Not one fan in a thousand, I'd bet, has heard of baseball's Brotherhood War of 1890, and the vast majority of today's players, agents and club officials don't know anything about it, either. Yet out of this rebellion by the best baseball players of the era came attitudes that determined how team spectator sports would develop over the ensuing 50 years.
If you think that public resentment of highly paid athletes and the feeling that sports are becoming too commercialized are new phenomena, consider the following quote: "There was a time when the League stood for integrity and fair dealing. Today it stands for dollars and cents. Once it looked to the elevation of the game and an honest exhibition of the sport; today its eyes are on the turnstile. Men have come into the business for no other motive than to exploit it for every dollar in sight."
That 91-year-old statement is from a manifesto issued after the 1889 season by the Brotherhood of Ball Players, an organization to which most big leaguers belonged. The manifesto was intended to justify the players' plans to form a league of their own, beginning in 1890, an action considered more drastic than calling a strike—which was, itself, a pretty extreme idea a century ago.
In the 1880s, baseball was the only major professional sport in America, and there were two leagues. The National, founded in 1876, was older, stronger and charged more for tickets. The American Association, formed in 1881, was the equal of the National League on two counts: There was a mutual agreement to respect each club's exclusive right to the players on its reserve list and to share the proceeds from an early version of the World Series played each autumn between the pennant winners.
The Brotherhood began in 1885 as a benevolent association concerned with helping players in trouble and improving relations between management and players. When club owners tried, in 1888, to impose a stiff set of salary limits upon the players, the Brotherhood provided a base for player resistance. Its leader, chosen by the players, was John Montgomery Ward, star shortstop of the New York Giants, the National League champions in 1888, and one of the few players who had attended, and graduated college. After that season Ward and many other top players were taken on an around-the-world exhibition tour by the Chicago club's president, Albert Spalding, a former pitcher for the White Stockings and the owner most trusted by the players. But in a calculated move—that Spalding was well aware would take place—while the group was away, the National League enacted the pay-cutting "Brush Classification Plan," which fixed salaries at five different levels, with the best players, Grade A, receiving $2,500 a year.
When Ward and the other players returned from their tour and heard about the new pay scales, they were dismayed. Some even talked of staging a strike on July 4. But most players were wary of striking. Nearly all of them had signed contracts for the coming season, and they feared a loss of public support if they went out. Instead, the Brotherhood established a grievance committee and tried to negotiate with the National League. The negotiations were unsuccessful, and strike talk began again. But Ward thought he had a better idea—a new league. After the 1889 season he and the other Brotherhood leaders began lining up investors for the league, a cooperative venture in which players would share in both the management responsibilities and the profits.
One of the investors sympathetic to Ward's plan was Albert L. Johnson, a wealthy businessman. Johnson loved baseball and he believed that the owners were taking advantage of the players. He also owned a substantial number of streetcar lines around Cleveland, and he saw that an interest in a ball park there could be a profitable enterprise and might be fun, too. So Johnson spent a fair amount of his own time and money traveling to other cities to help get the new league organized.
Keeping their plans secret with remarkable effectiveness, backers were found for eight new teams, and then word of the infant league began to get out.
THE BALL PLAYERS' REVOLT cried a streamer in The New York Times of Sept. 23. "To Cast Off the Yoke of the League Bosses," said the subhead.
The next day's Times began a follow-up story this way: "From present appearances the Player's League baseball players intend to formulate their scheme of working on the cooperative plan and pocketing their earnings instead of allowing them to drop into the coffers of rich corporations."