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.

It might be significant that I couldn’t think of any way to begin this post about Stan Musial — any way but this, that is. The thesis of Stan Musial: An American Life is that, because Musial played his whole career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has been perennially undervalued vis-a-vis his contemporaries who played in cities like Boston and New York. I grew up during his career, and it’s true that, living in the New York area — especially after the National League teams both slunk out of town — Musial was not the topic of everyday conversation.

He was, as New York Times columnist George Vecsey suggests in this book, just kind of there, and the next thing we knew he had accumulated more than 3,600 hits and had established himself as one of the best hitters of his era.

Musial came from Donora, Pa., which was a gritty industrial town where his dad worked in a steel mill whose management wasn’t concerned about the employees’ health. Vecsey draws a detailed picture of life in that town, and that may be the most worthwhile part of this book. Young Stan was a good athlete, but he got into the Cardinals’ organization as a pitcher — something he wasn’t suited for.

In 1941, he had a storybook season. He started out in the spring in the Cards’ baseball camp in Hollywood, Fla., where he was supposed to pitch batting practice, and by the end of the summer he had been converted into a hard-hitting outfielder and was called up by the parent team for the last week of a pennant race.

He played for the Cardinals until he retired in 1963, amassing one of the great personal records in the game plus a reputation for reliability, and for dignity on the field, and for a cheeful and hospitable approach to life. He was well liked in and out of the game.

While it is true, as Vecsey writes, that Musial’s extraordinary career has been overshadowed in the popular mind by the careers of contemporaries like Joe DiMaggio in New York and Ted Williams in Boston, his numbers are indelibly preserved in the record book where they put the accomplishments of other players in perspective, for better or for worse. Derek Jeter, for instance, has achieved what only 28 out of about 17,000 major league players have achieved, and yet he can’t escape the ink that says that Musial’s mark in total hits is out of reach.

But Vecsey, writing about “an American life,” does a little too much fawning over Musial and not enough exploring of aspects of the ballplayer that Vecsey himself brings up. He dwells on Jackie Robinson’s revolutionary appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and he intimates that Musial was at most a passive participant in the breaking of the color line, but he does not deeply plumb Musial’s attitude on race.

Vecsey reports that Musial was spared military service during the heat of World War II on the grounds that he was a parent and the sole support of his mother and father – who, incidently, had several other children; that he declined to join an army unit when a baseball colleague urged him to do so, and that, when his number was up, as it were, he served at the tail end of the war by playing baseball in Hawaii and then by flying a stateside desk. The author writes, too, that Musial was not an activist when his fellow players  rebelled against the reserve-clause system that for a long time made players the property of their owners, the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In a broader way, Vecsey writes that Musial was a peacelover, meaning that he liked to avoid conflict. We are left to infer that Musial was happy in statu quo so long as things were going well for him — which they were for several decades.

Vecsey does at least let a voice other than his own — that of former Cardinals star Curt Flood — speak to the question of who Stan Musial really is. Flood unsuccessfully sued major league baseball after refusing to agree to a trade in 1969; his suit was the opening shot in a movement that ultimately changed labor relations in baseball.

In his autobiography, Flood wrote that he and other players respected Musial as a player and as a person; they thought of him as a man who would not consciously do harm. But, Flood continued, “He was just unfathomably naïve. After twenty years of baseball, his critical faculties were those of a schoolboy. After twenty years, he was still wagging his tail for the front office – not because he felt it politic to do so but because he believed every word he spoke.”