Brothers, all

September 11, 2013

JOHN MONGOMERY WARD

JOHN MONGOMERY WARD

When I held forth here recently on the subject of soprano Geraldine Farrar and her baseball-playing father, Sidney, I mentioned that Sid had bolted from the National League in 1890 to play in the maverick Players’ League. That put Sid in the middle of a significant but largely forgotten epoch in the history of the national game.

The Players League was the offspring of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, which was in effect the first union organized by professional athletes. The brains behind the Brotherhood was John Montgomery Ward, who was an outstanding player for five teams over 16 years. He was best known as a pitcher, although he also played shortstop and second base. In 1880, he pitched the second perfect game in the National League, for the Providence Grays (there wouldn’t be another one for 84 years) and in  1882 he pitched the longest complete-game shutout in history, beating the Detroit Wolverines 1-0 in 18 innings. He also accumulated 2,104 base hits. He is the only player ever to win more than 100 games as a pitcher (164-103) and get more than 2,000 hits.

Ward's plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't mention the  Brotherhood or the Players' League

Ward’s plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t mention the Brotherhood or the Players’ League

Ward graduated from Columbia Law School in 1885 and became the leader of an effort by players to negotiate improvements in the conditions of their employment, including an increase in salaries and an end to the “reserve clause” which provided that players who were under contract to one team were prohibited from negotiating with other teams when the contract expired. Ward organized the Brotherhood in ’85 but when it became clear after several years of  negotiation that the owners were intractable, he launched the Players League.

About half of the players who had been National Leaguers in 1889 bolted to play in Ward’s league which offered profit sharing and did not have a reserve clause or a cap on player salaries. Sid Farrar, who had played for the Philadelphia Quakers in the NL bolted to play for  the Philadelphia Athletics in the Players League. In fact, the Players League attracted most of the talent from the National League, but when revenues didn’t live up to expectations, the owners of the maverick teams surreptitiously agreed to sell their teams to the NL franchises, and the Players League folded after one season.

Major League Baseball ruled in 1968 that the Players League, short-lived though it was, had been a major league. So, among other things, the Buffalo Bisons’ record stands: they recorded the greatest opening-day winning margin by beating the Cleveland Infants 23-2.

Incidentally, the reserve clause remained in effect in Major League Baseball until 1975.