Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Third Major League

"It will be the best season the national game has ever had." That was the prediction of Players' League Secretary Frank Brunell in his letter to the players at the start of the 1890 season. I'm pretty sure he was eating those words by the end of the season. Though I guess it was the best season the Players' League ever saw, since it was their only one.

The Players' League grew out of the National League's Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, led by John Montgomery Ward. By the close of the 1889 season, the members of the Brotherhood were becoming increasingly disgruntled by the way owners were buying and selling players and determining their salaries. Rather than strike, as the rumors were hinting, Ward envisioned a different way of business altogether. He secured enough financial backing, many star players and the legal standing to form the third major league in time for the Players League to join National League and the American Association for the start of the 1890 season.

Throughout the season the baseball world became more focused on the competition between the leagues than what was happening on the field. In cities with teams from each league, the games were intentionally scheduled to conflict and each league inflated their attendance records in an effort to declare victory. The truth was that overall attendance was lower this year than it had been the previous year, despite having three leagues to choose from. Still, the Players' League often drew more fans than their rivals. The American Association and National League (NL) were losing money as a result of this low attendance and Albert Spalding, the head of the NL, was determined to fight till the death of the Players' League. The new league was also on shaky ground financially. Its financial backers, who were unaware of the NL's financial woes got nervous and folded to Spalding despite Ward's objections. By the end of the 1890 season the Players' League was defunct. This move meant that the owners again had the power and players were simply employees, setting the stage for all future sports leagues to be designed the same way.

The story of the Players' League captures the eternal struggle of management and labor but it also reminds me not to get so caught up in a fight that I forget what I am fighting for. It seems to me that the joy of the game was lost in 1890 as everyone was focused on the business of the leagues. I have a tendency to do the same when I feel wronged. I should learn from the failure of the Players' League, and remember to take time to enjoy the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd while I'm continuing to fight for my beliefs.

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