Charley Jones is the name of a Reds superstar that few may know. In fact, Bill James, baseball historian, goes as far as to say he’s one of the two best unrecognized players of the 1870’s (the other being Levi Meyerle, who played one season for the Reds Stockings in 1877).
Jones was baseball’s first slugger. A good defensive outfielder, he played for no less than eight different organizations in his 13 year major league career…and that includes two years where he was expelled from baseball over a contract dispute (fans think baseball players are more transient today?).
James selected Jones to his cumulative National League all-star team (1876-79) and named him to the decade Gold Glove team. He had the single season record for home runs (9) and was the decade leader (18), maintaining a .307 average over this time. Keep in mind that teams played 60-80 games a season this time. He played for the Red Stockings from 1876-78 during this period. He hit the Red Stockings’ first home run in National League history in 1876.
He was a major star for Cincinnati’s 1880’s American Association teams. Cincinnati was ordered by the American Association not to let him play on the 1882 championship team that finished 55-25. That team tied the National League champion Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) 1-1 in a pseudo-World Series exhibition (back to the expulsion in a moment). After being allowed to play in 1883, Jones finished second in the league in homers and slugging percentage in ’83, first in OBP, second in runs, and fourth in homers in ’84, fourth in batting average, third in runs, and fifth in slugging percentage in ’85, fourth in homers in ’86, and batted .314 in a part time role in ’87. He was a big time star who was just as good manning the outfield as he was at the plate. His lifetime OPS+ is 150. He held the career record for most home runs through his first nine professional seasons despite being blacklisted during two of these years. His most similar players include Reds greats Bug Holliday and Ival Goodman; a current comparison would be Carl Crawford.
According to Bill James’s book, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” Charley Jones was born Benjamin Rippy in North Carolina in 1850. He was orphaned in the 1860’s (may be from the Civil War?), moved to Indiana and was raised by a relative named Reuben Jones. He was a big guy and tried out with several teams before sticking with Keokuk in 1875. He was playing with Harry Wright (of 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings fame) with the Boston Red Caps in 1879 when he led the National League in home runs, runs scored, RBI, and walks.
However, something happened between the Boston club and Jones in 1880 and Jones apparently wanted out. In those days, contracts called for players to be paid at the end of each month. With teams traveling by train, as a security measure, the teams didn’t typically take enough cash on the road to pay the players until they returned home. They would advance the players what they needed for the trip.
Well, Jones decided he needed to be paid and asked for his money. Jones had several nicknames, “Baby,’ “Baby Boy”, and may be one a bit more descriptive, “The Knight of the Limitless Linen.” Charley, as a star, also served as a professional model. In those days, Charley would wear clothes of the finest local clothiers, and model them around town, which provided him a large wardrobe. Charley also was known to be quite the playboy. In Redleg Journal (by Greg Rhodes and John Snyder), one story has it that a woman claiming to be his wife, angrily threw cayenne pepper into his eyes over his ‘wandering ways.” Jones denied the woman was his wife, though admitted they shared a residence. He bailed her out of jail later that evening.
Something else had happened in baseball during this time, and it’s something monumental that has remained with baseball to this day. According to “The Great Encyclopedia of 19th-Century major League Baseball,” by David Nemec, the “Reserve Clause” was enacted in 1880, which allowed teams to keep five players from year to year on their team without having to renegotiate contracts every single year. The number of players was expanded to 11 in 1883. At first, the players considered it prestigious to be named, essentially, “franchise players,” but the teams quickly used the reserve clause to lower contracts and wages since the players could no longer go on the open market every year. As you may guess, this became a sore spot amongst the players which later led to the development of new major leagues to compete with the National League.
The teams also used the reserve clause to punish players. The Boston Red Caps (Jones’s 1880 team) used this clause to punish Jones for pushing for his paycheck. Jones asked for his money and Boston didn’t pay him…they were on the road, and may not have had the money anyway. Jones refused to play the next day, Boston manager Harry Wright sent a telegram of complaint to owner Arthur Soden, and Soden decided to suspend Jones (Boston was already out of the race). The Red Caps eventually released Jones, and had him blacklisted from baseball.
Things continued to spiral out of control, with the argument landing in the newspapers and, eventually, the courts. The Red Caps even refused to pay Jones what was obviously owed to him for the baseball he had actually played. An Ohio court ruled against the Boston team, who promptly refused to pay. However, when Boston arrived in Cleveland for a baseball game, Jones “attached Boston’s share of the gate receipts for the Cleveland series, which were collected by the sheriff. Jones used the money to purchase a laundry in Cincinnati.” (James). Jones retired from baseball.
During this time, Cincinnati did not have a baseball team in 1881 (their one gap from 1869 to the present). Cincinnati had been expelled from the National League after the 1880 season for selling beer on Sunday and leasing their stadium for other use on off days. These practices were banned by the NL, but the Cincinnati team had gotten so bad, attendance was lacking and the team was trying to find ways to make more money.
The American Association was formed in 1882, and Cincinnati was asked to join the league. Cincinnati went and signed Jones to play, but the AA decided to honor the National League blacklist and ordered Jones not to play. Jones sued again.
According to James, there was a bitter trial that alleged Jones had been blacklisted not merely for jumping the Boston team, but for alcoholism and insubordination. Jones lost the lawsuit, but the NL and AA had other disputes between the two leagues, and the AA decided to let Jones play anyway and he returned to being a star, now at age 33…which, frankly, helps demonstrate how good of a player he actually was in the first place.
Bill James summed it up well. “He had missed more than two seasons and endured at least two lawsuits in a dispute that began over when he would be paid a month’s salary.”
After Jones retired in 1888, he moved to New York City and became an inspector of elections. However, no one knows what became of him. One rumor is that he died from a lightning strike in 1910, but baseball historian Lee Allen somehow proved that wasn’t true. Allen found “Jones’s disappearance ‘the most absorbing baseball story’ he’d ever encountered.” Jones’s death date and place are still a mystery. So, Jones, born Benjamin Rippy and orphaned, rises to the top of his profession, and dies in anonymity.
So, here are some oddities as they relate to the Reds and baseball. Jones and Curt Flood, another former Red, are two known stars who fought the Reserve Clause, one at the clause’s infancy, and the other leading to changes in the reserve system itself. Secondly, the Reds and Jones may not have come together if they both had not been at odds with the National League at the time, and I suppose alcohol sales and consumption could be tie between them, too.
And, here’s another tie…two great Cincinnati stars; both with extravagantly large personalities and apparently bullheaded determination; were both blacklisted by the National League: Charley Jones and Pete Rose.
What’s amazing is that the more we hear about legal cases and contract disputes, and player movement in today’s game of baseball, it really hasn’t changed that much in about 140 years of the professional game.
Information for this story was taken from Bill James’s book, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract , The Great Encyclopedia of 19th-Century Major League Baseball by David Nemec, Redleg Journal by Greg Rhodes, and John Snyder.