Ross, Robert B. The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016 (hardback). Ppxx+288. Notes and index. $29.95.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
In the University of Nebraska’s press release for this book, sports editor for The Nation Dave Zirin is quoted as saying that the story of the Players League is rarely referenced (in textbooks or history classes, one would assume), as this “failed attempt at radical baseball democracy” is obviously too threatening to include in both sports history and “in our collective people’s history.” I tend to disagree with him both on the lack of information presented to students (and the general public), as well as the level of “radicalness” of the association. First, a cursory review of texts used in my sports history class (and I would assume others throughout most US academic institutions), such as Rader’s on baseball, and Davies’ general text, both have references to the organization (though, admittedly, they are cursory—hence the need for an actual book on the topic, such as the one under review here). That runs counter to the assumption that the history of this league is somehow being kept under wraps.
Second, I tend to disagree with Zirin’s assessment of the endeavor as “radical.” While the players, such as the legendary John Montgomery Ward, certainly wished to challenge the dictatorial powers of team owners in the National League (and to a lesser extent, the American Association), and the reserve clause more specifically, Robert Ross’ excellent research in The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League clearly demonstrates (apparently to the chagrin of Ross and, one would assume, Zirin) that the Players League, while a frontal confrontation to the “powers-that-be” in the sport was only “radical” to a very, very restrained degree. The sense of disillusionment permeates much of Ross’ work, but particularly at the end when he chastises the billionaire owners and millionaire players for not allotting a greater proportion of profits to “the men and women—who ‘do the work’” in support of professional baseball (p. 200). This argument runs counter to some of what Ross articulates at the start of the book, that is, that the owners had to exert control over the players because they could not “deskill” the athletes, and thus, player salaries were the principal expense on the books of the various clubs. In other words, fans paid to see the players, not the owners or team management. Lesser-skilled competitors on the field meant fewer wins and fans and thus, less revenue and potential profits. Given this reality, it is difficult to argue that though certainly hard working, the individuals whom Ross wants to have a greater share of the profits (such as ushers and concession workers) tend to be lower-skilled. If the players had a right to revolt because they were skilled and were being taken advantage of, are the individuals who do the lower-skilled work noted above entitled to more of the profits? How much should they get, and who gets to make that determination?
The materials covered in the seven chapters of Ross’ work detail much of how professional baseball becomes a commercial juggernaut as well as a symbol of American Victorian-era mores. Overall, the book can be subdivided into two sections: the first three chapters covering the lead up to the establishment of the Players League, and the final four discussing the start-up process, the building of ballparks, the season, and the winding down (betrayal?) of the organization and its more “progressive” elements.
In the first two chapters, Ross examines the connection between the rise of mass media and baseball. He then details how teams (and specific owners) sought other avenues of cash flow: for example, Albert Spalding and the development of his empire of sporting goods (particularly, the offering of “official” baseballs and other equipment for sale to the general public). Further, Ross delves into how management sought to attract “the right kind” of fans (including women) and ensure that players presented (as much as possible) a picture of Victorian propriety (as opposed to the “riff-raff” that was the customer base for the American Association—the so called “Beer and Whisky League.”) This was accomplished through a trio of strategies which included territorial rights, attractive ballparks with concessions, and most significantly, increased control over the lives and pay of ballplayers. Beginning in Chapter 3, Ross recounts how Ward established a union of professional players, then challenged the legality of the reserve clause, and sought the establishment of a freer labor market for the athletes. Ward did this by positioning the on-field talent as workers toiling under adverse circumstances not of their choosing. After winning a court battle to “separate” from his employer, the New York Giants, Ward then proceeded to jump to the new organization. While the PL was supposed to be different (with even players having a seat at the management/ownership table), Ward does acknowledge that this is going to be a money making operation when he stated that “men who invest their capital in baseball mush have some assurance of its protection, or there will not be found men working to go into the business at all” (p. 66). Thus, even with some of the “radical” language and stipulations concerning division of profits, no reserve clause, and limitations to player movement during the season, the investors in the Players League were hoping to devise a model that was beneficial to players, but still generated a return on investments.
In Chapters 4 through 6, Ross’ extensive research sheds light on the goals of the league, the recruitment of capitalists (only those with good intentions toward labor, mind you), and some lesser coverage of the action of the field the association’s one year of existence. Of these, the most significant chapter is number five, wherein the author details some of the problems that arise with construction of the various ballparks for PL clubs. Here, we get a glimpse of how the PL dealt with the other workers who “did the work” of baseball (that being the behind the scene efforts—such as building the fields and grandstands). Given the limited amounts of capital with which to get the association off of the ground, it soon became imperative that there be a constant watch on costs associated with ballpark construction. Since the PL presented itself as a “workingmen’s” league, would the teams always use union labor to build their facilities? As Ross reveals, when the rubber met the road, limiting expenses became predominant. Thus, the league took the less-than-radical approach to pay union scale only in certain locales. To Ross’ chagrin, this meant that the PL, while coinciding with other workers’ movements, also collided with them as well (p. xix). Building the parks was not the only issue. While the PL outdrew the NL during this campaign, not all of the teams succeeded at the gate (and on the field) and that necessitated the movement of players during the year in an effort to improve on-field performance. Further, some of the teams had difficulty meeting payrolls and therefore had to jettison players no matter what the impact on the final product.
In the final chapter, Ross’ dismay with the PL comes through most clearly as he recounts how the “good” capitalists/players who owned the teams eventually moved toward folding their tent and accepted the National League’s offer to merge. “The players’ fatal mistake…was that they trusted their financial backers. They believed that capital would act in the interests of labor” (199). I was surprised that Ross was surprised enough to actually write this statement. Both the players and the owners of the PL wanted to challenge the established magnates, but they had to do so within a framework that dealt with the reality of late 19th century American economics. Ross gets a bit more realistic later in that page when he states that “building a league—constructing any industry—amid a political economy in which property does not come for free , is nearly impossible without an enormous sum of money, something the players did not have” (199). If the players had had the monies, would they have acted any differently in regard to seeking profit? Did the players accept not being paid for their labors when individual teams (such as the troubled Buffalo franchise) had difficulty meeting payroll? If property was not an issue, such as say in the Cuban League established after the 1959 Revolution, would players remain making a few hundred pesos if they had a chance to go elsewhere? Perhaps it would be worthwhile if Ross would interview Yasiel Puig and some of his compatriots now in MLB.
In summary, while I commend Ross for his excellent research in this worthwhile and highly readable book, it is necessary to chide him on his naivety that it was not just the owners who sought to improve their financial standing. I certainly rooted for the players as they sought free agency starting in the 1970s. However, their dramatic increase in pay has come about (grudgingly on the part of owners, I will admit), mostly because the fans (suckers?) are willing to pay more to see them perform both in person and via television. These are highly skilled athletes who can do what few others can. The call to have the players and owners to further “share in the profits of the game” with unskilled workers is going to be a tough sell to all constituencies in baseball (and other sports—both professional and collegiate). Paying a bit more for my ticket so that my team can afford a left-handed reliever who can help win in the playoffs is one thing, having to pay more for a beer so that the low-skilled concession worker can have a better life is not as feasible.
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of eight books. His most recent work, a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) will appear in the Spring of 2016 and is being published by McFarland.