The Brotherhood Revolts

Sometimes you’ve just had enough. You’ve had those days, right? It’s one damn stupid thing after another. It’s one thing too many, it’s…well, you know, it’s your Howard Beale moment, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” (See the movie Network). The same kind of thing happened in baseball way back in 1889. It was just one too many slaps at the players by the owners. They responded by forming a new league, the last league run by players.

During the late 1880s the leaders of both major leagues, the National League and the American Assoiciation, tried to control costs by setting the equivilent of the modern salary cap. They announced that no player could earn more than $2500 a season. It’s not a great salary in 1890, but not an awful one either.  Just prior to this announcement, John Montgomery Ward had formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union (love it or hate it). Many, but certainly not all, the players joined. Their anger at the salary cap was such that they decided to act.

The late 1880s is not a particularly good time for labor unions. They were seen as rabble rousers, as anarchists (The very idea of Monte Ward as an anarchist is laughable.), as not knowing their place, etc. There were no federal laws protecting them, no law granting a right to strike in certain circumstances, no binding arbitration. So many of the modern ways a union can attack what it perceives as an evil were not available or were illegal at the time. Ward came up with an alternative. They players would form their own league and would call it the Player’s League.

The Player’s League began operation in 1890 in the following cities: Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Every team except Buffalo was in direct competition with a National League team, and Brooklyn had three teams. With only a smattering of new players, the new league drew most of its players from the established Major Leagues. As an example of what happened here’s the starting eight for the 1889 winner of the “World Series,” the New York Giants: Jim O’Rourke, Mike Tiernan, and George Gore in the outfield; Roger Connor, Danny Richardson, Monte Ward, Art Whitney in the infield; and Buck Ewing catching. In 1890 only Tiernan was still with the Giants, who slipped all the way to sixth. Connor, Richardson, Whitney, O’Rourke, Gore, and Ewing were now all with the Player’s League team in New York, with Ewing as manager. Ward was the manager of the Player’s League Brooklyn entry.

The team from Boston, the Reds, won the pennant going 81-48 and winning by 6.5 games over Brooklyn. Hall of Fame players Dan Brouthers, King Kelly (who also managed), and Charles Radbourne played for Boston along with a number of stars of the day. Pete Browning won the batting title, Billy Shindle led in total bases, Connor in home runs, Harry Stovey in stolen bases, Mark Baldwin in pitching wins, and Silver King in ERA. King also threw the only no hitter in the league (besting Brooklyn).

In the stands, the new league did well, sort of. By June the Player’s League led in attendance by about 10,000 over the NL (and almost 20,000 over the Association). The gap, particularly with the Association continued to grow. But there was a problem developing. The United States of 1890 simply couldn’t sustain three Major Leagues. Most teams were hemorraging money, especially the bottom few teams in all three leagues. Salaries were up, especially among the Player’s League teams, and there just weren’t enough fans in the stands to pay for it. In the National League in particular, the owners had much larger sums of money to weather the storm than the players. When the season ended with a World Series between NL winner Brooklyn and Association winner Louisville, the Player’s League was shut out, thus losing another source of revenue.

The Player’s League went under 14 January 1891. The Brotherhood simply didn’t have the funds to keep going. They managed to get, everything considered, a reasonably good deal. Most of their players got back into the two established leagues (but more of the truly superior players ended up in the NL, to disastrous consequences for the Association). Brotherhood president Ward became the new manager of the NL team in Brooklyn (I guess that means he didn’t have to move). Two teams, Boston and Chicago, were not scrapped. They shifted into the Association. They were the final pieces of the Player’s League. They, like the American Association, lasted one more season.

The Player’s League was the second league formed by the players. It met the same fate as the 1870’s National Association. The  players, even with well educated men like Monte Ward leading them, simply lacked the expertise to make a league go. They also lacked financial backing to survive. Before we take too much time and criticize the players, it should be noted that there were five “Major” Leagues formed in the 19th Century: National Association, National League, American Association, Union Association, and the Player’s League. Only the National League survived. If both player organized leagues failed, so too did two of the three owner organized leagues. It was a tough business, owner or player.

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3 Responses to “The Brotherhood Revolts”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Very interesting post. It’s amazing how many teams / leagues have come and gone over the past century or so. What’s just as interesting, to me, is that NO Team, let alone an entire league, is “allowed” to go bankrupt anymore. There were 30 teams in the Majors a few years ago when the economy was doing reasonably well. There are still 30 teams in the Majors today, despite the biggest economic downturn in 70-80 years. Yet, the owners of the weaker, small market teams (and their fans) simply expect business to go on more or less as usual. Raise the luxury tax on the Yanks and Red Sox, and we’ll just collect more funds. It’s hard to argue that baseball is a competitive business anymore when not one of the 30 league owners even needs to consider moving his team to a larger market, let alone face bankruptcy. Not sure what it all means, but historically speaking, it is most unusual. Another thought-provoking post. Well done, Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Did some checking. The last time a Major League team actually folded and went away was in 1902, when the AL franchise in Milwaukee collapsed and a new one was formed in St. Louis, becoming the Browns. There are a couple of sources that say the franchise simply moved, and if they are correct, then the 1899 contraction of the NL from 12 to eight teams would be the last time a team died. There have been a number of shifts, beginning with Baltimore in the AL going to NY in 1903 and ending with Montreal going to Washington. FYI
    v

  3. William Miller Says:

    Well, thanks for providing me with that information. But I’m still not sure why “small” market teams seem to believe that the answer to their troubles lies with outside forces solving their problems for them (revenue sharing, etc.) If K.C. and Pittsburgh can’t afford to compete in the markets they currently call home, then moving the franchise should become a serious option, instead of always using “we are in a small market” as an excuse to field bad teams for 10-15 years (or more.) Thanks for doing that research. I have to admit, it did come as a surprise. Regards, Bill

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