Yesterday was opening day of baseball season.
It's a time of hope for the baseball fan. It's also a time of reflection.
Baseball is just a game. It never was anything else. Very few of those heroes of baseball were anything other than people with tremendous physical talents.
Of the precious few baseball players who's impact stretched beyond the boxscore, Jackie Robinson is the most remembered.
However, the one baseball player who's impact nearly changed the sport itself has been almost totally forgotten.
John Montgomery Ward was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964. He debuted with the Providence Grays on July 15, 1878, as a pitcher. He won 164 career games with a 2.15 ERA. He threw the second perfect game in baseball history.
When an injury ended his pitching career in 1884, he learned to throw with his other arm and became a shortstop and second baseman. He went on to collect over 2,100 hits and steal 540 bases, including 111 in just one season.
He played on two pennant winning New York Giants teams, and managed the team for two other seasons. No other player in the history of baseball has won over 100 games as a pitcher and also collected over 2,000 hits.
For all these reasons he deserves to be remembered.
However, these accomplishments were nothing in comparison to the real legacy that defined him as a person and left its mark on baseball.
At the age of 13 Ward began attending Penn State University, where some attribute him to developing the first curve ball.
The following year his parents died and he was forced to quit school to earn his own living. After failing at being a traveling salesman, he joined a semi-pro baseball team. A few years later the team folded, which gave him an opportunity to sign a contract with the Providence Grays in the newly formed National League.
At the age of 20, Ward became a player-manager for the Grays.
In those days a pitcher almost always threw complete games. Ward consistently pitched over 600 innings a year. In fact, in 1882 he threw an 18-inning complete game. This kind of wear and tear contributed to ending his pitching career at the ripe old age of 23.
The Grays, knowing his career as a pitcher was over, sold his contract to the New York Giants, where Ward began playing shortstop.
While in New York, Ward went back to college and graduated from the Columbia Law School in 1885.
That's where his story gets interesting.
"Is the Base-ball player a Chattel?"
|"I will confine myself to a consideration of these relations as they have been induced by the action of the reserve-rule. I will first describe briefly the origin, intent, and effect of the rule; I will then trace in detail its subsequent development; I will show that there has been a complete departure from its original intent, and in consequence a total change in its effect; that abuse after abuse has been fastened upon it, until, instead of being used to the ends for which it was formed, it has become a mere pretence for the practice of wrong."
- John Montgomery Ward, August 1887
It was the first labor union in professional sports history.
The Brotherhoods had a long list of grievances: an end to extra duties, such as collecting tickets and sweeping up after games; an end to player sales in which the player gets nothing; and most of all, an end to the reserve system.
This is how John Ward described the reserve system:
The first reserve agreement was entered into by the club members of the National League September 30, 1879. By that compact each club was conceded the privilege of reserving for the season of 1880 five of its players of the season of 1879, and each of the eight clubs pledged itself not to employ any player so reserved by any of the others. The five men so chosen by each club were thus forced either to sign with the club reserving them at its own terms or withdraw to some club not a member of the League; and, as there were no such clubs then in existence, the reservation was practically without alternative. The club thus appropriated to itself an absolute control over the labor of five of its men, and this number has since been enlarged to eleven, so that now the club controls practically its entire team.While the reserve system enabled poor teams to more easily stay solvent, it came at a cost born entirely by the players themselves.
You have to remember that in these days, professional baseball was a part-time job, and a poorly paid one at that. The reserve system locked a player into a club for life. If he didn't like it he could sit out a season, but when he came back no club would talk to him expect for team with the reserve claim on him.
While the club could unilaterally release a player and end his contract, it could still retain the reserve claim.
This monopoly system led to extreme abuses. Ward gives a good example of this:
A practical illustration of the working of this construction was given in the case of Charlie Foley. During the season of 1883 he contracted a malady which incapacitated him for play. He was laid off without pay, though still held subject to the direction of his club. In the fall he was placed among the players reserved by the club, though he had not been on the club's pay-roll for months. The following spring he was still unable to play, and the Buffalo Club refused to either sign or release him. He recovered somewhat, and offered his services to the club, but it still refused to sign him. Having been put to great expense in securing treatment, his funds were exhausted, and it became absolutely necessary for him to do something. He had offers from several minor clubs, to whom he would still would have been a valuable player, but on asking for his release from Buffalo it was again refused. He was compelled to remain idle all that summer, without funds to pay for medical treatment; and then, to crown all, the Buffalo Club again reserved him in the fall of 1884.The following year the Brotherhood, with Ward as it leader, announced itself to the world and began agitating for players rights. They had managed to sign up most of the players of the National league, and some of the American Association players. At first there was some mild success, and they won the right to negotiate with other teams after being forced to take a pay cut by their current team.
However, even that modest victory caused a backlash.
After the Giants won the National League Pennant in 1888, the team set off on a first-ever world tour. Meanwhile, the owners met and designed a "Brush Classification Plan" in which the most a player could get in salary was $2,500. The New York Giants then sold Ward to the Washington Nationals for a record price of $12,000.
Ward was furious. He left the tour and demanded a meeting with the owners, as a representative of the Brotherhood, to discuss the classification system. He also demanded a share of his own sale price from Washington.
The owners refused to discuss the classification system with him, and Washington refused to pay him for his sale, thus nullifying the deal. During this time Ward still managed to bat .299 as the Giants won another NL Pennant.
In 1889 the National League began charging players rent for use of team uniforms, and $0.50 a day for meal money.
The Brotherhood was ready to go on strike, "a strike which will be the biggest thing ever heard of in the baseball world."
A Structure to Last Forever
"We believe it is possible to conduct our national game upon lines which will not infringe upon individual and natural rights. We ask to be judged solely by our business conducted more intelligently under a plan which excludes everything arbitrary and un-American, we look forward with confidence to the support of the public and the future of the national game."
- John Ward, November 8, 1889
Ward realized that the owners didn't take The Brotherhood seriously, so he threatened to form an alternative league.
The owners scoffed at Ward. They considered it an idle threat.
The owners had underestimated Ward. They failed to recognize his connections in the business community, not to mention his influence amongst the players. In 1890 the Players' National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed.
56 National League players defected to the Players' League, including 15 future Hall of Fame players. Also, most of the St. Louis Browns of the American Association became a Players' League franchise. It consisted of eight teams. Ward managed one of them - Brooklyn Ward's Wonders - which finished second behind the Boston Reds.
The new league had a profit sharing system for the players and had no reserve system or classification plan. The league was operated on a cooperative basis, with both owners and players sitting on the board of directors.
Gate receipts were split evenly amongst the clubs. The owners kept the first $10,000 per club, with the rest shared with the players. Many players bought stock in their clubs.
The Players' League wasn't just a competing baseball league. It was a radically different concept.
In brief, the sports leagues are cartels, whose members compete on the field but collude to varying degrees off the field in order to ensure a competitive balance among their teams to guarantee continued attendance. One of the key characteristics of this organizational structure is that players are contracted employees, and have no ownership interest in the corporations (clubs) for whom they work. Also, players have no voice in league operations, and are subject to have the right to their labor traded or sold to other corporations (clubs) without the player's consent.8 The Players' League was the only attempt to create a rival league organized on a different basis. It was a co-operative, where players were investors in their clubs, player trades were by consent, and the "capitalists" (not owners) were to divide the profits equally with all the players.The National League owners called them "secessionists". They said the Player's league was "an edifice built on falsehood" and its members as "overpaid players". But they reserved their worst criticism for Ward, who they called an employer of the "terrorism peculiar to revolutionary movements". Sympathetic newspapers called him "'Judas' Montgomery Ward".
The National League lifted the salary cap when they began to see most of their star players leaving for the new league. When that didn't help, they began a bidding war to get the players back. The National League intentionally scheduled their games to conflict with with Players' League games, forcing the fans to chose.
Several NL teams went to court to try to enforce the reserve clause, but they were eventually rejected in the courts "upon the grounds that the contract is indefinite and uncertain." Ward's case was the first.
All the baseball leagues lost money in 1890, but the Player's League lost the least. The New York Giants of the National League had to be bailed out by the other owners or it would have folded. Meanwhile, the National League Cincinnati franchise was purchased in mid-season by a group of Players' League owners, including Ward.
The Player's League was well attended, and drew larger crowds than the National League in 1890. They were strongly supported by the labor unions of the time.
However, the profit sharing system cut into the PL owners' profits. The PL owners didn't realize how much money the NL owners were losing, and naively thought the NL was in a stronger position. They began meeting secretly with the National League, which offered hefty bribes to the owners.
After the season ended, the owners folded the league. When meeting with their NL counterparts, the PL owners barred the players from attending, including Ward. The Brooklyn, New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh franchises were merged into the National League.
|"The idea was as old as the hills, but its application to Base Ball had not yet been made. It was, in fact, the irrepressible conflict between Labor and Capital asserting itself under a new guise.... Like every other form of business enterprise, Base Ball depends for results on two independent divisions, the one to have absolute control over the system, and the other to engage in... the actual work of production."
- Andrew Spalding
With no other league to challenge the NL, player's salaries dropped 40% by 1893.
The only lasting monument of the Players' League was the Polo Grounds, which had been constructed for the New York Giants team of the Players' League, not the one in the National League of the same name.
"The Players' League is dead. Goodbye Players' League. Your life has been a stormy one. Because of your existence many a man has lost by thousands of dollars. And before long all that will be left of you is a memory--a sad, discouraging memory."
- The Sporting News
The reserve system would last until 1976.
Finishing a Legacy
Ward came back to the National League as a player-manager of the Brooklyn Grooms. Eventually he was traded back to the New York Giants, where he finished his professional career in 1894.
After retiring Ward became a part owner of the Boston Braves, but his primary career was a lawyer representing baseball players against the National League.
When the Federal League was created in 1914, Ward became a business manager for the Brooklyn Tip-Tops.
Eventually he found a passion for golf and became one of the best in the country at that too, winning several championships in New York.
Ward died of pneumonia in 1925 at the age of 65. His plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame fails to mention his involvement in the Brotherhood or the Players' League.