Wednesday’s Book Review: “Baseball in 1889”

Baseball in 1889Baseball in 1889: Players vs. Owners. By Daniel M. Pearson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993.

This book is not a bad book, but it is a far cry from being a really good one. Daniel M. Pearson’s narrative is at one level a generic account of one season in the history of major league baseball. There many other books of that type, some of them superb. This one is adequate but not exceptional. At another level it is about the labor issue in baseball, and this is what makes the book a worthwhile reading experience.

In the latter 19th century major league owners instituted the “reserve clause” in which through successive one year contracts the owners could reserve the next year’s services of their players, and immediately tried to depress salaries. The players responded, under the leadership of John Montgomery Ward, by organizing a player’s “brotherhood” and later creating the unsuccessful Players League.This story is fascinating, but modestly told in this short history of a single season. It deserves better than what is available here.

Then there are the stories of Charles Comiskey, Chris Von der Ahe, and the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. They were a colorful pair, and the Browns are terrific team. Chris Von der Ahe, mustachioed and speaking with the accent that betrayed his birth in an obscure Germanic province in 1851, became the prototypical spotlight grabbing major league baseball team owner. He spent freely, indulged his players, and built the Browns into a baseball dynasty in the 1880s.

Von der Ahe loved the celebrity his ownership brought him, for now he was not just a prosperous businessman but also a public figure. It was an unbeatable combination, perhaps the real attraction for baseball ownership up to the present, and something repeated many times by many different owners since. The players and other owners play second fiddle to this story. And while the Browns were excellent in 1889, and had won the four previous American Association championships, they lost out to the Brooklyn team that year. Why was Von der Ahe featured as he was, except that his exploits make for interesting reading?

While the book has some positives, it is overall something of a disappointment. It has references and a bibliography, but no index. It rushes at the end and fails to tell the punchline of the labor dispute of 1889, when many players bolted and formed the Players League the next year.

The labor issue in sports is a fascinating area of investigation. Something that deserves more than in offered here.

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