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Fears that New York teams will sign all the free agents — in 1912

Feb 15, 2012, 6:49 AM EDT

1911 baseball owners

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)

  1. lyon810 - Feb 15, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    Sounds like someone has been watching Ken Burns “Baseball”

  2. paperlions - Feb 15, 2012 at 7:25 AM

    Of course reporters don’t critically assess the systems/institutions they cover…because few people do…and because reporters are typically in too much of a hurry to understand what they are reporting on…much less to question it. You get a quote, you write a story, you move on….gotta be first, not best.

  3. heynerdlinger - Feb 15, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turned out that this reporter was actually on the take from one of the established leagues. We’re talking about 1912 here. These guys weren’t Cronkite.

    • yankeesfanlen - Feb 15, 2012 at 10:15 AM

      Indeed they weren’t Cronkite. Now we have Lupica- What progress!

      • cur68 - Feb 15, 2012 at 10:56 AM

        Heyman vehemently disagrees….and blocks you on twitter.

    • slavetothetrafficlight - Feb 15, 2012 at 2:01 PM

      “It was high time that someone came to the rescue of the downtrodden ballplayers… who have been forced by slave-driving employers to go South for their health for six weeks every spring, to toil a few hours every day, to ride around the country in special Pullman cars and put up at the swellest hotels and then to spend five months in the Winter purchasing automobiles, farms, and houses and wondering how to invest the remaining surplus of their salaries… The ballplayer has been feeding at a gold-lined trough for a good many years and the present conditions of his ‘slavery’ look pretty good to him.”

  4. snowbirdgothic - Feb 15, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    Fortunately, the competitive nature of those teams can be maintained by the good citizens undertaking a subscription to purchase on behalf of the city suitable accommodation spaces for horseless carriages during games.

  5. sdelmonte - Feb 15, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    I never heard of the USBL before, and I consider myself fairly well versed in old ball. I guess there is something new to learn everyday.

    Looked it up, BTW, and the NYC franchise was dead last when the league folded.

  6. simon94022 - Feb 15, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    The worst era for competitive balance was the 1950s, a decade that nearly killed the game outside New York, saw more than a third of the franchises relocate (including 2 New York teams), attendance stagnate everywhere, and football begin its rise to overtake baseball in popularity. New York teams won the World Series 8 years in a row, and 10 times in 12 years. Seven of those 12 Series were NY inter-borough contests. The Kansas City Athletics barely even disguised the fact that their business model was to be a Yankee farm team.

    Free agency was nowhere in sight, and the game was a complete mess. Yet even today there are legions of baseball writers who misremember the Fifties as a Golden Age.

    • yankeesfanlen - Feb 15, 2012 at 1:41 PM

      I fail to see the problem indicated in this scenario.

    • natstowngreg - Feb 15, 2012 at 2:01 PM

      The era was glorified thanks to New York writers.

      Yes, several teams moved but in a way, that helped baseball in the long run. Boston, Philly and St. Louis couldn’t support two teams. Moving left those markets with one team that has prospered. while opening up new markets. Likewise, the West Coast got baseball for the first time and New York got a new NL team 4 years later (Washington had to wait 34 years to get a new team).

    • dirtyharry1971 - Feb 16, 2012 at 12:26 AM

      the 50’s were the golden age indeed, that must have been a wonderful time to be a baseball fan, no doubt.

  7. simon94022 - Feb 15, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    By contrast to baseball’s stagnation and decline in the Fifties and Sixties, the late 70s and early 80s saw the advent of free agency — and the most competitively balanced era in the history of the sport, with attendance surging and baseball reversing its long post-World War II decline in popularity.

    It’s pretty hard to argue that free agency has been bad for the game.

    • cur68 - Feb 15, 2012 at 11:17 AM

      Free agency has made this post season very interesting and encourages players to go for BSOHL status. These are good things.

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