The book: “The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League”
The author: Robert B. Ross
The vital statistics: Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 288 pages, $29.95. Released April 1
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com. And at the publisher’s website.
The pitch: A bio posted of John Montgomery Ward on the Society for American Baseball Research starts: “No essay-length biography could possibly do full justice to John Montgomery Ward. His life, both on and off the diamond, was entirely too eventful. His playing career was replete with notable achievements.”
One of them: Rallying some disgruntled members of the National League to form the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and become the very first to challenge the reserve clause.
And then see it last only a year, unable to achieve what it really set out to do – break the monopoly of what was the top tier of pro baseball at the time.
This curious research project by Ross, a professor of global cultural studies in Pittsburgh, may not be the most engaging read but it’s an important one to understand how labor relations and player revolts aren’t just a product of the 1960s, ‘70s or, in the case of the wiped out 1994 World Series, something that feels like it happened just yesterday.
The National League had eight teams in 1890, including the champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms who eventually became the Dodgers. The new eight-team Players League that sprung up after Ward led the charge in bolting from the New York Giants also had a team in Brooklyn called the Ward’s Wonders – yes, after Ward, the former star pitcher who became a shortstop.
Did the league serve its purpose? Hardly.
In some ways, the emergence of the American Football League in the 1960s and, later, the United States Football League in the 1980s, as a challenge to the dominance of the National Football League is a more modern example of just how the Players League ended up – some teams combined and were admitted to the NL, other teams wanted in but were denied. Business won out over civil rights.
The Polo Grounds in New York was the real monument to the effort – without the Players League, commissioning the building of the facility first named Brotherhood Park for its own N.Y. Giants franchise, it would not have existed.
As Ross clearly point out, the rise of unions, the demand for equal pay and working conditions and breaking up corrupt business owners was a strong current of the American population at that time in the post-Civil War era leading into the Industrial Revolution. The Haymarket Square bombing was still fresh.
It’s no surprise that baseball players, who were struggling immigrants and also had part-time and off-season jobs as carpenters, road workers and the like, were caught up in this movement.
Without Ward, however, it likely wouldn’t have gotten this far. The Columbia Law grad and NL star was the perfect man to lead this cause, as well as act as the new Brooklyn manager, captain, shortstop and, as many players had to do, recruiter of investors.
While later acknowledged as a true professional major league, the Players League’s one-year try was really more of a test case that can be given credit for leading to the trial runs of the Federal League (1914-15) and likely was cited as a reason why Branch Rickey, in the late ‘50s, spearheaded the idea of the Continental League to force MLB expansion to the West.
Ward was hardly pleased with the one-year existence of the Players League. Ross finds a perfect quote from him on page 194:
“The cause of the Players League trouble can be summed up in three words: stupidity, avarice and treachery.”
We could apply that to so many things in today’s world.
Ross then adds his own thoughts about whether this whole thing made a difference:
“To the extent that organizations like Major League Baseball now increasingly earn its billions on the backs of sweatshop seamstresses, underpaid custodians and a vast array of other thoroughly exploited and de-skilled workers from around the world, there is certainly reason for intervention. And given the spotlight shone on professional sports and other facets of the entertainment industry, there is room. …. Ushers, garment makers, carpenters, concession-stand saleswomen and all other underpaid workers of the sports, arts and entertainment industry can and must convince the general public, their employers and indeed the players that they, too, are the men – and women – who ‘do the work.’ And they too deserve to share in the profits of the game.”
More to know:
== This is the kind of book that has us reflecting back on a 2013 read we enjoyed called “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game” by Edward Achorn, about the creation of the American Association as a rival to the National League about a decade before the Players League. It’s worth finding and enjoying again.