A Brief History of Baseball

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in 1995, just after baseball had emerged from it’s longest work stoppage. That’s why much of the focus is on baseball’s labor relations.

Origins of the Game

Unlike professional basketball and American football, interest in baseball has not been sweeping the globe . Declining participation at the amateur level and protracted labor problems at the professional level have thrust “America’s Pastime” into an era of uncertainty. Despite this current adversity, baseball will always occupy an important place in American culture. This column starts a three part look at the history of baseball.

Most cultures have some sort of stick and ball game, cricket being the most well-known. While the exact origins of baseball are unknown, most historians agree that it is based on the English game of rounders. It began to become quote popular in this country in the early 19th century, and many sources report the growing popularity of a game called “townball”, “base”, or “baseball”.

Throughout the early part of that century, small towns formed teams, and baseball clubs were formed in larger cities. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright wanted to formalize a list of rules by which all team could play. Much of that original code is still in place today. Although popular legend says that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday, baseball’s true father was Cartwright.

The first recorded baseball contest took place a year later, in 1846. Cartwright’s Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club in a game at the Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, New Jersey. These amateur games became more frequent and more popular. In 1857, a convention of amateur teams was called to discuss rules and other issues. Twenty five teams from the northeast sent delegates. The following year, they formed the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized baseball league. In its first year of operation, the league supported itself by occasionally charging fans for admission. The future looked very bright.

The early 1860s, however were a time of great turmoil in the United States. In those years of the Civil War, the number of baseball clubs dropped dramatically. But interest in baseball was carried to other parts of the country by Union soldiers, and when the war ended there were more people playing baseball than ever before. The league’s annual convention in 1868 drew delegates from over 100 clubs.

As the league grew, so did the expenses of playing. Charging admission to games started to become more common, and teams often had to seek out donations or sponsors to make trips. In order for teams to get the financial support they needed, winning became very important. Although the league was supposed to be comprised of amateurs, many players were secretly paid. Some were given jobs by sponsors, and some were secretly paid a salary just for playing.

In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings decided to become a completely professional team. Brothers Harry and George Wright recruited the best players from around the country, and beat all comers. The Cincinnati team won sixty-five games and lost none. The idea of paid players quickly caught on.

Some wanted baseball to remain an amateur endeavor, but there was no way they could compete with the professional teams. The amateur teams began to fade away as the best players became professionals. In 1871, the National Association became the first professional baseball league.

Professional Baseball’s First Hundred Years

Professional baseball was built on the foundation of the amateur leagues that preceded it. Interest in baseball as a spectator sport had been nourished for more than 25 years when the first professional league began operation. The National Association fielded nine teams in 1871, and grew to 13 teams by 1875.

The National Association was short-lived. The presence of gamblers undermined the public confidence in the games, and their presence at the games combined with the sale of liquor quickly drove most of their crowds away. Following the 1875 season, the National Association was replaced with the National League. Previously, players had owned the teams and run the games, but the National League was to be run by businessmen. They established standards and policies for ticket prices, schedules, and player contracts.

The businessmen demonstrated that professional baseball could be successful, and a rival league soon emerged. In 1882, the American Association started to compete with reduced ticket prices and teams in large cities. Rather than fight each other, the two leagues reached an accord, ratifying a National Agreement. It called for teams in both major leagues and all of the minor leagues to honor each other’s player contracts. In addition, the agreement allowed each team to bind a certain number of players with the Reserve Clause. This clause granted teams the rights to unilaterally renew a player’s contract, preventing him from entertaining other offers.

Needless to say, this infuriated the players. In 1884, they tried to form their own league, the Union Association. Many players left their teams for the freedom of the Union Association, but the league lasted only one season. The teams lost too much money to attempt a second season. Another attempt was made in 1890, when the Players League was formed. Most of the best players from the American Association and National League joined, but like its predecessor, the Players League went bankrupt after one season. The competition and loss of players forced the American Association to fold, too, with four of its best teams joining the National League.

The turn of the century brought another challenger, the American League, which started play in 1901. They raided most of the National League’s best players. In their attempt to meet the challenge, the National League owners turned on each other. A court injunction impaneled a three-man commission to run the league, and they found a way for the two-leagues to co-exist peacefully.

Through the first decade of the twentieth century, baseball remained a game of strategy. The so-called “dead ball” provided few homeruns. The game relied on contact-hitters, bunting, and base-stealing for its offense. The adoption of a ball with a cork center in 1911 change the game dramatically. Forty years of batting records began to fall, and the popularity of the game began to explode.

In 1914, yet another rival league tried to gain a foothold. The Federal League sought to establish its presence both on the field and in the courtroom. They sued, contending that the American and National Leagues constituted a monopoly. While the case languished in the legal system, the Federal League folded after just two seasons. In 1922, the Supreme Court settled the matter by ruling that baseball was exempt from anti-trust legislation. The Court unanimously acknowledged and confirmed baseball’s monopoly.

The Roaring Twenties were a great time for the United States and for baseball. A huge gambling scandal in 1919 brought sweeping reforms, and in the nation’s largest city, a legend was born. George “Babe” Ruth had been a successful pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, but the New York Yankees bought his contract and made him an outfielder. He was the most tremendous hitter the league had ever seen. Ruth revolutionized the game with his prowess as a homerun hitter. He ushered in an era of economic prosperity for baseball, and became one of the most popular individuals in American history.

Like other American men, a large percentage of ballplayers entered the armed forces during World War two. The forties were a difficult time for baseball, but a new era beckoned. Although it was not a written rule, baseball had always been racially segregated. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. But integration was a very slow process. Other teams were slow to adopt African-American and other minority players. It was another ten years before all of the teams had integrated , and it wasn’t until the early sixties that professional baseball could truly call itself integrated.

In 1960, yet another rival league appeared. Although a handful of teams had moved, most of them were concentrated in the northeast. Large cities in the south and west wanted teams of their own. The Continental League sought to win in court before they had a chance to go bankrupt on the field. Faced with the possibility of losing their monopoly, major league owners reached a compromise. They would agree to expand, growing from 16 teams to 24 by the end of the decade.

The players loved this, because expansion meant more jobs. Baseball prospered economically, as attendance continued to grow and national television and radio contracts brought in huge amounts of money. Soon, the players began to see that the owners were not sharing the wealth. Salaries had remained stagnant for many years, and the players were still bound by the reserve clause. Although they had a union, its only real function was to administer the meager pension former players received. Seeing the success of organized labor in the auto industry and the steel industry, the players decided to put some teeth into their union. After nearly a hundred years, the players wanted to regain some control of the game. And they would get it.

Labor Battles in the Modern Era

Professional baseball players had organized several times in baseball history, but they were never able to make the advances that unions in other industries had won for their members. The Major League Baseball Players Association had been around for more than thirty years, but its sole purpose had been to collect and administer a meager pension. Concerned about getting a piece of growing television revenues, the players sought to strengthen their union in 1965.

They hired Marvin Miller, a veteran labor organizer who had fought for the United Steelworkers union for years. He knew there was more at stake than adding broadcasting money to the pension fund. When Miller came on board and saw what the conditions were, he knew much more was at stake.

For one thing, the minimum salary was $6,000, just a thousand dollars more than it had been in 1947. As he began to collect data, the players were surprised at how poorly they were being paid. This education paved the way for the first collective bargaining agreement in 1968. It provided some modest improvements, but most importantly it gave the players some leverage. For nearly a hundred years, team owners had a “take it or leave it” relationship with players. The union could (and did) file complaints with the National Labor Relations Board when they were treated unfairly. Players also won the right to have their grievances heard before an independent arbitrator.

The owners did not like this. They did not like the union interfering in their business, and they did not like the players standing up to them. Curt Flood, one of the league’s premier centerfielders refused to report to training camp in 1969, demanding that the St. Louis Cardinals offer more than a $5000 raise. They relented, but after an unexceptional season, they traded him to Philadelphia. Flood did not want to go. He had strong ties to the community, and filed a suit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Flood argued that the Reserve Clause was illegal, and that he should be allowed to negotiate freely with other teams. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him, but it made a lot of players think.

By 1975, two pitchers decided to challenge the reserve clause again. It said that the teams had the right to renew a players contract for one year. They interpreted that to be recurring, that they could renew it every year. Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith refused to sign their contracts. If the reserve clause bound them for the 1975 season, there was no contract that could be renewed for 1976. An arbitrator upheld their case, and free agency was born.

Players were still bound to a team for the first few years of their career, but after that they could sign with any team. The owners couldn’t contain their excitement at this, and spent the next five years outbidding and outspending each other. The players were happy, because everyone’s salary was going up. But many owners were getting upset. When a player left, they got nothing in return. They argued that a team who lost a player should get something in return for compensation. Otherwise, the money they had invested in that player’s development would be lost. The players argued that this would severely limit their freedom. The two sides couldn’t agree, so in the middle of the 1981 season the players walked out.

There had been a brief player’s strike at the start of the 1972 season, which delayed the start of the season by 13 days. This was much more serious, and little negotiation took place. After fifty days, the owners relented and agreed to a modified compensation plan. In return, players not yet eligible for free-agency could have their salaries decided by an arbitrator. The economic issues was growing more complicated, and the adversarial relationship between owners and players grew more intense.

In 1985, the players struck again. The owners had hoped that salary arbitration would help keep salaries down, but it propelled them through the roof. The owners wanted to change it, the players said no way. After two days, the owners relented and the players came back.

Then the free-agent market suddenly and mysteriously dried up. Following the 1986 season, players in search of contracts found no bidders, and many re-signed with their teams for lower salaries. This continued for the next few years, until an arbitrator ruled that the owners had colluded. The collective bargaining prohibited that action, and the players were awarded damages.

This all set the stage for the worst battle of all. In 1992, the owners forced Commissioner to resign. The labor contract was about to expire, and they didn’t want him to interfere in negotiations. Turns out they didn’t want any negotiations either. Their had been a strike or a lockout every time the collective bargaining agreement expired, and the players didn’t want to go through that again. They started the 1994 season without a contract. The owners were insisting that a salary cap was necessary for teams to survive. They claimed free agency and salary arbitration were wrecking them. No progress was being made, so the players went on strike in August.

The World Series was canceled for the first time in 92 years. Fans across the country were disgusted and heartbroken. President Clinton appointed a mediator, but nothing happened. Finally, the owners decided to unilaterally implement their own plan. They assembled teams of replacement players and set out to start the 1995 season without the “real” players. The players asked for and got a restraining order, prohibiting the teams from implementing their plan and forcing them to work under the terms of the old agreement until a new one was reached.

It took almost two more years for a labor deal to be reached, and it finally happened in November of 1996. While it’s too soon to tell if the deal will address the financial problems that face Major League Baseball, it does offer the hope that fans can start thinking about the game on the field once again. Baseball has fallen behind other American sports in popularity, and it will take a lot of work to regain the prominence it once held in American culture. There is a long, proud history to build on, and baseball will enter its third century with reasons for optimism.