The Origins of Baseball

“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms…the game of ball is glorious.”

Walt Whitman

What we see today on the sandlots, playgrounds, youth leagues, stadiums and ballparks of America is the result of 1,000 years of human ingenuity. The game probably goes back much further, but, because baseball is a derivative of many games, from many cultures, and because some of those cultures precede the printing press, sooner or later the documentation runs out.

Knowledge of the game of baseball is quite comprehensive after the early 1840s but prior to that, the origins are relatively obscure. Although almost all civilizations had some version of a ball and bat game, documentation is sketchy at best.

The Way-Back Machine

During the time of William the Conqueror in England around 1085, there is mention of “stool ball” in the Domesday Book, a primitive stick and ball game. From “Sports and Pastimes Of Old Time Used In This City,” Fitzstephen writes of London in the 1200″s, “The scholars of every school have their ball, or baton, in their hands; the ancient and wealthy men of the city come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men.” About the same time in Eastern France, it is said that bat and ball games were used in religious observances. They might even have been the ancestors of Brooklyn Dodger Fanatics! Talk about religious!

On Christmas Day in 1621, Governor Bradford of Plymouth Plantation wrote that his men were “frolicking in ye street, at play openly; some at Virginia pitching ye ball, some at stool ball and shuch-like sport.” So we know that a variation of the same game was prevalent over at least a six hundred-year period. It continues into the next century with the first mention of baseball. Puritan divine Rev. Thomas Wilson of Maidstone, England writes in his memoirs, “I have seen Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricketts, and many other sports on the Lord’s Day.” We can guess that Governor Bradford was not a big fan of Sunday doubleheaders.

Girls Among Men

In 1744, “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” by John Newbery features a woodcut drawing of boys playing “baseball” and a poem of the game. “The Ball once struck off, / Away flies the Boy / To the next destin’d Post, / And the Home with Joy.”

Four years later, Lady Hervey wrote a letter in which she describes the family activities of Frederick, Prince of Wales, as “diverting themselves with baseball, a play all who are or have been schoolboys are well acquainted with.” We can only imagine whether or not this description refers to the game we are familiar with. Soon after this, the game began to resemble, more closely, our American pastime.

“Bat and Ball” was common in America before the Revolutionary War, according to William Winterbotham’s “An Historical View of the United States” (1796). “By the time of the Revolution, it was commonly called ‘base’ or ‘baste.’ And it wasn’t necessarily a game for boys anymore.” During the Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, sometime between December 19th, 1777 and June 19th, 1778, Revolutionary War soldier George Ewing writes in a letter home that he has been playing a game of “base” for recreation. “Exercisd in the afternoon in the intervals playd at base.” On the campus of Princeton University in 1786, the students play games of “Baste Ball”. The next year it is prohibited by the faculty “On account of its being dangerous aswell as beneath the propriety of a gentleman.” On the campus of Dartmouth College, 11 years later, Daniel Webster writes of “playing ball” while attending the school as an undergrad. The Massachusetts representative and senator would have made quite a Red Sox fan.

Our next citation of “base-ball”, from 1798, comes from Jane Austen’s classic Northanger Abbey. It’s also one of the first mentions of women in baseball. Ms. Austen wrote of her heroine, “….it was not very wonderful that Catherine should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, at the age of fourteen, to books.”

In short order, a few famous Americans would be teaching the “game of base” to native inhabitants of the continent. After the Louisiana Purchase was completed between President Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte, the men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition met the Nez Perce Indians of Northern Idaho in 1805 and attempted to teach them to play the “game of base.” Imagine the right field bleachers: “Meeeriwether! … MEEERIIWETHER!” Around this time a very familiar sounding game is described in a French book of boy’s games: “In a court, or in a large square space, four points are marked: one for the home base, the others for bases which must be touched by the runners in succession, etc.”

Unbeknownst at the time, but in the town of baseball’s future Hall of Fame, Cooperstown N.Y., there was an ordinance enacted in 1816 which stated: “That no person shall play at Ball in Second or West Street under penalty of one dollar, for each and every offense.” When you visit Cooperstown, take note: those two streets have now been renamed Pioneer and Main Streets.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1824 of his time at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine that: “….there is nothing now heard of, in our leisure hours, but ball, ball, ball.” Researchers have found many references to early forms of the game in New York towns such as Rochester and Genesco around this time. In 1825, the following notice appears in the July 13th edition of the Hamden, NY, Delhi Gazette: “The undersigned, all residents of the new town of Hamden, with the exception of Asa Howland, who has recently removed to Delhi, challenge an equal number of persons of any town in the County of Delaware, to meet them at any time at the house of Edward B. Chace, in said town, to play the game of Bass-Ball, for the sum of one dollar each per game.” Leave it to New Yorkers to throw down the gauntlet, stir up some competition and let the gambling begin! As poet Walt Whitman said, “Well-it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it: It has snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

The Game of Rounders

The plot thickens in London in 1828. “The Boys Own Book” is published and has a set of rules for rounders, said to be the precursor of baseball. Evidence points to this game as evolving from stool ball of the Battle at Hastings era but no one can be sure. Rounders, along with cricket, are both English games involving contending teams equipped with bat and ball.

A close look at the rules of rounders reveals a game similar to baseball, though the differences might outnumber the similarities. American rounders evolved into the game we know today. The Colonials made popular “one hole catapult” or “one old cat.” In this version, the batter hit the ball and ran to a stake or base. He scored if he could get back to home without being “soaked” or hit with the ball. He stayed at bat until he was soaked or a fielder caught his ball on the fly. Much like batting practice when we were kids, each man in the field moved up one position when the batter made an out or if the fielder caught the ball, and we exchanged positions with the batter.

If there were enough players, the game was expanded to two stakes and it was called “two old cat.” As more people became familiar with the game, it grew to three stakes and four or more players were put to bat. The next step was “town ball” where sides were chosen. Basically, the same rules were in place and pitchers wanted the batter to hit, as this was the only way to get the other side out so they had their chance to hit. The team with the highest score won after each team has been “IN” the same number of times but usually only darkness or exhaustion limit the number of “In”ings.” Sound familiar? By now, towns were organizing teams and challenging their neighboring towns and the element of rivalries was strong. Many games ended in fights.

“Most people grow up with the idea that Abner Doubleday invented baseball…but nothing could be further from the truth. Doubleday never claimed to have anything to do with baseball…and there isn’t any definitive evidence that he ever even saw a baseball game.”

New York! New York!

The popularity of the game began to grow and the rural setting moved into the cities. Two versions of the game became popular in the Northeast. One, a form of town ball called the Massachusetts game and the other; more akin to rounders called the New York game. The Massachusetts game used a smaller, harder ball and the pitcher was allowed to throw overhand. An underhand delivery as in cricket and rounders was used in the New York game. But most of the aforementioned rules of rounders were in place for both games. Both were played on a square field with stakes on the corners serving as stations and a strikers box was midway between the first and fourth stations. Around 1840, the stakes were replaced with stones and soon, sand-filled sacks became the norm and were called bases. Thereafter, the game became formally known as baseball.

Many people now played baseball and joined one of several clubs that preceded the formation of the New York Knickerbockers; the first generally accepted formal baseball club in the United States. Although the club gathered informally as early as 1842, when Alexander Cartwright joined the club, he suggested that they formulate a set of rules that transformed the children’s game into an adult sport. Cartwright and three friends on the Knicks set down 20 rules of play but three innovations changed the game into basically what we play today. The game was now laid out on a diamond and base length was increased to 90 feet. Next they instituted foul lines where a ball not within the fair play area was considered out of play or a “foul ball.” Last but certainly not least, soaking was outlawed leading to faster play with a harder ball, which gained more interest from the casual fan.

Most of us grew up with the idea that Abner Doubleday invented the game. He was credited with devising the ground rules but nothing could be further from the truth. Cartwright and his friends on the Knickerbockers drew up the rules and if one has to name the Father of Baseball, it would be Dr. Daniel Lucius Adams, the games first shortstop. “Doc” Adams, as Knickerbockers president, headed the Committee to Revise the Constitution and By-Laws and Cartwright served under him until he left for the “Gold Rush” in California in 1849. In addition to “inventing” the position of shortstop which he played, Adams determined the distance from the mound to home plate and eliminated the rule of catching a ball on the first hop for an out.

Doc Adams resigned as president of the Knicks in 1862 after he married Cornelia A. Cook. In 1865, he retired as a practicing physician and retired to Ridgefield, CT. where he died in his home at 146 Edwards Street on January 3rd, 1899. The game Adams nurtured was becoming a game of privilege, of social occasion, a game for well-to-do young men. This was a time before baseball became what it is today, a multi-billion dollar business operating under the anti-trust laws economically benefiting a small group of owners who dictate their desires to a mouthpiece commissioner. This was a game played by amateurs as a means of exercise, friendly competition, and pure enjoyment of the game itself. It was a social occasion. Invitations were sent, tea served, and the contestants were expected to abide by the accepted code of gentlemanly conduct. This was a game played by and for wealthy young men. Baseball didn’t receive a standard set of rules until 1845 when Alexander Cartwright and “Doc” Adams adapted 20 rules of play for their team, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York City–a group of men that included lawyers, merchants, physicians, bankers and other professionals who might be at liberty after 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will take people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.” – Walt Whitman, 1846

Walt Whitman, 1846

The Knickerbockers

The Knickerbockers began to play at Manhattan’s Madison Square, but as their game became more structured, urbanization and space limitations would make it necessary to locate a larger venue. The members were familiar with the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, and began to meet there. It was a short ferry ride across the Hudson River and although this unenclosed field was private property owned by the Stevens family, it was used like a public park by New Yorkers. And you thought Hoboken was only famous for Sinatra. How’s that one for “Stump the Bartender?”

In the spring of 1846, the Knickerbockers advertised for opponents and on June 19th, the first officially recorded baseball game was played at the Elysian Fields between the Knicks and the New York Nine. Cartwright umpired the contest and enforced a six-cent fine, payable on the spot, for swearing. The Nine won 23-1 as the rules stipulated that the first team to score 21 runs was declared the winner.

Many other clubs began to organize and play ball about this time, the Gothams, Eagles, Eckfords, the Excelsiors, and many more but it was no longer reserved for men of genteel stock. In addition to the great Industrial Revolution that was gaining steam in America, the Social Revolution was just as prevalent. The class struggle of white-collar verses blue-collar was played out not only in the workplace but on the sporting field as well. It became a case of playing ability and not manners that won out. Democracy once again proves it’s worth. By the people, for the people…you know the drill. Commodore Vanderbilt, an industrial giant of the time, was quoted incessantly in the nation’s daily newspapers about his notions of attention to hard work, honesty, sobriety, calculation, order and on how to succeed in business. These virtues were consistent with how parents encouraged their children to think about their lives and this advice was available to all strata of Americans.

As these numerous clubs began to play in the New York City area, inter-club competition using the Knickerbocker Rules was common and large crowds of spectators came out to see the matches. Foul lines were integrated to create a relatively safe area for the spectators so they could remain close to the action without interfering with play. This capacity for spectators builds popularity as more and more people are introduced to what was earlier considered merely a schoolyard game.

During the next few years, the Knicks rarely played with nine men. More often, they played with eight, three outfielders, three infielders, a pitcher and a catcher. In 1849, “Doc” Adams took a position between second and third base and the shortstop became the ninth player on the field. This was a result of the ball becoming tighter wound and therefore heavier and easier to throw. This new position helped to greatly reduce the number of base hits and would directly influence the future introduction of game span by innings instead of runs scored. That same year, the Knicks introduced the first uniforms to be worn during the game. It consisted of blue woolen pantaloons, a white flannel shirt and a straw hat. By the early 1850’s, the game had immense popularity in and around New York City and began to sweep into the hinterlands. Men from all walks of life had caught “baseball fever” and had taken it back to the small towns and villages of their youth. Cartwright himself had left New York for the California Gold Rush and taught the game across the breadth of the nation in his travels. As we will see, many changes would take place over the next 15 years as baseball evolved into the sport we play today.

In June of 1854, the Knicks lost to the Gothams, 21-16 in 16 innings. Even though the 21 run rule would be in effect until 1857, this was the first match to exceed nine innings. In the summer of 1855, the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn is organized and would become baseball’s first dynasty. Beginning in 1859, they would win the whip-pennant, the equivalent of our World Series, eight out of the next eleven years. In 1856, The New York Clipper prints that “the game of Base Ball is generally considered the National game amongst Americans,” and The New York Mercury refers to base ball as “The National Pastime.” Henry Chadwick, a cricket reporter for The New York Times, fell in love with the game and set out to make baseball “a national sport for Americans” equal to cricket for the English. Chadwick would become the first sports writer to promote changes in the game, he expanded the box score and developed a system to record every play thereby allowing games to be described in greater detail. In just over a decade, people from every social status had learned to play and appreciate a “game” scantly known previously to Adams, Cartwright and the Knickerbockers. In just a little more time the game drew the interest of unsavory characters as well, men made more money from the sidelines than in the batters’ box.

It all seemed above board and sporting, but in America, it couldn’t last. Gambling, the omnipresent vocation of the human race, reared its ugly head and money began to change hands both on the field and in the stands. The quest for more talented ballplayers was driven by greed–and where the players came from, or where they’d been was of little consequence. The beginning of the end for “The Gentlemen’s Game” came into sharp focus. A rowdy crowd had entered the game, and drinking and umpire baiting became the norm. These ruffians developed tactics heretofore disdained by the elitist founders. Dickey Pearce, who joined the Brooklyn Athletics in 1856, was credited with introducing his “tricky hit” or the bunt, as we know it today. Bunting, running outside the base paths to avoid being tagged, taunting the opposition and refusing to pitch the ball as requested by the batter (a long-accepted tradition in the sport) caused the gentlemanly players of earlier times to retreat from the field of play. These tactics helped to win games, rather than friends.

The Question of Dollar

This period in baseball history fawned the age of paid players. As was originally agreed by the gentleman founders of the game, all participants were to be “amateurs,” but corruption has a way of eating away at the original fiber of any institution, and money corrupts best of all. After gambling became prevalent in the amateur ranks, “revolvers” or players who would switch clubs for payment came next. After that it was outright “professionalism,” the larger clubs went about hiring outstanding players and paying them either under the table or having non-existing jobs arranged for them to lend a certain amount of respectability to the situation. William March Tweed or “Boss” as he was widely known for swindling the City of New York out of millions of dollars in the Tammany Hall scandal, was also President of the New York Mutuals Base Ball Club. He put all of his players on the city payroll as “street sweepers.”

In March of 1857, the first league was created in New York City by the Knickerbockers and 15 other clubs who played by the original rules. They called themselves The National Association of Base Ball Players. “Doc” Adams was elected President and more rules were introduced. Most notably, nine inning games, nine men to a side, bases set 90 feet apart and the umpire was now allowed to call strikes. The strongest language was reserved for professionalism: baseball was to remain an amateur sport, and no payment of any kind would be tolerated. Henry Chadwick, now Baseball Editor of the New York Clipper, was chair of the Rules Committee and predicted that unless the game was carefully controlled, greed would be its ruin. (And you thought the issue of greed became prominent with free agency?) One of the first greed-based scandals occurred when three players on the Mutuals were banned from baseball for taking $100.00 dollars apiece for “throwing” a game in 1865.

The New York style of baseball continued to expand to the northeast and out west to California. In New York State, Buffalo, Troy, Albany and Syracuse had local clubs as well as teams that were playing in Canada. Both Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario were challenging each other. In New England, the Tri-Mountain Club of Boston hosted a convention in Dedham, Massachusetts attended by 10 regional clubs to adopt rules that set apart the Massachusetts game from the New York game. The major difference was one pitched over-handed in New England. The New York game was adopted in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and San Francisco. In Washington D.C., there were two teams who practiced in the back yard of the White House and the sport now reached as far south as New Orleans. Cartwright, who had left the Gold Fields of California without hoisting a pick moved to Hawaii and taught the game to the islanders and it became their “National Game” as well. As we will see in Part III of this series, the game would be recognized nation wide by the late 1860’s.

America’s Game

By 1860, there were now 62 clubs in The National Association of Base Ball Players, and the fans of these teams were routinely charged admission fees. The first intercollegiate game was played the previous year between Amherst and Williams College in New England and The Brooklyn Excelsior’s took the first “road trip” covering New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Canada. The sport had sprouted its wings and the greatest game of all was on its way as a revenue producing business. The baseball bus had left the station.

The Civil War exploded in 1861 and free blacks in the North began forming their own teams. Soldiers on both sides of the war played the game behind battle lines, in prisons and in camps and new rules were added. Umpires were allowed to call balls if they thought pitchers weren’t throwing hittable pitches. The War disrupted baseball’s organizational development but by the sheer masses of men introduced to it; the popularity of the game was forever solidified. Union and Confederate soldiers alike watched and learned the game and after the war, took it home with them. The National Association of Base Ball Players annual convention in 1868 had delegates from well over 100 clubs representing all facets of society. The United States of America became obsessed with baseball and the camaraderie of the game helped to heal the wounds of our national disaster, never again would we take up arms against our fellow Americans.

Baseball images begin to appear in the popular culture beginning in the middle 1800’s. An 1860 Lithograph from Currier & Ives portrays all the presidential candidates from that year playing baseball. In the picture, John Ball, Stephen Douglas, and John Breckenridge all hold polished looking bats, inscribed with their political platforms: fusion, non-intervention, and slavery extension. Lincoln’s bat is a big, rough-hewn piece of lumber, inscribed with words he lived and died by: equal rights and free territory. The Civil War was only one year away.

In this, part five in our series on “The Origins of Baseball,” we will see how baseball becomes a business. In Part I, our story explained how baseball evolved over a 1,000-year period starting in 1085 with a mention of “stool ball” in the Domesday Book. In Part III, we saw how a playground game for children was suddenly changed forever by Alexander Cartwright when he wrote an established set of rules for the game and invited a group of wealthy young men to join his baseball club, the New York Knickerbockers. It was to be a game played by gentleman for gentlemen on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, NJ. Twenty years later, the Mutual Club of Manhattan played the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn in a championship game on the same field. 20,000 fans attended the game won by the Atlantics 13-12. The game had taken on a life of it’s own. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the citizens of a reunited America were determined to have a better life now that the scourge of slavery was behind them. Many families had lost loved ones in the War Between the States and needed to move on and forget the bitterness and hate. War always breeds a strong economy and people were working, but they wanted recreation and looked to baseball to find it.

Since soldiers on both sides of the war had learned how to play the game, it went home with them. Men from all walks of life and from every corner of the nation were teaching the game to anybody who had a desire to play. Teams from everywhere, small villages to large towns were clamoring to join The National Association of Baseball Players, the first organized baseball league.

By 1868, at the leagues annual convention, there were delegates from over 100 clubs. The NABBP had strict rules against paying players, the idea was to keep the game free of professionalism and retain the flavor of a gentleman’s game. But the league sanctioned charging admission at the gate and the temptation to get the best players by paying them with these revenues was too strong. As the league expanded, more and more games were played on the road and the expense of fielding a team meant asking fans for donations and in some cases, seeking sponsorship from local businesses. Often, these same businesses would pay some of the players under the table because winning was paramount to get the continued support of the fans.

The Wright Brothers

The next year in Cincinnati, OH, brothers Harry and George Wright decided that they had enough of this gentlemen’s business and recruited the best players from around the country. In becoming the first paid professional team, they flaunted the rules of the NABBP and took on all comers. Even the fans got into the act, team manager Harry Wright wrote in a letter to a friend: “The spectators all arise between halves of the seventh inning, extend their legs and arms and sometimes walk about. In so doing they enjoy the relief afforded by relaxation from a long posture upon hard benches.” First pro team, first seventh inning stretch. The traditions are beginning to fall into place. The Cincinnati Red Stockings played 65 games that year and won them all. Other big cities wanted this level of competition and the idea of a completely professional team was adopted.

In 1871, the first professional league was formed at Collier’s Café in New York City. A few of the best teams came together as the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. That season, there were nine teams on the schedule and by 1875, they had grown to 13. Because they were so loosely organized, their tenure was short-lived. Gambling was rampant at the ballparks and the scene was rowdy. Bribery was common and the sale of liquor coupled with an erratic schedule soon caused these teams to lose their fan base.

Inmates Running The Asylum

After the 1875 season, William A. Hulbert, the president of the Chicago White Stockings, came to the realization that a league owned and operated by the players was doomed to failure. He felt that the teams should be run as a business with policies for pricing at the gate along with strictly adhering to scheduling and signing players to contracts. Hulbert invited a group of businessmen who wanted to split with the National Association to New York City on February 2nd, 1876, and explained his concept. He wanted a league of eight teams, four in the East and four in the West. They agreed wholeheartedly and National League of Professional Baseball Clubs was born.

The East consisted of New York, Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia. The West was Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville. Those first years were difficult but Hulbert stuck by his guns and his concept persevered. In its first season, the New York Mutuals and the Philadelphia Athletics refused to make their late-season western road trips and were expelled from the league.

In 1877, with only six teams, a major scandal threatened the NL’s very existence. Four players from Louisville were suspended for throwing games. Hulbert banned these players for life and Louisville pulled out of the league along with St. Louis and Hartford. Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Providence took up where the others left off and disaster was averted. As these new teams were in smaller cities, it was difficult for the owners to turn a profit and in 1879, they secretly agreed to reserve five players on each roster. These players were strictly hands-off to the other teams. This small, secret seed would grow into the reserve clause that became part of the standard contract in 1887.

Hulbert, league president since 1877, wanted to ban games on Sunday as well as discontinue the practice of selling liquor to the fans. He also wanted each team to raise their price of admission to 50 cents. Every team but Cincinnati went along with the changes and they were expelled after the 1880 season.

New Leagues, New Alliances

There were now a number of large cities that weren’t represented in the NL. Cincinnati wanted to drink beer and watch baseball so the team called a meeting on November 2nd, 1881. Representatives attended from the teams in Louisville, St Louis, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys and the Brooklyn Atlantics. These five teams decided to form the American Association of Base Ball Clubs and would feature Sunday baseball, liquor available at the ballparks and a 25-cent ducat to the game. Before the ’82 season started, Baltimore replaced Pittsburgh on the schedule. Because of the bigger cities involved, attendance was greater for the AABBC even with two less teams and after the season, they added Columbus and New York. The NL retaliated by adding New York and Philadelphia and dropping the smaller cities of Troy and Worcester.

During the off-season of 1882-83, the Midwestern League came into being. The owners of this future minor league wanted the NL to respect the contracts they were going to sign their players to. This gave the NL an opportunity to escape from the inevitable bloodbath that they were expecting when competition from the AABBC would escalate the player’s salaries. The NL sat down with both the Midwestern League and the American Association to hammer out an agreement to honor a player’s contract to the league that signed him. They also agreed to reserve 11 players on each team that could not be negotiated for by any other club. This agreement was named the Tripartite Pact, later changed to the National Agreement that would cover and protect any future minor league that might come into existence.

This agreement infuriated the players’ because the teams they played on now had the right to renew their contract without allowing them to negotiate with other clubs on the open market. After a successful 1883 season in the NL, Henry V. Lucas of St. Louis formed a new league called the Union Association. Franchises were awarded to Washington DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati and Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Altoona? What were they thinking?) Many players in the NL left their teams for the new league but it folded after one season and they had to return to the teams they left, hat in hand. In what would become a favorite tradition in Organized Baseball, a behind-the-scenes meeting with Mr. Lucas granted him a franchise in St. Louis. Exactly what he had wanted all along. What was that they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? Well, you get the picture.

Monte Ward And His Brothers

After the season in 1885, John Montgomery Ward, the shortstop of the New York Giants formed the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. As one of the reserved players, he recruited 10 others on the team to join him. He wanted the owners to recognize the Brotherhood as a union and by 1887, they had players on every team in the league. He who has the hammer wins and the owners had the hammer. They told the Brotherhood to get lost but now that the secret of the reserve clause was out of the closet, all agreed that it should be written into the standard contract. Pick your battles and take your victories.

Before the 1889 season, the NL owners met and adopted the Classification Plan drawn up by Indianapolis owner, John T. Brush. It was simple and got right to the point, there would now be a limit of $2500.00 paid to any player under contract. Once again, the players were furious and turned to the Brotherhood for leadership. There was a movement to strike on the 4th of July, but John Montgomery Ward urged them to play out the schedule. Secretly he was making plans to form a new league in which there would be no reserve clause and no salary limits.

Ward launches his idea in January of 1890 and calls it the Player’s League. 55% of the players in the NL defect while just 17% come over from the AA. What makes this league different from the others is that the players themselves will put up some of the financing and will share in the profits with the owners. By the end of the season, none of the teams in the three leagues, the NL, the AA, or the PL was showing profits.

Ward suggests all three leagues meet to decide the fate of professional baseball. The NL sends Albert Spalding, a star pitcher for Boston in his playing days and now president of the Chicago White Stockings since the death of William Hulbert in 1882. Spalding had tried every sort of chicanery during the season. He scheduled NL games on the same day in cities where the PL were playing, he threatened the press to withdraw advertising unless they were supportive of the NL and he bribed players to return to the NL. At long last, Spalding convinced the principals of the PL that he would continue these tactics for as long as it took to drive them out of business.

On October 9th, the three leagues meet and discuss different plans to make baseball profitable. One was to organize into two-eight team leagues. But at this point, the NL and the AA refused to negotiate further with the PL. Spalding demands “unconditional surrender,” and gets it. The PL sells out to the two established leagues for $800,000 with the promise that all of the players who toiled in the league would be reunited with their old teams without punishment.

Unfortunately for the AA, they won the battle but lost the war. After the 1891 season, they were forced to cease and desist as they had finally run out of money. The competition from the NL was too fierce and their players were slowly returning to the Senior Circuit. The folding league won the smallest of victories; their four best teams were being allowed to join the NL.

For the rest of the decade, the National League was the only game in town. With no competition and their labor problem solved for the time being, they had a monopoly on the game. It wouldn’t last.