Henry Oberbeck is barely a footnote in baseball history—he appeared in 66 American Association and Union Association games in 1883 and 1884, hitting just .176—but he scored a rare, early victory for the rights of players.
In 1883, after appearing in just two games with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, Oberbeck was released and signed with the Peoria Reds in the Northwestern League.
No records survive for Oberbeck’s time in Peoria, but the outfielder caught the eye of St. Louis Browns owner Chris von der Ahe, and the St. Louis native jumped his contract with Peoria to sign with the Browns on May 24.
Oberbeck’s short tenure with St. Louis was unimpressive. He played four games and was hitless in 14 at-bats. The Browns released him on June 23.
He found himself out of a job in the American Association and was unable to return to Peoria because he had been blackballed by the Northwestern League.
Oberbeck filed a lawsuit in St. Louis claiming the Browns owed him the entire amount of his contract –$785. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the “case is regarded as a test,” and is “being fought very earnestly.”
The March 1884 trial included testimony from Overbeck’s teammates, catcher/outfielder Tom Dolan and pitcher George “Jumbo” McGinnis. Dolan, a .204 lifetime hitter whose .214 average lowest among the Browns 1883 regulars testified that Oberbeck was a poor hitter who “hit wind nearly every time.” McGinnis also said Overbeck deserved to be released.
Despite the testimony of his teammates, the jury found in favor of Oberbeck and ordered the Browns to pay him $431.12—although most newspapers incorrectly reported the amount paid as $738.
The press assumed the decision would have a lasting impact. The Post-Dispatch said:
“The case is one of interest to base ball players, inasmuch as it proves that the contracts are binding upon the part of the club as well as the player.”
Oberbeck was signed by the Baltimore Monuments of the Union Association for 1884, and played a total of 60 games for Baltimore and the Kansas City Cowboys that season—he hit .186 as an outfielder/first baseman and was 0-5 in six appearances as a pitcher.
The Browns appealed the case and lost, but by the time the appellate court upheld the original decision in Henry Oberbeck v. Sportsman’s Park and Club Association in April of 1885, Oberbeck’s victory for the rights of baseball players was already largely forgotten.
In 1885, The Post-Dispatch said Oberbeck had been reinstated by the Northwestern League, although there is no record of his ever having returned to the league. The Youngstown Vindicator said he had signed with that city’s team in the Interstate league for 1885 season.
No statistics survive for Oberbeck after 1884, and his groundbreaking role in baseball’s labor movement is all but forgotten.
He returned to St. Louis after his career and worked for the post office until his death from cancer in 1921.