Baseball fans, like Irishmen and Republicans, possess a famous penchant for nostalgia, a bent for painting a past in thick shades of sepia; fresh-off-the-farm ballplayers nicknamed Bald Billy and Shorty and Eagle Eye and Cannonball and Wee Willie and Babe play their hillbilly hearts out not for money or fame or the giggly attentions of ballpark floozies but for the love of the game itself. We’ve heard it so terribly often, and from so many dreamy-headed fogies, that when a book like Bryan Di Salvatore’s “A Clever Base-Ballist” appears and smacks a pie in the face of that specious mythology, it feels like a cultural acid wash, a stripping down of one of our most wistfully cherished lies.
John Montgomery Ward — a “jug-eared, willowy, peach-fuzzed, overreaching punk,” as Di Salvatore describes him, as well as an “honorable, smart and tenacious” man — played major-league ball in its protean years, from 1878 to 1894, those misty bygone days when ballplayers really did come fresh off the farm with nicknames like Bald Billy and Wee Willie. And Ward, a small-town, Pennsylvania-born orphan, did indeed play baseball because he loved it — my safe guess is that Bobby Bonilla and Albert Belle love it, too. But Ward, like Bonilla and Belle and the greater lot of those Bald Billys and Wee Willies, also played baseball because there was money in it. Lots of money. In the 1870s, a ballplayer’s average salary was four times that of the average American wage earner; by the time Ward led the Great Player Rebellion of 1890, in which major-league players walked away from the National League to form their own short-lived Players’ League, that disparity had swelled to seven times the average worker’s pay.
But the real money in baseball, then as now, flowed straight into the club owners’ hands; the players, then as now, resented it; and the public, then as now, resented them all. In 1997 Roger Angell summed up the clichis and complaints that get hurled at modern-day ballplayers: “They are overpaid, they have no loyalty, they care too much about their union.” More than a century earlier, sportswriters were hurling the very same criticisms at ballplayers, calling the notion of the “down-trodden baseball player” one of the “queerest example extant of Labor crushed under the iron heel of Capital.” The more things change, as Di Salvatore shows, the more they stay the same.
The John Montgomery Ward who emerges from Di Salvatore’s book is not a deeply drawn one; but then, with only a smattering of business letters and Ward’s dutiful 1888 how-to book on baseball for him to draw from, it could hardly have been otherwise for any biographer. (Which prompts me to note: Another Ward bio, David Stevens’ “Baseball’s Radical for All Seasons: A Biography of John Montgomery Ward,” was published in January by Scarecrow Press — though why the first two biographies of an obscure 19th century ballplayer would come out within months of each other, almost 75 years after his death, I am at a loss to explain.)
To build his portrait of Ward, Di Salvatore enfolds him in a thick pastiche of historical snapshots — of 19th century labor relations, New York journalism, Midwestern higher education and the hair-splitting minutiae of baseball rules, to name just a few. What keeps this loose jumble of social history and tangential reportage from collapsing upon itself is Di Salvatore’s ebullient enthusiasm for each and every fragment of his research. He is less a storyteller in love with his own voice than one in love with the contents of his notebooks; the book follows a dizzying maze of historical side streets rendered in prose so spirited and buoyant (one page alone sports 20 exclamation marks) that you can’t help shrugging and tagging along.
These digressions may be nettlesome to the average baseball crank, but then who really gives a damn about the average baseball crank? This is a book about a sport, a time and a man, in that order. More important, it’s a piquant antidote to the inevitable summertime pining for a more innocent, playful era that, as Di Salvatore shows, never existed at all.