John Montgomery Ward and the Great Player Revolt (Part 2)
By Tamar Chalker
January 4, 2022
Last week, I started the story of John Montgomery Ward’s 19th Century attempt to fight baseball’s infamous Reserve Clause. The star player with the law degree was putting serious thought into the status of baseball players in relation to their teams and it didn’t sit right with him.
In 1887, Ward wrote an article titled “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” for Lippincott’s Magazine. In this piece, Ward gives a good recap of how the Reserve Clause came about, and I highly suggest checking it out for a more in-depth explanation. Chattel is rarely used outside a legal context today, where it is used to describe any property that is not real estate. It was a much more common word at the time Ward was writing, likely because it is often used to describe the American system of slavery. You see a pretty sharp increase in its use during and after the Civil War, but by the end of WWII it drops off again.
In Ward’s piece, he concludes that “Instead of an institution for good, it has become one for evil; instead of a measure of protection, it has been used as a handle for the manipulation of a traffic in players, a sort of speculation in live stock, by which they are bought, sold, and transferred like so many sheep.” Ward succeeds in setting forth a step-by-step legal takedown of the Reserve Clause, pointing out both the numerous violations of contract law and the players’ inability to escape a system that profits off of them and appears to be increasing its control over them with little to no recourse.
While it is a well-thought-out and timely piece, it was not going to sway the owners to suddenly relinquish their power, so Ward did the only thing he could think to do – started a league of his own. After the end of the 1889 season, Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, which had over 100 members, announced the start of the Players’ League. In December, the league was officially formed and included clubs in Brooklyn, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The PL did not have a reserve clause or a classification system, such as the one implemented in the NL in 1889, and did have a profit-sharing system.
Ward was the Player-Manager of the Brooklyn Ward’s Wonders, who finished the 1890 season in second. Ward was seventh in the league in batting average, hitting .335. Unfortunately, like many ideas ahead of their time, the Players’ League was short-lived. The PL did well at the gate, however, the owners were underwhelmed by their profits due to the profit-sharing agreement. They purportedly started having secret meetings with their NL counterparts and soon the clubs were all sold off and the PL folded after one season.
Ward stayed with Brooklyn, now called the Grooms. After a couple of seasons, however, he asked to go back to the New York Giants. Brooklyn sold him to his old club for $6,000. Ward retired at the age of 34, after the 1894 season where he hit .266/.311/.306. He finished his career with a .275 lifetime average and 540 stolen bases. He is the only person to ever win 100 games as a pitcher and have over 2,000 hits, at least so far. Babe Ruth was close with 94 wins.
While Ward and other PL players weren’t blacklisted from baseball, their attempt to take some power back from the owners was a big setback, leaving the reserve clause intact for almost 100 years. Ward continued to fight the good fight, as he went on to a successful second career as an attorney, often representing players against the NL. He had a stint as the President and part-owner of the Boston Braves and was an official in the Federal League. He died in 1925, at 65, from pneumonia and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964 by the Veterans Committee.