Sports and Money in Baseball Part 1 History

About the marriage of money and sports in the history of baseball, about the National League and American Association.

Money and Sports: A History of the Marriage

The 1st professional baseball team was "owned" by the players themselves, and embodied a kind of players' control over when, where, and how they should play, as well as how profits should be shared. At the time, most other baseball players also liked the idea of this arrangement. It took more than 1/3 of a century to convince most of them that anyone else should "own" their labor or their contracts. (The basketball players took even longer.) And even in our enlightened era, many are still not convinced.

Prior to 1876, when the National League was formed, professional baseball players often moved around between whichever teams would pay them the most money, or they formed their own teams. But the capitalists who formed the new league had other ideas. They had the money for sports fields, promotion, and players' salaries, but they insisted that players sign contracts containing what was known as a reserve clause, giving their "owners" the right to reserve their services, and exclude them from playing for other league teams. This infuriated the players, but since these owners seemed to be the only ones around able to borrow the money to bankroll such a large-scale operation (and since a good many players earned big money "fringe benefits" by fixing games) most grudgingly took their pay packets and played the game.

In 1882, however, the American Association was formed. Although the new league also had what the players called a slave system--whereby owners doled out among themselves monopolistic rights for contracting certain players--at least now players could choose between the 2 leagues. This meant owners had to compete for them. But this free competition lasted only one year. The owners of the 2 leagues finally decided among themselves that monopoly was best for all of them, and they agreed not to hire each other's players. So the players were right back where they started.

In 1884, just 8 years after the National League was founded, its monopolistic ways of doing business were put to a stern test. Realtor Henry V. Lucas declared that the reserve rule "reserves all that is good for the owners." Since it was time to do something about the player's "bondage," he formed a new Union League. Naturally, the threat of free competition did not endear itself to the monopolists or their friends in the press. It was all-out war. But, as its finances plunged deeper and deeper into the red, the Union League collapsed after only one year. As part of the price of peace and profit, Lucas himself was admitted to the National League as owner of the St. Louis franchise. Monopoly was still intact.

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