The Brotherhood
Commodifying Leisure | Elysian Fields | Wright and the Reds | National Association | William Hulbert
"Middle-Class Paradise" | "Beer and Whiskey League" | A. G. Spalding | The Brotherhood | Unimagined Baseball

By 1885, the reserve clause had been expanded to include every player on every roster. Outraged, New York Giants shortstop John Montgomery Ward, a graduate of Columbia Law School, helped found the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in New York City, in October, 1885 -- the first attempt by players to organize. In Ward's 1887 article, "Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?,"1 he blasted the owners' underhanded dealings and lack of fiscal discipline amongst themselves, calling for a league truly governed by legality and economic laws. This, he believed, would raise the sport to a respectable calling, consisting of serious professionals in the employment of real businessmen.

Spalding and the other owners, of course, would have nothing of it, further strengthening their grip on the players by setting a salary ceiling of $2,500 in 1889. Furthermore, they began charging players rent for the use of their uniforms.

Ward and the Brotherhood, financially backed by would-be owners, started the Players' League. They were dismissed as anarchists. However, the league was at first successful, legitimized by the defection of 56 National Leagues players, among them the wildly popular Michael "King" Kelly. The American Federation of Labor's Samuel Gompers offered his support to the Brotherhood's endeavor.

There were now three big leagues -- the National League, the Players' League, and the American Association. Attendance dropped precipitously for all three, although the press exagerrated gate receipts in support of their local teams. Spalding pledged to win out: "The National League will hold on until it is dashed to pieces against the rocks of rebellion and demoralization. . . . From this point on it will simply be a case of dog eat dog, and the dog with the bull dog tendencies will live the longest."2

The "bull dog" turned out to be Spalding, in spite of the National League's dire financial situation. Investors in the Players' League began to abandon it. Spalding rejoiced:

The Players' League is deader than the proverbial door-nail. When the spring comes and the grass is green upon the last resting place of anarchy, the national agreement will rise again in all its weight, and restore to America in all its purity its national pastime -- the great game of baseball.3

The Brotherhood was crushed, and in 1892, the American Association would be overwhelmed by the National League as well. Spalding's NL now held a monopoly on baseball, an inevitable result in his eyes:

The idea was as old as the hills, but its application to Base Ball had not yet been made [before the strike was ended]. It was, in fact, the irrepressible conflict between Labor and Capital asserting itself under a new guise. . . . Like every other form of business enterprise, Base Ball depends for results on two independent divisions, the one to have absolute control over the system, and the other to engage in. . . the actual work of production.4

1 John M. Ward, "Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?," Lippincott's Magazine 40 August 1887: 310-9, qtd. in Dean A. Sullivan, ed., Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1909 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995) 161-9.
2 Geoffrey C. Ward, Baseball: An Illustrated History (New York: Knopf, 1994) 39.
3 Ward, Baseball, 40.
4 Ward, Baseball, 40.

Ben Lisle -- American Studies at the University of Virginia -- December 2000