New Book Looks at Brief Life of Players League

While thumbing through “Total Baseball,” a history of the sport compiled by John Thorn, Bob Ross came across a brief entry on the Players League, a league that sprung into existence for one season in 1890 and then quickly disappeared.

It was right in the wheelhouse for Ross, a graduate student in geography, typically historical labor geography.

“It was an interesting story that I’d never heard before,” Ross said. “It was interesting as a quirk in baseball and as part of labor history.”

It became the topic of Ross’ dissertation and is now a book, “The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League,” printed through the University of Nebraska Press. It tells the tale of a league that sprouted up in competition to the dominant National League as well as against the reserve clause that would govern baseball up until the 1970s.

The Players League, as its name suggests, was organized by the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, which itself was organized by John Montgomery Ward, a future Hall of Famer who not only was a college graduate but graduated from Columbia Law School.

Among the stockholders in the league, specifically its Boston team, was another Hall of Famer, Mike “King” Kelly. Both were respected enough as players to give the league instant credibility, and many National League players jumped ship for the new league.

“I think that’s the most significant thing,” Ross said. “The players tried to take the business that employed them into their own hands. It wasn’t perfect, but the fact that these players – who had been relatively poorly treated and poorly paid – rose up and started their own league, that’s pretty fascinating.”

There were also many other people involved who went on to prominence, among them James Coogan, who owned part of the New York team. He would go on to be Manhattan borough president, but is most noted for being the owner of an expansive tract of land that would become home to the Polo Grounds – Coogan’s Bluff, the namesake of the “miracle” home run by Bobby Thomson in 1951.

Among the owners of the Cleveland team were the Johnson brothers, who owned a trolley line. They set up their ballpark on East 55th Street and the fittingly named Diamond Park. By comparison, the Cleveland National League Park was at East 35th and Euclid Avenue, but because the Players League Park was at the end of a trolley line, it was easier to get there from downtown – a fact that no doubt affected the construction of the first League Park, at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue, also at the end of a trolley line. (One of the Johnson brothers, Tom, went on to become possibly the most accomplished mayor in Cleveland history, and still has a statue in his honor on Public Square.

The league folded amid lawsuits and red ink, and the National League reigned supreme – and alone – for another decade until Ban Johnson started the American League. And Ross believes one of the reasons the Players League slipped into obscurity is because it didn’t effect any real change.

“A lot of things returned to the way they were in 1889,” Ross said. “Salaries went back down, the National League reigned supreme and the players were reserved by their team. But I think it set an example for players but also for fans as at least a temporarily successful labor struggle. It’s really hard to say the legacy in labor overall, but within the history of baseball, it’s significant that it took until 1975 for something like this to happen again. It shows how difficult it was for players to really make any money.”

Ross said it took longer than ten years to go from reading about it in “Total Baseball” to publishing the book, but it was a labor of love.

“I really enjoyed writing it,” he said. “I don’t think this will be my last book, but I’m not sure what I’ll do next.”

Photo: Nebraska Press

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