Academic journal article Base Ball

The Ward V. Johnson Libel Case: The Last Battle of the Great Baseball War

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Ward V. Johnson Libel Case: The Last Battle of the Great Baseball War

Article excerpt

The effect that morning in May 1911 was part comic, part surreal. Seated somewhat anxiously in a packed courtroom were such baseball notables as National League Secretary John Heydler and team owners Charles Comiskey, Frank Farrell, and Barney Dreyfuss. On all sides was a baseball-savvy gallery eager to see blood spilt at the trial of the libel suit that retired star John Montgomery Ward had instituted against American League president Ban Johnson. The proceedings had just gotten underway, however, when the mounting tension was shattered by the presiding judge. A look of bewilderment on his face, the judge inquired, "What are the White Sox?"1

Happily for the litigants and for posterity, that judge, the brilliant federal jurist Learned Hand, proved a quick study and the case was well tried. Its outcome, a modest $1,000 judgment in Ward's favor, was a reasonable one and afforded both parties the chance to claim vindication. The verdict also cleared the air between two of baseball's most prominent figures and, in time, provided the basis for a reconciliation of sorts between them.

This article takes a look back at the now almost hundred-year-old case from two perspectives. One is courtroom specific and describes the roles played in the proceedings by Ward, Johnson, Comiskey, John T. Brush, Clark Griffith, and sportswriter/ humorist Ring Lardner, among others. The other attempts to place the litigation in the broader context of turn-of-the-century baseball strife. The central event here is, of course, the fierce conflict between the established National League (NL) and its new competitor, the fledgling American League (AL). Although ostensibly settled in January 1903, interleague hostilities, both public and private, flared up for years thereafter. In a very real sense, the conflict did not finally come to rest until two of its foremost combatants had had it out before Judge Hand in 1911-the Ward v. Johnson libel case thus becoming the last battle in the Great Baseball War.

The Brush Connection

Although both had long been important figures in baseball, John Montgomery Ward and Ban Johnson were not personally well acquainted. At trial, Johnson would testify that he had only met Ward a few times and that he harbored no animus toward him.2 What the two did have in common were paramount roles in the formation of professional baseball leagues: Ward, the Players League of 1890; Johnson, the American League in 1901. Another thing that Ward and Johnson had in common-and which eventually contributed to the 1911 lawsuit-was longstanding, often adversarial, relations with another formidable member of the baseball scene: the influential (if unloved) team magnate John T. Brush. While largely forgotten today, Brush was the dominant NL owner for more than twenty years. A self-made man whose wealth derived from the operation of a large department store, Brush was the principal owner of NL franchises in Indianapolis (1887-1889), Cincinnati (1891-1902), and New York (1902-1912). Along the way, Brush had made his share of enemies. Perhaps the foremost of these was Ban Johnson.

The rancor between the two men can be traced to Brush's tenure as Cincinnati owner. There he was frequently the target of criticism from Johnson, then the young sports editor of the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette. The situation only worsened in 1894 when Johnson assumed the presidency of a newly reconstituted Western League (WL). Among the owners whom Johnson had to deal with was none other than John T. Brush, owner of the league's premier Indianapolis team. Taking ruthless advantage of his simultaneous ownership of a major league team, Brush wreaked havoc in the WL by revolving players between his two nines. The competitive imbalance in the WL fostered by Brush's methods continued until the conclusion of the 1897 season when Johnson and the other team owners finally compelled Brush to relinquish the Indianapolis franchise.3

John Montgomery Ward's relationship with Brush also began on an adversarial note. …

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