Sunday, July 17, 2011

#42: A Clever Base Ballist by Bryan Di Salvatore

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 476 pages

I picked this book up for $6 at a used bookshop in Santa Cruz and found it money well spent. The "Clever Base ballist" of the title is a now mostly forgotten player with the Awesome handle of John Montgomery Ward. He is not related to the Montgomery Ward of Catalog fame. In his playing days, he was called Monte.

Monte Ward played from 1878 to 1894, married two different Broadway actresses, started the first baseball players union, instigated the 1890 Player's League and also found time to graduate from Colombia Law School. In all, not a bad life! As a player, Ward was one of a kind. He is the only player in major league history to win 100 games as a pitcher and collect 2000 hits. After he injured his arm in 1881, he shifted to the outfield and then to shortstop, playing with the NY Giants from 1883 to 1889. He also wrote an excellent book, How to Be a Ball Player, which is a perfect introduction to the world of 1880s baseball.

Even with all of this, his achievements on the field are secondary to his significance as an historical figure in the game. In 1890, the players revolted against the league magnates and formed their own league. Ward was at the forefront of this action, directed against the reserve clause and the so called "Brush Classification Scheme", both blatant attempts to unilaterally cap salaries. Di Salvatore involves not only the leading sports weeklies of the day (The Sporting Life, New York Clipper) but also the papers of Samuel Gompers and the Knights of Labor. Di Salvatore's writing is level, not celebratory or damning, which in this case is a tremendous asset.

Even though the book is over 10 years old, it is still timely. Much is made by many of the greed of professional athletes, but rarely is the greed of the owners of sports teams invoked. If anything can be learned from this book it is that some things never change. Try this rogues gallery on for size:

1. Arthur Soden: owner of the Boston NL club. Soden was a notorious cheapskate who "routinely forced his own players to buy tickets for their wives". At least two players in the 1890s said that Soden had no idea that they even played for his team.

2. Al Spalding: president of the Chicago White Stockings and onwer of Spalding Sporting goods. Ward, in response to a particularly vicious screed from Spalding, wrote in 1883 that "they call a player who accepts a proffered raise in salary a disorganizer and dangerous character." (192) During the Spalding World Tour, third baseman Ned Williamson injured his knee in England. Spalding made him pay his own way home and refused to pay for his hotel even when Williamson's health forced him to stay behind. (148-49)

Ward was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 1964, 38 years after his death. In the original 1936 voting for the hall, he received 3.6% of the vote, less than baseball's most notorious crook, Hal Chase. Less than the catcher for the great Chicago Cubs teams of the early 1900s (Johny Kling). He was forgotten in the 1930s, but should be celebrated by players everywhere for giving voice to the concerns of the people who actually play the games.

Ward disputed the owners on every level, and himself was quite a character. he was smart enough to fight them at their own game, even if the Player's League of 1890 wound up being a failure. Ward's story is also a nice slice of Gilded Age America. Ward was admired for being a hardworking, intelligent man who made his own way. He was not particularly well liked for speaking his mind or pointing out hypocrisy. Some things never change. Anyone interested in baseball history should read this book, as should anyone who is interested in the pivotal decades of the 1870s to 1920s.

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