The Spitter History Project: 1890 – The Players League (Sigh…)

Years:  1890

A/K/A: The Players Revolt

Best Teams: Louisville (AA) 88-44, Brooklyn (NL) 86-43, Boston (PL) 81-48

Worst Teams: Buffalo (PL) 36-96, Pittsburgh (NL) 23-113, Brooklyn (AA) 26-73

Average Roster Size: 20

Average Pitching Staff Size: 7

Roster Highs: Pittsburgh (NL) used 46 players, Philadelphia (AA) used 43, but there were some extenuating circumstances.

Roster Lows: Chicago and Pittsburgh of the PL used 16 each.

Staff Highs: Pittsburgh (NL) used 22 pitches, while Buffalo’s PL team threw 16 moundsmen out there.

Staff Lows: Chicago’s PL team used only four.

Players Who You Should Know (But May Not): Kid Gleason, Scott Stratton, Billy Rhines, Sadie McMahon

Names, Names, Names: Kirtley Baker, Jersey Bakley, Sumner Bowman, Count Campeau, Hi Church, Egyptian Healy, Dad Lytle, Parson Nicholson, Jake Virtue

Died Too Soon: Ed Greer, Jim Lillie, Warren White, John Weyhing, Gus Williams

Solid Leadership: Jack Chapman, Bill McGunnigle

Horrible Mismanagement: Guy Hecker led the heinous Pittsburgh squad in the NL, but it wasn’t all his fault. Jim Kennedy formed the new Brooklyn AA team, which was a monumental flop on all fronts. Then there’s the Philly AA team.

Rule Changes: Nothing this year, as they were too busy warring with the players.

Let’s Play the Feud: Owners vs. the players – leading to the Players League. Then the PL backers vs. the PL players.

So, Here’s the Thing: Baseball was popular in certain markets, but there was enough uncertainty with teams going out of business that owners were concerned with their profit margins. John Brush, who owned the Indianapolis franchise, came up with a salary scale that infuriated the players. He folded the Hoosiers and earned a portion of the NY Giants and the next team up for sale in the NL.

Thanks to Brush’s scheme, the nascent Players’ Brotherhood had had it. Led by John Montgomery Ward, the players found their own backers and created their own league, the Players League. There was revenue sharing, as all players owned a stake in their teams. There also was a fairer release rule and some payments for injured players.

It’s on. Soon, contracts meant nothing. Neither did the reserve list. The NL was hit hard with many stars moving to the PL. Some jumped back and forth looking for the best deal. The AA wasn’t hit AS hard, but thanks to the financial uncertainty and the jumping on the 1889 champs Brooklyn to the NL, had to place new teams in small markets, so Syracuse, Toledo and Rochester came into the fold. A new team in Brooklyn was also formed.

The Players’ league was mostly after the NL. They put franchises in Boston, Brooklyn (which meant that borough had THREE teams), New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia (another three team city), and…Buffalo. Buffalo? Well, that did put the PL on a pretty small footprint, much like the NL.

There are many books about this year in baseball, but to surmise: it was a clusterfuck (which is probably the best term to use even if it’s NSFW). Teams’ parks were right next to each other. Schedules were written so patrons had to choose which team to support since the games started at the same time. Players jumped contracts – players were accused of going against the Brotherhood. Basically, everyone was disgusted.

Except for the winning teams. Louisville, which was god-awful rotten, didn’t lose many players, and won the AA even though they lost their ballpark early in the season due to a tornadoes. Brooklyn followed up its AA championship with an NL crown, even though they played 10 games less than Chicago. The Boston PL team, led by King Kelly, beat the favored Ward’s Wonders of John Montgomery Ward. But the pennant races and baseball on the field were secondary news thanks to all of the intrigue and shenanigans going on.

Pittsburgh’s NL team was the biggest loser. Most all of their best players jumped, leaving the Alleghenys a shell. They gave up 8.9 runs per game and were last in the NL on offense to boot. They were last in fielding percentage and had -10.5 dWAR.

Brooklyn’s new AA team was added late, after Billy Barnie decided to move his Baltimore team out of the AA and into the Atlantic Association. With little talent and no fan base, the Gladiators up and died in early August. Meanwhile, Barnie fled the dying Atlantic Association and came back to the AA (with favorable terms) to finish up their schedule.

The Philadelphia AA team, though, took the cake. Philly was a mad baseball town, supporting both the AA Athletics and the NL Quakers. In 1890, though, the PL came in and took the name Quakers, leaving the NL team with the sobriquet Phillies. The Athletics looked to be the favorites and on July 4th swept a double header against Columbus, drawing 11,000 people to their park. They held a six-game lead.

The team went 5-16 the rest of July, faltering against the other good teams in the AA, Louisville, St. Louis and Toledo. Seems they had a pretty favorable early schedule, and now reality set in. Interest plummeted, so the owners did the only practical thing, well, at least they thought it was practical. They released all of the players from their contracts, paying everyone on a per diem basis. Most of the good players skedaddled, leaving a couple of crumbums and washed up players. By September 16th, almost everyone was gone (six position players and two pitchers ended their careers in August or September 1890 with the team), and manager Bill Sharsig’s only recourse was to hire enough amateurs who were willing to play on a game-by-game basis – meal money and train fare for the most part.

In all, 113 players’ only major league experience was in 1890, and 25 more had just two years of time in the majors ending in 1890 (including six who played in 1884 and 1890 only). Fans were turned off, money was lost, several players were broke and the PL backers wanted out.

In the end, an uneasy peace was had, but the damage was done.

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