In 1883, the city of New York returned to the National League after a six-year absence and the team posted a mediocre 46-50 record under the leadership of player-manager John Clapp. Then as now, mediocre wasn’t good enough for New York fans or management, and team owner John B. Day spent the off-season contemplating how to improve the club’s fortunes. He finally decided that discipline was the missing ingredient, so he hired National Guard captain and attorney James Lyman Price as the club’s new manager. The move didn’t work out as he had anticipated.
New York’s new manager had been born on September 20, 1847, in New York City, the eldest son of James and Harriet Price. By 1870, he was working as an attorney and the following year saw him marry his wife Kate and begin a family that would eventually include six children.
Price also found time to serve as captain of Company H in the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard. He was best known as a sharpshooter, but the regiment had a widespread reputation for its sporting achievements. According to an 1883 article, the Seventh Regiment, which was a lineal descendant of one of the four companies raised in 1806 in response to the threat of British invasion, took a special pride in the athletic prowess of its members. (New York Times, June 26, 1883)
Perhaps it was this very article that prompted John B. Day to select Price as his new manager. In announcing the hiring, Day stated, “Mr. Price has had some experience in base-ball matters, and I think he will bring the team well up to the front, if not making it the champion team of 1884.” (New York Times, March 8, 1884)
But knowledge of baseball was not a prerequisite for managing a ballclub. It was not uncommon for clubs of the era to assign a player to serve as captain and make on-field decisions, while hiring an experienced businessman to handle financial affairs, travel arrangements and generally oversee the team. So the captaincy was assigned to Johnny Ward, who had been one of the game’s best pitchers but was now making the transition to the field, while Price was expected to attend to the bottom line.
At first, it looked as if Day had made an inspired choice. New York won its first twelve games with Price as nominal manager, which must be one of the best starts that any major league manager has ever experienced. But the team soon reverted to mediocrity and by September had dropped back to fourth place, hopelessly out of the pennant race.
By that time, many had come to believe that the management of the club was a large part of the problem. “The manner in which the New York Club is handled is attracting attention throughout the entire country,” claimed one sportswriter. “There seems to be a screw loose somewhere. Whether the fault lies with lack of management or too much management is a difficult matter to determine; but that the club is without a head is very apparent. Price is the figure-head for the position, but it is feared that the empty title is all he can boast of, as there are at the very least four men who have the authority or power to step forward and countermand any order that Manager Price issues. They not only have that power, but they carry it into execution very frequently to the detriment of the club.”
The article went on to blame Price’s unfamiliarity with baseball for much of the chaos: “While Manager Price is an inexperienced man in baseball matters, he has two good coachers in Ward and [Buck] Ewing, which gives the club about seven managers. As Price has to depend largely on these two crack players for his managerial knowledge, he cannot very well force them to perform duty which they are inclined to shirk, consequently he is not getting the work out of the team that he should get. Ward’s arm is as well now as it ever was, nevertheless he doesn’t pitch a game, and Ewing and [Mickey] Welch, instead of pitching and catching together as a team, seldom play together, Ewing invariably catching Begley, while [Henry] Oxley and [William] Loughran take turns at supporting Welch. The latter is really at heart lazy, and doesn’t pitch over two, or at the very outside three, times a week, when he ought to be made pitch [sic] every day, as he is strong and perfectly able to do it. If the club was managed by a man who had full control, and one who had nerve enough to force the men to play ball or fine them heavily for their indolence, the New York Club would this day stand at the head of the list, instead of away down where they are at present.” (National Police Gazette, September 6, 1884)
The result was that Day got just the opposite of the disciplined squad that he expected to get by hiring a military man: “The gentlemen who compose the New York Club have been having glorious sport this season, as the summer has been one long holiday of sport and solid enjoyment. With a manager like Price, and plenty of money in the treasury, the boys just laid themselves out, and in every town they struck they painted it red so as to get up a reputation of being the terrors of the town if not of the ballfield.” (National Police Gazette, November 1, 1884)
Worse, instead of getting sound financial management, early in the year Price was caught stealing from the club’s treasury. After begging for another chance, he was allowed to remain as the club’s manager, but on the team’s final road trip new financial irregularities came to light and Price was fired. He remained in Detroit, fearing prosecution if he returned to New York, and was given an honorable discharge from the Seventh Regiment. (New York Times, October 21 and 26, 1884; Hardy, 60-61)
Eventually he and his family relocated to Chicago, where Price became Inspector of Rifle Practice for that city’s First Regiment. (Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1890, 8) He does not appear to have ever practiced law again, being listed on subsequent censuses as a clerk for a title and trust company. James Lyman Price died on October 24, 1925, in Oak Park, Illinois.
James D. Hardy, Jr., The New York Giants Base Ball Club (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1996); censuses and vital records; contemporary newspapers and sporting presses (as noted).