Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Ward Montgomery”

A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Ward Montgomery. By Bryan Di Salvatore. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Between 1878 and 1894 John Ward Montgomery amazed major league baseball fans on the field and exasperated owners off of it. As a pitcher for the then major league team in Providence, Rhode Island, 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 also 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. This clause was dreamed up by coal baron William A. Hulbert, whose intent was to ensure that the power in MLB resided with the owners rather than the players. 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.

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 amounts to some of the most interesting sections of this book. It was not until the 1970s that the players finally overturned the “reserve clause” and entered the current age of “free agency.”

The owners hired players, in essence treating them like other labor groups in the United States. Like other workingmen, the players sought to maximize their salaries and benefits, and confrontation resulted. In virtually all instances, these disputes ended with the owners gaining greater authority over their employees, and the players gained resentment at these developments.

The “reserve clause” 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.

Bryan Di Salvatore’s fine book is largely the story of Ward’s efforts to overcome the “plantation-style” rule of baseball owners. He was never able to do so, and he finally retired at age 34 after a 17 year career to undertake a lucrative law practice. This is very much a “life and times” biography and one will learn much about the milieu of the latter nineteenth century as well as about Ward and his baseball career. Di Salvatore’s broadening of the story helps significantly in understanding the development of the business of baseball. It places in context the larger owner/labor dynamics that have shaped Major League Baseball to the present.

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