West Virginia’s Glasscock Was ‘King of Shortstops’ but Broke with Ballplayer Brotherhood over 1890 Players League

One of the brightest stars of 19th century baseball was a shortstop from Wheeling, just up the river from Moundsville, WV (subject of our PBS film), named Jack Glasscock. He was considered by many the best at his position, earning him the title “King of Shortstops.” Another sobriquet: “Pebbly Jack”, because he often picked up stones in the infield and tossed them away so they wouldn’t interfere.

Career numbers speak of excellence: a .290 batting average, 2040 hits, 27 home runs, 1163 runs, 825 runs batted in, and 98 triples. His SABR bio calls him “the best shortstop of the nineteenth century”, based on Sabermetric analysis. He helped invent shortstop techniques such as giving signs to the second baseman to agree on who might cover on a steal.

And as Major League Baseball owners and players continue to fight at the bargaining table, Glasscock is relevant, because he played a role in the first great labor dispute in baseball history.

In the 1870s and 1880s, as professional baseball roared to life in America via the new National League, ballplayers fought with owners over money. Their issues was the Reserve Clause which bound players to their teams, and a $2,000-per-player salary cap, even though gate revenues kept going up, enriching owners.

That angered the players, who weren’t getting a fair shake. “There was a time when the League stood for integrity and fair dealing, to-day, it stands for dollars and cents,” wrote leaders of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the sport’s first player union.

For the 1890 season, the Brotherhood devised a novel solution. They’d divorce the National League and help run their own league, partly owned and operated by the players themselves. A co-op version of Major League Baseball. And the shortstop from Wheeling would be one one of their main attractions. In 1889, Glasscock had had his best year ever, batting .352 with 205 hits, 128 runs, and 57 stolen bases.

The Players League was successful in 1890.  They fielded eight teams and outdrew the National League. They had the game’s biggest stars and a set of pretty new ballparks. The mission statement said: “We ask to be judged solely by our own work, and, believing that the game can be played more fairly and its business conducted more intelligently under a plan which excludes everything arbitrary and un-American, we look forward with confidence to the support of the public and the future of the National game.”

But as Bob Ross (who, full disclosure, is a friend) recounts in The Great Baseball Revolt, his authoritative 2016 history of the Players League, Glasscock was not a part of it. When league organizer and baseball superstar John Montgomery Ward, also a shortstop, arrived at Glasscock’s home in Wheeling, West Virginia, on November 18, 1889, with a contract in hand to recruit him, the shortstop was gone. 

There had been rumors in the press that Glasscock was going to sign with the National League. Glasscock denied them, but Ward was wasting no time now to sign the Indianapolis shortstop. Ward, arrived, however to an empty home. John Brush [owner of the New York Giants, which was not in the Players League] had reached Wheeling the previous day and signed Glasscock for an undisclosed salary… To add insult to injury, Glasscock agreed to serve as a “missionary” for the National League; he would travel the country, trying to convince as many players as he could to play for the old organization in 1890.

The Great Baseball Revolt cover

“Glasscock was one of baseball’s best and most popular players at the time, so when he deserted the Players League and moved to the National League, it was a big win for the rival National League,” Ross told me. The Brotherhood booted him from the organization. One diamond colleague called him “a good ball player, but he wears a No. 4 hat. He has a head like a pigeon.”

Glasscock had other struggles. In Wheeling, he was jailed for being drunk and disorderly. One journalist wrote that he had heard him “swear and act like a blackguard before and [sic] audience partly composed of ladies.”

Said Ross:

He was hated by his fellow players for years afterward for his defection, but not as much as Buck Ewing, who operated as a spy for the National League all season while wearing a Players League uniform. In the end, Glasscock’s desertion of the Players League was a psychic blow to the Players League when it was just getting started, but it was not what killed it. Even without Glasscock for the 1890 season, the Players League still fielded far better rosters and attracted more fans to its games than the National League.

In the end, Ross said, it was “Ewing and non-player investors who sold out the new league by colluding with the National League to consolidate and shut the new league down.”

Even though it lasted only one year, the 1890 Players League is relevant today, said Ross, because “both are struggles over the value that players create.” The Players League shows how “outside of their money and their money alone, owners are superfluous to the success of professional baseball, both in the 19th century and the 21st century.”

As for Glasscock, he lived out his retirement after baseball in Wheeling, working as a carpenter, like his father. He had quit school after fourth grade, and gone to play baseball at age 15 for “the Buckeye Base Ball Club, one of ten amateur teams in the Wheeling area,” according to SABR.

Before the 1875 season ended, Glasscock, along with Sam Barkley and Sam Moffitt, two other teenage Buckeyes who eventually played in the majors, joined the Standards, the top club of Wheeling. In 1876 he hit .369 for the Standards. In 1877 the Standards became an independent professional team, the first pro team in West Virginia. The team paid Glasscock $40 a month to play third base.” Before the summer of 1877 ended, Glasscock, still a teenager, left home to play for more money than he could make in Wheeling. He left with a barnstorming team called the Stars but soon joined the Champion Club of Springfield, Ohio. The next summer found him in Pittsburgh with the Alleghenys of the International League. When that club disbanded in June, he and teammate George Strief caught on with an independent professional team in Strief’s hometown of Cleveland called the Forest City Club.

After that, Glasscock was off to fame and some fortune as one of America’s first great baseball stars. He died in 1947 at age 89 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. In 1987, he was inducted into the West Virginia Hall of Fame. 

John W. Miller

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