Ward, John Montgomery

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WARD, John Montgomery

(b. 3 March 1860 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania; d. 4 March 1925 in Augusta, Georgia), baseball player who excelled as both a pitcher and a shortstop, and who in 1890 led his fellow players in a mass revolt against the established major leagues.

Ward grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, the younger of two sons in a Presbyterian family. His childhood was not easy—he was an orphan by age fourteen. His father, James, a failed businessman whose debts once forced the family into bankruptcy, died of tuberculosis in 1871, and his mother, Ruth Hall, an assistant principal, passed away from pneumonia in 1874. In autumn 1873 Ward enrolled in the classics program at the nearby Pennsylvania State College. Although records indicate that he excelled in most of his courses, Ward spent much of his time playing baseball. In 1875 he and some fellow classmates formed the school's first organized baseball club, and Ward soon established himself as a formidable pitcher. Reputedly, he was the first in school history to throw a curveball. His tenure at the college came to an abrupt end in 1877, when he was caught stealing chickens from a neighboring farm and was expelled.

Ward spent the next year traveling throughout the United States, playing baseball professionally in towns big and small—Williamsport and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Janesville, Wisconsin; and Buffalo and Binghamton, New York—before landing a contract in Rhode Island with the Providence Grays of the National League (NL) in July 1878. Against the country's best players, the eighteen-year-old Ward shined. In his first three major league seasons, the precocious pitcher notched 108 victories (including a record 47 in 1879), led his team to the 1879 pennant, and authored just the second perfect game in major league history when he blanked the Buffalo Bisons on 17 June 1880. That year the New York Clipper proclaimed that Ward ranked "second to none at his position," and attributed his instant success to his "puzzling" curveball and "thorough command" in the box.

When the Providence franchise hit hard financial times in 1882, Ward signed on to pitch with the New York Giants. He was no longer the same pitcher. In the course of throwing more than 2,000 innings in his first 5 seasons, the five-foot, nine-inch, 165-pound right-hander had overextended himself. Chronic arm fatigue limited his innings in 1883, and a shoulder injury he sustained the following season ended his pitching career—but not his baseball career. No longer capable of snapping off the curveball that had brought him fame, Ward moved to shortstop, where he soon transformed himself into one of the best at the position. In 1887 he enjoyed his finest season, batting .371 and leading the league with 111 stolen bases. Ward's superlative play helped form the nucleus of a powerful New York Giants team that featured six future Hall of Famers: Ward, Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, Jim O'Rourke, Tim Keefe, and Mickey Welch. They soon overwhelmed all competitors, winning back-to-back pennants in 1888 and 1889.

By the late 1880s Ward was the most famous baseball player on the country's most famous team—known as much for what he did off the field as for what he did on it. On 12 October 1887 he made headlines throughout New York City when he eloped with the stage actress Helen Dauvray. (The childless couple's divorce six years later attracted less attention.) He was also a rarity as an educated ballplayer. In 1885 he received an LL.B. from New York's Columbia College, where he attended classes from 1883 to 1885, and in 1888 he penned the instructional book Base Ball: How to Become a Player (1888), which included one of the first published histories of the game. In addition to writing Base Ball: How to Become a Player, Ward wrote numerous articles during his life. Two of the most illuminating are "Notes of a Base-Ballist," Lippincott's (August 1886), and "Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?" Lippincott's (August 1887). In an era when the profession held an unsavory reputation as a refuge for lowlifes and drunks, Ward was touted as the ideal ball-player—talented, honest, and intelligent.

Major league owners, however, soon saw him as cunning and dangerous. Ever since the formation of the NL in 1876, the owners had used every means at their disposal to control players, from innocuous fines for drunkenness and poor play to the infamous "reserve clause," which effectively bound a player to his team for the duration of his career. Ward became the harshest critic of this system. In 1885 he formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first players' union in baseball history. In 1887 Ward wrote a controversial article for Lippincott's magazine in which he compared the reserve clause to slavery. "Like a fugitive slave law," he argued, "the reserve rule denies [the player] a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape." These views made Ward his share of enemies, but also articulated the frustrations of his fellow players.

When the owners unilaterally imposed a salary classification system prior to the 1889 season, the press swirled with speculation over how the Brotherhood would respond. But no one expected what Ward and his followers had in store for baseball. In a series of secretive meetings held with select capitalists during the 1889 season, the Brotherhood established the foundations of a new major league, the Player's League (PL). The new league directly challenged the NL, placing seven of its eight franchises in NL cities. But the PL's strongest commodity was its labor force. After the 1889 season nearly every prominent baseball player jumped to the upstart league.

The new league lasted just one season. The baseball public, weary of labor talk, did not support the new circuit. After the 1890 season the PL's cash-strapped financial backers caved in at the negotiating table, and the league was dissolved. In the aftermath, the defeated players meekly returned to the established major leagues. The reserve clause remained in effect for another eighty-five years.

Despite the failure of his brainchild, Ward enjoyed a banner season in 1890, batting .335 and managing the PL's Brooklyn franchise to a second-place finish. After he returned to the NL, Ward remained in the player-manager role, piloting Brooklyn and New York to two second-place finishes. After leading the Giants to a postseason victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1894 Temple Cup Series (that era's version of the World Series), Ward retired from the game.

Ward remained active in baseball affairs for years to come. Through his Manhattan law practice, he occasionally represented players in their disputes with ownership. In 1910 he was nearly elected as the NL president, and in 1912 the former labor agitator briefly owned the Boston Braves. He also served as the business manager of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of another upstart major league, the Federal League, until that circuit folded following the 1915 season.

On 17 September 1903 Ward married Katherine Waas, and in 1906 the couple settled on a 200-acre farm in North Babylon, New York. In retirement Ward became one of the top amateur golfers in the United States, winning several tournaments. He died in Augusta, Georgia, after having contracted pneumonia during a hunting trip, and is buried in Greenfield Cemetery in Hempstead, New York.

Recognition came late for Ward—he was not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1964. This is curious, for Ward possessed one of the unique statistical résumés in baseball history. As a pitcher, he won 164 games in just 7 seasons, and his 2.10 lifetime earned run average ranked fourth all-time. As a batter Ward collected 2,136 hits in 17 seasons, and his 540 lifetime stolen bases ranked twenty-seventh on the all-time list. Ward may have been the most versatile player in baseball history, with the exception of Babe Ruth. Statistics aside, it was his bold stance against the abuses of baseball ownership that made him one of the most important figures of his era. Although baseball history is scarred with several contentious labor disputes, Ward's and the Brotherhood's shocking revolt was the most serious threat ever brought against the game's ruling class.

The library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame maintains a file of clippings on Ward. The definitive biography of Ward is Bryan Di Salvatore, A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward (1999). See also David Stevens, Baseball's Radical for All Seasons (1998), for a good overview of Ward's life and career.

David Jones