Lasting only a year, the league impacted both the professional sports and the labor politics of athletes and nonathletes alike. The Great Baseball Revolt is a historic overview of the rise and fall of the Players League, which fielded teams in Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Though it marketed itself as a working-class league, the players were underfunded and had to turn to wealthy capitalists for much of their startup costs, including the new ballparks. It was in this context that the league intersected with the organized labor movement, and in many ways challenged by organized labor to be by and for the people.
In its only season, the Players League outdrew the National League in fan attendance. But when the National League overinflated its numbers and profits, the Players League backers pulled out. The Great Baseball Revolt brings to life a compelling cast of characters and a mostly forgotten but important time in professional sports when labor politics affected both athletes and nonathletes.
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The Great Baseball Revolt
The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League
By Robert B. Ross
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Robert B. Ross
All rights reserved.
The Professionalization of Baseball
Baseball transformed in the latter half of the nineteenth century from a recreational game into a professional sport. As a significant swath of Americans became wealthier, and players became better skilled at their craft, more people began paying money to see them play. In the process the sport established itself as a distinctly white, American, and manly pastime. But struggles over the class and cultural character of baseball — in terms of who could or should watch the game, who could play it, and how they would be compensated for their labor — became an integral part the sport for the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Related to these struggles was a central contradiction between, on the one hand, increasing revenues from ticket sales and, on the other, increasing costs from the salaries of the players who generated those sales.
How did baseball come to this point? How did it become an embodiment of certain racial, national, and gendered values, a game that people paid money to watch other people play, and the grounds on which various class and cultural conflicts took place? In short the press, the Civil War, changes in the way that the sport was played, and attempts to shape the image of the game together made baseball into an increasingly expensive and culturally evocative commodity.
A key component of the professionalization of baseball was the existence of mass media that promoted and carefully analyzed the sport. References to baseball and to the games involving balls, bats, and bases, which preceded it, are peppered across a multilingual collection of mostly children's books that stretches back to the fifteenth century. But it wasn't until the 1850s and 1860s that publications began to report on the game as it was played by organized teams of adults. The baseball publications of both eras promoted the game (whether intentionally or not), but not until the mid-nineteenth century did they begin to publicize the game as something people should watch (and eventually pay to watch), not just play. This shift in emphasis was necessary in order for the sport to develop into a profitable commodity. Promotion, though, was not conducted without the attachment of certain ideas and values, which associated the game with principally (but not exclusively) America, manliness, health, Victorian middle-class values, and more tacitly, whiteness. Put differently, in the alliterative recollection of Albert Spalding, baseball was "the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility." That this description of baseball comes from Albert Spalding is relevant not only because he became thoroughly involved in the National League's confrontation with the Players League. It is relevant first because Spalding was deeply invested in the game of baseball as the owner of both an NL franchise and an international sporting-goods company. The promotion of baseball and the attribution of specific qualities to it carried, for Spalding at least, an economic incentive.
But baseball was not, as Spalding suggested, born in America. It originated in eighteenth-century England as a children's game involving a stick, ball, and bases. When Puritan settlers arrived in New England, they brought the sport with them. Early baseball on American soil was thought to be a means by which Puritan culture could be retained and reinforced. Robert Burk explains: "If accommodated to Puritan priorities, ball games were ritual occasions for community and spiritual socialization, the display of fellowship and skill, and the acting out of life's tests of harmony and piety by sober, respectable men." Participation in baseball facilitated the reproduction of social life and, as the Puritan settlers began to integrate with other people, served as a defense against other, encroaching ways of life.
Soon, however, baseball's popularity spread beyond the settler communities and beyond Massachusetts. Still, the game's associations with morality, sobriety, gentlemanly behavior, and white-collar social cohesion remained. Boys and men alike continued to play baseball in increasing numbers, and in 1842 the first official baseball club was formed. The members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York began playing organized games among themselves on a field at Twenty-Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue in New York. Three years later they secured permanent grounds at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, a short ferry ride from Barclay Street in downtown Manhattan. The Knickerbockers were primarily an exclusive social club of white-collar Yankee men. "To the Knickerbockers," Harold Seymour explains, "a ball game was a vehicle for genteel amateur recreation and polite social intercourse rather than a hard-fought contest for victory. They were more expert with the knife and fork at post-game banquets than with bat and ball on the diamond. Their rules and regulations emphasized proper conduct, and the entire tone of their organization was more akin to the atmosphere surrounding cricket — a far cry from the ethic of modern professional baseball." Baseball thus served as a social forum with which a certain identity could be expressed and maintained. Participation in the club allowed men to fend off increasing outside pressures that threatened the solidarity of their ethnic-, class-, and gender-based identities. Baseball then was seen to reinforce a particular social position.
Soon other baseball clubs formed under similar principles. But as baseball became more popular, the game began to express different values for different people. Burk explains:
As the number of teams [in the 1850s] and interclub matches expanded, so too did reports of on-field lapses of decorum and discipline within and between teams; such lapses ranged from swearing and fighting on the field to betting, indecent anecdotes and songs, and public drunkenness off it. The perceived loss of "order" in the game as well as its modest geographic and social spread in the urban Northeast were signals of a more fundamental, however subtle, shift in the game's focus for its participants. Traditionally, intraclub activities and fellowship had been emphasized, with the secondary aim of displaying, and verifying, to oneself and one's immediate brethren, a presupposed social and spiritual worth within a relatively stable local order. Now the players' emphasis was shifting toward ballplaying in interclub contests as a means to preserve a public status under siege or to accumulate a greater measure of outer worth, both materially and spiritually. The emerging ethic ... was less communitarian, more competitive.
A veiled class and culture war of sorts thus arose between the people who wished to secure baseball's traditional ideals and those who sought to undermine them. Importantly, as Burk later notes, those on the latter side of this conflict were increasingly of non-English descent and of the skilled working class.
In response the traditionalists formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1858 in order to, as Burk puts it, "guard against a ... subtle acceleration of baseball's social and moral declension and preserve avenues for its emerging 'reforming' and acquisitive roles." Led by the Knickerbockers, the NABBP initially consisted of twenty-two baseball clubs, the vast majority of which played in New York City. Clubs could join the league with a five-dollar (and later, fifty-cent) admission fee. Payment for player services was prohibited, but many of the club officials foresaw opportunities for profit in the not-too-distant future. The NABBP delegates who controlled the association and represented the clubs were almost exclusively white-collar men of English descent even though some of the players were now of other European and skilled working-class backgrounds.
The birth of the NABBP and the game's concomitant popularity compelled newspapers in the Northeast to begin reporting on local games. In addition to descriptive game summaries, some of the papers printed box scores and commentaries on the direction of the sport. The vast majority of this coverage was limited to the New York papers. William Cauldwell, of the New York Mercury, became the first journalist to cover sports on a full-time basis. Outside the city the earliest known newspaper coverage of baseball can be found in the July 1 and 2, 1859, editions of the Amherst Express, Extra. Under the headline "Muscle and Mind!" are descriptions of baseball and chess competitions between Amherst and Williams Colleges.
Offering more thorough and reliable coverage than the newspapers of the 1850s and 1860s, however, were a handful of weekly publications devoted to sports, literature, theater, and opera.
Chief among them, the New York Clipper began publishing news about theater and baseball, among other forms of entertainment, in 1853. But it wasn't until Henry Chadwick was called upon to write about baseball in 1856 that the paper covered that sport with some breadth, depth, and quality. Widely read by even the players of the ball field and the stage, the Clipper was the authority on all things dramatic and on the dramatic side of all things athletic. The paper reported on a number of different sporting events, but baseball was allotted the most space. In addition to the games of all "major leagues," the Clipper occasionally included box scores and detailed accounts of college, semiprofessional, regional, and minor league games. Chadwick, who emigrated from England as a boy in 1837, wrote so augustly and prolifically about baseball that he soon became known as "the father of baseball." Accordingly, he never shied from taking a position on baseball disputes large and small.
In addition to writing for the Clipper, Chadwick wrote the annual Beadle's Dime Base Ball Player, a book-length guide to the game. The initial volume in 1860 included various sets of rules (the Massachusetts, New York, and new NABBP rules, for example), playing instructions, and a short history of the game. "In presenting this work to our readers," Chadwick wrote in the opening pages, "we claim for it the merit of being the first publication of its kind." Beadle's, indeed, was the first of many annual baseball guides. It sold about fifty thousand copies each year between 1860 and 1866 until other guides entered the market and pushed down its sales. The 1861 version featured the first comprehensive publication of player and team statistics, including all records of the 1860 NABBP season. The earliest use of batting average, a measure of player productivity that has remained central to baseball's numerical lexicon ever since, can be found in the 1864 volume. Beadle's continued to serve the baseball world as an authoritatively informative and prescriptive guide until 1881.
The media notwithstanding, one of the most effective tools for expanding the popularity of baseball was the Civil War. Both Confederate and Union soldiers played the game among themselves and, in some situations where there were prisoners, with each other. The war also provided new terminology to describe the game, which baseball's scribes quickly and long thereafter employed. Pitchers and catchers, for example, became known as the "battery" and a pitchers' array of pitches as his "arsenal." At the same time, however, the war drained the organized ranks of a good number of players. Although the NABBP saw the birth of clubs from nineteen new cities during the war, several more teams were not able to compete, and many had to fold. The better players may have enjoyed immunity from conscription, as their under-the-table salaries allowed them to buy their way out of the war. The result, after the war, was increased competition among fewer clubs for more talented players. The Civil War, thus, increased the popularity of baseball while decreasing the number of people who could play it; in turn, the heightened skill requirements further popularized the game. Despite the NABBP's prohibitions, teams began paying players and charging admission. The commodification of baseball had begun.
After the war, as the mounting interest in baseball created a voracious hunger for information about the game, the sport's media expanded and multiplied. The Ball Player's Book of Reference supplanted the primacy of Chadwick's guide, selling sixty-five thousand copies in 1867, its second year of publication. Chadwick himself contributed to the multiplicity of baseball guides, as he continued writing Beadle's and joined Robert De Witt in 1868 to write De Witt's Base-Ball Guide.
Across these guides and in the weeklies and dailies, baseball's writers debated the vices and virtues of the increasing commercial element of the sport. Chadwick was an adamant proponent of a return to baseball's simpler, less commercial ways. Profiting from the game himself, Chadwick did not decry the financial aspect of the game per se as much as he scorned much of the behavior that came from it. Gambling surrounded and infiltrated the game to such an extent that many fans lost interest in what they perceived to be fixed contests. Violence, too, sprung up in both the grandstands and on the playing field. And players were paid by deceptive and even criminal means. When Albert Spalding was a young pitcher for the Chicago Excelsiors, he was nominally hired as a clerk for a grocery store associated with the team's owner. William Marcy "Boss" Tweed directed the New York Mutuals, and he kept his team competitive by secretly putting his players on the New York City municipal payroll. At one point, according to Seymour, Tweed's eleven players earned a combined $38,000 a year in salaries. But while Chadwick (among others) was a vocal critic of these developments, he also helped popularize and refine baseball to an extent that it could scarcely escape commercialization. In 1868, indeed, the NABBP saw no alternative but to legalize professionalism. It hoped that by bringing salaries out in the open, it could remove some of the seedier elements that under-the-table payments elicited.
But the NABBP, now with more than two thousand member clubs spread across the country, had little power to stop the sport's insidious vices. After the 1870 season the association folded.
Two new associations emerged in its wake. On the one hand, ten of the NABBP's top clubs formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP), hoping to capitalize on the sport's increasing popularity. Baseball's Yankee traditionalists, on the other hand, created the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players (NAABBP) in 1871 in order to reclaim baseball's virtuous and redemptive qualities. But the latter association still could not escape the commercial element of the game, nor its controversies. According to Seymour, "The professional virus had so infected them that they could not even agree among themselves about gate receipts. Some clubs threatened to resign if gate money was allowed. Others warned they would quit if it were not. They had to put off making the decision, but it was tacitly understood that gate receipts could be accepted by clubs when on tour or by those who owned enclosed grounds and needed to defray expenses of upkeep."
The commodification of baseball, then, was not so much a virus as it was a drug. A traveling club simply could no longer exist without a direct source of income. But more than anything, Seymour contends, it was the coverage by the media that killed the NAABBP. Now informed of baseball games across the country by the daily press and sports weeklies, local fans were more interested in the far superior quality of play in the other new baseball association than they were in their own NAABBP clubs. Consequently, after four struggling years the NAABBP collapsed.
The NAPBBP lasted only five years. Although the new professional association featured the best players of the day, it suffered from three general problems: first, the association was considered a cesspool of out-of-control immorality, as gambling and all its related vices spread among the players, teams, and fans. As Seymour writes, "Its weak organization could not cope successfully with the cancerous evils of gambling, revolving, and hippodroming." Put differently, the NAPBBP appealed to working-class fans, not the sort of customers many of baseball's self-appointed guardians wished to attract. Second, as discussed in further detail below, the open and unregulated competition for players' services led to high salaries, which often drove teams into financial ruin. Third, there was a significant lack of competitive balance among the teams, with some clubs enjoying the most gifted players in the country and others barely able to complete a lineup. This led to financial ruin for many of the both exceptionally good teams (for few others could compete with them enough to offer a compelling form of entertainment) and the bad (no one wanted to see a team that consistently lost). Unable to resolve these problems, the NAPBBP folded after the 1875 season.
Excerpted from The Great Baseball Revolt by Robert B. Ross. Copyright © 2016 Robert B. Ross. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. The Professionalization of Baseball,
2. The Rise of the National League,
3. The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players,
4. Preparing for the Players League,
5. The Men Who Do the Work,
6. The 1890 Players League,
7. The Fall of the 1890 Players League,