an attempt to organize professional baseball players years before there was ever a Major League Baseball. Back in 1885, the National League reigned supreme. The league was in its 10th season, and had thrived in ways previous major leagues had not — and had done so in part due to the reserve clause. The reserve clause, established in 1879, gave NL clubs unlimited control over its players, severely weakening their ability to negotiate for more money, while making it impossible to play for another team at all. This is the same reserve clause that was banished from MLB nearly 100 years later, thanks to the efforts of Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, Andy Messersmith, Dave McNally, and the rest of the Players Association that fought for the right for free agency, the clause that made a player the property of their team in perpetuity.

Under the reserve clause, if a player didn’t want to play for the salary proposed by the team, they didn’t play. The team still had their rights, so they couldn’t go to a rival club and play there: if the player wanted to play ball, they had to sign for whatever was offered. Holdouts could work to a degree, sure, but NL teams controlled salaries to a degree that would push the players to organize.

The last straw that forced this organization came in late 1885, when NL teams — in a deal agreed to with the American Association, a rival league which chose to respect the NL’s sovereignty over its players — bumped the number of reservable players up from 11 to 12, and capped the annual salary of a player at $2,000. There was no grandfathering in of previous salaries, either: $2,000 was the max anyone could make. Even before this individual salary capping, players needed offseason jobs, often in the trades, in order to make enough money in a given year. As The Great Baseball Revolt by Robert B. Ross tells it, Mike Kelly used to work in a silk-weaving factory in the offseason, John Kerins as a boilermaker, John Glasscock a shipwright. Teams didn’t care all that much about that extra work, because in their minds, there was always some other player they could underpay to take over if one of their underpaid stars ended up injured or ineffective due to their second gig.

From this decision came the formation of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, or, the Brotherhood. While it began with just nine players from New York, one of whom was John Ward, a player and Columbia Law graduate who became Brotherhood president, it eventually grew to encompass the vast majority of players. Most of these players had a similar class background, according to Ross: few graduated from college, most worked in the trades or in small businesses prior to and even during their baseball careers, and all of them were being screwed by the National League’s reserve clause. This made it pretty easy, comparatively, to get most of the players on board with unionizing. Most players, but not Cap Anson, who was as pro-management as he was an enormous racist.

It’s fun how, the longer you live, the more reasons you find to despise that man.

In addition to their shared experiences, the Brotherhood also made sure to look out for its more insecure members. Injured players weren’t generally paid by the National League when they missed work, so, the Brotherhood setup a relief committee to help keep those players from going broke. It could pay out up to $10 per week, which, if you weren’t one of the players making $2,000 per year, and absolutely had to work a second job just to get by, was a huge boost that allowed those players to see the benefit of unionization. That, plus the Brotherhood working to help represent and fight for players who were disciplined too harshly, made joining the union an even easier decision for most. Finally, someone would speak for and with the players — the rest of the players.

Maybe the most amazing thing about the formation and existence of the Brotherhood is that the National League agreed to meet with them. Yes, the NL recognized the existence of the Brotherhood, which is something even MLB didn’t necessarily want to do with the MLBPA in its early years. This meeting took place after the 1887 season, and it did not go well: recognizing a union and agreeing to meet with it is not the same thing as working with it.

The owners wouldn’t make concessions to the Brotherhood, especially not on the matter of the reserve clause. Ward and the rest of the Brotherhood’s leadership had devised a revised reserve clause, which still allowed for players to be controlled by a team for a number of years, but not indefinitely — and they wanted to do away with the buying and selling of players as property. A player would sign a deal for, say, five years, and when those five years were up, he could sign elsewhere. Simple, right? It’s not as if the Brotherhood asked for free agency every single year, or a max of one-year deals, or even a complete stop to the reserve system. They just wanted a middle ground between “we own you forever” and “fine, don’t sign, now you can’t play.”

The NL wasn’t buying what was being sold here, though, and the decision would end up costing them. At least, in the short term, anyway. The Brotherhood end up founding the Players League in time for the 1890 season, and since most of the NL was in the Brotherhood, that means most of the NL’s players became Players League players. The NL still ran their 1890 season, but they weren’t the best game in town, instead having to find players from various minor leagues and lesser competitors to fill out their rosters. The Players League put most of its teams in the same cities as the NL, in order to show their old bosses that the people would go where the best players were. And the people did!

The Players League only survived the one year, though, and with good reason. Despite its success, despite the fact that, given time, it probably could have destroyed a decimated NL, the Players League only happened the way it did because the players brought in investors. Capitalists. They decided to fight capitalists with capitalists, and in the end, the capitalists had class solidarity and their own interests at heart, and the players were left without a league of their own.

The players owned stakes in their own league, of course: that was how they planned to profit off of their own labor. The problem isn’t that they seized the means of production from the NL’s capitalist owners, but instead, handed a not insignificant portion of those seized means over to different capitalists, who in turn helped fund the building of new ballparks, advertising for the league, uniforms, salaries, and so on. These new investors dreamed of being full owners in the same way their rivals in the NL were, and so, they sold out the Brotherhood and the players of their own league after the 1890 season.

Players League investors partnered with NL owners and American Association owners, behind the backs of many of their own players, to consolidate the three leagues into one, with the least-profitable clubs from each league dismantled and only the best of the bunch kept alive. They did this without player representatives present, and they did this because there were Players League teams that lost money. And, in the end, that’s all the investors cared about, even if the reason they lost money — the continued existence of the NL — wasn’t going to be a permanent issue if the Players League kept up their superior play that had already caused them to outdraw the established juggernaut of the NL in a single season. This was a time when leagues folded left and right, and if the Players League had kept at it, they could have been the unquestioned top draw and moneymaker of the sport thanks to their obviously superior product. Instead, impatient about the loss of money in a brand new venture, the capitalists of the Players League got together with the capitalists from the other leagues, and took the decision-making — and the money — out of the players’ hands.

In a way, the players brought this upon themselves. They broke away from their old bosses in a grand gesture of solidarity, but then they didn’t ingratiate themselves with the working class fans nearly enough, instead siding with new capitalists and believing this would work out differently somehow. The league kept up much of the NL’s standards in regards to pricing — which was used to keep working class fans out of the stands in NL games, as they just wanted Proper Gentleman in attendance — and, in a couple of cities where new ballparks were being constructed, didn’t treat their workers well, even going as far as to hire non-union carpenters during a strike.

Forming the Brotherhood was incredible, and the idea of the Players League was equally so. The way the players went about it, though, doomed them before a game was even played. The players could have found a way to do all of this by themselves (or, at least, with less influence given to the capitalists brought on board than was given), and, given enough time, could have succeeded in defeating the NL. Fans wanted to see the players they knew and the quality of game they had come to expect, and the only place with either was the Players League. With better pricing, with more solidarity shown to a working class that had far more consciousness and solidarity than many of us can conceive of today, things could have been very different. The Brotherhood sided with different bosses, though, and it ended up, predictably, destroying the entire venture.

The NL, obviously, survived. They also went unchallenged after the consolidation of the three leagues until 1901, when the American League became a major league. This is also the era of the next attempt at organizing players and improving bargaining power.

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