History of Unions in Professional Baseball


Krister Swanson

Krister Swanson

Krister Swanson


Krister Swanson


Understanding the MLBPA’s success requires some brief background on the players’ early forays into unionization. Their first attempt at collective action took place in 1889, when a group of elite players known as the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players defected from the National League to form their own Players' League, a move based on the idea that player participation in club ownership would improve conditions and end the abusive practices made possible by the reserve clause.  The Brotherhood raised plenty of capital, and their circuit attracted many more fans over the course of the 1890 season than the more established National League.  The Players' League, however, was a short lived operation.  Its capital backing came largely from men excited about the prospect of owning a ball club but lacking the will for a protracted trade war.  National League magnates had no trouble buying out most of the Players' League financiers at the end of the season, and the Brotherhood was forced to accept harsh peace terms when its membership returned to the National League in 1891.

Ten years later, the Protective Association of Professional Baseball Players strove to raise player salaries by leveraging a trade war between the National League and its new rival, the upstart American League.  The Protective Association started strongly, but lost its impetus when American League President Ban Johnson successfully co-opted the Association and essentially turned it into a prospective talent pool for his new league.  Similarly, during the 1912 season, the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players helped start a trade war for player labor that gave rise to the Federal League.  Unfortunately for the players, Ban Johnson proved just as skillful in holding off a challenge as staging one, and the Federal League’s attempts to establish itself as the third major league failed miserably.  The Federal League’s dissolution ultimately harmed the players much more than the short lived Fraternity helped them.  The legal challenge from the Federal League’s Baltimore club resulted in Baseball’s infamous 1922 anti-trust exemption. This exemption, in combination with the reserve clause, gave team magnates literal ownership of their players’ labor for the next forty-five years.

By the 1930’s, when organized labor finally began to make gains in other segments of the economy, unionism in baseball languished under these monopolistic conditions.  One more attempt at unionization, the 1946 effort to establish the American Baseball Guild, was thwarted when team owners successfully reorganized the Guild into a company union led by highly paid stars content with their elite status. The Guild’s one small victory was the formation of a player pension program.  While the magnates did not realize it at the time, the common cause created by the pension later served as a critical flashpoint in shaping player militancy.  Outside of the new pension, conditions remained very much in favor of the owners, throughout the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.  A period marked by baseball labor peace more or less assured by a type of martial law, contributing to the widely held image of this era as “baseball’s golden age.” 


Valuable external links: (you need 10-12 of these)

EH.Net Article on the Economic History of Baseball – A valuable source of economic statistics and brief summaries of the major economic developments in the game’s history.


John Montgomery Ward at Wikipedia – A nice overview of the career of Brotherhood founder John Montgomery Ward.


BaseballReference.com – A wealth of team and individual statistics covering the entire history of professional baseball.