This article was written by Matt Albertson
This article was published in the Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900
The Players’ National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, or Players’ League, completed only one season of competition, 1890, but was the culmination of labor disputes that arose between 1879 and 1889. Professional baseball players were willing to risk future employment — their livelihood — to pry agency from the fists of club owners. The central issue that drove players to unionize as the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players was the expansion of the National League’s draconian reserve clause.
In 1879 National League owners secretly implemented the reserve rule, a disciplinary measure that tied (initially) five of a club’s players to their particular club in perpetuity; these players could not be signed by any other team in the league the following year. “The rule stated that any player who signed a contract with a National League team was automatically reserved by that team for the following season. Since players had to sign contracts before they could play, and since the contract bound the player to the team for an undisclosed sum of money for the following season, the player was, in effect, bound to the team that originally signed him for life.”1
In 1887, the reserve role was expanded so clubs controlled all 14 players on the roster. In 1884, Henry Chadwick explained in detail why a reserve rule was necessary and how it helped to control player salaries. “The club rivalry for the possession of the best players each season, has been, from the very onset, an obstacle to an equitable arrangement of the salary question; and this has led to an increase of club expenses of this kind until the subject became one involving the future existence of even the most wealthy of the League clubs.”2 Once the reserve rule went into effect, players could no longer sign with another National League club at the end of the season, which in turn kept player salaries artificially low.
The rise of the American Association provided another avenue for dejected and expelled National League players to pursue. The American Association raided National League clubs for players and signed 13 to Association contracts in 1882. The Association also threatened the supremacy of the National League by establishing clubs in cities without League clubs — Philadelphia and New York. In fact, the Association outdrew the League in attendance in 1882. “Five of the six association clubs in 1882 outdrew Chicago, the National League’s most popular team that year.”3
After the 1882 season, National League President A.G. Mills sought to protect the League and increase attendance. First, he moved two clubs, Troy and Worcester, to New York and Philadelphia respectively. Second, Mills persuaded the Association (and the Northwestern League) to enter into an agreement that would prevent players from jumping leagues — the infamous National Agreement. Combined with the reserve rule, club owners were able to increase profits by keeping player salaries artificially low and protect themselves from roster raids.
Despite these two developments, owners sought to further control player salaries. At the National League’s 1888 annual meeting, Indianapolis club owner John T. Brush proposed a rigid salary scale. “The Brush Plan called for players to be divided into five categories, A, B, C, D, and E. ‘A’ players would receive a seasonal salary of $2,500; ‘B’ $2,250; ‘C’ $2,000; ‘D’ $1,750; and ‘E’ $1,500. Each player would be classified based on his batting, fielding, base running, teamwork, conduct, and ‘earnestness and special qualifications,’”4 The Brush Plan further galvanized the artificial salary cap and it was the proverbial last straw for the players.
The reserve rule, National Agreement, and Brush Plan were the three major factors in the organization of a players union. On October 22, 1885, the players of the New York Base Ball Club wrote and signed a preamble that established the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players: “We, the undersigned, professional base ball players, recognizing the importance of united effort and impressed with its necessity in our behalf, do form ourselves this day into an organization to be known as the ‘Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players.’”5 By the end of the 1886 season, Brotherhood chapters existed in every National League city and membership exceeded 100, close to 90 percent of the league.6
The Brotherhood Meetings
Rumors of a baseball players union swirled throughout 1886 and were confirmed when the organization went public with its first official meeting on November 11, 1886, at the Earl’s Hotel in New York City. Each chapter sent a representative to the meeting, at which the Brotherhood elected officers, discussed organizational modifications, and opined on rules changes. John Montgomery Ward was elected president, Dan Brouthers was elected vice president, and Tim Keefe was elected secretary and treasurer. Ward was elected the Brotherhood’s representative to the National League’s playing rules committee, which met in Chicago later that month. Finally, the assembly suggested a few changes to the duties and responsibilities of umpires.7
Ward corresponded with National League President Nick Young and attempted to broker a meeting between the Brotherhood and the League. Instead, Ward explained in Sporting Life the Brotherhood’s suggestion for improved contracts. “The old form has outlived its usefulness,” he opined. “The absolute power which it gives the club may have been necessary at the time it was first made, but times have changed.” Ward noted that “clubs possessed arbitrary power” over players and suggested that “a new contract which will represent the equities of both parties and stand a legal test is needed.”8 No such formal meeting between the National League and the Brotherhood or Ward and Young happened.
The Brotherhood did not meet again formally until October 17, 1887, at the Bingham House in Philadelphia. The Executive Committee, consisting of Ward, Ned Hanlon, and Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Arthur Irwin, reviewed a draft player’s contract that the Brotherhood wished to present to the National League for use with future player signings. The proposed contract was approved by the committee and was to be voted upon by each Brotherhood chapter at a future meeting. The Brotherhood was permitted to speak at the League meeting in November and to present its case and reason for organization.
National League President Young permitted Brotherhood members Brouthers, Hanlon, and Ward to speak after the League matters were completed. Additionally, it was the first time the annual meeting was open to the press. Ward told the League magnates that despite what might have been errantly presented in the press, the Brotherhood represented the player members and their rights as laborers. “Whatever your opinion may be of us (formed, perhaps, from hearsay), we know that we represent a reputable organization. If you wish to have us speak, that organization must be recognized.”9
After strong and respectful deliberations, Albert Spalding was the first to relent and suggested that the National League recognize the Brotherhood as an organization. The magnates voted to officially recognize the Brotherhood, and agreed to its contract demands with a few alterations, the largest of which dealt with “a clause relative to the distribution of players in the event of a club disbanding.”10 The League did not accept a limited reservation, but did agree to include full salary figures in player contracts for the coming season. “Reasonably satisfied, the brotherhood committee instructed the rest of the players to sign contracts for the 1888 season.”11
The Brotherhood did not convene a formal winter meeting in 1888 because several prominent members were away on Al Spalding’s World Tour, including Ward, but the 1888 calendar year was a critical year in the Brotherhood-National League relationship. Events at the National League meeting in 1888 sparked the topics that took place at the seminal 1889 Brotherhood meeting. During Spalding’s 1888 world tour, the National League approved the Brush Plan, effectively a salary cap. Furthermore, the Brotherhood victories from the 1887 National League-Brotherhood meeting of recognition and an agreeable contract were disregarded once players went to sign contracts for 1889.
In April 1888 the Brotherhood met to discuss the situation. The possibility of a strike was floated but the idea was eventually squashed. The Brotherhood requested a meeting with the National League to discuss matters but the League refused to meet until November, when players had separated for the winter. The Brotherhood, feeling disrespected, began to cryptically speak about their future discussions at their 1889 winter meeting. According to one historian, Tim Keefe remarked, “Spalding and a few of the moneyed people may regret their step. … [T]here is one thing certain, they won’t classify as many men this fall as they think.”12
From Brotherhood to the Players’ League
Representatives from each Brotherhood chapter convened on July 14, 1889, at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York and began planning for a new league.13 “Each representative was instructed to look up the feasibility of securing capital in his own city. … [m]en were found willing to advance the necessary money to start a new league and upon terms most liberal to the players.”14 Major aspects of the proposed league were the lack of a reserve rule, clubs’ inability to buy and sell players, and the possibility of multi-year contracts. Organizing a new league was the main business of the Brotherhood’s 1889 winter meeting in November.15
The Brotherhood’s intention was well known after the midsummer disagreement between it and the National League. A report from November 2, 1889, plainly stated, “[t]he name of the new base ball organization is the Players’ National League” with clubs placed in Brooklyn, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago.16 Two days later, the organization met in Room DR in the Fifth Avenue Hotel for its annual winter meeting. After a few hours of normal business, John Ward addressed a full room of silently eager brethren and recounted the organization’s status since the July convention. “From that time, as you all know, our organization has been going on and the new regime is now consummated Wednesday. The reins will be turned over to the financial end.”17
With this announcement — in effect, the Players’ own declaration of independence — the Brotherhood continued its meeting by establishing a set of parameters to which each Brotherhood member was to adhere. Each member was to sign a future contract with a Players’ League club once a formal contract was drawn up. Additionally, a player “shall receive each the same salary as that received … [in] 1889, except in case of players unjustly cut down by the classification law, who shall each receive the same salary as that received for … 1888. …”18 Each club was to be subject to a board of directors which included four players elected by the players and four club magnates “The league would be governed by a senate consisting of sixteen men. Each team owner and each team’s players would choose one representative. The senate would select the league’s president.”19 A $40,000 league fund was also established that would pay player salaries on the occasion that gate receipts were inadequate.
On Wednesday, November 7, each club chairman and player representative met and drew up the terms to a formal contract. The players agreed to the stockholders’ desire for multiyear player contracts, with the parties agreeing to a three-year base contract. The committee then dissected the National League contract and eliminated “objectionable features” such as the salary limit clause and the reserve rule.20 No player trades were to be made during the season, but if a player was dissatisfied with his current club, he could file an application with the board detailing his desire for a club transfer.
Later in the day, the players also struck a deal with the club magnates whereby the magnates could control their own club’s finances but the league profits would be pooled into a prize fund of $20,000, to be divided among players at the end of the season based on the final league standings; gate receipts were divided evenly:
“Team profits up to $20,000 were to be divided evenly between that franchise’s players and owners, and any amount over this would be divided among all eight clubs, with players and owners getting equal shares. … Each of the eight teams provided $20,000 start-up money, and they established a $40,000 league fund that would pay player salaries in the event that gate receipts proved inadequate. There was also supposed to be a $20,000 bonus pool set up that would be divided by players at the end of the season based on how well their teams did in the standings.”21
The November 1889 Brotherhood meeting adjourned without fully organizing and agreed to meet later after clubs were incorporated and a league constitution drafted.
On December 16 and 17, the Brotherhood met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel to conclude all outstanding matters in the formation of a new league. The first order of business was the adoption of the league constitution and the name “The Players’ National League of Base Ball Clubs” was agreed upon. Also finalized were the design of the Board of Directors and the conditions for expulsion from the league. These conditions included failure to “sign the league constitution, to pay dues, to pay salaries or visiting clubs’ shares of the receipts, deliberately failing to play a championship game, beer or liquor selling, pool selling and open betting, playing with a disqualified club, throwing games, playing on Sunday, disbanding the organization, and failure to comply with obligations and contracts as a member of the League.”22 The league schedule was set at 140 games and a two-umpire system was agreed upon. Annual club dues were set at $1,500.
Representatives of different ball companies offered their product for use as the official league ball and the options were weighed at the December 16 meeting. “There was a great deal of wire-pulling for the privilege of furnishing the ball.”23 Tom Lovell represented the A.J. Reach company and offered to provide the balls at $4 a dozen but was informed that the league would not use a ball made by the Spalding or Reach companies and promptly left. The Keefe & Becannon company offered to provide the balls free. Shibe Bros. offered to also provide the balls for free, publish the league guide, and pay the league an annual percentage. Herman J. Kiffe offered free balls as well and $3,500 for a three-year contract. “Tim Keefe had the ‘pull’ with the committee, and Keefe & Becannon got the contract.”24 Henry Chadwick later revealed in Sporting Life that the Keefe & Becannon ball was a Reach-made ball.25
Playing rules, patterned on the National League rules, were also reviewed at the December 17 meeting. The rules committee adjusted them as it found necessary, and the 68 rules26 were “unanimously adopted.” The convention adjourned having established a new major league consisting of at least 97 players from across the National League, American Association, and minor leagues. With the clubs finally incorporated and the league formally organized, all that remained for it to open play in 1890 was for the clubs to sign players and for the league to generate a schedule. A baseball war ensued over player services for 1890 and when the dust settled, 127 players, of whom 72 were from the National League and 22 from the American Association, jumped leagues and joined the Players’ League ranks. The balance were from the minor leagues or other amateur leagues.27
The Players’ League of 1890
The League met again on March 11, 1890, at Cleveland and discussed the signing of umpires, the prize fund payout, and the league schedule. The attendees voted on a tiered payout system for the $20,000 prize fund: “First, $6,250; second, $4,800; third, $3,500; fourth, $2,500; fifth, $1,750; sixth, $800; seventh, $400 … the eighth club gets nothing.”28 The meeting adjourned for lunch and reconvened in the afternoon to review the schedule devised by the scheduling committee. “[The schedule] was adopted without discussion, and everybody seemed satisfied. … [N]o attention whatever was paid to the schedule of the National League, and the schedule conflicts on the average forty dates with each club.”29
Sporting Life later clarified that the Players’ League developed a skeleton schedule and sent it to the National League so that the latter could avoid conflicting dates.30 The National League ignored the overture and scheduled approximately 40 conflicting dates in cities where both leagues had teams. It was all-out war. Both leagues sought the patronage of the same middle-class people and set ticket prices at 50 cents. “This meant that in each locality where both leagues had teams, they would almost always be competing for the same fans at the same time. It was inevitable that teams in both leagues would lose money.”31 While the Players’ League certainly had the best players in the country signed to contracts, the National League was more prepared for a direct faceoff; National League ballparks were built and paid for and the League had amassed a sizable war chest from which it could draw in case of financial trouble or instability.32
A special meeting was held on July 17, 1890, in Philadelphia’s Continental Hotel to discuss the overall standing of the league and clubs, with special attention given to the Philadelphia club. The meeting was not public; newspapers published similar stories but focused on distinct variables. The New York Clipper reported that an unnamed director said, “[T]he principal reason why this special meeting was called … was to settle the trouble in the Philadelphia Club.”33 The Clipper further commented that attendance across the league exceeded expectations everywhere except Philadelphia.
“The stockholders were fighting each other, and this has had a bad effect upon the team as well as upon the attendance,” according to the director. “The men behind the club evidently did not trust each other, and, by not being able to agree upon anything, bills were left unpaid, though there was plenty of money in the treasury to meet all outstanding debts. The Love-Fogarty squabble, the Pickett case, the Hilt affair and other troubles not only hurt the club in Philadelphia, but our organization all over the country.”34
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a lawsuit had been brought before the Court of Common Pleas against the Philadelphia club by E.S. Bortel & Co. to recover $441.29 worth of unpaid bills for work and labor furnished during the construction of the grandstand at Forepaugh Park.35 Sporting Life mentioned that the Philadelphia Club experienced financial instability but reorganized before the meeting, with the league delegates accepting the club’s reorganization during the July 17 meeting.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and Sporting Life dedicated their coverage mostly to the league’s financial standing, the Buffalo club’s request for better players, the creation of a $20,000 league emergency fund, and the establishment of an executive committee, which would visit each Players’ League city in order to assess that club’s financial stability. Each club donated $2,500 to the fund, which the executive committee controlled. The delegates also approved Buffalo’s request and sent four players from four different clubs to help bolster the Bisons’ roster.
The End of the Players’ League
Attendance figures across all three major leagues in 1890 surpassed those from 1889 but each league recorded substantial losses due to the baseball war. “Players’ League secretary Frank Brunell estimated that the Players’ League lost a total of $125,000 in 1890. … [T]he National League, he surmised … lost about $234,000.”36 Despite the financial “victory,” the Players’ League owners were unnerved at the losses incurred throughout the campaign, with many considering consolidation or outright sale to their National League and American Association counterparts. Sporting Life chided that “the future of the Players’ League is shrouded in gloom and uncertainty. … [I]t fought a great battle, won it, and then frittered all of its advantages away through the unparalleled treachery of some of its capitalists, the weakness, indecision, and inexperience of others, and the bull-headed foolishness of the entire lot.”37
The Players’ League owners’ desire to cut their losses was the result of the New York club’s sale to the National League. As it turned out, Brotherhood member and Players’ League stalwart Buck Ewing was directly responsible for New York’s withdrawal from the league as he colluded with National League magnate Al Spalding, New York Giants owner John Day, and Chicago player Cap Anson throughout the 1890 season in an effort to destroy the Players League. With New York’s withdrawal from the Players’ League, stockholders of other clubs sought redress. Rumors of consolidations and sales throughout the league appeared in newspapers across the country. The Players’ League called an official meeting at the Monongahela House in Pittsburgh on November 11 and 12, 1890.
Every Players’ League club was represented at the meeting. It began with the approval of the league books and the championship formally awarded to the Boston Reds. The remainder of the morning session was dedicated to discussion of the consolidation rumor. Boston reported that it made no overtures to its National League rival while Brooklyn stated that it awaited responses from both of its Brooklyn counterparts. Edwin McAlpin gave a long speech in favor of consolidation and implied that a deal between both New York clubs was underway, but that nothing was formalized. The Pittsburgh club admitted that preliminary consolidation papers were signed with its National League counterpart the day before. The club’s attempt to resign was declined because the request had not given 60 days’ notice per the league constitution and had placed itself in position for expulsion.38 Other clubs reported on their consolidation situations and the meeting recessed until later that evening.
The afternoon session began with the admission of the Cincinnati club’s application for admission and review of applications from Washington, Buffalo, and Detroit. Buffalo’s financial affairs were also discussed and the league decided to reconvene on the matter the next day in a session of the Emergency Committee. McAlpin attempted to resign his presidency of the league despite intense protests made by other delegates. He withdrew his resignation since his term as president had expired at season’s end, and instead declined renomination. Boston’s Charles Prince was unanimously elected president for the ensuing year and Cleveland’s A.L. Johnson was appointed vice president. Brunell was re-elected secretary.
Frank Robison then took the floor and stunned the meeting when he stated that consolidation paperwork had been signed between both New York clubs, contrary to what McAlpin assured in the morning session. The New York situation dominated the evening session, which concluded only after the Chicago financial affairs were settled when Boston guaranteed to advance all the funds necessary to resolve Chicago’s problems. At the conclusion of the first day, it seemed as if a six-club circuit was possible, to be composed of Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn or Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, and Cincinnati.
The delegates reconvened again the next morning at 11 and continued their intense discussion on the consolidation proposal. Proposals were made for New York’s expulsion, consolidation with the New York National League club, and an overall league consolidation with the National League and American Association. The debate for and against consolidation was intense, but the only concrete decision made was to reconvene again at a later date when the matters could be concluded.
The Players’ League met for a final time on January 16, 1891, at New York’s St. James Hotel. “Loyal delegates from clubs that had already left the league met to formally disband the organization. … [A]t 7:30 in the evening, the Players’ League was quietly declared dead, and the meeting adjourned.”39 At this stage, all Players’ League clubs either contracted, were sold outright, or consolidated with National League or American Association clubs. The players revolt that emerged in 1885 finally concluded in early 1891. After the 1891 season, the American Association, financially unstable and worn from the 1890 baseball war, also folded, leaving the National League as the lone major league until the turn of the twentieth century.
1 Robert P. Gelzheiser, Labor and Capital in 19th Century Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006), 37.
2 Gelzheiser, 178
3 Robert B. Ross, The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 47.
4 Gelzheiser, 44.
5 John M. Ward, “The Players National League,” in 1890 Players’ National League Base Ball Guide: All the Official Figures (reprint) (Vienna, Virginia: Horton Publishing Company, 1989), 3.
6 Ross, 53.
7 The suggestions for the function and purview of umpires can be viewed in J.F.B., “The Players,” Sporting Life, November 17, 1886: 1.
8 John M. Ward, “League Players: A Conference Asked,” Sporting Life, August 24, 1887: 1.
9 League Meeting: The Brotherhood Question, Sporting Life, November 23, 1887: 2. Included in this excerpt is a person-by-person discussion of deliberations between the Brotherhood and League magnates.
11 Ross, 78.
12 Ross, 84.
13 John M. Ward, “The Players National League,” 4.
15 Ross, 85.
16 “The Players Organization,” Sporting Life, November 6, 1889: 1.
17 “Getting to the Real Business,” Sporting Life, November 13, 1889: 1.
18 “The Famous Agreement,” Sporting Life, November 13, 1889: 1.
19 Gelzheiser, 122.
20 “The Players and Backers Meet,” Sporting Life, November 13, 1889: 1.
21 Gelzheiser, 123.
22 “Features of the Constitution,” Sporting Life, December 25, 1889: 1.
23 “Other Business,” Sporting Life, December 25, 1889: 2.
24 “The Players Adjourn,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 18, 1889.
25 “Chadwick’s Chat,” Sporting Life, January 22, 1890: 6. “In order to induce more offense the Players’ League moved the pitcher’s box back 18 inches, and used a livelier ball. In late May, in a rather unscientific test of the Players and League balls … Farmer Vaughn drove the Players’ ball 50 yards further than the ‘most muscular of the Giants’ could hit the league ball. Mark Baldwin claimed the ball felt heavier and was harder to curve. In their special meeting in Philadelphia on July 17, the Players voted for a deader ball, starting August 21.” Ed Morton, “The Ball: Double Cover to Cork Center,” Philadelphia SABR Day 2017 presentation.
26 The full details of these rule changes can be found in “The New Playing Rules,” Sporting Life, December 25, 1889: 2.
27 Gelzheiser, 123.
28 “Players League Meeting,” New York Clipper, March 22, 1890: 25.
30 “The Schedule,” Sporting Life, April 19, 1890: 9.
31 Gelzheiser, 126.
33 “Players League Meeting,” New York Clipper, July 26, 1890: 313.
35 “The Base Ball Situation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 17, 1890: 3.
36 Ross, 184.
37 “Players League,” Sporting Life, November 15, 1890: 2.
39 Ross, 197.