The History of Baseball Unionization: The Players Protective Association

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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. Part 1 can be found here

After the successes — but inevitable failure — of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players and its player-led Players League, the National League was, in essence, the only game in town for professional baseball. It was the sole major league, at least, as it had vanquished the Players League by working with the capitalists the players had relied on to, well, not do that, and the combination of biggest pockets and best players put an end to the American Association’s chances of ever catching up. From 1892 through 1900, the NL’s monopoly on major league baseball was unassailable.

And then, there came the American League. It came out of a minor league, the Western League, which began play in 1884. In 1900, it was rechristened as the American League by its president, Ban Johnson, and while it played as a minor league once again that season, in 1901, they went for the NL. The AL moved teams into the NL strongholds Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, added teams in cities where the NL had contracted just two years before, and, more importantly for our purposes, started luring away NL players who, previously, had nowhere else to go if they wanted to play for a major professional league.

Months into the existence of the American League, before it even announced that it was officially a major league looking to compete with the NL, the second attempt at unionizing baseball players was underway. In June of 1900, with catcher Chief Zimmer as president, the Players Protective Association formed. (It was also known as the Protective Association of Professional Baseball Players, but PPA is a lot easier on the ole fingers than PAPBA, you know?) The Players Protective Association hired an attorney — Harry Taylor — to help them out this time, too, since, unlike with the Brotherhood and its president-player, John Ward, Zimmer was just a veteran the players respected enough to make him president, not a player with a background in law.

Like with the Brotherhood, the National League listened to a list of proposals from the new union, or, at least, pretended to. They essentially dismissed the proposals outright, as SABR has detailed:

In December 1900 Taylor presented a list of union demands to National League magnates, who quickly rejected all of them.51 Beaneaters owner Arthur H. Soden said, “The players made a mistake in having a lawyer. Had the boys come to the meeting and made reasonable demands they would have received due consideration.”52

It’s incredible how old the tactics of “the workers don’t need third-party representation to have a conversation with us!” is in the union arena, huh? Here we are, just shy of 120 years ago, and the words are a little different but the meaning is exactly the same as when, say, a modern-day media company talks about having an open-door policy, or how a third-party union is just going to get in the way of real change. Surely, if the players had just come themselves without a lawyer, things would have been different. You know, like a decade-plus prior, when the players came with a list of proposals to the NL owners which were roundly ignored to the point that the players splintered off to form their own league.

The difference this time around is that, unlike the American Association, which clearly didn’t have the finances to compete with the NL in the long run, the American League wanted to be recognized as a real threat: they listened to the unionized players when the NL didn’t, and in addition, didn’t sign the National Agreement that the NL had used in the past to ensure potential competitors respected the reserve clause and didn’t attempt to challenge their ownership of the players they had under contract.

Those two moves in conjunction had NL players becoming AL players in order to earn larger salaries and escape the dreaded reserve clause, as well as the artificially depressed salaries the clause and the lack of NL competition created for them. The AL was happy to give these deals out in order to achieve their dream of being a true major league that could stand against the NL. Of the 182 players in the AL in 1901, 111 of them were former National Leaguers. 

The most famous of these league swaps was that of Nap Lajoie. Lajoie was a major star and future Hall of Famer, and he was paid the maximum salary of $2,400 to be those things for the Philadelphia Phillies. Enter the AL, Connie Mack, and the Philadelphia Athletics: they’d get Lajoie to go crosstown on a four-year deal with a reported value between $16,000 and $24,000. That was — once you subtract the under-the-table cash Lajoie was receiving from the Phillies on top of his salary — an annual raise of $1,000, or 25 percent more, at minimum. If Lajoie was pulling in the top-end of that reported range, he doubled his compensation by switching leagues.

Lajoie, initially, was allowed to keep playing for the Athletics even as the Phillies pursued legal action. After the 1901 season, though, an injunction keeping Lajoie from playing was granted, and the courts went on to determine that the Phillies hadn’t done anything wrong, and that Lajoie was in the wrong for jumping ship. The problem was that Lajoie’s deal, signed in 1900, included a two-year club option at his 1900 salary of $2,400, which meant Lajoie’s deal wasn’t actually over when he left for the Athletics. If you’re interested in all of the details, there are much longer explanations written by people who better understand law out there (and how odd this entire Lajoie decision was), but just know that this was, in essence, the end of the battle between the AL and the NL as competitors.

Before the 1903 campaign, the AL signed the National Agreement, and at the conclusion of the season, the first World Series was played between the two leagues. The NL had granted the AL what they always wanted, which was to be recognized as a major league, while the AL had given the NL what it wanted by agreeing to respect the reserve clause. While there was no 1904 World Series, with the New York Giants deciding they were still fighting a finished war, that was the last time the two leagues were at odds to that degree. They remained separate leagues at this point with their own presidents, but the beginnings of what would become Major League Baseball were there. At the expense of the players, who once again found themselves unable to freely negotiate their worth.

While the AL working with the NL wasn’t quite as personal as the betrayal of the Players League’s capitalists over a decade prior, the end result was the same, in that the players were once again bound by the reserve clause with nowhere to escape to. The next attempt at unionization wouldn’t come for nearly a decade after the AL and NL made nice, and would parallel the rise of the Federal League as the PPA had risen alongside the AL.

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