Today marks the 125th anniversary of the formation of the Players' League, the most radical experiment ever attempted by baseball's major leagues. It was a rebellion led by a slender, brilliant shortstop, who had begun pondering revolt nine months before, in the shadow of the pyramids.
The bulletin was posted on the evening of February 8, 1889, in the lobby of Cairo's Hotel d'Orient:
Base-ball at the Pyramids. The Chicago and All-America teams, comprising the Spalding base-ball party, will please report in the hotel office, in uniform, promptly at ten o'clock to-morrow morning. We shall leave for the hotel at that hour, camels having been provided for the All-Americas and donkeys for the Chicago players, with carriages for the balance of the party. The Pyramids will be inspected, the Sphinx visited, and a game played upon the desert near by, beginning at 2 o'clock.
Around the notice huddled 20 travel-weary ballplayers, baseball missionaries brought by Albert Spalding to spread the national pastime around the globe. They had traveled from Hawaii to Australia, from Ceylon to the Suez, exhibiting their game—and Spalding's sporting equipment—whenever they got the chance. In Australia they had played for thousands, but in Cairo they were curiosities who passed their time like all American travelers: shopping in the bazaars, screaming at beggars and complaining about the food. Tomorrow would come an exhibition that nobody asked for, which remains one of the strangest in the history of American sport.
Among them was one whose mind was not on sightseeing. John Montgomery Ward—shortstop, lawyer, and president of the nascent players' union—was transfixed by a short item in the American newspaper, the first he had seen in months, which said that the National League had taken advantage of his absence to enact a salary cap that would cut his income in half. As his teammates prepared to greet the Sphinx, the most remarkable mind in baseball was taking the first steps to a revolution.
Ward broke into the game as a pitcher, a crafty curveball artist in a time when overhand pitching was still barred. After winning 47 games for the championship 1879 Providence Grays at age 19, he was washed-up as a pitcher by 24, having thrown 2,400 innings over six grueling seasons. An original New York Giant, he holds the rights to the franchise's first RBI and first home run—an inside-the-park walk-off. He discovered Old Hoss Radbourn; he pitched the second-ever perfect game; he is the only man in history to collect 100 wins and 2,000 hits.
This slender man, with jug ears and a modest moustache, relished what today are called "off-field distractions." He wrote articles, married a Broadway actress, and in his spare time studied at Columbia, where he took degrees in law and political science. (This in spite of the fact that he had been expelled from Pennsylvania State College for stealing chickens.)
"He was never quite one of the boys," writes Bryan Di Salvatore in his excellent biography A Clever Base-Ballist. "He was never loved."
Though hard-nosed about the business of baseball, he did his best to maintain an innocent love of the game. "It is not a calculation but an inspiration," he said in Base-Ball: How To Become A Player, a best-selling guide to the game which he opened with a sparkling bit of pastoral imagery borrowed from Homer:
O'er the green mead the sporting virgins play,
Their shining veils unbound; along the skies,
Tost and retost, the ball incessant flies.
Poetry aside, Ward's book is a practical one, giving position-by-position instructions and imploring young players to "Keep away from saloons" and treat the sport as "more of a business and less of a pastime." To this end, in 1885 he founded the Brotherhood of American Base Ball Players, a secret society that would stand up for player's rights in a time when they had few. These were the days of the reserve clause, which bound players to clubs in a state that Ward could not help but liken—endlessly and with no apparent sense of irony—to slavery.
"There is now no escape for the player," he would write. "Like a fugitive-slave law, the reserve-rule denies him a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape."
The reserve clause allowed owners to indulge their every miserly whim. They forced players to pay for their own hotel rooms, their own uniforms, and their own medical expenses. They fined players for drinking, for cursing, for using the wrong utensil at dinner. In Boston, the owner saved money by requiring players to leap into the stands after foul balls. When the Louisville Colonels faced insolvency, their owner fined his players for every loss, soaking them until their entire salaries had been repossessed by the club. For players less famous than Ward, complaints meant the blacklist, and a permanent ban from professional baseball.
"The player has become a mere chattel," he wrote. "He goes where he is sent, takes what is given him, and thanks the Lord for life."
In this atmosphere, the Brotherhood had a ready appeal. A year after its founding, over 90% of the league's players had joined, giving the union enough strength to publicly announce its existence. When the National League refused to negotiate, Ward brought them to the table by threatening to strike. Most of the concessions he won were quietly repealed, but by the end of 1888, Ward felt emancipation was within reach. All he needed was ownership's ear.
There was no owner more powerful than A.G. Spalding, sporting goods magnate, ambassador of baseball, and owner of the Chicago club. A former player himself, he had a boy's love of the game, which he had chosen to share with the planet by means of his months-long round the world barnstorming tour, which would pit a team of all-Americans against his Chicagos. Ward had just led the Giants to another pennant and a World Series victory, and Spalding asked him to play shortstop for the all-Americans. While he was abroad, trying to convince the game's most powerful magnate of the evils of the reserve clause, there was treachery back at home.
Three days after the tourists sailed for Australia, the National League enacted the Brush Classification Plan, named for the famously stingy owner of the Indianapolis Hoosiers, who once responded to a player's illness by docking his pay and fining him $100 for getting sick. Designed to help small-market teams save money, the plan rated players from Grade A to Grade E, and set their wages accordingly, from $1,500 to $2,500. Grade A players like Ward would have their salaries slashed. Grade E players would be required to sweep the ballpark. Players were given three weeks to sign their new contracts or retire from baseball. Without their union president there to advise them, most caved.
"Won't Ward and the others be mad," mused New York pitcher Tim Keefe.
On the morning of February 9, 1889, there was chaos outside the Hotel d'Orient.
"The hotel porters swore alternately in French, Greek and Arabic," wrote the New York Times correspondent. "Hackmen forced their way through the throng slashing their whips right and left. … Spalding yelled pidgin Egyptian at the chief dragoman at the rate of 100 words a minute, and the players used vigorous and emphatic language to the crowd of beggars as they forced their way among the animals, crying for 'backsheesh.'"
Unable to endure the jolting camel ride, Ward abandoned his mount. While his teammates amused themselves with a camel race, he walked alone in the sand. Had the entire trip been arranged to separate the Brotherhood from its leader? Spalding would later deny knowing anything about the Brush Plan before sailing, but Chicago infielder Fred Pfeffer did not doubt there had been a conspiracy. In either case, Ward had no business marching across the desert, when his brothers were being swindled at home.
The barnstormers arrived at the pyramids bruised, sweaty and hungry. They picnicked on hardboiled eggs, "thick Dutch-looking sandwiches," cheese, bananas and "heavy water that had the appearance of lemonade and looked as if it might have come from St. Louis."
So fortified, they took to the hastily-scrawled diamond, whose infield was desert and whose outfield was the lush grass of the Nile river valley. As Mark Lamster writes in Spalding's World Tour, "The Great Pyramid, Cheops, would stand as a distant backstop behind home plate, with the Sphinx down the third-base line and the sunken tombs of the Fifth Dynasty pharaohs somewhere beneath the players' feet."
The game was planned in honor of the khedive, viceroy of Egypt, but he and his party had stayed at the palace, meaning there was no audience but a few British travelers, and a handful of curious locals.
"Away up on the pyramids a few tourists were congregated," wrote Ward, "while a small band of Bedouins, looking exceedingly fantastic with their long rifles and white bournous, gazed at the players in astonishment. Every time a long fly was hit they would run their horses out into the field to see how it was caught."
"In such cases game was suspended," wrote correspondent Harry Palmer, "until the teams had attacked the mob in a body and rescued the ball."
Despite the small crowd and the dusty infield, the players were "out for blood." For the sake of a pun, John "Egyptian" Healy, a native of Cairo, Illinois, pitched for the All-American team. (Giddy newspaper reports suggest that this was, apparently, hilarious.) Ward had two hits and two errors in the five inning game, which his team won, 10-6. Their business finished, players reverted to tourists. They climbed the Great Pyramid, and failed to throw baseballs over it. They pegged balls at the Sphinx's right eye, and clambered all over the majestic statue to pose for a group photo. And then, the pyramids.
In 1889, a traveler didn't climb the pyramids—he was dragged up them, with two attendants yanking his arms and another pushing from behind. Ward was the first to the summit.
"With an ecru tinted villain holding me by the wrists and a libel on humanity boosting me in the rear," he wrote, "the ascent consisted of more ills than I felt my flesh was heir to. Every step meant a spasmodic heave on my arms and a well meant but misapplied volley underneath. … They dragged me over the last step and laid me out on the pinnacle as limp as a rag."
It was foggy. There was nothing to see. One teammate complained that Egypt had nothing on the Arizona desert, which could beat it easily "on general vacuity and flatness." Another summed up the Nile, the desert, the pyramid and the Sphinx in a single word:
"Rats," he said, and they climbed back down. They were a long way from home.
Ward bolted the tour in Paris, saying his reasons were strictly personal. (This was not entirely a lie. His marriage to Helen Dauvray, the Broadway star for whom the first World Series trophy was named, was disintegrating.) He refused to comment on the Brush plan. While his comrades called for action—a statement! a strike! revolt!—Ward reigned the firebrands in.
"Ward knows that the Brotherhood wants him at home and he is going there," said an unnamed player, according to Palmer. "What Ward will do on reaching New York? I don't know, but you can rest assured that he will act promptly. The League has made a mistake and the moguls have got to correct it."
Throughout the '89 season, the Brotherhood leadership shared outrage at Engel's Home Plate Saloon on Broadway and 27th St. They talked of Yank Robinson, whose teammates nearly declared a wildcat strike after he was fined and suspended for wearing a dirty uniform. They talked of Jack Rowe and Deacon White, sold to Pittsburgh against their will. And they talked of Ned Williamson, the home run king, whose career was ruined by an injury suffered during Spalding's grand tour, which saw him left behind in London, responsible for his own medical bills.
The season would have a "cloak-and-dagger air," writes Di Salvatore, marked by "secret meetings at obscure locations; carriage trips that meandered through the streets of Manhattan to throw off tailing hawkshaws; interrogation room tactics on both sides."
In late June, the Brotherhood formally requested the abolition of the Brush Plan. During a four game series in Chicago, Ward met privately with Spalding, a free-spending owner who considered a salary cap "not only impracticable but positively dangerous." He told Ward to be patient, to wait for the off-season—when the players' leverage had disappeared.
Rumors spread—a coming strike. Refuse to play on July 4, when crowds filled the ballparks for the traditional Independence Day doubleheader, and ownership would be forced to listen. But the fans would never forgive the players who had spoiled their Fourth of July, and Ward did not want his Brotherhood tarred as un-American. Rather than strike, he sat, pulling himself out of the lineup with a sore arm. At every stop on the roadtrip, Ward met with local businessmen to ask them an irresistible question: "How'd you like to own a ballclub?"
On July 14—Bastille Day—the Brotherhood voted on a secret manifesto, declaring that "we have determined to play next season under different management." For the rest of the season, as he led the Giants to a hard-fought pennant, Ward would spend his free time cultivating eight groups of backers, each of whom were asked to put $25,000 towards a new, Utopian circuit. They would call it the Players' League, but it would be inevitably nicknamed "the Brotherhood."
The Fifth Avenue Hotel towered over Madison Square Park, a society fortress that a Times of London correspondent had once called "a larger and more handsome building than Buckingham Palace." On November 4, 1889, its wood-lined halls were filled with ballplayers who had come to throw off their chains.
Ward ran what the Times called "a most harmonious gathering … with the grace that characterizes his work in the short field." The Brotherhood ratified a plan for an eight-team league, playing in New York, Brooklyn, Boston and other National League strongholds. The players would share in the league's revenue, and "the octopus clutch" of the reserve and classification systems would be abolished. It was the start of what would be a months-long battle for the rhetorical high ground.
"There was a time when the League stood for integrity and fair dealing," read the announcement. "To-day it stands for dollars and cents."
King Kelly, the hard-drinking Boston slugger, appeared at the meeting in "a tight-fitting pair of imported trousers, a tall silk hat, [and] a beaver overcoat." Gladhanding outside the meeting, he ripped into the son of one of the Boston owners.
"Tell pop that I'm sorry for him," he said. "If he wants a job next season, I'll put him to work on one of my turnstiles. I'm one of the bosses now … The whirligig of time brings ball players to their level. Next year they will be in command and the former Presidents will have to drive horse cars for a living and borrow rain checks to see a game. Good-bye, chappie, I'm going inside to manipulate the wires that will startle the baseball world."
As he watched his league splinter, Spalding prophesied doom. "You fellows don't know how to run a league," he said. "It takes brains as well as money to run baseball."
For the next six months, the three leagues battled for players, backers and the attention of the fans. As often as possible, the National League scheduled its games to conflict with the Players' League, and launched a series of failed lawsuits to prevent Ward and his fellow stars from escaping their contracts. And every day, they used the press to hurl mud at the other side.
"[The Brotherhood] realized that with each year they were becoming too old and rusty to play with the crop of youngsters springing up all over the country, from New-England to California," read a typical broadside, from an anonymous quote in the ownership-friendly New York Times, "and that if they did not take some measures to prevent it they would all be permanently laid up on the shelf."
Countered an anonymous member of the Brotherhood: "The League men do not know, however, how broad the movement among the players is."
By opening day, 1890, more than half of the National League's 200 players had jumped ship. The Pittsburgh Alleghenys were particularly hard hit, retaining just one regular player. They nearly folded during the season, in which they went 23-113 and were twice sued for failing to make payments on equipment.
To fill out their rosters, both leagues raided the American Association, which would fold altogether after 1891, and the thin talent pool meant that fans had their choice of three lousy leagues. By the end of the season, several clubs on both sides were nearly bankrupt, but Ward was optimistic. If the gate returns had not matched the rosy forecasts of the prior winter, his new League had survived, and the Brotherhood remained united. Meetings were scheduled to bring peace, and the Sporting News wrote confidently that "the greatest war in base ball history" would soon be over. No one was prepared for unconditional surrender.
Among the Brotherhood, it would be blamed on the treason of Buck Ewing. One of the most talented players of the era, Ewing had been elected player-manager of the Brotherhood's New York club, which was given the unpleasant assignment of competing with the Giants. Both teams suffered, with the National League club requiring a mid-season bailout by the other NL teams to finish the year, and by the off-season, they were ready for peace. In mid-October, a few days before the scheduled peace talks between the two leagues, the two New York clubs agreed to merge, and play next season in the National League.
It was a separate peace. The Brotherhood was broken. One by one, the other clubs would follow, merging with their National League counterparts or simply folding. On January 16, 1891, the Players' League was officially finished, and Ward gave the cause of death:
"Stupidity, avarice and treachery," he said.
That night, they got drunk. At Nick Engel's Home Plate Saloon, the core of the Brotherhood traded toasts and sang sentimental songs. From the back room emerged Spalding, backed up by his loyal first baseman, Cap Anson. With the ease of men who have been winning their whole lives, they traded handshakes with the vanquished Brotherhood. One of Ward's men raised a glass, saying, "We four are all that is left of the greatest base ball league that was ever formed."
"Pass the wine around," said Ward. "The League is dead, long live the League."
Top photo via Library of Congress; Sphinx photo via New York Public Library.