Everything Old New Again in Baseball
Baseball owners had to delve far into the past in order to find the solution to problems they say threaten the future of the game. As long ago as ’81--that’s 1881, not the strike year of 1981--one of the most prominent figures in the National League warned that unless player expenditures were curbed, “bankruptcy stares every team in the face.” The remedy of Albert Goodwill Spalding and his management peers in the latter stages of the 19th century was a salary cap.
It was no idle threat, either. NL owners implemented the ceiling at the start of the 1889 season. Angered though they were, players decided not to strike. Instead, they got even -- at least temporarily -- by forming their own league the following year. Although the Players’ League outdrew the established circuit, the upstarts were unable to weather the financial losses and folded after one season. So the owners won in the end and celebrated by slashing salaries.
More than a century later, baseball’s labor relations are as rancorous as ever. Eighteen months after owners’ representatives began drawing up a proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement, they finally put an offer on the table in June. It called for increased revenue-sharing among member clubs but only if the players agreed to a salary cap. When management insisted upon it, the players’ association walked off the job after games of Aug. 11. They have yet to return.
The sport as practiced in 1889 bore little resemblance to that played in 1994. The pitcher’s mound was only 50 feet, 6 inches from home plate, such specialists as pinch hitters and relief pitchers were unheard of and there was no American League. But, by God, there was a salary cap.
Spalding was at the forefront of the new economic order. An outstanding pitcher for Boston and Chicago, he took a management role with the White Stockings (forerunners of the Cubs) and became club president upon the death of William Hulbert. He was a tougher competitor as a businessman than he was in uniform. Not only did the sporting goods company he founded supply the league with baseballs and other equipment, but it published Spalding’s Baseball Guides that promulgated the man’s philosophy while promoting his products. He was the real power behind the throne, much like White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf today.
According to “Never Just a Game,” Robert Burk’s history of baseball economics up to 1920, Spalding’s blueprint proposed a salary classification system that encompassed all professional leagues and limited compensation at the very top to $2,000 per season. The National League eventually adopted a less comprehensive plan proposed by John Brush of Indianapolis that classified players in five categories determined by the owners. A class A player could receive no more than $2,500 while a class E player was limited to $1,500.
This was not calculated to please the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, a “fraternal organization” founded in 1885 that enlisted many stars of the sport. Its leader, John Montgomery Ward of the New York Giants, had succeeded in forestalling such measures in the past but in the offseason between 1888 and 1889 he was in no position to object.
“Underscoring the suspicions of Ward’s brotherhood toward the owners’ intentions was the fact that the Brush plan had been adopted while Ward and many other union leaders had been diverted overseas on a postseason all-star tour,” Burk wrote in his book published earlier this year. “Sponsored by the clever Spalding, the tour had taken the all-stars around the world to Honolulu, Australia, Egypt and Britain...”
Ward’s attempts to obtain a preseason conference with Spalding were rebuffed and a labor panel, with Spalding serving as spokesman, declined to negotiate with the brotherhood at a June meeting. On July 14, the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, delegates from various chapters of the brotherhood met secretly at a New York hotel. “Ward talked about instituting a new league,” wrote Michael Gershman in “Diamonds,” “and introduced trolley mogul Albert Johnson of Cleveland, the league’s main financial backer.”
Brotherhood members declined to sign contracts for the following season and in November, Ward announced the formation of the Players’ National League of Baseball Clubs in which players and owners shared power and revenue under a 10-year charter. The new league included seven clubs in direct competition with existing NL teams, plus an eighth team located in Buffalo.
In New York, remarkably, the PL set up shop in Brotherhood Park, constructed underneath Coogan’s Bluff adjacent to the Polo Grounds. The new team also called itself the Giants. This created quite a scene on Opening Day when the teams scheduled simultaneous games.
“At 3:30 PM,” The Sporting News reported, “bands struck their first notes in both parks. A world title pennant went up the staff in each place. For one day, side by side, there were two champions of the world
Because most of the Giants’ stars had aligned themselves with the new league, the Players’ team attracted 12,113 fans to 4,644 for the established team. Before the season ended, the old Giants would need $80,000 from Spalding and three other NL owners to stay afloat. “Initially, the Players’ League outdrew its elder by as much as 50 percent,” according to the Baseball Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book. “Soon, however, both circuits, struggling to persuade customers of their staying power, started to paper the houses and wildly inflate figures.”
The National League was in trouble but the capitalists recruited by the players to underwrite their effort had no stomach for a fight. They persuaded Ward to negotiate for peace and a common circuit at the end of the season. Spalding represented the establishment.
“We had been playing two games all through -- baseball and bluff,” the owner was quoted in Gershman’s book. “At this stage, I put up the strongest play at the latter game I ever presented.” The players’ delegation conceded their league had lost a bundle, music to Spalding’s ears. “I informed the bearers that ‘unconditional surrender’ was the only possible solution ... To my surprise, the terms were greedily accepted.”
All the major players were accepted back with no reprisals nor incentives. Baseball survived and prospered for the next 100 years until another Chicago-based owner led the push for another salary cap against the wishes of a union whose members now are wealthy enough to bankroll their own league. Stay tuned.