[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
Buried beneath the parking lots of US Cellular Field and under the ruins of old Comiskey Park are the remnants of two of Chicago’s most interesting labor struggles. The Players’ League, a short-lived professional baseball league that was partially owned and operated by many of the game’s best players at the time, located Brotherhood Park on this site in the spring of 1890. At the same time, the carpenters who were building this ballpark, along with those in the rest of the city, launched what would become a yearlong citywide strike for a shorter working day, better wages, and recognition of their unions. These two labor movements, which intersected at Brotherhood Park in April of that year, marked different and divergent struggles over the ways in which the city’s (and nation’s) entertainment and housing infrastructures would be built, operated, and enjoyed.
The Players’ League was largely the brainchild of John Montgomery Ward, an Ivy-League educated lawyer, union leader, and shortstop for the New York Giants of the National League. Ward joined most of his other teammates on the Giants in 1885 to form the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, the sport’s first labor union. The players organized the Brotherhood in response to the National League’s increasingly draconian and exploitative management practices. Salary caps, for instance, required most players to take second and third jobs during the offseason (and sometimes during the season) and the “reserve rule” prohibited players from moving from one team to another without their club’s permission. Baseball players were left with virtually no power over the conditions or remuneration for their labor. But by 1889, nearly all of the National League’s players were Brotherhood members.
After several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the National League, the Brotherhood formed the Players’ League in 1890, to take control of the increasingly profitable baseball industry from the owners and deliver it into the hands of the players themselves. The Players’ League located teams in Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Establishing a new league was not easy, because of the near monopoly held over the sport by the National League, and also the enormous initial costs of investing in new ballparks, new trolley lines to the ballparks, and new salaries for the players that would perform there.
At the same time as the Players’ League was searching for a suitable location for its Chicago franchise, the city’s several thousand carpenters were preparing for the biggest and most important work stoppage that they had ever taken part in. Under the umbrella of the United Carpenters’ Council, the city’s carpenter unions were striking for an eight-hour workday and a 40-cent per hour wage. For many carpenters the strike had broader implications. As Theodore Gestefeld of Local 28 put it,
This is not a struggle for wages and hours, but for the existence of the carpenters’ trade. And further, it is the battle of labor in general … It is a struggle for the dignity of labor, for the dignity of men. (“The Fight of the Carpenters,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 3/27/1890).
The Chicago carpenters had been making anywhere between $0.17 and $0.30 an hour and were working 10-hour days before the strike. A surplus of carpenters in Chicago and the surrounding areas, coupled with the workers’ previous failures to adequately organize, put the carpenters at a continual disadvantage during their futile campaigns for wage increases and an eight-hour day in 1886 and 1888. But by the spring of 1890, they had organized close to 90% of the city’s carpenters, a proportion that only increased in the months ahead.
After the strike began, the Players’ League’s Chicago franchise was one of only a few Chicago employers that managed to get any construction done during the month of April. Despite the pro-working class rhetoric of the baseball players, the leaders of the Chicago franchise (which, incidentally, included Charles Comiskey, the man after whom the American League White Sox ballpark, built at the same site, would later be named) decided to hire non-union carpenters to finish construction of Brotherhood Park. The league’s management pleaded with the Carpenters’ Council to cooperate, promising to hire a new contractor and a new architect, and to increase the scale of wages. They needed to finish construction in order to be ready for the start of the baseball season, the first week of May. But the union would not budge.
So on just the second day of the strike, the Players’ League sent out a crew of nonunion carpenters to the site. But soon after arriving, a group of union carpenters approached the men and convinced them to stop working and join the union. Less than a week later, a new, smaller group of men went to work on the ballpark, some constructing the grandstand and others sodding the field. Probably misinformed by their contractor that the union approved of their presence, the carpenters actually “raised a flurry at the headquarters of Union No. 28 by asking for their $5 a week which they said had been promised them” (“Intercepting Arrivals,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 4/16/1890). The local refused to pay them and after a long argument, the carpenters joined the union.
A crew of 25 non-union carpenters managed to break through picket lines on April 21, when they set to work on the upper tier of the grandstand. Soon after they began, however, hundreds of union carpenters marched to the ballpark in protest. Surrounding the strikebreakers, the union carpenters threatened bodily harm if they did not leave the worksite at once. They left, but not before the contractor had called for police protection. As soon as the police showed up, however, the bricklayers, who had been working all along under a favorable agreement their union had already reached with contractors, walked off the job as well. As part of their arbitration agreement, the bricklayers would work through carpenters’ strikes but not when police protection was called for strikebreakers.
Despite the ongoing carpenters’ strike, the Players’ League managed to finish construction in bits and pieces before the season began. But the fate of the two larger labor struggles ended in victory for Chicago’s union carpenters and defeat for the Players League. Facing an otherwise well-disciplined strike and the need to construct new buildings for the oncoming 1893 World’s Fair, the city contractors finally caved to most of the carpenters’ demands. The contract signed by the union carpenters stood for nine years and paved the way for several other successful union campaigns in the decades that followed.
The Players League, however, folded after one year. More interested in profit margins than working class solidarity, the player-investors were convinced by the end of the season that they could not successfully compete with the National League. They sold their shares and rejoined their old teams in the National League. Brotherhood Park was abandoned. It would take another 84 years, when free agency commenced, for professional baseball players to abolish the reserve rule and gain control over their wages and whereabouts. ◊