Ross Horning

This article was written by Warren Corbett

Bumps Horning’s six years in the lowest depths of the minor leagues made him a baseball radical. After being sold without his consent, re-assigned over his objections, and released with no severance pay, he concluded that Organized Baseball didn’t give a damn about players. He took his grievances to the US Congress.

In widely publicized hearings on baseball’s antitrust exemption in 1951, Horning was the only player to attack the economic foundation of the industry. He called for abolition of the reserve clause that denied players the right to choose their employer. While acknowledging that an owner could fire a player who refused to accept a trade, he said, “I do not see how he had a right to tell him where he could or could not play.”1

His testimony highlighted the oppression of minor leaguers: “The general public, or baseball fan, when he thinks of baseball thinks of the major leagues. He thinks of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. He thinks of huge salaries, of terrific baseball parks and beautiful lights and marvelous conditions, hotels, trains. That is baseball. Only 5 percent of baseball players in the United States play that way.”2

As one of the other 95 percent, Horning was a weak hitter in Class C and D leagues, small even for a second baseman at 5-feet-8½. He used baseball to pay for his college education on the way to a Ph.D. and a more rewarding career as a professor of history.

Ross Charles Horning Jr. was born on October 10, 1920, in Watertown, South Dakota, to Ross and Harriet (Meaghan) Horning. Ross Sr. was a switchman for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. It should be no surprise that their eldest son was outspoken; after her husband died and her eight surviving children were grown, Harriet Horning became the first woman to be elected state auditor of South Dakota.

Bumps picked up his nickname in childhood, its origin unknown. He played quarterback for Watertown High and was captain of the football and basketball teams. He was still in high school when he entered professional baseball in 1939 with Mitchell, South Dakota, in the Class-D Nebraska State League, but he lasted only six weeks before the team released him.3 After a summer of semipro ball, he signed with another Class-D club, the Sioux Falls Canaries, in 1941. His .228 batting average in his first full season convinced him that he would never join the 5 percent in the majors.

In his second year with Sioux Falls, now in the Class-C Northern League, he had his first collision with the reserve clause when he was warming up for a road game in Duluth, Minnesota, in July. “I was playing catch with one of the players, and a fellow (from the Duluth team) came along the fence and said, ‘What size uniform do you want?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve already got one.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’ve just been sold to us.’”4

The Sioux Falls club had just left home for a two-week road trip, meaning the team would be paying Horning’s living expenses. But Duluth was beginning a two-week homestand, where he would have to rent a room. That extra expense would put a considerable dent in his $75-a-month paycheck. He told the Duluth owner he wanted to stay with Sioux Falls. “We argued until about 2 o’clock in the morning, and I knew before we finished that he would tell me the obvious fact, that I could not play for any other team in the United States anyway, and so I may just as well play for him.”5

After only three weeks Horning left Duluth to enlist in the Army Air Forces. He was not summoned for basic training until the spring of 1943, then served nearly three years as a gunner. While he was in the service, Duluth’s parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, transferred his contract to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League, at the highest level of the minors.

Despite a federal law giving military veterans the right to reclaim their civilian jobs, Sacramento cut him during spring training in 1946. Organized Baseball, a law unto itself, had decreed that returning servicemen were only entitled to a tryout. Horning had to pay his own way home from California; that was also baseball law.

He rejoined Sioux Falls and enjoyed his best year. At 25, older and more experienced than most Class-C players, he hit .293 and was chosen as the all-star second baseman. The Canaries invited him back for 1947, when they became affiliated with the Chicago Cubs.

He had his second encounter with the reserve clause in midseason when the Cubs re-assigned him to another Class-C club in Hutchinson, Kansas. Horning was taking classes at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and refused to report to Hutchinson. The Cubs suspended him. After two weeks with no income, he gave in, but it cost him. Because of the postwar housing shortage, he had to keep his room at the Sioux Falls YMCA so he would have a place to live when he came back for classes in the fall, and also had to rent a room in Hutchinson for the rest of the season.6

The next spring the Cubs assigned him to yet another Class-C farm in Visalia, California. He told the club he wouldn’t report until he graduated from Augustana in June. The Cubs would take no back-talk from a 27-year-old who was no prospect, nothing but roster-filler. Horning was released.

At last free to choose where he would play, Horning learned that he could make more money in semipro ball and independent minor leagues than at the bottom rungs of Organized Baseball. A semipro club in Minnesota paid him $265 a month for 1948, more than his Visalia contract.

After the season Horning married Maxine Spath. They had met in an Augustana history class when Ross tripped over her feet and she said, “Gotcha.”7 The independent Quebec club in the Canadian-American League agreed to pay his and his wife’s train fare so she could join him for the 1949 season. In 1950 they went to Vermilion, South Dakota, for semipro ball at $375 a month, his highest baseball salary.

Ross and Maxine saw their baseball summers as a pleasant vacation from classes. Horning had entered graduate school at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, studying history and international relations. He skipped baseball in 1951 to prepare to take the State Department’s Foreign Service entrance exam.

A newspaper story interrupted his studies. On May 5 the Washington Post reported on Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler’s plan for hearings on baseball’s antitrust exemption and the reserve clause, which were under attack in court. Celler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Study of Monopoly Power, cast himself as the defender of the National Pastime. “Baseball is one of the finest things in American life,” he said, “but it is in danger.”8

Nine days later Horning wrote to the congressman urging him to investigate the reserve clause’s role in oppressing minor leaguers. “If your committee only calls outstanding players, managers, and owners, it will not reach the core of the reserve clause controversy,” he wrote.9 The counsel for the subcommittee’s Republican minority, future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, interviewed Horning, and he was invited to testify.

Whether influenced by Horning’s letter or not, Celler was soon backing away from his unqualified support of the baseball cartel. “[T]he reserve clause affects different segments of this game in different ways,” he said, “and the attitude of a big league star may be entirely different from the attitude of a minor league player.” He promised to listen to all sides.10

At the opening hearing on July 30, the leadoff witness was Ty Cobb. The ancient star had little to offer, but his name guaranteed press coverage. With the commissioner’s office vacant — Happy Chandler had recently been dumped by unhappy owners — National League President Ford Frick spoke for Organized Baseball. It may have been his audition; he was elected commissioner less than two months later.

“Frankly, gentlemen, I don’t see why all the furor about the reserve clause,” Frick declared. “Basically it is a long-term contract which is nothing unusual where distinctive personal services are contracted for. I read by the papers that [comedian] Milton Berle has just signed such a contract for 30 years.”11 The subcommittee report noted that Berle had been free to negotiate with any television network before he signed with NBC — a choice not available to ballplayers.

When Horning took the witness chair on August 7, he challenged Frick’s benign view of owner-player relations. He said the reserve clause was part of baseball’s “mercantile theory of economics, whereby each major league club has little colonies all over the United States, and the primary purpose of these colonies or minor league clubs is to produce players for the parent club.”12 (He certainly didn’t talk like a ballplayer.) “It is difficult to see how 16 [major-league] owners should have complete control of America’s national game.”13

He attacked the owners’ central argument that the reserve clause was needed to ensure fair competition between rich and poor teams. On the contrary, he said, benchwarmers on rich clubs could help weaker teams if they were free to choose where to play. “If there were no reserve clause, then [a team] could say to a man on the bench of the wealthy team, ‘You can play regular with us.’ … He would rather play, surely.”14

Horning pointed out that a minor leaguer could be released with no notice and not even bus fare home — as he had been. “Imagine that Ted Williams was hitting .200 on the first of July. He would never lose his job. He would never be fired. He would always receive his year’s contract.

“That is not true in the minor league case. If a man was hitting .200, he would probably lose his job on July 2.”15

“The contract is binding on only one party. There is no binding factor as far as the club is concerned. … If you live to be 75, you cannot play for any other baseball team than the owner says — unless you get an absolute release, that is. You have no choice.”16

Under questioning, Horning said he had no specific ideas on how to replace the reserve clause. “Not every ballplayer is a major league ballplayer or ever will be a major league ballplayer,” he concluded. “But I feel they have a right to play where they want to and work where they want to, and to feel that a contract is binding upon the other party as well as upon themselves. That is my entire interest in being here.”17

Horning’s testimony drew a backlash from the tame sporting press. “Ross Horning’s record indicates he can’t hit a lick and has no chance to move up in baseball,” sneered Francis Stann of the Washington Evening Star. Never mind that Horning had no desire to move up in baseball. Seattle Times columnist Eugene Russell dismissed him as a “bush leaguer” who was biting the hand that had paid him enough to fund his college education.18

Another minor-league veteran stepped forward to echo Horning’s complaints. Cy Block, who had played 17 big-league games in three trials with the Cubs, had been released by Triple-A Buffalo during spring training in 1951 after 10 years in the minors. “Actually, the reserve clause is just the final breaking point of a number of grievances that have been building up for years among ballplayers,” he told the subcommittee. He asserted that he was speaking for most minor leaguers, who didn’t dare complain “because they would be blacklisted.”19

But Block stopped short of calling for an end to the reserve clause. While the clause was unfair to minor leaguers, he said, players in the majors “are really well taken care of.”20

After Horning and Block’s passionate pleas, major-league baseball rolled out three high-profile players to testify in support of the reserve clause. Pitcher Fred Hutchinson, the American League player representative, and shortstops Lou Boudreau and Pee Wee Reese parroted the owners’ line. “Without the reserve clause, I don’t think that baseball could operate,” Reese said.21

The Celler subcommittee heard 33 witnesses, most of them baseball officials, and generated 1,643 pages of transcript. Block and Horning’s testimony may have influenced the outcome of the investigation. Chairman Celler had convened the hearings with a pledge to “strengthen and fortify” baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws.22 But as he listened to testimony, Celler sounded increasingly skeptical. The subcommittee’s final report recommended that Congress take no action as long as the antitrust issue was before the courts.

In 1953 the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by former Yankees farmhand George Toolson. The court majority said Congress should decide whether to put Organized Baseball under antitrust law. Ballplayers were trapped in a Catch-22: Congress left it up to the courts, and the Supreme Court left it up to Congress.

Horning continued playing semipro ball while he completed his doctoral degree at George Washington. He studied for a year in India as a Fulbright Scholar, then began his teaching career at Wisconsin State University. He moved on to St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he served as head baseball coach while teaching history.

In 1964 Horning joined the faculty of Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha that remained his home for the rest of his life. He taught international relations and several courses on Russian history. He spent a year at the Moscow State University and thought he was the only Omaha resident who subscribed to the Soviet newspaper Pravda.

Over four decades at Creighton, Dr. Horning also taught the history of India, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland. He spiced his lectures with corny humor and occasional juggling of tennis balls. “He loved students, and they loved him,” said Dr. Richard Super, a student of Horning’s who joined him on the Creighton faculty.23

He was elected faculty president three times and was a member of the athletic board and the honors committee. Following his mother’s footsteps, he served on the county’s Democratic Central Committee. Maxine became a first-grade teacher in public schools.

The Hornings had no children. They created a scholarship in Ross’s name for Creighton history majors. “Without history, man is like an asteroid in space, detached, isolated,” he said.24 The university honored him with its Distinguished Faculty Service Award.

Horning scratched his competitive itch by playing intramural softball, tennis, and pickup basketball. “I wouldn’t say he plays dirty,” law professor Ronald Volkman commented. “I’d say he plays vehemently.”25 He continued competing into his 70s, even after a hip replacement. Horning died at 84 on April 1, 2005.

One of Horning’s prized possessions was a copy of his congressional testimony autographed by another fighter for players’ rights, Curt Flood.26 Horning revisited the plight of minor leaguers in 2000 for an essay in SABR’s The National Pastime. While major leaguers had won free agency and fabulous salaries, he wrote that the minor-league contract had actually become more oppressive. True, it granted a player free agency after seven years — for the few who lasted that long ­— but he could still be sold or released without notice. In addition, the new contract gave the team year-round call on his services, so he could be prohibited from getting an offseason job to supplement his poverty-level income or, like Horning, going to school.

That was the nature of professional baseball, he wrote: “a wonderful, enjoyable sport that is also very cruel.”27

 

Acknowledgments

Photo credit: Creighton University Department of History. Cindy Workman and Verleen Unruh of Creighton provided information about Dr. Horning. The research staff of the Library of Congress led me to the transcript of the Celler hearings. Judith Adkins of the National Archives Center for Legislative Archives opened the monopoly subcommittee’s files. This biography was reviewed by Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.

 

Sources

Portions of this story appeared in Warren Corbett, “Voices for the Voiceless: Ross Horning, Cy Block, and the Unwelcome Truth,” Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (SABR, 2018).

 

Notes

1 Study of Monopoly Power, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Study of Monopoly Power of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 82nd Congress, First Session, Serial No. 1, Part 6: Organized Baseball (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1952), 393. Hereafter cited as “Hearings.”

2 Hearings, 372.

3 Horning’s play in 1939 and some of his later seasons in semipro and independent ball don’t appear on his record at baseball-reference.com. He gave details of his career in his congressional testimony.

4 “Ross Horning: Scholar, wit, and athlete,” Creighton University Colleague, July 1985: 8.

5 Hearings, 352. Horning was sold because the Sioux Falls owner needed fast cash to pay expenses for the road trip. “Younger Shackles Duluth Team, 8-0,” Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Argus-Leader, July 9, 1942: 9.

6 Hearings, 357.

7 Julie P. Pritchard, “Dr. Horning: History from the Heart,” Creighton University Window, Fall 1994.

8 Ted Smits, “Celler Says Baseball Violates Trust Law, Favors Exemption,” Washington Post, May 5, 1951: 13.

9 Ross C. Horning to Representative Cellar [sic], May 14, 1951, “Correspondence A-H,” in Papers of the House Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power of the Committee on the Judiciary from the 82nd Congress, at the National Archives Center for Legislative Archives in Washington.

10 International News Service, “To Call Players into Investigation of Organized Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 19, 1951: 15.

11 Hearings, 30.

12 Hearings, 359.

13 Hearings, 374.

14 Hearings, 374.

15 Hearings, 372.

16 Hearings, 393-394.

17 Hearings, 396.

18 Francis Stann, “Win, Lose, or Draw,” Washington Evening Star, August 8, 1951: 40; Eugene H. Russell, “Bush Leaguer Talks,” Seattle Times, August 8, 1951: 30.

19 Hearings, 587.

20 Hearings, 590.

21 Hearings, 852. Subcommittee records indicate that the three major leaguers did not volunteer to testify. They were summoned by Chairman Celler, probably at the suggestion of baseball’s lobbyist, Washington attorney Paul Porter, because they were considered friendly to the owners’ position.

22 “Truman Approves Baseball Reserve Clause Investigation,” Washington Post, July 19, 1951: 13.

22] Hearings, 30.

23 “Dr. Ross C. Horning, Jr.,” Creighton University Department of History.

24 Ibid.

25 Kathy Micek, “A different teacher,” Omaha Sun, February 4, 1971.

26 Michael Kelly, “CU Professor Recalls Pioneer,” Omaha World-Herald, July 8, 1997: 9.

27 Ross Horning, “Minor League Player,” The National Pastime 20 (SABR, 2000), 104.