The History of Baseball Unionization: When vaudeville ended a baseball strike

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. Here’s part 1 and part 2

The Players Protective Association had a promising start when the budding American League used its desires for better wages and protections to steal players from the reigning National League, but it didn’t end up working out in the long run. That’s because the AL, like the capitalists investing in the Players League before it, ended up partnering with the NL and eliminating themselves as competition in the process.

A little less than a decade later, in 1912, the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America formed, with former player Dave Fultz at the head. Fultz, like John Ward of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, had a background in law thanks to an education at Colombia, and was a practicing lawyer at the time of the formation of the Fraternity. He also kept in close contact with active players and their concerns, and those conversations — some about their continued gripes about the reserve clause, which no one had been able to permanently get rid of to that point — helped lead to the formation of the Fraternity.

Fultz, though, was “no radical,” as his bio from the Society of American Baseball Research puts it:

By 1911 Fultz, on his own initiative, was touring Western League clubs trying to drum up support for a new creation, the Fraternity of Baseball Players. When Ty Cobb was suspended in May 1912 for fighting with a fan, his teammates rebelled and sat out a game. Fultz saw his opportunity to draw support for the union and quickly inserted himself into the dispute. He crowned himself as president of the new players’ union. (Fultz repeatedly denied that it was a union, as the term held negative connotations with many.) Noted early leaders of the Fraternity included Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Mickey Doolan, and Jake Daubert.

The new players’ union was formally chartered on September 6, 1912, and administered from Fultz’s law office. It had about 300 members. Its goals were basically the same as those of every other baseball union: to negotiate better contract terms, especially in relation to reserve matters and perceived ill-treatment by the ball clubs. Fultz was no radical; he supported the basic organizational structure of the game and was an ambivalent adherent of the reserve clause.

That’s likely one reason the Fraternity didn’t accomplish its goals — Fultz was the man behind the operation, and wasn’t thinking quite large enough to affect true change in the game. So, it’s no wonder that the history of the Fraternity mirrors, to a degree, the history of the Players Protective Association before it. The National League and American League already knew how to handle the threat of a league using players wanting better conditions as leverage: they had just dealt with that in the formation of their partnership a decade before, so with nothing new in terms of a threat being brought to the table, the Fraternity was doomed to fail.

With that being said, the Fraternity did have non-reserve clause concerns as well. As Adam Dorhauer explained at The Hardball Times, the players wanted copies of their contracts and for that to be standard practice. They wanted the center field fences painted dark green so it would be easier for players to see the ball — not just to make batting easier, but for it to be safer. Ray Chapman was struck by a pitch in 1920 and died, which is what it took to get the owners to listen on this one. That’s not all, though:

Before the Fraternity, players had to pay for their own uniforms. They did not have to be notified when they were placed on waivers. They nominally had the right to appeal disputes to the National Commission (the equivalent of today’s Commissioner’s Office), but the National Commission did not always respond and was not required to give written explanations for fines or suspensions.

So, it’s not like the Fraternity accomplished nothing in its time. They got the ball rolling on increasing batters’ visibility, they had concerns about contracts and player rights and having to pay for their own uniforms. And thanks to the Federal League — a league that sprung up in 1914, in competition with the partnered AL and NL — the Fraternity was able to see some of those wishes granted. The Federal League wanted to take players away from the competition, so acknowledging the Fraternity and giving in to some of their demands (but not the reserve clause) was one way to do that.

This got the AL and NL to start increasing salaries and guaranteeing raises to match the Federal League’s enticing offers, so the Fraternity was making baseball work better for players everywhere for a time. Like the PPA managing the same a decade before, though, that all vanished when the Federal League went under, and that league’s failure came because the AL and NL knew to give in to the players just enough to keep the Federal League from gaining a true foothold as competition.

Two events that were horrific for labor came out of the folding of the Federal League, but you don’t see much about one of them. The one you might be more aware of is that the dissolution of the Federal League is what helped to gain Major League Baseball its antitrust exemption. The Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins refused to be bought out by the victorious AL and NL, and instead sued them for antitrust violations. This did not go how Baltimore envisioned it, and instead created a precedent for antitrust that MLB still holds to this day. The same antitrust exemption that is currently letting MLB get away with gutting and absorbing Minor League Baseball into itself, even though no one else in sports has an antitrust exemption because the courts have since realized that granting MLB that kind of unchecked power was, to use a law term, a big whoopsie.

The other, and I’m sorry it took 1,000 words to get to the headlining act here, is that vaudeville had a hand in ending the final attempt at the Fraternity to protect themselves and their interests following the death of the Federal League. I’ll let Dorhauer’s work tee this one up:

Following the collapse of the Federal League, the Fraternity considered going on strike and attempted to strengthen its organization by affiliating with the American Federation of Labor. However, the AFL’s vaudeville performer union claimed jurisdiction over baseball as a form of entertainment and blocked the Fraternity’s admission. Without the AFL’s backing, the strike fell apart, and the union dissolved shortly thereafter.

Sometimes I like to imagine scales weighing the good the AFL has done for labor against the bad, but generating that image sets off a combination blackout/depression that I can’t seem to shake until I change the subject. So, instead… vaudeville. Why would the vaudeville performer union feel it had jurisdiction over baseball players, and why would the AFL think that was acceptable?

There are two ways to think of it. One, baseball players were entertainers, so the vaudeville performers might have considered entertainment their purview: baseball was extremely popular, so adding those players to their ranks would only increase the power of the vaudevillian union and its performers, too. Second, though, and this is where the real, enforceable link likely is, is that baseball players were vaudevillian performers themselves.

Not all baseball players, but, thanks to the kinds of conditions and pay that had pro baseball players organizing in the first place, there were plenty of them who had side jobs as vaudeville stars in the offseason. The Atlantic wrote a whole story on it just a couple of years ago: even players like Hall of Famer pitcher Christy Mathewson made more as a vaudeville performer than they did on the mound!

Sometimes even well-off baseball players turned to performing as a way to make the most of their sports success. In 1910, the New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson was one of the highest paid players in baseball, earning $10,000 a year, but spent 17 weeks during the off-season earning $1,000 a week on the vaudeville circuit. Two years later, John McGraw—who became the manager of the New York Giants at the age of 29—earned more than anyone else in the sport that year. He went on to do a 15-week stint on the vaudeville circuit, telling tales about his baseball career and earning $3,000 a week (equivalent to around $73,000 a week in 2017), wrote Larry D. Mansch in his book Rube Marquard: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hall of Famer.

Vaudeville already had a relationship with baseball players, and baseball players already profited off of vaudeville. Vaudeville trying to get something back for themselves is a little more understandable with this context, but still, it can’t be ignored that their stonewalling the Fraternity effectively killed a players’ strike, the union itself, and any attempt at organizing the game in America for years to come.

  • Have you checked out Publication To Be Named Later yet? It’s a sports quarterly that I and some content-creating pals are fundraising for right now. As of this writing, we’re still around $5,000 short of our base goal that’ll ensure that we produce this thing in the first place. Check it out, tell your friends: we want to skip all the stuff media execs force us to create that you don’t want, and just get to writing you the stories you want to read, but we can’t do it without you.

  • Lindsey Adler wrote on Skip Bayless’ heartless comments about Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott and depression through the lens of her own depression, and how his open admissions help chip away at the stigmas she lives with.

  • Over at Defector — which I am so thrilled exists — David Roth wrote about what Bayless and hacks like him are afraid of.

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