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When baseball tried a salary cap | Frank's Place

It was 1889, and it did not go well.

The NBA has a $24 billion TV deal, a player (Steph Curry) who will earn $40 million annually, and a team (the Knicks) valued at $3.3 billion by Forbes despite front-office dysfunction and a four-year absence from the playoffs.

Perhaps someone more adept at math and modernity can explain to me why a league so financially robust needs a salary cap?

The simple answer, as LeBron James ($31 million annually) recently posited, may be that it allows owners to pay superstars like him and Curry far less than their true market value.

Baseball owners understood that concept 128 years ago when, with nearly disastrous results, they became the first - and for nearly a century the last - sports league to try a salary cap.

It sprang, as so many hare-brained ideas do, from soil amply fertilized by greed and small-mindedness.

"Professional baseball is on the wane," Albert Spalding, who owned the National League's Chicago franchise, moaned in 1881. "Salaries must come down . . . bankruptcy stares every team in the face."

As NL owners kept pinching, players kept pushing back until, in 1885, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players was born.

This was the Gilded Age and baseball's bigwigs chafed at their employees' brazen organizing effort. They called players "selfish" and "overpaid" and claimed salaries had tripled since professional baseball's early days.

The labor war intensified. Then on July 14, 1889, the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the Brotherhood symbolically issued a manifesto authored by New York star John Montgomery Ward, a Columbia-trained lawyer:

"Players have been bought, sold and exchanged as though they were sheep instead of American citizens," it read.

The league's counterpunch came that November, a plan to cap salaries concocted by John T. Brush, the owner of the Indianapolis Hoosiers.

Brush, a sour-faced department store mogul, was as devious as he was dyspeptic. "Chicanery is the ozone which keeps his old frame from snapping," one sportswriter noted, "and dark-lantern methods the food which vitalizes his tissues."

The "Brush Classification Plan" was a blatant attempt to limit and control salaries. It placed players into five pay grades. The classification process, not insignificantly, was to be done by the owners, who would weigh a player's value both on and off the field.

According to the scheme, adopted in November 1889, Class A ballplayers could earn up to $2,500 a year. The cap for each descending classification of major-league players would decline by $250 until it reached $1,500 for Class E.

But if autocratic owners were going to agree to pay even marginal players $1,500 a year, they also were going to extract a pound of flesh.

And so, in addition to their on-the-field duties, Class E players would be assigned other tasks. They might be required to rake the field, collect tickets, or clean the clubhouse. They also would be charged for the uniforms they wore.

The owners timed the news well. Ward and other top players were on a worldwide tour that winter. Word would not reach them until February, as they prepared for a game in Rome.

Back home, meanwhile, the Brotherhood's allies in the press expressed outrage. One of the most vocal was a Philadelphian named Francis Richter.

A sportswriter, Richter had invented the daily sports section while working at the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Later he founded the nation's first baseball magazine here, The Sporting Life.

"These men [owners] have come into the business for no other motive than to exploit it for every dollar in sight," Richter wrote in his publication.

The cap was the final straw. Ward and many of baseball's best - including Ed Delahanty and most of his Phillies teammates - soon bolted the NL and formed their own Players League.

One of its eight franchises would be in Philadelphia. Though occasionally called the Quakers, that team would, like several others here in the 19th century, name itself the Athletics.

In direct competition with the NL's Phillies and an American Association team also called the Athletics, they played at Forepaugh Park, a former circus site at Broad and Dauphin Streets in North Philadelphia.

"Initially, the Players' League outdrew its elder by as much as 50 percent," according to a 1988 Baseball Hall of Fame publication. "Soon, however, both circuits, struggling to persuade customers of their staying power, started to paper the houses and wildly inflate figures."

Though attendance totals were rarely made public, the new Athletics did draw 11,715 to a Memorial Day doubleheader, far larger than any of the more-established Phillies' reported crowds that season.

Still, the Players League endured only a single season. After negotiations with the NL that resulted in an end to the cap, the wayward players returned to the fold like the sheep Ward had insisted they were not.

But Brush wasn't done.

The labor turmoil had sunk his Indianapolis franchise, but by 1898 he was a New York Giants owner.

That year, in reaction to ongoing complaints about ballplayers' behavior, Brush persuaded his fellow owners to adopt a "Purification Plan."

An effort to stop "obscene, indecent or vulgar language" and encourage the support of "the refined and cultured classes," it advocated a kind of puritanical McCarthyism.

Everyone - teammates, owners, umpires, fans - was urged to report foul language by players to a three-man disciplinary panel whose members the owners had appointed.

Predictably, the rule was widely ignored and soon collapsed beneath the weight of its own self-righteousness.

Perhaps that failed experience with a salary cap got embedded into baseball's DNA. All these decades later, it remains the only major sport without one.

And, in another blow to Brush's legacy, the players' language is as bad as ever.