Baseball in America, Part II: Gilded Bats and Balls

Carl D. CarlucciCorrespondent IApril 12, 2017

This is the second part in a six part series that will explore the history of baseball and how the sport's history has, at times, interspersed with the history of the United States of America, through good times and bad, truly making it "America's Pastime."

Previously, we explored the American Civil War and how it played a role in the spread of the sport to where it became a symbol of the newly found American unity.

In this latest installment, we will explore the Gilded Age in American History and how the sport of baseball, in its infancy as an organized professional sport, took on several characteristics of the time period.

Titans of Business: Carnegie, Rockefeller...Frank DeHass Robison?

The Gilded Age in America is an aptly named time period when, beneath the shiny veneer of incredible wealth of a select few, most of the country's rapidly growing population lived in squalor.

While the opulence of Andrew Carnegie, Nelson D. Rockefeller, and Frank DeHass Robison did not belie the enormous economic growth postbellum, it's best to shroud the iniquity present in American society that was personified by the tenements of New York City.

Crucial to generating incredible wealth during the period was the utilization of vertical integration, which Andrew Carnegie is famous for using during the Gilded Age.

Frank DeHass Robison, owner of the Cleveland Spiders, utilized a system similar to vertical integration.

Although business people and economists might not necessarily consider this analogy accurate, it is illustrative enough to highlight one of baseball's similarities to Gilded Age America.

Much as the vertical integration allows each product in a supply chain to be owned by the same company, Robison owned everything in Cleveland that was essential to enjoy a baseball game.

Robison made the money to buy the Cleveland Spiders through his ownership of streetcars. When he purchased the Cleveland Forest Citys, he renamed them the Spiders and built a ballpark alongside one of the trolley lines he owned.

In this way, Robison owned every aspect of the supply chain necessary to watch a baseball game. His Cleveland Spider patrons would take the trolley to the ballgames, buy his tickets and then take his trolleys home.

Why do you think the Brooklyn Dodgers were named the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Because on the way to the game, patrons would have to dodge the oncoming trolley cars. In fact, the Dodgers were originally called the Trolleydodgers.

As the business of baseball mimicked the business of the Gilded Age, so would the labor situation. Part of the iniquity of the Gilded Age was the preponderance of success among big business in the face of labor strife.

The Players' League

In the late 19th century, America was beset with labor strife.

While Horatio Alger stories may have been popular in their day, they were far from truthful. For every Andrew Carnegie, there were millions of poor, destitute denizens of America's rapidly industrializing cities that worked unreasonable hours in deplorable conditions for unsatisfactory pay.

While that still may be the case in present day America, at least in the late nineteenth century baseball players were suffering through similar plights as most American workers.

There were no A-Rod's back in the Gilded Age.

Instead, players earned meager salaries, traveled around the states for a good part of the year and were subject to the whim of their owners. Collusion was rampant the abuse of baseball's reserve clause was at an all-time high.

For those who don't know, the reserve clause meant each player was, effectively, signed to a one year contract after which the player's rights were retained by their team. The player could not negotiate a deal with a different team or try to get a trade worked out. He was at the whim of his team. If they chose not to resign him or trade him, the player would be forced to remain inactive.

In an age when the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor (now the AFL-CIO) worked to organize common workers, baseball players also had their own union, The Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, which was the first sports labor union in America.

Incensed by the unfairness of the reserve clause, the union, under the leadership of John Montgomery Ward,  and half of the players in the National League formed their own league, the Player's League.

Unfortunately, after one season the team's owners, many of whom were business acquaintances of Ward, grew nervous at the prospect of not seeing a return on their investment and one by one sold their teams back to the National League or American Association.

The Player's League lasted just one season and the reserve clause remained in place for another 85 years.

Such was the fate of Gilded Age ballplayers, intimately tied to the millions of poor workers that toiled in factories for the titans of business with meager recompense for their labors.

But at least they could play.

A Gentleman's Agreement

Although the United States of America had, partly, gone to war in 1861 to emancipate slaves, racial problems were still prevalent in the country.

Jim Crow Laws were passed to institute racial segregation and disenfranchise recently freed blacks by instituting socially acceptable segregation.

"Separate but equal" was then declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. When it came to segregation, however, it seemed the baseball was ahead of the curve.

Since the founding of professional baseball in 1871, black players were not outlawed from playing in predominantly white professional baseball leagues.

But that didn't last long.

Star players such as Cap Anson, who was a significant figure in the early days of professional baseball, refused to play with blacks.

Eventually, the owners of clubs in the National League came to a "gentleman's agreement," in which no black players would be outlawed from the game. The year was 1888, eight years before the supreme court's ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson would make segregation legal throughout the country.

In only the way a sport so intimately tied to the American conscience as baseball can, the gentleman's agreement of the 1880's captured the unfortunate blatant racism of the nation and even its heroes of the diamond such as Cap Anson.

This injustice would last for nearly 60 years, but how it came undone is the story for another day.

What it Means to Be American

In the Gilded Age, being American apparently meant either being rich and exploiting the masses, being poor and at the whim of the rich or being black and being a second class citizen. Baseball accurately reflected all of this during the Gilded Age.

But lest we think nothing good can be said about the sport of baseball and how its history is intertwined with the history of America? Take a moment to consider the millions of immigrants entering the country during the Gilded Age.

Following or playing the sport of baseball became the way in which immigrants could be christened into American society.

Players of Irish descent began to populate the rosters of professional leagues since the inception of baseball as a professional sport. The original home run king, Roger Connor, was an Irishman.

This rite of passage through baseball just has its origins in the Gilded Age. Think about the hundreds of Latinos that play in the major leagues nowadays. Baseball as an institution of American culture has been a method of integration for countless ethnic groups immigrating to America.

This heritage of the sport has its roots in the Gilded Age and only further highlights the connection between baseball and America.

Although in case you thought everything was sunshine and lollipops, don't get too misty-eyed: Cap Anson refused to play with the Irish as well.


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