Between 1878 and 1894 John Montgomery Ward amazed major league baseball (MLB) fans on the field and exasperated owners off of it. As a pitcher for Providence, he won 87 games in the two seasons of 1879 and 1880. He also pitched only the second perfect game in National League history. He later moved to shortstop and led the New York Giants to pennants in 1888-1889. His natural leadership skills ensured he had a future as team captain and manager.
But Ward infuriated the owners by bucking their system of control over the players. The National League had established a “reserve clause” binding a player to his team for life by “reserving” his services for the next season even without a signed contract. While the contract and hence the player could be traded, a player could not unilaterally choose to play for another team. The manner in which owners erected this legal means of controlling players represents one of the major issues in the history of MLB.
The “reserve clause” extended back to 1876 when coal baron William A. Hulbert set about ensuring that the power resided with the owners rather than the players of the National League, and while occasionally challenged the players had never been able to overturn it. The reserve clause stated that the club had the right to renew a player’s contract following each season—effectively making the player’s contract the property of the team that first acquired him for the rest of the player’s career.
This effectively established a baseball plantation system. Despite the game’s growing popularity and enormous income expansion over time, the average player’s salary stayed at almost exactly the same point—seven times the average of the general population—throughout more than a century.
This infuriated Ward, who was also a lawyer; he believed players should be allowed to ply their trade wherever someone was willing to pay them. Accordingly, he organized the Brotherhood of National League Players in 1885 as a fraternal order not unlike the Grange and other secret societies of the Gilded Age. In effect, this was the first union of professional baseball players. When Ward learned in 1889 that the owners had established a fixed scale of salaries, setting the upper limit at $2,500 for each season, he led a walkout and established the Player’s League controlled by ballplayers. It was a good idea but it failed after only a year because the competition ensured a financial disaster for both leagues.
Ward’s efforts to overcome the “plantation-style” rule of baseball owners was one of his most important contributions to MLB. He was never able to get as far as he wanted with this; essentially living a century before the freedoms that were won by the players in the 1970s. He finally retired at age 34 after a 17 year career to lead a lucrative law practice, passing in 1925.
It is important remember the name of John Montgomery Ward. His contributions to the game and the unionization of the players were quite significant. He played 90 years before the end of the “reserve clause” but he helped point the direction for the future.