Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Play Ball!

While I struggle to get spring grades in, I’ll buy back some time by reposting some favorites. Today: my three-part series on my favorite baseball books.

Check out the “tag cloud” on the home page of this blog, and you’ll find — amid all the terms related to Christianity, history, and education — one sport. So even if you hadn’t read my post-Super Bowl post extolling the virtues of baseball over football, you might be able to guess how excited I am today, the start of major league baseball’s regular season.

(I know, I know: the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners played a pair of games last week in Japan. But tonight’s odd one-games series between the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals and the now-Miami Marlins officially begins the season.)

I’m so much a baseball fan that even though I have almost no training in U.S. history, I still haven’t given up the dream of teaching a 1st or 2nd year undergraduate course surveying the history of baseball. In part because I think it would be a distinctive lens through which to look at race, gender, labor, immigration, literature, film, media and journalism, urban development, globalization, and so on and so forth.

But, if I’m being honest, I would simply love to spend a J-term or full semester talking baseball with members of a generation that seems less and less interested in the once-National Pastime.

That course isn’t close to being proposed, let alone offered. But that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about the books I’d assign. A standard text is Our Game, from Charles C. Alexander — a distinguished U.S. historian whose early work focused on the Ku Klux Klan and American nationalism before he turned his considerable talents to the history of the National Pastime.

But an even easier pick is an 1888 book that remains the most fascinating work ever published by an active ballplayer: John M. Ward, Base-Ball: How to Become a Player, with the Origin, History, and Explanation of the Game.

John Montgomery Ward
The 1887 baseball card for New York Giants shortstop John Montgomery Ward – Library of Congress

They don’t make ‘em like John Montgomery “Monte” Ward (1860-1925) any more… Forced to drop out of what’s now Penn State University when his parents died, he played baseball well enough to get a contract with the Providence Grays of the three-year old National League, in 1878. Within three years he had thrown the second perfect game in baseball history and become the Grays’ player-manager. In 1883 he was sold to the New York Gothams (soon to be Giants), who moved him to shortstop. (In Bill James’ estimation, Ward is the second greatest player to have starred as both pitcher and position player, after Babe Ruth.) In the meantime, he graduated from Columbia Law School and married an actress who was at least as famous at the time as he was. (Apparently, Derek Jeter has just been continuing an age-old tradition for New York shortstops.)

And in 1888 he published this book, the year after his greatest season — when he led the league with 111 stolen bases, managed an OPS+ of 116 (remarkable for a middle infielder of the time), and was the NL’s best shortstop according to the Defensive WAR metric. (see his complete statistical profile at Baseball-Reference.com)

Not surprisingly, then, much of the book is in the vein of a not-uncommon genre: star baseball players trying to explain how to play the game to us mere mortals. In addition to chapters on training, pitching (with another on the science of the curveball), hitting, baserunning, and playing defense at each position, Ward provides “A Chapter for the Ladies” — i.e., a brief overview of the rules of the game.

(Ward starts that chapter by noting that “base-ball” excels all other sports in drawing the interest of women, who are “able to criticise plays and even find fault with the umpire.” While he finds the observations and questions of female novices “too funny to be missed” — e.g., when she calls a particularly adept opposing pitcher a ‘horrid creature,’ he concludes that women pick up the nuances of the game as well as men. Alas, some men are unable to explain the game “intelligibly,” or uninterested in doing so. Hence this chapter, “For the benefit of those ladies whose escorts either cannot, or will not, answer their questions…,” pp. 34-35.)

Most remarkably, Ward begins the book with a historical sketch that quotes everyone from Herodotus to Jane Austen (noting that Northanger Abbey includes a passing reference to a game like baseball). He takes up the question of the sport’s origins, its connections to similar games like cricket and rounders, and the all-important problem of whether baseball is truly American. To the say the least, he is not shy in his patriotism:

Ward, Base-Ball…if base-ball is neither sprung from rounders nor taken bodily from another English game, what is its origins? I believe it to be a fruit of the inventive genius of the American boy. Like our system of government, it is an American evolution, and while, like that, it has doubtless been affected by foreign associations, it is none the less distinctively our own. (p. 21)

Base-ball grew rapidly in favor [just before the Civil War]; the field was ripe. America needed a live out-door sport, and this game exactly suited the national temperament. It required all the manly qualities of activity, endurance, pluck, and skill peculiar to cricket, and was immeasurably superior to that game in exciting features. There were dash, spirit, and variety, and it required only a couple of hours to play a game. Develop by American brains, it was fitted to us, and we took to it with all the enthusiasm peculiar to our nature. (p. 25)

Ward brings the history up to his present day, including a short but frank assessment of baseball’s entanglement with gambling, then arrives at the topic where he made what is arguably his most important mark on the history of baseball:

The most important feature of the National Agreement [what Ward calls the “lex suprema in base-ball affairs”] unquestionably is the provision according to the club members the privilege of reserving a stated number of players. No other club of any Association under the Agreement dares engage any player so reserved. To this rule, more than any other thing, does base-ball as a business owe its present substantial standing. By preserving intact the strength of a team from year to year, it places the business of base-ball on a permanent basis and thus offers security to the investment of capital…. The reserve rule itself is a usurpation of the players’ rights, but it is, perhaps, made necessary by the peculiar nature of the base-ball business, and the player is indirectly compensated by the improved standing of the game.

…As long as a player continued valuable he had little difficulty, but when, for any reason, his period of usefulness to a club had passed, he was likely to find, by sad experience, that base-ball laws were not construed for his protection; he discovered that in base-ball, as in other affairs, might often makes right, and it is not to be wondered at that he turned to combination as a means of protection. (pp. 30-32)

John Montgomery Ward
Another 1887 Monte Ward card, this one from a Virginia cigarette manufacturer – Library of Congress

Ward continues with a brief description of the proto-union he helped to found, the National Brotherhood of Ball-Players, stressing that “There was no spirit of antagonism to the capitalists of the game, except in so far as the latter might at any time attempt to disregard the rights of any member” (p. 32).

But the previous year, as Mark Alvarez notes in his introduction to the 1993 reprint of Ward’s book, Ward’s Brotherhood had grown thanks in part to “Ward’s angry, well-reasoned article” in Lippencott’s Magazine, “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” And by the fall of 1889, Ward and his colleagues were so fed up with the “capitalists of the game” that they simply formed their own league (generally known to posterity as the “Players’ League”), which played one memorable season in 1890 before folding. (For more, see the aforementioned Charles Alexander’s Turbulent Seasons: Baseball in 1890-1891.)

Ward returned to the National League (earning a considerable raise: from $4250 in 1889 with the Giants to $7000 for 1891 in Brooklyn), retired in 1894, practiced law, played golf, and, according to biographer Bryan DiSalvatore, helped to run the Giants behind the scenes. He was posthumously admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964, just two years before Marvin Miller became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and began to turn it into one of the most powerful unions in the United States.


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