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How the Class Struggle Reached Left Field
Leonard Shecter
November 04, 1968
A specter was haunting big-league baseball, the specter one was quite sure what. It sometimes acted like a union, but its solidarity, falling short of forever, lasted for one season
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November 04, 1968

How The Class Struggle Reached Left Field

A specter was haunting big-league baseball, the specter one was quite sure what. It sometimes acted like a union, but its solidarity, falling short of forever, lasted for one season

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Salaries were getting out of hand. Chris von der Ahe, president of the St. Louis Browns, returned from a survey in the East, and he was shocked. "The Brooklyn club, "he said, "will pay Caruthers $5,000, Lovett $4,000, Foutz $3,500, Pinckney $3,000. In the year just past I paid out $50,000 for salaries alone. No club can stand such a drain and salaries must come down no matter what the consequences."

This was in the fall of 1888, and by the time spring blossomed in the land baseball had figured out what to do. Under the guiding hand of the tight-fisted John T. Brush, owner of the Indianapolis club, a Classification Plan had been introduced. Under this plan players were classified as to "habits, earnestness and special qualifications" and would be paid according to their classification thus:

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

The Classification Plan was designed not only to reduce salaries but to act as a check on the off-the-field behavior of the players. In those days, when baseball players were men with mustaches rather than clean-shaven business executives, they sometimes would go out of an evening and tear up a saloon or a bawdy house. Owners of ball clubs thought this was bad for the image of baseball—although it must be admitted the word "image" had not yet been uttered in this context. Also, irate saloonkeepers and madams were coming around to club owners and demanding they pay damages. In the future any player guilty of such practices would find himself lower down in the classification. If he didn't like it he could go back to the pig farm. It was an ingenious system, and in the year 1889 it worked perfectly—except for one thing. The Classification Plan so infuriated the ballplayers that they went off and formed their own league. In the process they came very close to destroying the National League.

The players used as the nucleus of their rebel organization the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, which was the first union of professional athletes. The Brotherhood was the invention of a Philadelphia sportswriter, William H. Voltz. He tried to introduce it in 1885 and was met with vast mistrust and almost as much disinterest. But in October of that year nine New York Giant players got together to form a branch of the Brotherhood, and the idea started to catch on. A year or so later there were chapters in every National League city, and the Brotherhood had some 90 members. It was not recognized even as an annoyance by the league moguls. But when the ballplayers were confronted with the Classification Plan they had an organization they could turn to.

They were fortunate, too, to have as a leader John Montgomery Ward, a rare bird in that he was a baseball player who not only had a college education but a law degree as well. He played baseball at Penn State, pitched for Providence as a professional, winning 44 games in 1879, and then, after he hurt his arm, became a first-rate shortstop, playing several years for the New York and Brooklyn clubs. Ward's intelligence and dynamism made the Brotherhood into a tight, well-functioning organization, which, had it wanted to, could have called a strike during the 1889 season. It was an open secret that virtually every player in the league was ready to lay down bat ball and glove over the July 4 weekend. But when the strike did not come off the moguls were not surprised. They did not think baseball players were good for much except wrecking saloons. They were quite wrong. Ward called off the strike because he had much bigger things in mind.

During that summer Ward gave the club owners a final chance to meet with him and redress player grievances. He could get no response and issued a fiery accusation: "A monopolist who denies to others the right to engage in the same business as himself, a proprietor who fences in all available territory and proclaims every would-be settler a trespasser and a thief; an arrogant capitalist who considers money the source of all power and the sole end of existence, an employer who stigmatizes his employees as 'no better than Army mules and insults their manhood by the imposition of the most arbitrary rules—such is the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, and against this an organization of players became an absolute necessity."

The demands of the Brotherhood were simple. They wanted an end to the Classification Plan and the abolition of the practice of buying and selling players. The club owners refused all demands. So, on Nov. 4, 1889 the players met at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York to organize their own league. There was a lot of sympathy for the players, but some newspapers attacked them as radicals. Even The Sporting News , which supported the Brotherhood, could not help kidding the players. "It was astonishing to see the number of players in tall hats," The Sporting News account said. "Larry Twitchell, the Cleveland leftfielder, wore the shiniest tile about the Fifth Avenue Hotel and Joe Mulvey had one on that looked as if it had done duty in many a parade. There was a big display of diamonds on the players' shirt fronts."

In a press release, the players said: "There was a time when the League stood for fair dealing. To-day it stands for dollars and cents. The managers [have] unlimited power and have not hesitated to use it in the most arbitrary way...."

Ward had made his plans carefully. He had enlisted "capitalists" in eight cities who were willing to put up $20,000 each. This was adequate since all one needed to construct a ball park in those days was a grassy field, some wooden benches and a fence to keep out the people who could not pay 50�. The capitalists had a variety of motives for making the investment. Cornelius Van Cott, one of the backers of the New York club, put it this way: "My interest in the Brotherhood is simply and purely a matter of principle. I don't believe in the buying and selling of men." On the other hand, Al Johnson of Cleveland was to admit, "I saw people paying $8,000 and $10,000 for players. I saw a chance to get them for nothing and I jumped at it."

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