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OWNERS BEWARE: THE PLAYERS COULD FORM THEIR OWN LEAGUE

Before baseball cavalierly kisses off the rest of a once-promising season, the two sides in this war of attrition might want to consider a bit of history.

The salary cap is not exactly a brand new invention. More than a century ago, when baseball was in its infancy, management solemnly announced that the game was doomed, that they would all go broke unless financial constraints were imposed. The target - surprise - would be player salaries.Albert Spalding, first a pitcher and later an owner, headed the movement to correct the economic problem. His solution would be a ceiling on what players could earn. In view of the fact that he was no longer a player, this seemed like a perfectly plausible idea to him.

Spalding's proposal was the princely sum of $2,000 per player. That was an annual salary, not monthly meal money.

Predictably, this was not warmly embraced by the athletes. Their leader was John Montgomery Ward, a player who was the Marvin Miller of his time, a man who helped organize baseball's first union.

Ward's explanation for spearheading the original players' association was prophetic. "In 1885, the passage of the arbitrary $2,000 salary limit rule forced the organization of the Brotherhood for mutual protection of the players," he wrote.

Apparently, that salary cap was blithely ignored by owners, much as it occasionally seems to be flaunted these days in the NBA. Still, Ward's Brotherhood had other matters on its agenda - things like the reserve rule, an issue that, until Andy Messermith and Dave McNally, would prove to be a permanent problem for players.

Knowing it was a concern, the owners promised to abolish the troublesome rule. "Relying upon the faith of this understanding, the players signed for the following season," Ward wrote. "But lo! and behold! when the Arbitration Committee met, the rule was not rescinded."

The players were not amused by this oversight by the owners and they were even less happy when, in 1888, management created a classification system that further restricted salaries. Faced with another attack on player incomes, Ward decided that Spalding and his crowd were strictly excess baggage.

Ward and the players decided they could get along without Spalding and these other uppity owners.

And so, in 1890, the Players League was born. The players secured underwriters, some of them idealists appalled by the arrogance of owners who would set limits on salaries and insist on controlling players in perpetuity.

The athletes would be partners in the clubs, sharing costs and income. It was a simple solution for a simple time.

Management was appalled, especially when the new league attracted some of the game's biggest names. Players routinely moved from one team to another in those days. Now they would simply move from one league to another.

More distressing was the fact that the Players League set up shop in some of the cities where Spalding and his pals had their franchises. And what's more, they did very well.

At least, it seemed they did, according to published attendance figures. At year's end, the Players League claimed to have attracted 980,887 fans to 813,678 for the National League. It's likely that both figures were inflated for propaganda purposes. This was, after all, war.

The experiment lasted just one year. Both sides were bloodied by the adventure, eager for peace and grateful to declare it the following year.

Ward and Spalding, the main protagonists of that first showdown, wound up linked for a baseball eternity. Both are immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Perhaps.

Consider the possibilities if, in a fit of pique, the current crop of striking players decided to create a league without Reinsdorf and Steinbrenner, a league without O'Malley and Turner.

If the strike drags into 1995, long-term contract validity might be in question. Certainly it would make an interesting legal case.

And this modern declaration of independence has a ready-made name. The players could call it a league of their own.