clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chained to the game: professional baseball and the reserve clause, part one

Professional baseball was predicated on the full control of players by owners. The first 15 years of this relationship established the foundation for the following 85 years of conflict.

Image from The National Pastime Museum

Since the creation of civilization, communities have grappled with how to balance freedom and safety. Frequently, the resolution has been the widespread denial of freedom of the masses in favor of elites obtaining absolute political and economic freedom. In America, these two issues came to a head during the Civil War, and although the side of freedom “won,” it merely presented a facade, behind which business moguls developed subtler forms of enslavement, masked by the supposed splendors of capitalism and the American Dream. Though the obvious form did not remain, these subtler kinds spread throughout society, inching their way into even the most seemingly innocuous parts, like baseball games. Since its creation as an organized sport, baseball’s owners have feasted on the players’ talents, creating a form of indentured servitude, the reserve clause, that dehumanized players by turning them into tools of labor and abstracting them from the general public.

William Hulbert, member of the Chicago Board of Trade, led the creation of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs in 1876, to replace the fragmented and weak National Association of Base Ball Players. This amalgamation of clubs placed control directly in the owners’ hands, though it was done under the guise of bringing a wholesome game to the American people at supposed great financial costs to themselves. They created monopolies over professional baseball in each city, and any player who tried to “jump” to another team was officially blacklisted, so that any team that signed such a player was removed from the league.[1]

As the popularity of particular players increased, the owners grappled with how to continue paying them under their market value, believing it was a travesty to pay players $12/hr when the general working population received far below that.[2] In response, in 1879, the owners developed the reserve clause, a form of indentured servitude that kept players from entering free agency. Though it started with each team being able to “reserve” 5 players for the following season, by 1887, the number had grown to 14 and included inactive players. Over this period, player salaries dropped 10 percent. When the American Association of Professional Baseball Players was founded in 1882 and proved to have staying power, the two leagues entered into agreement to respect the reserve clause.

The owners argued that the reserve clause guaranteed fair play, as no player would be able to play poorly or sit out a year in hopes of obtaining a new contract elsewhere. As a result, teams would build more unity that would translate to better on-field play and more marketing recognizability. This reasoning resonated with many new baseball fans at the time. The 1880s was a time of great industrialization, as railroad expansion created new opportunities for industry across the country, and individual employment gave way to large corporations that required the same deference of its employees as did baseball clubs.

With this industrialization emerged a new working class the owners utilized to exert control. The owners first tried to place players in this class to argue for salary capping, and when that ran its course, they painted the players as exploiting the working class by demanding excessive salaries out of proportion to the lazy lifestyles the players had assumed.

Several wealthy baseball fans throughout the years tried to create alternative leagues without the reserve clause. In 1883, Henry Lucas declared the reserve clause “an outrageous and unjustifiable chain on the freedom of players” and established the Union Association. But by that time, the National League had built such a monopoly on baseball talent and fandom that the new league lasted only a year before folding. The dissolution of this league gave the NL and AA owners incentive to create a stricter agreement on the basis of needing to figure out how to divvy up the Union Association players. This new agreement capped player salaries at $2,000 and granted owners full control over their players. Lucas himself supported the new agreement, accusing the players of trying to bankrupt the owners as they had done to him; though he supported the morality of the players’ argument, he obtained no personal benefit from it and so sided with the owners, who sought to further ingrain worker exploitation into the American economy.

After the collapse of the Union Association and the expansion of the reserve clause, players banded together to create a union, believing they might achieve the same results as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which was founded in 1881 and successfully fought for minimum wages and better working conditions. Led by Giants’ shortstop John Montgomery Ward in 1885, a number of players formed the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, but the nature of baseball was such that the union could not achieve similar results as other unions. Since baseball depends on fans’ interest in the sport and players, it is imperative that players present themselves as positively as possible, and so the owners and players utilized the press to try and influence fans. Ward took to various newspapers to explain his cause, stating that “the player has become a mere chattel” and baseball owners should renege the reserve clause before they “lay themselves open to the charge of being influenced by mere motives of revenge.”[4] Many newspapers issued editorials siding with the players, asserting that the owners’ “nefarious business is crippling the sport.”[5] The most emphatic supporter of the players was the Cincinnati Enquirer, which frequently published lengthy editorials on the subject, and other smaller newspaper throughout the country echoed these arguments.

John Montgomery Ward on the Daily Graphic
The Daily Graphic

The owners, backed by the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, issued a two-pronged justification: they argued that baseball had become a leading business and the owners thus should be able to treat players as capital, and the players were paid far more than their 12-hour job per week warranted, stealing money from the true working class. They also tried winning the public over by demonstrating the reserve clause’s flexibility and their own generosity in opposition to the players’ selfishness.

On April 18, 1885, the heads of the NL declared they would willing reinstate four players who had recently violated the reserve clause and allow them to choose their own team, provided they pay a $500 fine for doing so.[6] This did little to placate the players, who understood the act to be a declaration of war. The Brotherhood rapidly grew in membership, and the conflict came to a head in 1888, when all members refused to sign contracts with any club. Ward pressured the owners, asserting the Brotherhood’s decision to boycott baseball until the owners’ recognized their existence. He further declared that should the owners fail to do so, the players could easily find other “capitalists” to invest in a new baseball league and transfer many fans to this new league, thereby crippling the NL and the AA.[7]

Ward’s actions enraged many, however, who bought into the selfish players argument, and so he backed off his strong diatribe against the reserve clause, instead taking up more subtle and democratic language common to the Knights of Labor. He justified the strike by stating it fostered the same democratic spirit found within all labor organizations. The players eventually gave the league an ultimatum: by November 15th, they must negotiate with the players or suffer the loss of them to a new league. The owners initially rejected this ultimatum, labelling Ward a maverick in an attempt to undermine his connection to democracy and the working class, but two weeks later agreed to a meeting on November 17th. The two sides eventually agreed to a short ceasefire, but several months later, owners again began further exploiting the players, establishing a classification system that capped salaries at $2,500 and sought to punish veterans (who comprised the majority of the Brotherhood) by ensuring they would never reach the top classification.

As a response, the Brotherhood in 1890 created the Players’ League, funded partially by contributions from the collection of professional ballplayers in each city. The National League owners then sought a court injunction prohibiting players under reserve from joining the Players League. Through this, the owners specifically targeted Ward and other leaders, hoping to turn them into gang leaders and bullies, thereby undercutting public support for the movement and dissuading players from joining the PL. They argued the reserve rule existed to maintain competitive balance. Judge O’Brien denied the request for an injunction, but his hesitancy to define “reserve” left the door open for the owners to continue their exploitative practices. O’Brien refused to acknowledge Ward’s argument that the clause applied to all of professional baseball, declaring the term vague and enforceable only by the NL and AA. Each side, however, tried to spin the case into a decisive legal and moral victory in such a way that prolonged the dispute.

The failure of the Players League gave the owners largely unquestioned control over players for the next decade, until the players again tried to unionize. The Protective Association of Professional Ballplayers was a less “radical” version of the Brotherhood, that championed higher salaries without legally challenging the reserve clause. This time, the magnates were forced to at least appear to placate the players, because they could not afford to lose fans and players to the newly-created American League. Indeed, during this time, a number of star and future star NL players — including Cy Young, Jack Chesboro, and Nap Lajoie — jumped to the AL, where they received higher salaries. As a result, the owners, rather than acquiescing to player demands, exacted revenge. They instituted a number of rule changes, including widening home plate and making the first two fouled pitches strikes. The aim was to make it more difficult for players to reach base, thereby lowering their offensive statistics, making them unappealing to AL owners and giving NL ones cause to lower their salaries.[8]

But the plan backfired magnificently. The offensive onslaught in the AL created more bona fide stars in the eyes of the fans, and all NL teams saw massively decreased attendance rates, collectively outdrawing AL parks by a mere 25,000 fans, when the previous year the number had been roughly eight times that. However, the benefit of this new league to the players was short lived, because wealthy men in the end recognize their wealth stems from the continued exploitation of their laborers. So the two leagues came to a national agreement that established a commission to preside over inter-league disputes and fix contracts for minor league player sales. Under this commission, player salaries dropped to their lowest in over a decade, capped at $2,400.

Many beginnings in life prove indicative of their existence as a whole, and professional baseball is no exception. The first 15 years of its establishment introduced the main conflict that defined the owner-player relationship for over a century in the form of the reserve clause. The players and owners recognized this dispute hinged largely on public perception of each side, which varied according to general labor trends in these years. Though professional baseball labor disputes matched with labor disputes across the country, it frequently received special legal status that provided the battleground for owners and players in the twentieth century.


[1] Boston Post, February 7, 1876, p. 3.

[2] Krister Swanson, Baseball's Power Shift : How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture, 7.

[3] Cumberland Evening Times, April 17, 1937.

[4] Cincinnati Enquirer, February 15, 1885, p. 10.

[5] Memphis Daily Appeal, March 17, 1887 p. 4.

[6] Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1885, p. 11.

[7] Swanson, 15.

[8] Ibid., 52.