History of Labor Struggles in Major League Baseball: The Early Years


This is the first installment of a series that highlights the history of labor struggles in Major League Baseball.  It opens with the early years of attempted unionization and will continue into how the courts became involved, and how the MLB Players Association finally came to be.  The series will give the reader insight into key labor issues and how they evolved over each successive Collective Bargaining Agreement up to the present.

The author is a retired attorney with a background in employment law. This series was born out of a particular interest in the intersection of Labor Law and Major League Baseball. It is designed to give the reader a background into how unionization came to be in baseball, and how the history has brought us, the fans, to this particular place and time in the ongoing struggle between players and owners.

The push and pull between those who do physical and/or mental exertion for wages (labor) and those who direct such physical and/or mental exertion (management) is a tale as old as time.  Organizations of labor (unions) in the United States have existed since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Though most people associate labor unions with trades such as plumbers, electricians, etc., or plant or mine workers, unions can form in almost any business.

Sports unions, often called Players Associations, exist today in all of the major U.S. sports leagues.  It was in major league baseball that the earliest known of such associations first sprang up.  Though the sport of baseball dates back to before the Civil War in the U.S, “major league baseball”, as it is known today dates back to the early 1880s.  The first league of professional baseball was the National League, which was founded in 1876 as a loose conglomeration of eight teams.  The first rival organization, the American Association, came into being in 1882, and the two leagues began to play each other in 1884 in an early version of the World Series.  Thus, major league baseball as a construct was born.

The earliest known association of major league baseball players was called the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, formed in 1885, in protest of what was known as the “Reserve Clause”.   This clause, which was inserted into the standard player uniform contract in the National League in 1879, was seen by league owners, or “magnates” as they were called, as a way to control player salaries and player movement from team to team.  The Reserve Clause was essentially a list of five players per team that all the magnates agreed were forbidden to be signed by another team.  The list began as a secret but was later inserted into the league rules.  This list of five “reserved” players went to 11 and by 1887 was up to 14 players per team, which was essentially the entire roster.

John Montgomery Ward

The leader of the Brotherhood, as it was known, was the shortstop of the New York Giants, John Montgomery Ward.  Ward’s first line of attack against the Reserve Clause was to liken it to slavery.  Other demands by the Brotherhood included stopping a proposed salary classification system that capped player salaries and an end to the practice of selling players for cash.

The response by the league was to ignore the Brotherhood and hope it would collapse on its own.  To the contrary, as the magnates held their ground, the membership of the Brotherhood increased.  By the end of 1887, the players who were Brotherhood members refused to sign contracts for the 1888 season until the league recognized the Brotherhood and negotiated with them.

In the meantime, both sides waged a war in the sphere of public opinion.  The Brotherhood painted a picture of the magnates as uninterested in maintaining the integrity of the game but only exploiting it for what profit they could get from it.  The magnates for their part spread the notion that the Brotherhood was a secret society of un-American revolutionaries.

Eventually, however, the magnates recognized the Brotherhood and agreed to a meeting.  Tensions cooled for a period of time, enough to allow the 1888 season to move forward.  The détente didn’t last, and the magnates stoked the fires with the release of their plan for the players salary classification system, which the Brotherhood strongly opposed.  The war was back on.

The Brotherhood’s response in the summer of 1889 was to announce plans for a new league, to be called the Players’ League.  Members were sent out in their respective cities to find financial investors for the league.  Many of the Brotherhood members were star players with enough clout to persuade potential backers and to generate fan interest in the new league as well.

The first order of business for the magnates was to make threats of legal action against the Brotherhood members who were reserved players to prevent them from going to the new league.  A renewal of the war of public opinion saw the magnates accusing the players of being greedy and questioning the long-term viability of the new league.  The magnates were aided to some degree by the media, who also questioned the viability of the league and its ability to attract younger players.

The magnates resorted to other tactics including offering some members of the Brotherhood huge salary increases in an effort to lure them back in order to weaken the Brotherhood’s efforts and further erode public confidence in the prospects for the new league.  A few such players did in fact “jump” and were expelled from the Brotherhood.

The court cases against the Brotherhood finally came before a judge in January of 1890.  Many of the financial backers of the Players’ League decided to hold off pending the outcome of the legal matters, which put a further strain on the Brotherhood’s efforts to get the new league going.  The specific case heard first was a request for an injunction by the National League owners to prevent Brotherhood leader John Ward from playing in the Players’ League.  The injunction was ultimately denied but was based not on contract language but on lack of time to fully flesh out the substantive issues before the season started.  The decision had a positive effect for the Players’ League in that it gave the financial backers the confidence to reopen the money spigot.

The issues surrounding the reserve clause were left unanswered as the judge in the case found the language in Ward’s contract did give the Giants the right to reserve his services, but contained nothing regarding length of service or pay, thus making the language weak and difficult to enforce.  There was no clear win for either side, though both parties attempted to spin it in their favor.

As the new season drew closer, the National League developed a new tactic.  They dropped two teams and drew up a schedule designed to directly compete with the Players’ League with games played on the same dates and in the same cities.  This created a situation where both leagues suffered financially.  Both leagues were losing money by mid-season, but the magnates had deeper pockets to absorb the losses.

By the end of the season, the Brotherhood saw the writing on the wall.  Ward acknowledged publicly that the new league had failed and entered into negotiations with the National League to bring both leagues back under one umbrella.  Players’ League backers began selling off to the magnates and in the end, it was the players, not the owners, who bore the brunt of the blame for the failed experiment.

The reserve clause became entrenched in player contracts for the next seven decades.  The National League held a monopoly over baseball until 1900, when the American League was born.  The National League magnates convinced the new American League owners to adopt the clause.

The players made three more unsuccessful attempts to organize over the next several decades with the Players Protective Association in 1900, the Fraternity of American Baseball Players of America in 1912, and the American Baseball Guild in 1946.  Each organization folded without any changes to the reserve clause.

It wasn’t until one man from the outside took over the fight, and one man from the inside took his fight to the highest court in the land that the reserve clause finally met its deserved end.

To be continued…

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