Never Trust the Money

The history of American sports would have gone very differently if the players who founded the breakway Players League hadn’t tried to cut corners by bringing in investors, who didn’t even hesitate to sell them out one year later.

“The seeds of the destruction of the Players’ League in 1890 were that the players had to link with capitalists,” Thorn says. “It takes capital in the end. No matter how high your concept and how utopian your scheme—in the end, that takes money.”

And the NL’s shrewd ownership knew this all too well. Spalding, in particular, knew that the NL could not survive another year of competing with the PL; just one season of doing so had been all but financially ruinous. So he saw an opportunity to divide and conquer. At the end of the season, Spalding and other NL executives discreetly approached PL investors for the teams with the weakest financial situations, buying them out and convincing them to flip with a bluff about the financial picture in the NL. Spalding made it seem as if the NL had the resources to fight the PL for as long as it needed to—scaring investors and motivating them to cut panicked deals with the NL. Once a critical mass of investors had defected, there was no hope left for the players, despite their best efforts, and their league was gone.

“It really should have put the National League out of business,” Ross says of the Players’ League. “But it was the investor-owners, the non-playing owners, who sold them out. … The investors who were not ideologically interested in this sort of league, they saw this opportunity to join hands with the National League owners, and I think that was it.”

The NL’s owners had been financially battered by the whole exercise—but they walked out empowered. They decided that it would be as if the Players’ League had never existed in 1890; any player who had been subject to the reserve clause for an NL team in 1889 remained bound to the same team in 1891. The players, jaded by how quickly things had fallen apart, did not fight back in any meaningful capacity. Ward was devastated. He soon received a new contract—from one of the same executives whom he had just fought against—and found himself subject once again to the reserve clause he had worked so hard to topple.

“The players’ fatal mistake—and this was Ward’s fault as much as it was anyone else’s—was that they trusted their financial backers,” Ross wrote in The Great Baseball Revolt. “They believed that capital would act in the interests of labor. But building a league—constructing any industry—amid a political economy in which property does not come for free, is nearly impossible without an enormous initial sum of money, something the players did not have. Unable or unwilling to fight back, the players would not overturn the reserve rule again until 1975,” when the clause was removed in collective bargaining after Curt Flood had challenged it in court in 1969.

The reason the conscious transition to a parallel economy is so vital is because most successful startups are bought out for around $10 million by “investors” and are used to fund the “growth” of the established corporations, which exist as financial predators on a regular diet of usury, startups, government contracts, and legally-protected vertical monopolies.