Cheap Seats

If owners don’t want to pay players, the players should form their own league — again

Major League Baseball owners, led by St. Louis Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., have made a power play this winter, showing players who the boss is by refusing to honor their annual winter tradition of lavishing multimillion-dollar contracts on star free agents and journeymen players alike.

As pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, about 100 experienced major leaguers were without a place to play, seeming to indicate that the owners’ gambit is working. Redbirds veteran hurler Adam Wainwright suggested a mid-season strike might be in the works. While that’s certainly possible because of the extreme swing in the way baseball business is done, what if the players decided to take things a step farther and walk away permanently instead?

That might not be as far-fetched as it might seem. It’s actually happened before when players — the stars of the major league show who put butts in stadium seats (and who today put eyes on big league television broadcasts) — took their bats and gloves and went home.

Fed up by tightfisted owners, in 1890, the best players in the National League quit their teams and formed their own baseball circuit, aptly called the Players League. It lasted only one season with virtual all-star clubs doing battle in eight cities. The Boston Reds, managed by the legendary King Kelly beat out Brooklyn’s Ward’s Wonders who drew their name from owner and manager, former New York Giants shortstop John Montgomery Ward. I wouldn’t doubt if such a thing could do even better today.

First, players are a lot more sophisticated than the largely uneducated players of the 19th century. More importantly, players are much better funded than they were all those years ago. They have the capital to survive lean startup years and the connections to find their way into television contracts and stadium deals. If Scott Boras can’t get the contract he thinks Bryce Harper is worth, maybe he’ll back the idea of putting the players in business for themselves. In 1890, the rebel players had jobs they were willing to walk away from to make their own path. Players who don’t have contracts don’t have anything to lose. Even if players don’t walk off the job in 2019 or 2020, it appears we’re definitely headed for a big confrontation when the current collective bargaining agreement is over.

Owners have decided they no longer like the 40-year-old arrangement that keeps players from hitting the open market until their early 30s because they believe they’re over-paying for free agent talent as it passes its “best before” date. Meanwhile, players object to the fact that they have little to no control over their earning power until their late 20s and early 30s, and when they finally get to the point where they can sell their skills to the highest bidder and play where they want to play, owners object that they’re too old.

We’re seeing similar efforts to take a slice of the major sports pie in the football world where the USFL managed to create a respectable following before gambling and losing when it recklessly decided to take the NFL on head-to-head. There was some interest in the short-lived XFL which managed to score a network television contract before disorganization doomed its first try. The league is currently reorganizing and will start to play games soon.

Some baseball historians argue the original Players League was a bust because it went out of business without doing away with the dreaded reserve clause that would stand for another 80 or so years. But it did a lot of good for players, pushing back owners proposals for further limiting their earning power and workplace rights. While players couldn’t get the owners to bid against each other for their services, at least they could get owners to treat them a little more fairly out of feat they’d lose their meal tickets.

Like in 1890, the players don’t have to create a platform to outdraw and defeat MLB in order to “win.” All they need to do is take a chunk of baseball’s audience to erode ownership profits and reclaim some control in their relationship with the teams. Ultimately, the Players League didn’t collapse under its own weight. It “failed” because some of it’s teams were absorbed by the then major league American Association, creating more big league jobs for their ranks, and other players found their way back to the National League under more favorable circumstances.

What could players want when they already make so much money? In the big picture, they see revenue going up exponentially while their share of the pie gets smaller and smaller. Yeah, it’s still a lot of money. But where does it stop? Are owners angling for a salary cap? Do they want to get rid of free agency altogether? Maybe guaranteed contracts will go away. It seems like things are poised to change fundamentally when the CBA is up. It won’t surprise me at all if owners exercise a nuclear option that is results in players firing a retaliatory strike.

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