Ball And Chain

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SPALDING AND HIS FELLOW OWNERS WENT EVEN FURTHER THAN THE RESERVE CLAUSE—BRINGING PLAYERS TO A BOIL.

In disgust, the players turned to John M. Ward. Like Spalding, Ward was a self-made man. Orphaned as a teenager, he had broken into the majors at the age of 18 and become one of the stars of the nineteenth century. Handsome and debonair, he was something of a rake, as Bryan Di Salvatore recounts in his entertaining biography A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward , marrying a popular Broadway actress while carrying on an affair with another woman.

Ward’s professional life was more admirable. During the off-season, he took degrees in both law and philosophy at Columbia. On the diamond, he won 164 games and pitched a perfect game; when his arm gave out, he switched to shortstop, eventually racking up more than 2,000 hits. He was a canny, daring, and opportunistic player, both on and off the field. From the 1885 season onward, he worked at organizing his fellow “baseballists” into a union, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Following the institution of the “classification” system, he and his brothers made their move. They announced their intention not to strike but to form a third major league in 1890, the Players’ League. The owners scoffed at the idea that players could run their own league, but in the first home stand of the new season, the Players’ League outdrew the National League in one city after another.

After that, both sides used attendance figures as propaganda, but the records indicate that the players had the better of it. Club owners in both leagues gave away tickets right and left, and both leagues, particularly the National, threw money at any star who would sign with them. Even so, by the end of the season the owners were reeling. The American Association was mortally wounded and the National League little better off. The crucial New York franchise was saved only when Spalding poured money into it and got his fellow owners, and some known gamblers, to do the same.

This was war, and Spalding was determined to win. As craftily as he had once picked runners off base, the old pitcher now picked off the players’ financial backers one by one, bluffing them into selling out. The players, meanwhile, were lured back to the National League by a promise to weaken the reserve clause—temporarily. It was all over before the Players’ League could even take the field again. In a remarkably convivial surrender over the winter, Ward and his backers spent an afternoon drinking and singing with Spalding in a Manhattan saloon. “Pass the wine around,” Ward stood to say in eulogy. “The League is dead, long live the League.”

Ward would return to play and manage in the National League before embarking on a successful career as a lawyer. He and Spalding would both end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. The reserve clause, though, would live on and on—and with just the effect the players had feared. Within two years of the demise of the Players’ League, the average salary was cut almost in half, and even in 1966 it was a mere $19,000.

That year a revived players’ association decided to hire an obscure steel-union economist named Marvin Miller as executive director. Miller proved every bit as determined as, and a good deal shrewder than, John Ward. Under his direction, the players would use strikes, lockouts, court cases, and arbitration to grab a real piece of baseball’s ever-mushrooming action.

Today, ballplayers can become free agents, with full rights to themselves, after six years of major-league service. This is still longer than in most careers, but combined with binding arbitration and minimum salary provisions, it has pushed the average big-league salary up over a million dollars, evoking howls from fans and sportswriters, who, we must presume, would in the same position turn away all that lucre.

And the reserve clause still lives. There’s the rub. For even if the owners could crush the union, it would mean dissolving the very agreement that preserves the clause. Any individual player would then be free to sue, and his chances of winning would be very good, thereby ushering in the very last thing the owners want—a full, free market.

After all, is there anyone in America, even a judge, who still believes that baseball is just a game, and not a business?