With owners locking out the players and threatening to cancel weeks of games and even the season, baseball fans are swarming the internet with pleas, protests, and proposals.
Of the many ideas espoused, one key one is largely absent from the public discourse. The players should buck the owners and re-establish the Players League.
Long before the Major League Baseball Players Association, owners controlled nearly every aspect of the national pastime and hoarded almost all the wealth created by the players’ labor and fans’ expenditures. The owners of the 16 clubs in the two major leagues (the National League and American Association), instituted reserve clauses that completely removed the right of players to seek a better contract with another team or attempt to sign on with a preferred team or city. Moreover, the owners implemented strict salary caps and refused to contribute to any sort of pension system, even declining to assist widows with funeral expenses.
Out of this anti-worker context, players banded together to form the Brotherhood. Eventually, this movement culminated in a full-fledged revolt against the greedy owners. Most of the big leagues stars and many other players bolted to form their own Players League in 1890.
The Players League
With clubs in eight cities and the biggest names in baseball, the league offered fans a compelling spectacle. The PL outdrew its NL and AA counterparts in seven of its eight locations. Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers, King Kelly, and Old Hoss Radbourn led the Boston Reds to the pennant (this club would further prove the PL’s major league credentials by capturing the AA pennant in 1891).
Significantly, the clubs of the Players League were not the private possessions of eight rich non-athletes. Instead, the players themselves invested and jointly owned and operated the clubs along with what we today might call venture capitalists. New stadiums were built (including the Polo Grounds), players could veto trades, and revenue was split among all.
Despite winning the attendance war, the venture capitalists pulled out after the season. The players, too poor to continue on their own, conceded and returned to the NL and AA.
The revolt arguably contributed to the demise of the AA and contraction of the total number of big league clubs from 16 to 12 for a decade. The players themselves would not make a serious attempt at unionization for decades, and the reserve clause remained a pariah among contracts for nearly a century.
However, the Players League offers a fascinating possibility for an alternative Major League structure that removes billionaire owners from the equation.
The Reborn Players League
To end the current lockout and completely remove the possibility of future lockouts, the players should band together to expel the owners and recreate the Players League.
A different context exists today than in 1890, and this new situation increases the likelihood of a sustainable enterprise. For starters, the players have substantial wealth. Unlike their nineteenth century counterparts, stars and average players alike have accrued salaries in the millions. Moreover, players have earned millions more in advertisements and merchandise deals.
Social media offers another opportunity for additional revenue and the ability to connect directly with fans, and MLB has been slow to adopt winning digital strategies.
Investing even portions of these estates, combined with venture capital and future revenues, and a twenty-first century Players League becomes a more realistic possibility.
Moreover, Millennials and Generation Zers tend to focus their fandom on individual players and not teams. Think LeBron James, Tom Brady, Steph Curry, and Patrick Mahomes. A players-centered league might be better primed to carry professional baseball in the decades ahead.
Finally and most importantly, the Players League is a cool name!
Seriously, this semi-regular ownership-labor tension and resultant game disruption will continue until the players realize their power and lose the owners once and for all.
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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images