Revisiting Baseball’s 1887 Labor Negotiations

John Montgomery Ward, far left, was responsible for creating baseball’s first player’s union. (via The Sporting News)

John Montgomery Ward was a baseball polymath. Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Ward was an orphan at age 14, expelled from Penn State for chicken theft at age 16, and a pitcher for the Providence Grays at age 18. By the age of 20, Ward had become the Grays star pitcher. In five seasons, he won 145 games, threw a perfect game, and generated 21.5 WAR.

After the 1882 season, Providence sold Ward to the New York Gothams. While in New York, Ward engaged in his other interests: education and celebrity. He earned degrees in law and philosophy from Columbia in 1885 and 1886 while avoiding any more incidents involving chickens. In 1887, he married Helen Dauvray, a well-known stage actress. Their marriage didn’t last, but Dauvray managed to find a place in baseball history anyway. From 1887-1893, she awarded the “Dauvray Cup”—made by Tiffany & Co. and “of the Grecian style, of massive and imposing appearance”—to the champions of baseball. The cup disappeared in 1893 after she and Ward divorced, following a marriage racked by his penchant for extramarital affairs.

Between his intellectual and celebrity pursuits, in 1885, Ward organized the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first players’ union in history of professional sports.

Ward had decided to unionize his fellow players as their working conditions deteriorated throughout the 1880s. In 1887, Ward and the Brotherhood began an effort to bring the National League to the negotiating table and confront the biggest problem facing the sport—the reserve clause. In August 1887, Ward published an article titled “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel” in Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science. Ward wrote that “Like a fugitive-slave law, the reserve-rule denies him a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape. We have, then, the curious result of a contract which on its face is for seven months being binding for life, and when the player’s name is once attached thereto his professional liberty is gone forever.”

Ward’s descriptions of the baseball players as chattel and his comparison to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 may seem hyperbolic to modern audiences, but they were common literary conventions of the time. Comparisons to slavery functioned as a rhetorical shorthand, designed to inflame the passions of readers and convince them of the righteousness of the player’s cause.

Thanks to the reserve clause, owners had gained increasing power over the business of baseball. In 1879, the eight teams of the National League agreed to allow each club to reserve five players. The clause prevented those players from signing with any team but their own. Additionally, teams agreed not to interfere with each other’s reserved players. Owners hoped the reserve clause would provide roster stability as well as flexibility, and maintain control over player costs.

In a sport where teams could go from profitable to bankrupt in a series of weeks, NL owners sought complete control over all parts of their business. This consolidation of power in the hands of a small number of owners mirrored the American economy as a whole. Just as Andrew Carnegie had consolidated his control over the nation’s steel industry or John D. Rockefeller had with oil, so too would Albert Spalding, John Day, and the rest of the NL owners control the fate of baseball.

Baseball’s robber barons were winning their war with labor. Ownership’s power over player through the reserve clause only grew in the years following its initial introduction. The number of players eligible for reservation rose from five to 11. Rival leagues had come and gone, but thanks to the National Agreement of 1883, the reserve clause survived. In addition, teams controlled their players’ contracts for as long as they wished.

As Ward explained, “the club may hold the player as long as it pleases, and may release him at any time, with or without cause, by a simple ten days’ notice; while the player is bound for life, and, no matter what his interests or wishes may be, cannot terminate the contract even by ten years’ notice.” By 1887, the National League and the rival American Association had formed a united front against any attacks on the reserve clause.

Despite all his saber-rattling and union organizing, Ward was a reluctant revolutionary. In his Lippincott‘s article, he testified to the positive benefits of the reserve clause. Ward argued that it had provided “stability to the game by preserving the playing strength of the teams, and it acted as a check on the increase of salaries. Its immediate results were clearly beneficial.” It was only recently, Ward stressed, that, “Instead of an institution for good, it has become one for evil; instead of a measure of protection, it has been used as a handle for the manipulation of a traffic in players, a sort of speculation in live stock, by which they are bought, sold, and transferred like so many sheep.”

To fix the sport, the labor organizer wrote, “The tangled web of legislation which now hampers the game must be cut away, and the business of base-ball made to rest on the ordinary business basis.” Apply the normal principles of business law and the game would take care of itself. Ward’s solution, however, was one that owners would never accept—not in the Gilded Age, not ever.

Ward, however, was not content with publishing articles in Lippincott’s. On August 28, 1887, Ward called the first meeting of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in Manhattan. Representatives from all eight teams of the National League attended.

Following Ward’s lead, the monumental occasion resulted in modest demands. Regarding the reserve clause, The Daily Inter Ocean reported that “most of the delegates thought it should stand with a few minor changes.” Instead the Brotherhood wanted changes to the league’s standard contract. They believed that if a team disbanded, players should become free agents rather than have their contracts sold off. They also favored the creation of a series of escalating fines to ward off fights among players.

In the weeks that followed the meeting, rumors were rampant of a player strike or the formation of a new league if the NL did not recognize the Brotherhood. On September 2, 1887, the Daily Inter Ocean reprinted a report that “Eastern capitalists” representing a wealthy syndicate had met with the Brotherhood and proposed to break away from the National League. The new league would have three-year contracts, feature the best players from the NL, and be based on the East Coast.

On Baseball, Game Design, and Output Randomness
Considering baseball through the lens of game design.

After the Brotherhood meeting, Ward confirmed the rumors of a breakaway league. He pressed for the National League to recognize and negotiate with the union at its winter meeting in November. League president Nicholas Young, however, refused to recognize the Brotherhood. He and the other owners would meet with a group of player representatives, but as individuals, not union leaders.

Ward, meanwhile, made it clear that he would have a seat at the table, either with the National League or somewhere else. He told a reporter that “there is plenty of money at our disposal to organize any association or league. We know of any amount of capitalists who want to invest their money in baseball. I will go further and say that we will be recognized as an organization and will all play next year whether the league people like it or not.”

Threats of a strike, meanwhile, carried much different connotations in 1887 than they do in 2019. As Reconstruction gave way to the Gilded Age, labor strife had spread across the United States. Owners had imposed rigid forms of industrial discipline, fining workers for tardiness, not working fast enough, failing to take care of their equipment, and any number of other small infractions. They unilaterally cut wages, fired workers, and created lethal work environments.

Labor began to strike back. In 1886, the Great Southwest Railroad Strike against Jay Gould’s Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific involved 200,000 unionized workers and ended in bloodshed, causing the collapse of the Knights of Labor. The Haymarket Riot of May 1886, which had begun as a rally in support of an eight-hour workday, caused the death of seven police officers and wounded dozens more. In November 1887, a white militia killed at least 35 striking African American sugar workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

Strikes—even among baseball players—were a serious matter. In October, George F. Williams, a former manager, pushed Ward to become a full-fledged revolutionary. In an article titled, “Our Base Ball Slaves: The Coming Battle Between the Managers and Players,” Williams attacked the National League for refusing to recognize the Brotherhood. He also criticized the Brotherhood for not trying to end the reserve clause. The Brotherhood’s refusal proved that the players “were willing to accept half a loaf where now they got no bread.” He encouraged the Brotherhood to accept nothing less than full recognition.

Williams ominously warned that the “struggle must come some day, and it had better come now than later. The result will depend upon the patience and cohesive qualities of the men who have so long been treated like chattels.”

The NL owners, meanwhile, had agreed to meet with the players, but were hesitant to recognize the Brotherhood. John B. Day, the owner of the New York Giants, remained defiant. He claimed the union  existed only because the owners allowed it and he would talk with Ward. But if he and the other owners “were convinced the organization would jeopardize the national game, they would have none of it, and the Brotherhood would get the worst of the deal.”

On November 16, 1887, the National League began its annual meeting at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in Manhattan. The league formally awarded the league championship to Detroit and approved rule changes negotiated with the American Association a few days before—including allowing for two substitutions per game, lowering the number of strikes from four to three, and counting walks as errors against the pitcher.

Ward applied pressure through the press for a meeting between the owners and the Brotherhood. As the owners settled down for their first day of meetings, the New York Herald published an article declaring that “Johnny Ward’s Brotherhood of Baseball Players Mean Business.” The Herald reported that “The Brotherhood feel that they have been ignored by the League in their efforts to have an equitable contract drafted.” Ward refused to comment on whether the players would withdraw from the NL without recognition and waited at the Barrett House for an invitation to meet with the owners.

For their part, the league owners doubted that Ward had the financial backing or courage to take the players out of the NL. Day supported granting the players a hearing with the league, but not recognition. Pittsburgh president William Nimick believed that Ward was bluffing. Other owners were not opposed to recognizing the players. Detroit owner Frederick Stearns cared only about getting a better revenue split for his champion Wolverines, threatening to join the American Association if he didn’t get it.

The next evening, the owners finally invited the Brotherhood to talk. At just after eight o’clock in the evening, Ward and two other members of the Brotherhood met with NL officials. The owners “informed the players that they did not object to receiving suggestions from the committee as players but they could not see why they should recognize the Brotherhood.”

As the two sides argued, Ward stood firm. Unknown to the owners, he had extracted a promise from the Brotherhood membership not to sign their contracts unless the league granted recognition. Rather than risk all-out labor war, the owners yielded. A.G. Spalding of the Chicago White Stockings proposed that the owners create a committee to negotiate with the Brotherhood over player contracts. Spalding, Day, and John Rodgers of Philadelphia agreed to meet with the players at noon on November 18 to hammer out an agreement.

The next day, the Brotherhood and the contingent from the NL met for nearly two and a half hours. Despite the rancor between the two sides, the negotiations were largely uneventful. The owners acceded to some of Ward’s demands. Teams would now have to seek a player’s consent before selling him to another team. Additionally, newly sold players’ contracts had to match or exceed their previous one. No longer could owners sell off a player and then offer him a lower salary.

There were other smaller concessions as well. Players now had the right to unconditional release rather than being reserved at no pay (injured players did not earn salaries). The league also capped the amount players would be charged for their uniforms at $30, and agreed to pay for housing during road trips.

For his part, Ward declared that “everything was perfectly satisfactory” and left to join the Giants, who were playing winter ball in California. The New York Herald declared “Peace in Baseball.”

While the owners granted some concessions, they came out of the negotiations with an even stronger reserve clause. The Brotherhood had agreed to raise the number of players eligible for the reserve clause to 14. Ownership refused to capitulate to the Brotherhood’s demand for players on disbanded teams being granted free agency. The new contract also included a number of provisions governing player behavior. One stipulation called for escalating fines for player drunkenness. Another called for players to show “a cheerful obedience to all directions that may be given him by any officer, manager, or field captain.”

Despite the claims of peace, the agreement was merely prelude to the coming labor war. The first ever negotiation between a players’ union and ownership resolved ancillary issues surrounding the sport. Teams could no longer nickel and dime players on uniforms and housing nor could they arbitrarily lower the salaries of players sold to new teams. But the reserve clause remained in place, stronger than ever.

An article published in the San Francisco Bulletin on December 31, 1887 foreshadowed the coming conflict. The author noted the horrors of the reserve clause and believed that “the players are already preparing to rebel against this tyranny and having organized the Brotherhood of Base-ball Players, they will soon demand reform, or strike. That such a strike would paralyze the diamond-field may be surmised from the fact that nearly every professional player in the country is a member of the Brotherhood.”

The player uprising would come in 1890, when John Montgomery Ward and his cabal of “Eastern capitalists” cast aside their moderation and broke away from the National League. Ward’s Player’s League lasted only a single season. The same wealthy syndicate that backed Brotherhood’s revolutionary efforts sold them out at the first sign of financial trouble. The players rejoined their former teams as the owners had defeated the players.

Ward’s turn towards labor radicalism occurred too late for the players of the 19th century. Owners and the reserve clause dominated baseball until Curt Flood and the arrival of Marvin Miller as the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. Within a decade, Miller had rid the sport of the reserve clause and won free agency for the players through collective bargaining, lawsuits, and arbitration. In the end, Miller had done what Ward could not; he applied the “normal principles of business law” to the business of baseball. The modern MLBPA might want to take note.

References and Resources

  • Bill Lamb, Society for American Baseball Research Bio Project, “John Montgomery Ward
  • John Montgomery Ward, “Is the Base Ball Player a Chattel?” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (August 1887), 310-319.
  • Baseball-Reference
  • “Sports of the Season,” The Washington Critic (Washington D.C.), May 18, 1887
  • “Ball Players in Council,” Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), August 29, 1887
  • “A Brotherhood Meeting,” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX) August 29, 1887
  • “A Sensational Story” Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), September 2, 1887
  • “Baseball Players,” Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), September 19, 1887
  • “Untitled Editorial,” Wheeling Register (Wheeling, WV) September 28, 1887
  • “Our Baseball Slaves,” Kansas City Times (Kansas City, KS) October 17, 1887
  • “The League-Brotherhood Fight,” Cleveland Plain-Dealer (Cleveland, OH) November 13, 1887
  • “Three Strikes Out,” Wheeling Register (Wheeling, WV) November 15, 1887
  • “Peril For The League,” New York Herald (New York, NY) November 16, 1887
  • “Baseball Dissensions,” New York Herald (New York, NY) November 17, 1887
  • “Peace in Baseball,” New York Herald (New York, NY) November 19, 1887
  • “The Evolution of Baseball,” San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, CA) December 31, 1887


Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia.

Comments are closed.