In 1912, there was a startup third major league called the United States Baseball League. It had eight teams. It played for about a month before it collapsed. It happens.
A unique aspect of the USBL: the league approached the players as if they weren’t chattel. No reserve clause in the contracts. Multi-year deals. Annual free agency for those who signed for only one. This did not go over very well with the baseball establishment.
You’d figure that the National and American Leagues would hate it, but the media was just as scornful. We get a great glimpse into that today courtesy of Dan Lee, who posts a link to a Sporting Life newspaper article about this “outlaw league” over at Baseball Think Factory today. The thing has to be read in full to be appreciated, but this is fun stuff:
President William Abbott Witman, of the United States League, is out with a statement in which he says the new league will abandon slavery in base ball. there will be no reserve clause in the contracts…so that it will be possible for [players] to go where they please at the end of every season. Beautiful dream that …Its no-slavery platform and no-slavery stuff is great in the abstract, but the bunk elsewhere. Cut the reserve rule, and Cobb, Johnson, Lajoie, and such other players…would all be in New York, where the chances for biggest money are, while their present owners would be doing the best they could.
Imagine, all of the big free agents gravitating to the big market clubs. It would probably kill baseball as we know it!
The article continues to heap scorn on the USBL, especially its idea of multi-year deals. Noting — correctly, because the idea of guaranteed contracts did not appear to have been conceived — that no player would want to sign a multi-year deal. He’d go year-to-year if he had any confidence in himself, knowing that he could make more money via serial free agency if he was playing well. And knowing that if he played poorly, a guy on a multi-year deal would be released more quickly than a guy only there for a few more months.
The article ends by extolling the virtues of the reserve rule, and how baseball simply could not function unless the owners had complete control over their players. It’s a mindset that the players weren’t able to defeat for another 64 years. The owners, through collusion, refused to accept the idea for another 76 years. To put in perspective just how non-antiquated that mindset was among owners in shockingly recent days, understand this: the ideas espoused in that 1912 article led directly to the creation of the Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays.
The prescience of the big city teams signing big name free agents notwithstanding, it’s pretty amazing to look at a document like this and think about just how non-critically its authors thought about the institutions on which they were reporting. And it makes you wonder how critical modern reporters are of the institutions they cover, and whether we’re accepting things the way they are now simply because it hasn’t occurred to us to question them.
(Photo: American League Baseball Owners, 1911, from the Library of Congress Flickr page)