- The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League by Robert B. Ross
For even serious students of early major league baseball history, there has typically been a rather minimal understanding of the details surrounding the “Players League” of 1890, an attempt by the players to install a radical form of baseball democracy in opposition to the longtime dictates of the National League. This new work by Professor Robert Ross has now provided an extremely well-researched and easy-to-read story of the league that should have lasted much longer than just one season.
The origins of the Players League can be found in the long-running discontent over the hated “reserve rule” that had been imposed by the National League club owners to bind players to their current teams indefinitely, until such time as a club might decide to trade an individual to another team of its choosing. The league had also regularly used the reserve rule as a vehicle for disciplining players and keeping salaries suppressed.
The continued refusal of the league owners to consider any easing of some of the reserve-rule provisions finally led to the players organizing what was essentially their first union in 1885, called the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Over the next few years, the National League steadfastly ignored the union’s requests to negotiate any reforms so that, in 1889, the players decided to begin organizing a new league. Investors were lined up in eight cities, and, with a considerable number of players jumping from the National League to their new teams, the Players League took the field for the 1890 season.
The author begins with three chapters dealing with the early history of baseball until 1890, where one condensed chapter would have likely sufficed, given that most readers of this specialized work would be familiar with the sport’s early history. Then, Ross launches [End Page 123] into the details of the Players League’s organization, the building of the new ballparks in each city, profit-sharing rules and player signings, and some brief highlights of the 1890 season—all of it well written without the endless game details that plague many baseball books.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the material for this reader proved to be the comprehensive details on the owners of each of the new league’s teams; virtually all of them were local business people or investors with no baseball background but an interest in financially improving themselves as quickly as possible. Despite the Players League outperforming the National League on all fronts in 1890, some of these new owners quickly began to panic because of the obviously long and expensive battle still ahead before anyone besides the players would make any money. Helped along by the tactics of the National League owners, the Players League owners quickly dissolved their franchises after just one season.
This book is a long overdue and important account of the Players League and is written much more in the style of a true historical work than the usual baseball books. It is a most welcome addition to the literature on nineteenth-century baseball.