Cubs: How Chicago’s Al Spalding broke the early players’ movement

(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

In 1876 Al Spalding went 47-12 with a 1.75 ERA, pitching 528 of the Chicago White Stockings’ (a precursor to the Chicago Cubs) 592 innings that season. He was first in wins and fifth in ERA.  He would throw just 11 innings in 1877 and then retired. He was only 26. Why did he leave so early? His Hall of Fame biography suggests he left before he would have failed since he could not master the new fad pitch then sweeping the nation called the “curve ball.” But his subsequent career suggests he simply did not want to be a player. He wanted to own them.

"Like a fugitive-slave law, the reserve-rule denies [the player] a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape.  — John Montgomery Ward, 1877"

Spalding joined the White Stockings’ front office under William Hulbert, and took over as president on Hulbert’s passing in 1882. Spalding initially kept the stars that Hulbert had assembled together, and they won three pennants in the next four years. But trouble was brewing for baseball in the 1880s, as the labor unrest shaking the nation began to affect the game. In 1887 John Montgomery Ward, star shortstop for the New York, penned this blistering broadside against the reserve clause (from which the above quote is drawn). The whole thing is worth a read if you’re into this period of baseball history.

Ward’s key point was that the reserve clause in players’ contracts was fundamentally unfair because it committed the player’s services to the team for life, while the team was only obligated to give the player ten days notice before cutting him loose. In the absence of the reserve clause, Ward argued, players could move more freely, enhancing their salaries and providing what we call today competitive balance. Here’s Ward again, describing the good old days before the reserve system:

"At the close of each season there was always a scramble for players for the following year: the well-balanced and successful team was especially subject to inroads, so that the particularly strong nine of one season was not unlikely to be a particularly weak one the next."

Care to guess which “well-balanced and successful team” Ward might have had in mind?

In a White Room: NL Pennants from 1876-1886

  • Chicago White Stockings: 6
  • Boston Red Stockings/Beaneaters: 3
  • Providence Grays: 2

Ward’s ire was particularly directed at the National Agreement of 1883 which established a truce between the National League and the American Association, a newer league which had begun raiding the NL’s players. Under the agreement each team in each league would refuse to sign a reserved player from another team if that player sought to jump. Spalding was able to keep the White Stockings together and continue winning pennants. Players’ bargaining power was further diminished.

But after the 1886 season Spalding made what appears in retrospect to have been an error. The White Stockings lost the 1886 World Series to the St. Louis Browns 4-2, but the teams’ respective performances were not that close. The Chicagoans had a team OPS of .554 during the Series, bad in any era. Disgusted with the poor performance of the team’s hard-drinking stars, Spalding decided to sell them. Their biggest star (short of the clean-living Cap Anson) was King Kelly, who Spalding sold to Boston for the royal sum of $10,000.

This was a staggering amount at the time, clear evidence for Ward that Kelly (and probably everyone else) was being underpaid. If Spalding could make $10,000 selling Kelly’s services to Boston, Ward reasoned, why couldn’t Kelly himself do that?

And then the players’ situation got worse. In late 1888 the NL owners agreed to an individual annual player salary cap (see pdf p.5) of $2500, and less for lesser players (the scheme had five tiers). This for Ward was the final straw. He began organizing a breakaway league (the Players League) which would begin playing in most of the existing NL cities in 1890.

The full story of the Players League is far beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that seven of the 13 players on the newly founded (and perhaps satirically named) Chicago Pirates jumped from the White Stockings. Spalding was not amused, and so he did what any red-blooded American would do under such circumstances: he sued.

As described in this excellent article, Spalding sought to enforce the reserve clause against the jumped players. He argued that the clause required each player to play for his respective 1889 team or not at all, and sought an injunction barring the former NL players from playing for the new Players League teams.

And he lost. The judge agreed with the argument Ward had made back in 1887: the reserve clause was so unbalanced in favor of the teams as to be fundamentally unfair and therefore unenforceable. The Players League would soldier on. Ward, a lawyer himself, must have relished this victory over Spalding, but it would prove hollow.

Cubs History: Al Spalding lost in court but won in reality

Spalding believed in a complete separation between player and management responsibilities, the antithesis of the Players League philosophy. This belief ultimately if perhaps accidentally prevailed in 1890. Because of the sudden increase in the supply of baseball games, teams across the baseball world lost money in 1890, but the established teams could more easily manage those losses. By the end of the 1890 season most of the PL teams were in or near financial ruin. Spalding, refusing to negotiate directly with any players, simply organized buyouts of the failing franchises, eliminating them as employment options. The players had no choice but to slink back to the established teams.

The Players League episode abounds with ironies. It was Spalding, the president of the Chicago team – a city steeped in labor activism – who led the charge against Ward’s pro-labor initiative. Ward specifically decided not to unionize the players even though that is the approach that would ultimately prove successful against the owners. (That said, Ward’s decision was almost certainly correct; labor law in 1890 was much more anti-union that it would be after the New Deal.) And the reserve clause, that supposed bastion of indentured baseball servitude, proved to be as legally meaningful as a cigar wrapper.

And yet … if you’ve read this far you are no doubt aware that the reserve clause indeed padlocked the players’ prison for most of baseball’s existence. How could an unenforceable contract clause do that? The answer lies in understanding that while the clause appears in a contract between player and team, as a practical matter it served as an agreement amongst the teams themselves. In short, the clause was a pledge to collude, and every team upheld that pledge. The only way to challenge the teams’ actions (or inactions – the clause embodied a collective decision to boycott disobedient players) was to win an antitrust case. You don’t need me to tell you how that went.

dark. Next. A history of the 25 greatest Cubs players of all-time

Though it was no doubt of little solace to Ward, his struggle would exact a measure of karmic revenge from Spalding and the Chicago franchise. In 1891, the Chicago team (now the Colts) would finish second, just 3.5 games out. They would finish no closer than eight games out until 1906. We’ll look at the franchise’s first march through the valley of the shadow of meh next.