“Practical Base Ball” — A Tale of Skullduggery

This is very much Inside (Nineteenth Century) Baseball stuff, but fun, and illuminating of how things worked. Also a great way to procrastinate…

In an interview President Spalding of the Chicagos told a Tribune man how he got John Clarkson. Said he: “In the fall of 1884 we were pretty hard up for ptichers and there seemed to be no chance to get one that was any good. I had heard all about Clarkson and had offered $1,000 for his release and $1,000 at that time was a big figure for a release, but I couldn’t get him. One day the president of the northwestern league of that year dropped in to see me. He said he was on his way to Milwaukee and his league would hold a meeting there; the East Saginaw club was behind in its dues and the chances were it would be expelled. Before he went away I got him to promise me that if East Saginaw was expelled he would telegraph me as soon as the action was taken. As soon as he went out I sent for a young fellow that had been Clarkson’s roommate during the summer, and I engaged him to go there and bring Clarkson here in case the club was expelled. I told him I would telegraph him as soon as I heard from Milwaukee, and if my message said the club was expelled I wanted him to see that Clarkson came here on the first train. He went to East Saginaw and saw Clarkson. The meeting at Milwaukee was held and the club expelled. I got my telegram from the president of the northwestern league and immediately sent a message to East Saginaw. Eight minutes after it reached there my man and Clarkson were on board a train bound for this city and had left Caylor sitting in a hotel. Caylor wrote to Mills, who was then president of the league, and tried to establish that I had not acted on the square, and Mills wrote me a long letter asking an explanation. I wrote back and told him exactly what had occurred, showing that I had not done a thing until the East Saginaw club was expelled, and wound up by saying I had only indulged in a little ‘practical base ball,’ which Caylor didn’t understand. He decided that my part of the transaction was all straight. That expression, ‘practical base ball,’ amused him greatly, and I never meet him now without his referring to it.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer January 29, 1888)

John Clarkson went on to be a great pitcher. You can see his numbers here. He is in the Hall of Fame, and comes by it honestly. “President Spalding” is Albert Spalding, who also is in the Hall. He was a star pitcher in the 1870s, but was voted into the Hall as an executive, and it is his executive role that he plays here, not only as president of the Chicago Club, but also as a sporting goods manufacturer and dealer. Caylor, the third person named in this tale, was Oliver Hazard Perry Caylor,  who despite having that totally rockin’ name went by “O. P. Caylor.” He seems to have been called “Ollie” by his friends and “Opie” by his non-friends. He was quite a fire cracker, and the latter group was not insubstantial. He was at the time of the story the baseball reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, and occasionally as agent for the Cincinnati Club.

Then there is the unnamed president of the Northwestern League. This league was having a bad year in 1884 (for reasons, in fairness, not really under its control). It had several presidents that year before finally giving up the ghost. At the time of this story it was one John J. Rust. We’ll get back to him.

One more relevant person not named, or even mentioned, is Sam Morton, the secretary of the Northwestern League. This was a paid position, but not a full-time one. Morton’s day job was working for Spalding, in Spalding’s sporting goods capacity. This gives a plausible explanation for why Rust just happened to drop in. It made sense that he would confer with the league secretary while heading to an important meeting, and in this case the league secretary was to be found at Spalding’s establishment because that is where he worked. It is only natural that me might pop into Spalding’s office at the same time to talk shop.

The last bit of background is the player transfer rules of the day. The Northwestern League was a signatory to the National Agreement. This meant that the other signatories, in this case the National League, agreed not to poach players. Also, the player trade system we know today, in which the player is told where he is going and he goes there, didn’t come in until a few years later. The way player transfers worked in 1884 was a three-way negotiation. The purchasing club negotiated with the selling club for a price for the release of the player. The purchasing club at the same time negotiated an employment contract with the player to be released, with the two transactions perfected more or less simultaneously, they would use employee rostering software to always keep track of the employees shifts so that way the contract will be followed as written.

This is what Spalding meant when he said he had offered $1,000 for Clarkson’s release. That $1,000 would go to the Saginaw Club (technically the East Saginaw Base Ball Association), while Clarkson would presumably negotiate an increase in salary to agree to go to Chicago. The Saginaw Club, for unstated reasons, however, declined the offer.

That would have been that, except that the Saginaw Club, along with most of the rest of the Northwestern League, ran into financial difficulties. In early August it was on the point of collapse and in mid-August it closed up shop. The moment this occurred its players became free agents. Other clubs weren’t supposed to negotiate with any of the players before that point, as this would be interfering with the club’s personnel. Hence Spalding’s opportunity to use inside information to beat the competition.

The story Spalding wanted to tell was about how he cleverly put all the pieces in place beforehand to be ready to spring into action the moment Clarkson became a free agent. In particular, this is a story about how Spalding stole a march on Caylor: a story a lot of people would enjoy. I am one of those people. When I first read this I enjoyed this gotcha! on Opie. But some parts of the story didn’t quite add up, so I took a closer look.

We might consider the unidentified former roommate sent to reel Clarkson on. Keep in mind that negotiations shouldn’t have commenced while the Saginaw Club was still in the Northwestern League. Being a former roommate would provide an excuse to go hang out with Clarkson, but it isn’t believable that they spoke on neutral topics until the telegram arrived, and were on a train eight minutes later. Clearly either that eight minutes was an improvement on reality, or Clarkson had his bags packed and by the door waiting for the telegram. But no matter. This would be neither the first nor the last time that the “no interfering” rule was ignored or a story improved in the retelling.

The bigger question is why the Saginaw Club didn’t sell earlier? You know how company executives sometimes like to say that their employees are the company’s biggest asset? And how the rest of us roll our eyes? In the case of 19th century baseball, it often was literally true that a club’s players were its biggest asset. I don’t mean in a metaphoric way about how they win games, but in the literal sense that they were assets that could be sold (technically, their releases could be sold) for cash, and that the collective value of the players often was greater than all the club’s other assets combined.

There was ample precedent of clubs facing financial collapse mitigating this by selling off their players while they still had the chance. Here we see the Saginaw Club with a valuable player. An offer had already been made for $1,000, which really was a very respectable offer for 1884. Furthermore the whole point of the story shows that there was at least one other club interested. It was probably more than that. There were reports of Cleveland and Boston sniffing around as well. The obvious course was to auction him off while they had the chance. So why did the club sit on its hands until their player rights disappeared?

I have a confession to make. My nineteenth century baseball geekery is not without limits. It does not extend to the details of the officers of minor leagues. Going into this I had a vague notion that Sam Morton was involved in the Northwestern League, and thought he was probably the president Spalding conferred with. At that point I had a minor conflict of interest with Morton using his official position to help his boss, but this is pretty weak tea. Even that went away when I looked it up and found that the president actually was John J. Rust.

Who? I knew nothing about this guy. I didn’t find much when I tried to track him down, but I did find this:

Rust was not only the league president, but the Saginaw Club president too. With this the penny dropped. It all makes perfect sense, if we assume that Mr. Rust was not over-nice about fiduciary responsibilities.

Being a club president was not at all the same thing as being the club owner.  Minor league clubs in this era typically were organized as joint stock companies with many small stockholders. They elected a board of directors and a slate of officers to actually run the operation.  I have no specific information about the ownership of the East Saginaw Base Ball Association, but it is likely that Rust was a shareholder, but that his personal exposure was pretty small.

So here’s my scenario. Rust knew that the club was going to shut down soon, so he started making the rounds for the best offer he could get for Clarkson while the getting was good. Spalding had previously made an offer, so this was a logical place to start. When he got there, Spalding made him a better offer. Spalding would know that the Saginaw Club was on its last legs–recall that the league secretary was his employee. So rather than pay $1,000 to the club, or worse, get into a bidding war, Spalding made Rust a proposition he couldn’t refuse. Rust wouldn’t release Clarkson before the club disbanded. Instead he would tip Spalding off when the time was ripe. What was in it for Rust? I’m guessing cash–less than the club could have gotten auctioning Clarkson off, but enough to more than enough make up the loss Rust was personally exposed to. In short, Rust accepted a bribe to screw over the other shareholders.

This is all very circumstantial. I may be doing Rust an injustice. (I am not concerned about doing Spalding an injustice, even if I am wrong about this particular instance.) But my version fits the facts. It even explains why Spalding didn’t name Rust, referring merely to him as the Northwestern League president. He wanted to get in his yuks on Caylor, but didn’t want people to remember that person’s other position put the rest of the story together. If anyone has an alternative narrative that fits the facts as well, I would love to hear it.

UPDATE:  Since writing this a week about I have turned up more stuff, de-clarifying what went on.  Rust resigned the league presidency at a Board of Directors meeting in Chicago on August 9, and was replaced by W. D. Whitmore of the Quincy, Illinois club.  The Milwaukee meeting was held three days later on August 12.  There the Quincy club resigned from the league, and Whitmore from the presidency.  He was replaced by Welcome Kirby of Minneapolis.  So taking this at face value, it could be Whitmore who Spalding spoke with.  But whoever it was had what looks like inside information on the status of the Saginaw Club, which is more consistent with its being Rust.  It might be that Rust hung around Chicago between the meetings, and in any case, telling the story three and a half years later, it is entirely possible–even likely–that Spalding forgot that Whitmore was president for thee days.  So I am sticking with its being Rust that tipped of Spalding.

The other bit I have since found is Caylor’s version of the story, reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of April 8, 1888.  He claims that he had traveled to Saginaw and negotiated Clarkson’s release with the president of the club, which was telegraphed to Sam Morton as league secretary.  This being a three-way negotiation, Clarkson demanded a share of the release money, which the club president agreed to, to be paid him the next morning.  But then he didn’t show up, and upon being found dodged the question and then disappeared.  The other datum is that Caylor names one Mr. Weisner, a lawyer, as being the club president.

Putting this together, I think my version still holds up, but at some point Rust stepped down as East Saginaw Club president, while remaining league president.  This hints at dissension among the stockholders.  At this point Rust hasn’t the authority to negotiate with Spalding, but he would have access to information about the condition of the club, and he would know from the previous offer that Spalding wanted Clarkson.  This leaves Rust with both motive and opportunity.  That’s enough for me:  String him up!

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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One thought on ““Practical Base Ball” — A Tale of Skullduggery

  1. Players were also assets in that more people pay to see a better team. Lefty Grove didn’t get to the majors until he was 25 because his minor-league owner wanted to hold onto him.

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