In 1889, future Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward, one of the premier players of early professional baseball, helped form the Players’ National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs in retaliation to discontent with how players in the National League and American Association were being paid. The league’s eight teams were populated largely by defectors from the existing major leagues and the quality of play was regarded as at least as high as that of the leagues in which the players themselves wielded far less power.
The Players’ League, in an era without mass media coverage or the potential for significant business backing, did not last long, but imagine such a product in the modern era–an eight-team league super-charged with the very best players in professional baseball. There would be sub-optimal drawbacks, of course–teams could not legally use the names of existing Major League (or Minor League) franchises and probably wouldn’t have access to many, if any, current MLB or MiLB stadiums, but as far as a television product? Consider the following lineup:
C–M.J. Melendez (Baseball America’s #42 prospect in baseball)
1B–Paul Goldschmidt (31 home runs, 138 wRC+ on the off-chance that you are reading St. Louis Bullpen and are not acquainted with him)
2B–Tommy Edman (41 doubles, 11 home runs, and a Gold Glove, again, if you have somehow wound up here without knowledge of the Cardinals’ starting second baseman)
3B–Yoán Moncada (122 wRC+ with the Chicago White Sox in 2021, is a former Gold Glove finalist)
SS–Xander Bogaerts (130 wRC+ in 2021, tied for his lowest mark in the last four seasons with the Boston Red Sox)
LF–Brandon Nimmo (coming off a second consecutive season with a .400+ OBP and a strong fielder for the New York Mets)
CF–Ketel Marte (139 wRC+ with the Arizona Diamondbacks; put up a 7-win season in 2019)
RF–George Springer (has three consecutive seasons with at least a 140 wRC+)
SP–Luis Garcia (not the former Cardinals one–the Houston Astros pitcher coming off a Rookie of the Year runner-up season with a 3.48 ERA and 3.63 FIP over 155 1/3 innings)
Does this lineup sound appealing to you? This is a lineup of the eighth best player at each position by 2022 projected ZiPS (with the exception of George Springer–the #8 right fielder, Whit Merrifield, has a total inflated by his playing second base, so I went to #9), along with the projected 40th best pitcher. In theory, this would be a fairly awful lineup and starting pitcher in a modernized Players’ League.
The quality of Major League Baseball players has never been higher than it is today. If the nine players I listed, none of whom are truly elite MLB players, suddenly disappeared from Major League Baseball’s rosters, it would be the biggest story in sports. Major League Baseball’s players do not merely create the product for Major League Baseball–they are the product. I would watch every game I could of an eight-team league–beyond principled objections to it, I wouldn’t watch a second of Major League Scab Ball because the quality of play simply wouldn’t be good enough for my tastes.
I do not want to be overly glib–baseball teams by their mere history have real value. Even if a Players’ League had all of the best players, the loss of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, or, yes, St. Louis Cardinals brands would be a very real one. But the reason these brands matter so much is because their uniforms were donned by Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Stan Musial, not to mention by Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw, or Yadier Molina. Any semi-serious baseball fan is well-acquainted with these six names. Hal Steinbrenner, Mark Walter, and Bill DeWitt Jr. are merely highly-compensated spectators to history. Steinbrenner and DeWitt, both of whom are sons of MLB owners, and Walter, the Dodgers’ controlling partner who is so anonymous that I, person who has been thinking about baseball owners a lot over the last few months, had to still look it up, are just guys in suits.
In December 2021, Major League Baseball owners voted unanimously to impose a work stoppage–while you may occasionally see a layperson refer to this event as a strike (I do think it is an honest mistake in most cases, as the most high-profile work stoppage in the sport’s history was, in 1994, a strike), this was a choice made solely by owners, the same group that a year earlier was attempting to short-change players on pro-rated salaries for the COVID-19 shortened regular season. It is owners who in 2019 were revealed to be distributing a “championship belt” for which team was most successful at suppressing player salaries in the salary arbitration process, and it was the owners who are seeing record revenues. Last season, the Atlanta Braves (who, because they are owned by Liberty Media, a publicly traded company, are required to disclose their financial statements to the public) raked in $568 million in total revenue. While it is easy to reflexively note that of course the team that won the World Series would have a lot of revenue, they managed to do this in a season in which their home stadium had COVID-related capacity reductions early in the season, and they haven’t parlayed this revenue windfall to re-sign their extremely popular, extremely productive face of the franchise in Freddie Freeman.
When Major League Baseball teams have financial records made available to the public, their high profitability becomes apparent. When Forbes Magazine, not exactly regarded as a publication for bleeding-heart liberals who would take any opportunity they could to promote the cause of labor over ownership, reports team values and team profits, the trend points clearly upward. There is nothing stopping privately-owned MLB teams from releasing their books to the public. They won’t for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that, while Nolan Arenado’s contract terms are widely spread throughout baseball media, the same scrutiny not being applied to Bill DeWitt Jr. means that the far less wealthy of the two men is the one most likely to simply be labeled a spoiled rich guy.
A work stoppage which cancels regular season MLB games, which seems inevitable in the next couple hours, will cost owners money, but it will be a drop in the bucket compared to how much money it will cost players, who are far less wealthy, have far fewer income streams, and have a far shorter window in which to make life-changing money. Owners know this, and owners believe (almost certainly correctly) that they can withstand short-term losses and that if players buckle under the financial pressure, it will be worth it in the end. Players have shown far more resolve than I anticipated, and while not capitulating on these matters of principle will likely hurt me as a baseball fan, I must acknowledge that I am not the protagonist of reality and that if players do not look out for what is best for them, nobody else will. Certainly, owners will not.
In previous generations of journalism, there was a desire for centrism–a belief that a reporter’s duty is to parrot the arguments of both sides and allow readers, listeners, or viewers to decide for themselves. But in the current generation, there is an increased willingness to call a lie a lie. MLB owners and the MLBPA are equal parties, in a legal sense, but that does not make their claims equally valid, which is what has, thankfully, prompted informed and objective baseball journalists such as Ken Rosenthal and Jeff Passan to holler from the rooftops that the emperor is, in fact, not wearing any clothes. Objectivity is being open to all viewpoints as a starting point, not remaining neutral even when some viewpoints are revealed to be without merit.