In 1902, John Montgomery Ward was asked to predict the future. He wrote about what baseball would look like in 1922 in an article that appeared in a number of East Coast and Midwest newspapers:
“What will the game of baseball be two decades hence? Frankly I don’t know. But believe me if it has withstood what it has during the last few years it will still be here. I believe it is going through the fire now, but it will come out whole in the end…No other game has the same hold on the public from a spectator point of view, and that is why I am confident that it will last.”
Ward envisioned a system in which all the players on each team would be natives of the area the teams represented:
“Two decades from now it may be no longer a mere exhibition—for that is all it is now—an exhibition of the ability of a clever manager, with more money and more tact in managerial council to get together the best players in the market—it will be a locally patriotic game for blood.
“The time is coming when the players instead of being bought to play in any team that calls them, irrespective of where they live and whence the team is located, will belong to the locality from which the team hails.
“There is a tendency in that direction already.
“The Brooklyn management is an instance of one that appreciates the value of a player who has a local following. They have retained (Wee Willie) Keeler, though the offers of other clubs have forced them to pay him a very large salary. But they have their reward in his great popularity with the Brooklyn patrons of the game. He was born there. The people know him, know his history and they feel that he is always doing his best for his town and their town.
“Not only is this state of affairs characteristic of this team, but it is to be seen in one or two other teams in both leagues. The managers appreciate the money value of a ‘local attraction,’ as they call it, and they want more men of the same kind. They can’t find them but that is due to the mistaken system of buying and selling players for their worth as players, which has killed the local end of the game and stunted the development of the town boy on the town lot. As soon as the new system of localizing the players comes into vogue there will be a revival of general interest in the game among the ‘town boys’ and players will be made to meet the demand.
“This revitalization of the game must come, and come it will in the next twenty years because baseball as an exhibition has reached it height. It can be developed no further, and something must be done to advance or there will be a deterioration.
“Of course, if this is done, there will be some work for the Rules Committee to do. It will be necessary to have some sort of legislation to apportion the territory fairly among the teams. New York being the largest city in the United States will have the advantage of a smaller city, like Boston or Baltimore, and to even up matters it would be necessary for the committee to give the smaller town enough territory to make all available population the same. The details must be decided by the events of the future. But I believe that something like that is about to come and will be a feature of the game of baseball in 1922.”
Ward, who engaged in, and encouraged contract jumping in order to establish the Players League just more than decade earlier, now, because of the changes in the economics of baseball, saw the practice as the greatest threat to the game:
“There will be no ‘contract jumping’ which has given the national pastime such a setback in the last two years. And much depends upon the decision of the courts. This contract jumping is a two-edged sword. It will someday cut back at the American League when their players start to jump.
“Every successful game nowadays and in the future must have money invested in it. Look at the progress the game of baseball has made in the last twenty years and that will give you an idea of what we might expect.
“Twenty years ago each team had about $1,000 invested in it to put it on a working basis. Some did not have even that much. To-day, in Philadelphia, there is a plant which is values at about $350,000. They own a lot in the residence section of the town and the ground is daily growing more valuable for building purposes. In twenty years it will have tripled in value. There is also a substantial brick wall around it and a valuable iron grand stand.
“Twenty years from now we may expect to find the conditions in Philadelphia existing all over the country, and there will be a hundred million dollars invested in the sport. All this if the contract-jumping business is made impossible for the future.
“Take it as a fair business proposition. Would any sane man invest his money in an enterprise which could be ruined at any moment by the failure of any outside party to fulfill his end of the contract?
“In baseball the ruin may come at any time, for if a man can ‘jump’ in March he can jump in May or June, just when his help is needed most, and there is no redress for the man who invests. The courts, for the most part, claim that, if there is any damage done, the laws are open for redress and the manager can sue the player for damages. But whom can he sue and from whom get redress? Yhe contract-jumper has nothing and is generally irresponsible. If a coal company contracts to deliver so many tons of coal to you in so many months, and you, in turn contract to deliver so many tons to other parties in so many months, and you are made to lose money because the coal company breaks the contract and fails to deliver the goods, you can get legal redress in an action for damages. But not so with the baseball manager.
“If contract-jumping is allowed, the future of baseball is a future full of small things and a lack of progress. But contract-jumping will not be heard of twenty years hence. Already one state in the Union has declared against it legally—the state of Pennsylvania. They have good lawyers down there, and they know what they are talking about. And the crucial test and the future of baseball—a future full of big things as yet undreamed of, is now in the hands of the Circuit Court of the United States.
“If the Circuit Court of the United States falls in line with the Pennsylvania decision (Philadelphia Ball Club v. (Napoleon) Lajoie) there will be no more contract-jumping, and the manager, after signing his contracts with his players, can invest his whole fortune, safe in the belief that he will not risk it subject to loss at the whim of his players or through the wiles of a rival organization.
“Then the game will take on a luxury which has not heretofore been possible, and the game of twenty years from now will see as much improvement as it saw in the last twenty years.”
Ward predicted no major rule changes, saying they “seem to have reached perfection” but conceded “Still, there is a Rules Committee, created to make rules, and it naturally feels it must do something to earn its salary.” Ward said he endorsed two major rule changes during the past decade; the rule to “move the catcher up under the bat,” (adopted in 1901 in the National League and ’02 in the American), and the 1893 change that increased the pitching distance to 60’ 6”.
“It gives the batter a better chance to fix his attention on hitting the ball, because he does not need to be afraid of an inshoot or know when he takes the bat in his hand that he is also taking his life in his hand. I tell you it was a serious matter in those days to get hit by a ball from the strong arm of one of those fast pitchers, as my own experience can testify.”
As with every era of baseball, Ward said some of his contemporaries thought the game had already changed so much as to no longer resemble the game they played twenty years earlier:
“I was talking to one the other day in Philadelphia (Arthur Irwin). He is of the old school you know (and said) ‘Oh, it’s not like the old days, when I played on the Philadelphia team for four years without men being changed. All we had were (Jack) Clements and (Deacon) McGuire as catchers, (Charlie) Ferguson, (Charlie) Buffington and (Dan) Casey as pitchers, (Joe) Mulvey, (Charlie) Bastian, (Sid) Farrar and myself in the infield and (George) Wood and (Jim) Fogarty in the outfield.
“’We didn’t need to be nervous every time we made an error, and look to have one or more of a half dozen substitutes take our place. And we played ball, we did, and no mistake, for we knew our jobs were safe.’”
Irwin’s recollection was fuzzy—the lineup as he described was only in place in 1887 (but even that season Barney McLaughlin played more games at second than Bastian) –but he insisted the lack of competition for a roster spot made players better:
“’We could give these boys who are playing now cards and spades on lots of things, inside work and out, and best them. We had the hit and run, and we didn’t bunt as much as they do now. I can’t see how runs can be made by so much bunting. Oh, for the good old time back again when the swatting game was the thing. I believe the public would rather see the boys slug the ball and run. Shades of Roger Connor, ‘Buck’ Ewing and Jim O’Rourke! What would they think of this bunting business? It makes me sick to think of it.’”
Ward said Irwin was one of many “old-style players who feel the same way,” but he was more optimistic, but still managed to take a shot at current, and future, players:
“I have great hopes for the future of the game, and I believe that all that has been done in the past to make it take the place it occupies to-day will not be a circumstance to what will be done in the next twenty years to make it take the place in the heart of the nation which has not been dreamed of heretofore.
“The players may not be as good as the players of the past, and this especially true of the local player idea becoming a fact, but the interest will be great, and after all, the interest in the game is the fountain source of its life.”