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First Players Union and John Montgomery Ward

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First Players Union in Baseball History

John Montgomery Ward in 1885 wasn’t like many other players. Ward graduated from Columbia Law School  and had married a Broadway actress named Helen Dauvray. He was in a position to fight the status quo. He didn’t mind rankling the club owners.

Ward was upset with the reserve clause in baseball. He thought a person should be able to choose were he wanted to play. He founded the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players at a meeting in New York City, At this meeting, he told them it it is all about dollars and cents…the eyes are on the turnstiles…Player have been bought,sold and exchanged as though they were sheep instead of American citizens.

Ward went on to say:

There is no escape for the players. If he attempts to elude the operation of the rule, he becomes at once a professional outlaw, and the bond of every club is against him. He may retire for a season or more, but if he ever reappears as a professional ball player it must be at the disposition of his former club. Like a fugitive slave law, the reserve clause denies him a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape.

A. G. Spalding and other owners refused to budge an inch and in 1889, they furthered their power by creating an absolute salary ceiling of $2500 and they began charging players rent for their uniforms.

First Players Union Battle

The battle was on.

Ward and some prominent wanna be owners banded together and formed themselves as the Players’ League.  However, Henry Chadwick, an early pioneer in the game told them to go away and labeled them as “anarchists”. The new league got off to a flying start with fifty-six players, including a big name in the game, King Kelly joined the first players’ league in baseball history. Samuel Gompers was part of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and threw in his support.

The National League was ready to crush them as Spalding told the newspapers:

I was opposed to it at first, but now I want to fight until one of us drops dead,

A blacklist was created to bar players from jumping to other teams. King Kelly turned down a $10,000 bribe to quit the players league but he refused. In the end the three leagues, National League, the Players League and the American Association proved too much and attendance began to drop in all of them. Teams were getting desperate for finances. Spalding called for “unconditional surrender” from the Players’ League and it was over.

John Montgomery Ward was offered amnesty and played for several more years without incident, The reserve clause remained firmly entrenched in professional baseball . Spalding and his league grew to twelve teams. He gave his parting shot on the first players’ union.

The idea was as old  the hills.but its application to Base Ball had not been made…… like every other form of business enterprise. Base Ball depends on two interdependent divisions, the one to have absolute control of the system the other to engage in the actual work of production.


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John Montgomery Ward
Inducted to the Hall of Fame in: 1964
Primary team: New York Giants
Primary position: Shortstop


   About the author– Tom Knuppel has been writing about baseball and sports for a few decades. As an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan he began with the blog CardinalsGM. Tom is a member of the United Cardinals Bloggers and the Baseball Bloggers Alliance. He also maintains the History of Cardinals website. More recently he has been busy at KnupSolutions and the primary writer of many sports at KnupSports and adds content at Sports 2.0. Tom is a retired High School English and Speech teacher and has completed over one hundred sportsbook reviews. He also can be followed on Twitter at tknup.  Feel free to contact Tom at



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