Henry Monroe Jones was one of the last surviving members of the days when baseball was pursued as an avocation rather than a vocation. Few men better symbolize the difficult dilemma that faced players during that formative era in baseball history.
Jones’s parents, Henry T. Jones and the former Louisa Nesmith, were natives of New York, but there is conflicting information about exactly when and where their second son was born. His death certificate states that he was born on May 10, 1857, in New York, but the 1860 census lists him as only one year old and having been born in Pennsylvania. We do know that he grew up in Keating, Pennsylvania, and was playing baseball for a strong semipro club in Warren in 1878, but otherwise details about his early life are scarce.
By 1881, he had relocated to Fort Wayne and was playing for a local amateur club. At this point his trail begins to emerge clearly. In 1882, the city sponsored an independent semipro club and Jones was selected as captain, while also playing a variety of other positions, including serving as “change pitcher.” By all accounts he proved a popular captain until a late-August game in Muskegon, Michigan, in which Jones pitched and was hit hard.
Rumors got back to the club’s directors that Jones had been deliberately lobbing easy pitches in the game, and they voted to relieve him of the captaincy. Worse, they didn’t even inform Jones of their decision — he found out only when he started out for the coin toss before the team’s next game and learned that veteran ballplayer John Remsen was the club’s new captain. Humiliated, Jones played in that game without making a scene, but upon his return to Fort Wayne he announced his resignation from the club.
Many of his friends tried to talk him out of his decision, and he agreed to continue to play with the club as long as he was not asked to pitch again. But the situation was untenable, and a couple of weeks later he quit the club and joined Grand Rapids. (Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, September 3, 5 and 20, 1882)
That off-season saw the formation of the Northwestern League, a strong minor league centered in the Great Lakes states and including both Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne. The new circuit was the third signatory to the historic Tri-Partite Agreement, a peace treaty by which the two rival major leagues — the National League and American Association — agreed to respect each other’s contracts and those of the new league. Henry Monroe Jones was selected to captain and manage the Grand Rapids entry. (Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, January 20, 1883; Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 24, 1883)
During the winter, Jones was employed as a railroad fireman working the line between Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne. (Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, October 4, 1882) It was an ideal job for him because it allowed him to balance personal and professional duties.
His success in the former realm was demonstrated on April 21, 1883, when he married twenty-year-old Junietta Fordney in Fort Wayne. But he was equally attentive to his responsibilities to the Grand Rapids team, and in signing players for his club he made use of an innovative new technique.
In the early days of baseball, pitchers had been restricted to underhand, straight-arm deliveries — literally, pitching the ball like a horseshoe — and batters naturally whaled away at the lively rubbery balls with all their might. But a surfeit of changes in the 1860s and 1870s, most notably the introduction of deader balls and the liberalizing of the pitcher’s motion, changed both pitching and hitting techniques.
As pitchers’ release points moved higher, the speed of their pitches increased and they began to develop curve balls. Batters could no longer swing from the heels with much effectiveness, so they began to shorten their swings. The curve ball also taught them a valuable lesson: that left-handed batters had an advantage against a right-handed pitcher because of the trajectory of the ball.
The result was that instead of being mostly about size and strength, hitting became a skill that also rewarded hand-eye coordination and finesse. One of the beneficiaries was Monroe Jones, who used a heady approach at the plate to make up for his diminutive stature (5’6″, 149 lb.). He was a selective batter, gladly taking free passes if pitchers couldn’t place the ball within his small strike zone. In particular, Jones believed that the advantage that a left-handed batter held against a right-handed batter was crucial. At some point during his eight seasons of amateur and semipro ball he had taught himself to bat left-handed and become one of the game’s first switch-hitters. (Grand Rapids Eagle, February 20, 1883)
This consideration also figured prominently in putting together his club. Because rosters of the era were small and substitutions not permitted except in the case of injury, the platoon systems that emerged in the twentieth century were not yet possible. So Jones did the next best thing. He focused on acquiring left-handed batters and switch-hitters, but also signed a few right-handed batters. Then he would stack the top of his lineup card with either left- or right-handed batsmen depending upon which hand the opposing pitcher used.
All his planning created a formidable lineup. Left-handed batter Charles Eden led the Northwestern League with a .359 batting average. Not far behind was Jones himself, who led a league stocked with former and future major leaguers in runs scored and slugging average. He also shone in the field, seeing most of his playing time in the outfield and ranking among the league leaders in fielding percentage, and also filling in at shortstop for twenty games. Grand Rapids compiled a fine 48-36 record.
Despite Jones’s success as a player and manager, many questioned his ability to handle the myriad associated responsibilities. In particular, the local press criticized him for not scheduling enough home games against attractive opponents. He also came under fire for the posters that were used to advertise home games; according to a critic, “their appearance would indicate that a Saginaw wood chopper hewed them out with a dull broad ax. The design was probably intended for a batter and a catcher, but the execution would hardly warrant the assumption. The right leg is about as large as a telegraph pole, while the left limb resembles a fishing rod. Upon the face of the batter there is a fixed melancholy expression, which would indicate that he is wondering where his next month’s salary is coming from. The catcher, who stands immediately behind him, looks exactly like a frog.” (Grand Rapids Times, reprinted in National Police Gazette, May 12, 1883)
By season’s end, the club’s directors had decided that it was too much for one man to be expected to attend to the club’s play, travel arrangements, promotions, and business affairs. So Horace Phillips, known as “Hustling” Horace for his energy and promotional skills, was brought in to act as Grand Rapids’ non-playing manager for the 1884 season, and Jones was asked to return as captain.
The decision to divide up responsibilities was understandable, but Jones’ feelings were nonetheless hurt. It was the second straight year in which he had received such a rebuff, and it led him to wonder about the wisdom of pursuing baseball as a career. He spent the off-season working as a brakeman and engineer for the GR&I Railroad on the line between Grand Rapids and Cadillac and contemplating his future.
His wife was expecting their first child, and railroad work offered greater security and the opportunity to remain on a predictable schedule. In February, he announced that he was giving up baseball to accept a permanent position with the railway. (Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, February 16, 1884) But as the season approached his love for baseball led him to reconsider, and he reached an agreement with the GR&I that allowed him to take the summer off and return to work at season’s end.
The 1884 campaign embodied all the reasons why a responsible man with a family to support would have grave reservations about a career in baseball. The Northwestern League, buoyed by its success in 1883, had expanded from eight teams to twelve, adding entries in far-flung cities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The increased travel expenses placed a great burden on all the teams, and Bay City surged to an early lead and then disbanded. Grand Rapids assumed first place by default, but soon they too were on precarious financial footing.
In late July, Jones left the team to be with his wife as she gave birth to their daughter Frances. (Grand Rapids Eagle, July 14, 1884; Grand Rapids Daily Democrat, July 23, 1884) Two weeks later, despite a splendid 48-15 record, the team disbanded, and the contracts of Jones and four teammates were sold to Detroit of the National League. Jones didn’t hit much during the remainder of the season, but he did draw walks and score runs while filling in capably at second base, shortstop and in the outfield. The Detroit Free Press predicted that, “he has a brilliant future.” (Detroit Free Press, March 9, 1885)
Detroit was anxious to have him back in 1885, but the previous year had determined his choice. On top of the inherent uncertainty of baseball and the woeful state of the Detroit club, the ballclub owed him approximately $200 in back salary. (Sporting Life, June 17, 1885; Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, October 30, 1885) Jones rejected the team’s overtures and remained with the railway, accepting a full-time position as a locomotive engineer. (Sporting Life, April 22, 1885)
As it became increasingly clear that Jones intended to give up baseball, the Detroit club redoubled its efforts. The club offered him a salary of over $300 a month and an unusual “bonus” — the $200 he was still owed from the 1884 season. Jones declined and also rejected feelers from other National League clubs. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 15, 1885; Sporting Life, June 17, 1885; Fort Wayne Sunday Gazette, July 12, 1885) His wife became so annoyed with the persistent inquiries that she returned one telegram to the sender with a curt message: “Mr. Jones will not play ball any where this season. Mrs. Jones.” (Detroit Free Press, July 24, 1885)
The end of the season brought new efforts to lure Jones out of retirement. Detroit repeated their offer to pay him his back salary if he signed a new contract, but Jones was fed up with the club. He did meet with his old manager Horace Phillips, who was now running the Pittsburgh club and was anxious to sign the “plucky little player.” But Junietta Jones remained adamantly opposed, and so her husband decided to make his retirement from baseball permanent. (Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, October 30, 1885; Sporting Life, June 17, 1885; Detroit Free Press, June 9, 1885)
Even so, major league clubs continued to contact him during the 1886 season, but Monroe Jones refused to budge. (Grand Rapids Democrat, reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, April 7, 1886) Aside from games for the GR&I nine, his playing days were over. (Grand Rapids Democrat, reprinted in the Fort Wayne Sentinel, June 7, 1886)
He did leave one significant legacy. A reporter explained in 1888 that Pittsburgh’s “right and left-handed hitters will be dovetailed together. This is one of Horace Phillips’ theories, and it is claimed that it will puzzle a great many pitchers.” (Detroit Free Press, April 8, 1888) Unfortunately, no credit was given to the man from whom Phillips had learned this tactic. Once substitutions were legalized, platoon systems began to emerge but Jones’ role as a forerunner of this tactic.
In 1890, the players rebelled against the owners and started a rival major league, the Players’ League. Jones’ skill and the raw deal he had received had not been forgotten, and several of the entries in the new league approached him about making a comeback. (Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 18, 1890) But he elected to continue to work as an engineer.
During the 1890s, he endured a series of setbacks. In May of 1890, he fell off his locomotive in Muskegon and suffered a fractured skull. (Grand Rapids Daily Democrat, May 7 and 15, 1890) The following year he was reported to be an invalid as the result of a workplace injury to his hand — whether this was the result of a different accident or the same one is not known. (Grand Rapids Daily Democrat, June 14, 1891) Forced to give up his railroad job, he sued for damages and received an $8,500 settlement in 1894. (Sporting News, January 20, 1894; Sporting Life, February 17, 1894)
This period also saw the end of his marriage. The exact details are not known, but the couple probably separated in 1894, when Monroe Jones moved to Saginaw. Thus, less than a decade after giving up a promising baseball career for a secure job and happy home life, Jones suddenly had neither.
After this his whereabouts become increasingly difficult to trace. He made an unsuccessful effort to get back into baseball as a Western League umpire in 1894. The 1900 census finds him living in Saginaw with his widowed mother, with whom he operated a photography business. His daughter Frances was with him at that time, but by 1910, she had moved to New York City to live with her mother. (She remained there and eventually married an inventor named William Harris.)
Meanwhile, Monroe Jones had relocated to Manistee, where in 1908 he married a widow named Ida Seymour and became a stepfather to three sons (two of whom were grown but the youngest of whom was only twelve). The 1910 census finds the three living in Manistee, where Monroe was working as a stationary engineer, and by 1920 they had moved to Detroit, where he worked as a carpenter. Eventually he returned to Manistee, and by the time of his death on May 31, 1955, he was the longest-lived major league ballplayer of all time.
Did he look back nostalgically on his playing days as he grew older? Or was he embittered by the injustices done him and the premature end of a promising career? Did he regret his decision to walk away from baseball in favor of a security that proved elusive? Unfortunately, we do not know what Jones’ thoughts were as he watched the game evolve from a risky business to a lucrative profession. But his life speaks volumes about the difficult dilemma faced by players during the early years of the National League.
Contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted; censuses and city directories.