History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Rise of the AL and Road to Antitrust Exemption

photo: Ban Johnson and Babe Ruth (Library of Congress)

The Cardinal Nation’s series highlighting the history of labor struggles in MLB continues with the rise of a second major league and various failed attempts by players to unionize. The author is Marilyn Green, a retired attorney with background in employment law.

In the first installment of the series, we saw how the formation of the first Players Association in major league baseball came to be in 1885 in response to the reserve clause in player contracts. The reserve clause was instituted in the National League in 1879 to control player salary costs. Teams had routinely gone out of business in the early days of organized professional baseball and the National League owners, or “magnates” envisioned this as a way to keep operating.

After the first “union,” the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, folded in 1890, the National League held a monopoly for the next decade. The National League was joined at times by other leagues that enjoyed brief success, such as the American Association.

The next couple of decades after the fall of the Brotherhood would welcome two more attempts at unionization by the players. These attempts would coincide with trade wars that sprung up when new leagues were formed to compete with the National League. New leagues would induce players to “jump” to them for better salaries. These trade wars resulted in litigation over the reserve clause. The first wave of litigation began with the Players’ League, a failed experiment of the Brotherhood.

This first case, the request for an injunction to prevent John Montgomery Ward (leader of the Brotherhood) from jumping to the Players’ League was covered in the first series installment. The contract for Ward’s services was held unenforceable for the 1890 season, not because the reserve clause was illegal, but because the contract was not specific enough in terms of length of service and salary to be enforced. Successive cases against other players ended with the same result.

Because the National League had no other competition after the Players’ League folded, for the next decade the reserve clause remained in player contracts, not because it was legal, but because the National League owners simply agreed among themselves to keep it. Players either accepted it or didn’t play professional baseball.


Then in 1900, another league, the American League, entered the picture. Prior to then, an association of minor league baseball teams called the Western League began in 1885 and operated mainly in cities in the Midwest. In 1899, Western League president Ban Johnson, long a critic of the National League, decided to expand his league into cities that the National League had abandoned in their recent contraction from 12 teams to 8. He renamed his league the American League and began to fill his rosters with players the National League had discarded in the contraction.

The American League’s expansion into Eastern cities made it the first serious rival to the National League. The contraction of the National League made it weaker, and it had long been the subject of intense criticism not only by Johnson, but by the media and the baseball public as well. The National League game had become rife with drinking, gambling, and just general unsportsmanlike conduct.

It was at this time that the players saw their second opportunity for collective action. The Protective Association of Professional Baseball Players was formed during the 1900 season. Unlike its predecessor the Brotherhood, the Protective Association chose not to attack the reserve clause head on. Instead, the Protective Association demanded the league not continue to reserve players at a lower salary than the previous season as they had been doing. They also asked for basic medical coverage for players and a system for settling disputes between players and owners.

Johnson saw the opportunity he needed and joined in with the Protective Associations’ demands. Johnson curried favor with members of the Protective Association who he saw as valuable commodities to use in his attempt to grow the American League.

The National League, instead of sensing the danger lying ahead, behaved like the typical arrogant monopoly. The League rejected the demands of the Protective Association and refused to recognize the American League as viable and equal. This was the wrong approach.

The actions of the National League drew immediate and very negative reaction from the national press as well as the baseball public.  Major newspapers such as The Chicago Daily Tribune and the New York Times wrote scathing articles criticizing the National League’s actions and expressing the opinion that the demands of the players were reasonable and for the good of the game.  The public, already disgusted with the course the National League game had taken in the last decade, was also solidly on the side of the players. This was a unique opportunity for the Protective Association to take advantage of the now unpopular National League and gain key concessions.

The Protective Association, however, still fearful of making the same mistakes as their predecessor, the Brotherhood, remained adamantly against challenging the reserve clause itself. They instead demanded that their members honor their National League contracts and not sign any contract with an American League team.

Come spring, the National League magnates came to realize their position was a little more precarious in the public eye that it had been in the past. Still, the League made only marginal concessions to the Protective Association at their spring meetings. The Protective Association leaders considered this a victory but many of the members felt betrayed. By the start of the 1901 season, 70+ members ignored the Association’s warnings and jumped to an American League team anyway. Some officers of the Association, despite the group’s stance on jumping, gave the American League some help in recruiting players. Those officers, notably Clark Griffith and Connie Mack, were later rewarded by being given management roles in the new league.

The National League, in turn, tried to stem the tide of player desertion in the courts. This seemed doomed to failure given the fact that the League had lost all prior court cases involving enforcement of the reserve clause. One such case, however, did in fact succeed in a Pennsylvania court. The League filed for injunctive relief to prevent Phillies second baseman Napoleon Lajoie from jumping to the American League Philadelphia Athletics. The trial court ruled against the League, as other courts had done in the past, but this time the Phillies appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court took a different course and ruled the reserve clause in Lajoie’s contract was enforceable. The reasoning was that in Lajoie’s case, the contract, unlike other contracts in the past, had a termination date. It was set to expire after the 1903 season instead of being renewable in perpetuity, which prior courts had found unenforceable.

Of course, the National League was ecstatic and believed this signaled the end of “jumping.”  The position of the Athletics was that the decision applied to Lajoie only. Johnson decided to make sure it didn’t even apply to Lajoie in the end by trading him to Cleveland, outside the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania courts.  The Phillies sued in Cleveland, but a trial court there ruled the Pennsylvania decision applied only to Pennsylvania teams.

The National League next tried rule changes as a tactic. The League instituted a five-sided plate and a new rule that the first two foul balls would be counted as strikes (a rule that continues to exist today). The National League’s motives were to lower batting averages and RBI for hitters, which were the stats used to determine player salary.

The American League did not adopt the foul ball rule until 1902 but did adopt the new wider plate. The result was that the American League game became much more offense oriented than the National League game during the 1901 season. The American League gained a wider audience and the National League ticket sales for the 1901 season dropped.

Johnson began moving teams into key National League markets and continued to raid National League rosters. By the end of the 1902 season the National League knew they were cooked and entered into the National Agreement with the American League. At this point, Johnson had no more use for the Protective Association. Johnson had effectively co-opted the Association for his own purposes and it ceased to exist by 1903. The American League also eventually adopted the reserve clause and began to cut player salaries.

Labor peace reigned until the Panic of 1910-11, a minor economic depression in the U.S. Attendance at major league baseball games fell by 20% during this period, and as most team revenues were ticket sale generated, both leagues suffered a loss of revenue. The Leagues’ first line of attack was reducing labor costs.

Unsurprisingly, players became disgruntled by lower salaries. This, plus the continued lack of medical and pension benefits and other issues that had never been resolved between the parties led to the formation of a third players organization in 1912, the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players. The Fraternity, like its predecessor the Protective Association, took the cautious approach and refused to tackle the reserve clause. They made much the same demands as prior Associations had but added an additional demand, an end to abusive behavior by fans in the stands.

The situation this time was different in that there was a push in Congress to investigate the National Agreement between the National League and the American League as a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. It became even more interesting in 1913 when a new league, the Federal League, pushed its way into the Major League Baseball mix.  The threat this time was short-lived, as the weak Fraternity was again co-opted and used against the Federal League. The Fraternity, like its predecessors, dissolved in short order.

The Federal League failed to lure sufficient talent to become an ongoing concern. By 1915 the League folded and assets were sold off to the other two leagues. Most of the Federal League teams recouped their losses in the sell-off except for one, the Baltimore Terrapins.

The Terrapins tried to recoup their losses in the courts by suing both the National League and the American League as conspirators to ruin the Federal League by violating the antitrust laws. That suit would eventually make its way to the Supreme Court of the United States to decide the question of whether Major League Baseball was an illegal monopoly.

To be continued…

About the author

Marilyn Green 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.

Prior article in this series

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

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