SABR

Harry Taylor

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

In the early 1890s Harry Taylor played four seasons of major-league baseball to earn money to pay for the law-school education that he pursued during the offseason. While his exploits as a first baseman on the baseball diamond are now unmemorable, Taylor made a more lasting but unsung contribution to baseball history through his legal services that helped to elevate the American League to major-league status in 1901. As the lawyer for the Players Protective Association, an early ballplayers union, Taylor issued the crucial legal opinion to his ballplayer constituents that it was his belief that the reserve clause in the National League’s standard player contract had “no legal value.” Taylor’s legal analysis set the stage for Napoleon Lajoie, Jimmy Collins, and dozens of other ballplayers to jump from the National League and establish the American League as a serious competitor to the then-monopoly National League. Taylor went to serve as a judge in New York state for nearly four decades.

Harry Leonard Taylor was born on April 14, 1866, in Halsey Valley in upstate New York, one of the two children of Fred and Hannah (Davis) Taylor. He had a younger sister named Mary. Harry’s father operated a farm in rural Tioga County near the town of Spencer, which was 50 miles south of Syracuse and about 15 miles equidistant from Binghamton to the east, Elmira to the west, Ithaca to the north, and the Pennsylvania state line to the south. Harry attended school in Spencer, graduating from the Spencer Union School in 1882. In order to earn a scholarship to Cornell University in nearby Ithaca, he prepped at Ithaca High School for two years, and played baseball for the local town team, since the high school did not yet have an organized team. Taylor first developed his oratory skills at Ithaca High School, which he exhibited publicly at the school’s commencement ceremony on June 13, 1884. At his graduation, Taylor gave a speech entitled “Arnold and Andre” about the lessons to be learned about the differing attitudes of American traitor Benedict Arnold, who fled to exile, and British spy John Andre, who was executed. Taylor then entered Cornell University in the fall of 1884.

At Cornell he successfully combined scholarship with athletics. He continued to develop his oratory skills in the classroom while playing third base and shortstop on the varsity baseball team. As the Cornell Alumni News later characterized Taylor in 1908, “As an undergraduate, he was one of that extraordinary sort who could play for four years on a varsity team, captaining the team for three years, and yet rank among the best students of his class and win a coveted Phi Beta Kappa key.” During his junior year Taylor spoke in the college’s declamation contest and in his senior year competed for the Woodford Prize, the college’s highest honor in elocution; he won neither contest, but did receive honorable mention as a Woodford orator. During his senior year Taylor also found time to be class president and complete his senior thesis, which received honorable mention. Taylor graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree on June 19, 1888, after giving the class president’s speech at the commencement ceremony.

Less than a week after graduating from Cornell, Taylor was playing minor-league baseball for the nearby Elmira ballclub, which in 1888 played in the Central League. The lanky Taylor, who was 6-feet-2-inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, played not only shortstop but also first base and catcher for the overmatched Elmira team. In 1889 Elmira switched to the New York State League, where it contended for the pennant against more local competition. When Taylor led the league in batting with a .377 average, he attracted the attention of Jack Chapman, the manager of the nearby Syracuse team in the International Association. Chapman, who had been hired for the 1890 season to manage Louisville in the then-major-league American Association, signed Taylor to play for Louisville.

As a college graduate, Taylor was a rarity on major-league rosters at the time, but the Syracuse correspondent for Sporting Life still touted his various abilities in November 1889: “Manager Chapman and the Louisville people are here informed that in securing Harry Taylor of the Elmiras of last season they have a player of great promise and a gentleman.” While that last word, “gentleman,” accurately reflected Taylor’s demeanor in life, it was his downfall in the baseball world. Taylor was simply too brainy for the brawny sport. He had no use for the petty arguments that dominated the baseball landscape and the ruthless politics practiced by team owners.

Taylor played mostly first base for manager Chapman at Louisville over three seasons. In his first year, 1890, he had his finest major-league season, hitting .306 and collecting 169 hits (fifth best in the league) to help Louisville secure the American Association pennant. During the offseason, Taylor used some of his baseball earnings to begin his studies at the Cornell Law School, as he made the decision to use his oratory skills to focus on getting his law degree rather than pursue a lengthy professional baseball career. In the spring of 1891, Taylor stayed at Cornell to coach the baseball team (and play first base as well, in those days of looser intercollegiate eligibility rules) and piloted the team until it completed its schedule in June. Chapman had to offer Taylor the security of a two-year contract to entice him back to major-league baseball. Taylor returned to the Louisville team in mid-June to play the remainder of the 1891 season, and batted .296 in 91 games for the next-to-last-place Louisville team before returning to Cornell to continue his legal studies.

Taylor put his contract studies to work during the fall of 1891. Given the uncertainties of the continued existence of the Louisville club (it was sold at public auction in November 1891) as well as the entire American Association, Taylor and teammate Hughie Jennings negotiated a deal with the New York Giants of the National League to switch leagues if Louisville couldn’t honor their contracts for the 1892 season. Taylor’s negotiation of a backup plan for the league’s dissolution caused an uproar in Louisville, which forced him to issue a public explanation (not apology) for his legal actions. Naturally, the new owners of the Louisville club didn’t take kindly to Taylor and Jennings once the American Association merged with the National League and it was clear that Louisville would field a team in the National League for the 1892 season.

Dr. Thomas Hunt Stucky, the president of the Louisville club, held Taylor to the second year of his contract and forced him to report to the team for the opening of the 1892 season, not stay at Cornell to coach the baseball team for the duration of its spring season as he had in 1891. Chapman also had difficulties with Stucky and was fired as field manager in early July, replaced by second baseman Fred Pfeffer, who was promoted from captain to manager. Because Taylor was so closely aligned with the deposed Chapman, he didn’t get along with Pfeffer, especially after the new manager brought in Lew Whistler to play first base and moved Taylor to right field, a position he had rarely played. At the end of the 1892 season, after batting .260 in 125 games, Taylor vowed never to play again for Louisville as he returned to Cornell University to complete his legal studies.

In the spring of 1893 Taylor once again coached the Cornell baseball team while he finished the final courses he needed for his law degree, which he was awarded in June 1893. With the degree in hand, Taylor decided to play one more season of baseball to earn some cash to open his own law practice. As a graduate of the Cornell Law School, Taylor was one of the first handful of men to play major-league baseball after earning a law degree, following in the footsteps of John Montgomery Ward (1885, Columbia University) and Jim O’Rourke (1887, Yale University).

Because the reserve clause in his contract bound him forever to the Louisville club until it released him, Taylor had to persuade Louisville management to trade him to another team. Fortunately, Billy Barnie, who had replaced Pfeffer as Louisville manager, was willing to accommodate Taylor and orchestrated a trade with Ned Hanlon, the manager of the Baltimore team. On June 7, 1893, Barnie swapped Taylor and Jennings from Louisville to Baltimore in exchange for infielder-outfielder Tim O’Rourke and $1,000 in cash. Taylor hit .283 in 88 games at first base for Baltimore in 1893, then retired from major-league baseball. He finished with a .286 career batting average, while Jennings became a valuable member of Baltimore’s three championship teams in 1894, 1895, and 1896. 

In November 1893 Taylor moved to Buffalo, New York, where Chapman was managing the Buffalo minor-league team in the Eastern League. After passing the bar examination in January 1894, Taylor established a law practice in Buffalo. Because of the national economic depression at the time, business was slow. Taylor contacted Hanlon in Baltimore to see if he needed a spare infielder. Rebuffed by Hanlon, Taylor organized an amateur team in Buffalo called the Pastimes, which played a regional schedule, its opponents ranging from the Cornell varsity team to Chapman’s minor-league team and assorted squads in between. The Buffalo Express reported that Taylor played on a variety of amateur teams in the Buffalo area throughout the late 1890s, including several comprising only lawyers.

As evidenced by his commitment to amateur baseball, Taylor was much more interested in helping men to become the best ballplayers they could be rather than make money from the sport. At a banquet in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1896, he told a Pittsburgh correspondent for Sporting Life: “I made up my mind years ago that disposition was a strong factor in the makeup of a ball player; in fact, in a winning team you will notice that there are lots of willing workers, players who have the interest of the team at heart; never slacken their vim and play ball with heart and soul. For my part if I was manager of a club I would be a careful observer of the temperament of my men. If a man wouldn't do his work earnestly, then I would choose the treatment best fitted. There are three methods possible at this stage of the game, heroic treatment, persuasion, or get rid of.” As part of a commitment to the creation of an effective disposition in college ballplayers, Taylor spent several days every spring in Ithaca tutoring players on the Cornell baseball team. Once Hughie Jennings became the Cornell baseball coach in 1899 (while attending law school there), Taylor spent longer stretches of time each spring on the Ithaca practice fields. He also returned each June to play in the annual varsity-alumni game during senior week prior to graduation exercises.  

During the summer of 1900, with his playing experience and familiarity with baseball contracts, Taylor was a natural choice to be the lawyer for the newly formed Players Protective Association, an early version of a baseball players union, to represent its interests in negotiations with the National League club owners. Shortly after being appointed the union’s attorney, Taylor discussed the legal principles that he was defending for his ballplayer constituents: “Hitherto a player has been helpless. He has been forced to sign a contract drawn up by his employer, and has had absolutely no voice as to its contents. He has been forced to consent to all sorts of unfair treatment. If a League club does not care to carry a player all through the season, it can ‘farm’ him out to some minor-league club, which must pay his salary. In that way the League club keeps a string tied to the player, who is prevented from bettering himself with an engagement to some other League club. The contract also allows the club to sell a player to any other club without his consent, and if he refuses to go he can be driven out of base ball.”

At the same as Taylor took on the post with the Players Protective Association, Ban Johnson was plotting to elevate the minor-league American League to major-league status. In conjunction with the ballplayer leaders of the Players Protective Association, Taylor developed negotiation points to present to the National League team owners at their December 1900 meeting. He had high hopes for the meeting: “I shall draw up a form of contract to be submitted to the League magnates, and it will be drawn in accordance with law and equity. The ballplayer asks nothing that is not fair, and he does not for a moment look for an advantage if the magnates will come halfway.” While the owners allowed Taylor to speak at the meeting, they then ignored his arguments. After this rebuff, Taylor established the principle that Association members should defer signing a National League contract unless he personally approved the contract. This strategy was effective in creating a large pool of players who would be available to sign American League contracts, if they could avert prosecution for circumventing the reserve clause in their National League contracts for the previous season.

Ban Johnson, who had been completely rebuffed by the National League owners, who wouldn’t even talk to him, declared war on the National League by actively raiding its better ballplayers. Johnson’s American League recognized the Players Protective Association in late January 1901 and agreed to incorporate Taylor’s contract points into the league’s contracts (including a limited reserve clause for a stipulated period not to exceed three years, rather than the unlimited nature of the National League contract). Soon thereafter, Taylor talked with a number of attorneys familiar with the reserve clause situation (probably including William Turner and Richard Dale, who eventually successfully litigated the now-famous Lajoie test case) and issued the legal opinion that gave comfort to Lajoie, Collins, and more than 100 other players to jump from the established National League to the upstart American League. A flurry of signings, at hefty salary increases, occurred after Taylor telegraphed Johnson associate Charles Somers on March 1, 1901: “All barriers removed. National League players free to sign with any league.” Taylor received $1,200 for his legal services, which caused Sporting Life to comment that “Taylor was worth every cent of his stipend to the players.”

With the attendant publicity during the winter of 1901, particularly in weekly articles in Sporting Life with titles such as “Taylor’s Tips” or “Taylor Talk,” Taylor was able to build a prosperous law practice in Buffalo. Having more time for civic activities, he was elected a trustee of Cornell University in 1903. In January 1905, Taylor joined a 26-man consortium to purchase the Buffalo club in the Eastern League and was elected president by the shareholders. In October 1905, after longtime Eastern League President Pat Powers resigned to purchase the league’s Providence team, Taylor was elected league president. He successfully navigated the league for the 1906 season, but when Powers wanted to return to his old job in October 1906, the other Eastern League owners ousted Taylor and reinstalled Powers as president. Taylor was a brilliant lawyer and a capable administrator, but he wasn’t a good politician at a time when capitalists needed to have a ruthless bent to succeed. Annoyed with baseball politics, Taylor retreated from Organized Baseball and focused on improving his golf game rather than remain involved with professional baseball.

In December 1906 Taylor began a long career in the New York state judiciary when he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in Erie County. (In New York, unlike most other states, the Supreme Court is a lower-level court, not the highest.) In 1907 Taylor was elected to a six-year term as judge. A Cornell alumnus described Taylor’s approach to the law in making the case for his re-election in 1908 as a university trustee: “He showed himself at once a tireless student of law and a fair and impartial presiding justice. Practitioners like his court because business moves rapidly and because the man on the bench is always considerate of the counsel before him, the witness on the stand, and the men in the jury box.” In 1913 Taylor was re-elected to a 14-year term as a judge. After the governor appointed him to the appellate division in 1924, he was re-elected to another 14-year term in 1927. Taylor retired in December 1936 because of the mandatory retirement age of 70, but remained in the judiciary as an official referee until 1944. During his years as a jurist, Taylor continued his commitment to amateur baseball by serving on Buffalo city recreation committees and attending numerous banquets for amateur-league players.

Taylor never married. Five decades after playing a pivotal legal role in enabling the American League to become a major league, Taylor died on July 12, 1955, in Buffalo. His remains were cremated at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. 

December 16, 2011

Sources

Buffalo Express, 1894–1906.

“Harry L. Taylor,” Cornell Alumni News, April 15, 1903.

“Harry L. Taylor,” New York Clipper, March 4, 1893.

“H. L. Taylor Renominated,” Cornell Alumni News, March 25, 1908.

Ithaca Daily Democrat, June 14, 1884.

“Judge Harry L. Taylor Dies; Jurist for Nearly 40 Years,” Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1955.

“National League Deserters,” New York Times, March 2, 1901.

Richter, Francis, “That Option Clause,” Sporting Life, March 16, 1901.

Sporting Life, 1888–1906.

US Census, Tioga County, New York, 1880.

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