SABR

Arthur Soden

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

Arthur Soden was like many nineteenth century capitalists: He had a near single-mindedness when it came to the bottom line. He saw baseball as a business, pure and simple, though he did admit later in life that he had a fondness for the game. Controlling costs and expanding revenues were his priorities. The well-being and opinions of his players, minority stockholders and even the fans, to an extent, were not. To Soden, employees were necessary for production only. The fact that they were human beings with demands of their own only complicated the issue. The only thing he detested more than employee relations was labor’s attempts to unionize.

The Boston franchise was riding high during the National Association years, copping pennants from 1872-75, sometimes by wide margins. Their dominance, in part, led to the formation of the National League in 1876. The club’s profitability took a dramatic dip in the new league. In 1877 Soden and his associates took over an indebted Boston franchise. They tightened the belt hard, shocking the players and even the fans. It worked. Soon the franchise was among the most lucrative in the game. Pennants, eight by the end of the century, and profits followed.

Soden himself was among the most influential executives in baseball. He was a league director within his first year at Boston’s helm and served as interim National League president for a season after the death of William Hulbert. Today, he is mainly known as the father of the reserve clause. He was also a driving force that helped the National League weather its challengers, the Union Association, Players League and American Association. The National League could have used his diligent guidance during the American League challenge but Soden’s interest in the game was waning by then and his club was reeling financially.

Arthur Henry Soden was born on April 23, 1843, in Framingham, Massachusetts in Middlesex County, the only child of Samuel S. Soden and Ferona S. Johnson. The Sodens were married on December 28, 1841. Samuel was a partner in Bradbury, Soden Company, a popular Boston publisher of books and magazines. He died when Arthur was just a year or two old. Ferona remarried in October 1848 to a Vermont farmer named Solomon Clement. The family lived in Hartford, Vermont, for a few years before settling in Framingham. Solomon and Ferona had one daughter, Mary Q., eight years younger than Arthur.

In his late teens Arthur found work as a wholesale druggist and pharmaceutical supply salesman. At age twenty Soden was drafted into the Union Army during the Civil War, joining Company A, 22nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on July 13,1863. On May 1, 1864 he was promoted to hospital steward. One of his tent mates described their living conditions: “I am now living with Soden, Hospital Steward, in a nice wall tent made of ponchos; we have nice bunks, covered with fly netting and filled with straw; we have a tin pail, wash basin, and everything comfortable, from the ‘Sanitary’ canned stuff, wines, etc.” After the 22nd was mustered out Soden joined the 32nd Regiment until he was discharged on November 1, 1864. Soon after returning from the war, he married another Framingham native, Mary Elizabeth Simpson, who was a year younger, in 1865. They settled in West Newton, Massachusetts, about eleven miles outside Boston. They lived there the rest of their lives and had three children. Unfortunately, only one, Charles, survived childhood. In 1867 Soden helped form Chapman and Soden Company, a roofing service and material supply business located in downtown Boston, initially on Water Street. He drove into the city for work with brown-bag in tow six days a week for the next six decades.

Soden was interested in baseball from his youth, playing amateur ball into his thirties. On July 16, 1874, about two dozen professional ballplayers, mainly from the Boston and Philadelphia squads, left the United States for Liverpool, England, on an international baseball and cricket tour organized in part by Al Spalding, who had made the trip over the previous winter to scout locations and size-up interest. About eighty fans accompanied the ballplayers; Soden was one of them. He even appeared in a game for Boston, playing center field on August 13 or 14 at the Kennington Oval in London. The Boston club, owned by Nathaniel T. Appolonio, dominated the National Association, taking four pennants starting in 1872. After the fourth pennant the NA was tossed aside in favor of the upstart National League in 1876. That year, or perhaps a little earlier, one of Soden’s friends, George B. Appleton, sold him three shares of stock in the Boston National League club for $45. The club dropped to fourth place in the new league, exacerbating existing financial woes. By the end of 1876 Appolonio sold out. After some boardroom bickering and maneuvering, Soden, J.B. Billings, a shoe factory owner, and William Conant, a manufacturer of hoop skirts and later rubber goods, took control of the club.

Soden became president, Billings was named treasurer and Conant accepted the position of secretary. The trio, known as the Triumvirs after the ancient Roman rulers, would oversee club operations for the next thirty years. By the mid 1880s they controlled about 65% of the stock. The club quickly bounced back on the field, taking pennants in both 1877 and ’78. Soden and company gained a firm grip over expenditures; in fact, they cut expenses so deep the players and fans yelped. As Soden noted, “Common sense tells me that baseball is played primarily to make a profit.” He cut the players’ meal money and booked them into shabby hotels on the road. As biographer Rich Eldred outlined in Baseball’s First Stars, the men were forced to man the turnstiles, cut the lawn and wrestle fans for foul balls. They were also charged for uniform-cleaning costs while on the road, on top of the standard uniform fee. They were required to clean their own uniforms when at home. Cuts went so deep that Boston offered its players an incentive if they made their shoelaces last for two years instead of one. Tight-fisted and penny pincher are but a few of the nicer things many called the Triumvirs. Salaries were cut as well; for example, star shortstop George Wright was forced to accept a $500 reduction for 1878. When the players threaten an upheaval over the ratty hotels, Soden fired manager Harry Wright because he wasn’t forceful enough with the players.

The club made the players’ wives pay full price for tickets and virtually did away with the concept of free passes. The press area was eliminated to make room for more paying customers. The Triumvirs themselves could be found manning the ticket booths during big paydays. Soden toted his lunch to the office each day and often dipped into his own pocket to cover team expenses. Clubroom upkeep dropped from $1,626 in 1875 to $551 in 1880. Travel expanse likewise fell $4,000 a year over that time to $2,813. Payroll dropped 20 percent from 1877 to 1880 to an average of $1,377 per man. The cutbacks worked. The team lost $3,316 in 1880 but profits started to soar in 1881, posting $2,850 in the black that year. Soon profits were averaging over $30,000 a year. After the finances stabilized the Triumvirs voted themselves a yearly salary of $2,500 each. They also took steps to block the smaller stockholders from sharing the profits. In December 1885 the lesser shareholders called for an investigation of the club’s finances, since Soden hadn’t issued a financial statement in three years. The Triumvirs used their controlling interest to outvote them. They also refused to issue dividends, which ultimately forced the smaller shareholders to sell out one by one in disgust.

Virtually from the time he took over the Boston club, Soden became a leading force in league affairs. He was perhaps National League president William Hulbert’s most trusted adviser in business matters. At the end of 1877 Soden became a league director and remained so until he retired in 1906. When Hulbert passed away in April 1882, Soden was named interim National League president until A.G. Mills was elected in November. Perhaps Soden’s biggest accomplishment as president was pushing for the return of New York City and Philadelphia among the league’s franchises. The two least-populated cities, Troy and Worcester, were pushed out to make room.

He was chairman of many league committees and a leader in National League circles for three decades. He was a dominant voice at meetings. During the early years Soden was a strong advocate against gambling and game-fixing. He was also the stabilizing force during the National League challenges with competitors in 1884, 1890 and 1891, among other years. Longtime National League president Nick Young asked Soden from time to time to help other league franchise financially. He once loaned the New York Giants $60,000. During the battle with the Players League, Giants’ owner John Day demanded $80,000 from National League coffers in July 1890 to help steady his club. He threatened to sell out the Players League if the money wasn’t remitted. Soden purchased $25,000 in Giants’ stock, as did Chicago owner Al Spalding. Indianapolis owner John Brush forgave a $25,000 loan in return for stock and a few others pitched in. Day was left with less than a $20,000 stake in the Giants. The New York stock remained in possession of the Soden family until 1928.

As respected as Soden was by his colleagues, few players had much nice to say about him. That was by design. He preferred to remain aloof from the players, wanting nothing to do with them. As one writer put it, Soden was “somewhat to the severe and reserved in his manner” in order to inspire “awe.” Conant and Billings dealt with the players. Soden never traveled, not once, with the team. This is not to say that he didn’t like baseball; he did. He sat though every home game until the last out. Conant traveled with the men and handled matters while the club was away. As Boston sportswriter Tim Murnane noted, “Not one in three of the men who have played on the Boston team…ever spoke a word to Mr. Soden.” To Soden, the ballplayers were mere employees, a means to an end. He didn’t want to get attached to anyone or compromised by association. He was a decision maker and capitalist, typically unconcerned with the welfare of his workers like most businessmen during the nineteenth century. He may have even viewed them as pampered and overpaid. As he once said, “When a player ceases to be useful to me I will release him,” no sentiment about it. A favorite move of Soden and his colleagues was to place a “troublemaking” player on the blacklist if he rocked the boat too frequently or harshly—from the owner’s perspective, of course. A famous case involved the blackballing of Charlie Jones in 1880 when he requested his back pay at an inappropriate time. Jones was fined for his troubles and tossed out of the league, never to return.

Before the 1879 season, Boston stars Jim O’Rourke and George Wright jumped to Providence. Providence won the pennant with Wright as its manager. In response, Soden fumed, “What man in his right mind will invest money in this kind of business? Today he has some assets. Tomorrow he has none.” Others league owners felt the same way. On September 29 the six owners of the National League agreed in a secret meeting in Buffalo to respect each other’s rights to five players. Thus, a reserved player couldn’t sign with or play for another team. Originally called the “five men rule,” the reserve clause was born; it survives in revised form today. Eventually all players would be held in reserve. Soden is generally credited with this innovation, but it was essentially the end result of many collaborations and communications between the magnates. The reserve clause marks Soden’s lasting fame in baseball history. It was an obvious attempt to eradicate bidding wars for players and to limit an individual player’s options and hence his leverage during salary negotiations. The reserve clause reigned unchecked for nearly a century.

In 1883 Boston won the pennant and emerged as a profitable franchise. After the success Soden expanded the ballpark to accommodate more seating. In November 1885 Soden announced that he had personally purchased the failing Providence franchise and all its players for $6,600. It was later revealed that he was acting as an agent for the league with the other clubs sharing the cost. For his efforts and money, Soden selected pitcher Hoss Radbourn and 21-year-old catcher Con Daily for the Beaneaters.

Boston continued to do well at the box office despite falling to a succession of fifth-place finishes from 1885-87. In February 1887 Boston decided to open its coffers to get back in the pennant race. At Billings’ suggestion, Soden purchased King Kelly, one of the game’s first superstars, from Chicago for $10,000. The sale took the baseball public by storm. Many didn’t believe such a price would or could be paid for a ballplayer. It was twice the known figure paid for any player in the past. The check was prominently displayed in a store window to prove to the public that in fact the money exchanged hands. The sale sparked a controversy on another front. Adding to the complaints of the new Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, Kelly was sold without receiving a percentage of the price. A year later, in April 1888, Chicago again took $10,000 from Boston, this time for Hall of Fame pitcher John Clarkson. Clarkson and Kelly became known as the $20,000 battery. In October Boston spent more than $30,000 to buy Charlie Bennett, Charlie Ganzel, Dan Brouthers and Hardy Richardson from the failing Detroit club. In 1889 Soden offered $7,500 for Jack Glasscock but was turned down by Indianapolis. In 1890 he purchased Herman Long for about $6,000. The money proved well-spent as Boston challenged for the pennant during the summer of 1889, losing out by one game to New York, and making a profit of $100,000. Sportswriter Tim Murnane estimated that the Triumvirs made a profit of around $300,000 for the club during the 1880s. It all collapsed in 1890 when Kelly, Brouthers and Richardson jumped to the new Players League organized by the Brotherhood. Clarkson threatened to jump, but stayed with Soden for a three-year, $25,000 deal. The Beaneaters dropped to fifth place. The Player League lasted only one season, but the challenge hit every club in the pocketbook, as did the merger between the National League and American Association the following year. The peace talks between those two leagues were almost derailed when Soden swooped in and stole King Kelly from the American Association’s Boston Reds in August 1891, offering him perhaps as much as $25,000 through 1892 as claimed by biographer Rich Eldred.

Boston rode high during the 1890s, taking five pennants from 1891-93 and 1897-98. With the folding of the American Association the National League split its season in 1892. Boston won the first half and challenged Cleveland for the second half—but Soden thought the Boston players weren’t challenging hard enough. He believed they were tanking the second half in order to guarantee a playoff check. He cancelled the postseason but later recanted. Boston won the series 5-0-1, drawing 30,000 paying customers. Baltimore and Boston ran neck and neck in 1897. The exciting pennant race netted about a $125,000 profit for the Beaneaters, as the Boston club was called. By the late 1890s, Soden started stepping back from baseball. Previously he never missed a game. More and more he was taking extended vacations to go fishing and relax with family and friends.

As a capitalist, Soden was staunchly anti-union. He vehemently declared, “I do not believe in labor organizations or unions.” This stance worked well in the end for the league during its fight with the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players at the turn of the 1890s. When the players threatened to strike during the summer of 1890, Soden countered that he would bring in strikebreakers to quash the rebellion. However, the players used the resentment as a driving force during the American League’s uprising a decade later.

A new union, dubbed the Protective Association of Professional Baseball Players, was officially formed in the summer of 1900. The most vigilant and vocal of the batch was vice president Clark Griffith, who had been pushing for unionization since 1897. The pitcher elected himself the “official bomb thrower” in the fight against the owners. Griffith first set his sights on Soden, who had refused to give him two passes during a recent series in Boston. At the end of the year he got his opportunity. On December 13, 1900, the National League owners rejected all demands made by the players. The union kept its cool. It drew up a petition requesting another hearing and handed it to Nick Young to give to committee chairman Soden. The union received no reply to the petition but Griffith and union president Chief Zimmer decided to attend the December 15 league meeting anyway.

Waiting to be heard, they were forewarned by Young that “They (the owners) aren’t going to give you a thing.” The meeting adjourned with Griffith and Zimmer still waiting to present their case. Afterward sportswriter Tim Murnane approached Soden at the hotel bar, with Griffith and other players present, Soden innocently replied that he hadn’t received such a petition. Then tauntingly, he casually pulled it from his breast pocket and snidely asked, “Can this be it?” Some reports suggest that he and Griffith nearly came to blows. Irate, Griffith supposedly wired American League president Ban Johnson, “Go Ahead: You can get all the players you want.” Thus, sparked in part by Soden’s callousness, many within the union broke from the National League and stocked the American League with proven, experienced talent.

The interloping American League sent the National League reeling, especially in Boston, where Ban Johnson relocated his Buffalo franchise. During the battle for talent the Beaneaters lost third baseman Jimmy Collins, right fielder Buck Freeman, catcher Boileryard Clarke, left fielder Chick Stahl and pitchers Bill Dineen and Ted Lewis. All had been starters on the 1900 squad; all except Clarke went to the cross-town Americans. The Americans also added the great Cy Young. They won A.L. pennants in 1903 and ’04, while the Beaneaters sank to the second division. The fans, now tired of the parsimonious Triumvirs, switch allegiances in droves. From 1901-05 the Red Sox attracted 2.1 million paying customers, the Beaneaters only a third as many.

National League executives were thrown into disarray by the American League’s encroachment. In July 1901 Soden and fellow owners John Brush, Frank Robison and Andrew Freedman met in private. They formed on paper what they called the National Baseball Trust. They wanted the National League set up as a holding company for its eight franchises. The four unilaterally assigned themselves percentages of the stock in the new enterprise. Freeman, representing the Giants, would take 30 percent and the others would each get 12 percent. That would only leave a third of the stock for the other four clubs; naturally, this didn’t go over well. The trust plan was eventually defeated but not before it caused a great deal of animosity and chaos in the National League at a time that it needed its concerted efforts to stave off the advancing American League.

With the trust defeated and the American League gaining steam the Natural League sought a change at the top. Al Spalding made a strong bid to replace Nick Young as National League president; however, in the end Soden, Brush and Cubs’ president Jim Hart were appointed as a three-man committee to head the league. They were called the Board of Control or Executive Committee. In truth the committee rarely met; Brush made unilateral decisions as de facto head of the league. During this time Brush took over the Giants from Freedman and waged a spirited battle against the American League. But the other owners were looking to make peace with the new major league. Brush and Soden were the two National League leaders that wanted to continue the fight.

As noted, the Beaneaters were quickly becoming the “other team” in Boston. Profits dwindled dramatically. Billings sold out in 1904 to Conant and Soden. The latter two soon looked for a buyer as well. The deal was consummated in November 1906. George and John Dovey, John Harris and Fred Tenney purchased the club for $75,000 plus an overpriced $200,000 mortgage on the ballpark and grounds. The National League threw Soden and Conant a festive dinner party in appreciation of their thirty years of service.

Soden may have retired from baseball but he continued working. Outside his daily responsibilities at Chapman and Soden, which he ran with his son, he was the president and part-owner of the Street Railway Company, Columbus Avenue Trust and Mount Mansfield Electrical Railroad Company. He was also a part-owner and director in Commercial National Bank of Boston, Bay State Hardware Company, Clark Manufacturing Company and Pioche Mining and Development Company, among others. Needless to say, Soden was a wealthy man. In December 1907 he purchased an electric railroad about eleven miles in length in Vermont. Soden was a frequent contributor to Boston College. Outside his contributions over the years, his will also bequeathed $145,000 to the institution, which was used to purchase a building named in his honor, among other investments. Outside business Soden loved chess, fishing and expensive cigars. As president of the Boston Chess Club, he often hosted large competitions with both national and international competitors. He planned his vacations around fishing, often taking off for fishing holes throughout New England. He purchased a summer home on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.

Throughout his career Soden was known for his unquestioned integrity. At the end of 1908 he became entangled in a messy personal squabble. A Boston broker named Frederick Small accused Soden of having an affair with Small’s second wife, Laura. He made wild allegations that Soden had drugged both him and his wife one night and claimed to have fifty love letters penned by the millionaire. In February 1909 Small filed an alienation of affection lawsuit against Soden for $500,000, the largest such suit filed in U.S. history. Soden refused to acknowledge the claim, leaving it uncontested. It was settled by an arbitrator in May 1911 for $10,000. The arbitrator openly asserted that he believed that the Smalls were working a con but he couldn’t prove it. Giving credence to that theory, Small was later convicted and executed for killing his third wife five years later for insurance money.

Into 1925 Soden, 82, still trekked to work at 150 Oliver Street in Boston, from Newton, six days a week with his son. Arthur Soden took an extended vacation that summer and died at his summer home in Sunapee on August 13, 1925. He was interred at Newton Cemetery.

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