Simply Baseball Notebook's Legends

John Montgomery Ward

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Providence Grays 1878-82
New York Giants 1883-89; 93-94
Brooklyn Ward's Wonders 1890
Brooklyn Grooms 1891-92

The overwhelming perception of early ballplayers is that they were uneducated, uncouth, and unkempt. John Montgomery Ward however, was a renaissance man. A true visionary, Ward was educated, articulate, and shrewd. While making his mark on the field as both a pitcher and position player, he became the first champion of player's rights and remained a thorn in the owners' side long after his playing days ended.

John Montgomery Ward was born on March 3, 1860 in Bellefonte, PA, an iron mining town. A bright, but rebellious child, Ward was sent to Penn State University at the age of 13. Already developing a healthy disdain for oppressive authority figures, Ward would not allow himself to be bullied by upperclassman.

In 1874 the young Ward's life was shaken by tragedy when his parents died. As a result he was forced to quit school and try and earn his own way. Ward first tried to make it as a traveling salesperson, but quit after just two weeks and returned to his hometown of Renovo, PA. It was there that he discovered baseball.

Playing in semipro leagues for a pittance, Ward was forced to perform odd jobs on the side in order to make ends meet. Finally in 1878, after the semipro team he'd been playing for folded, Ward caught his big break. He was picked up as a pitcher by the National Leagues' Providence Grays.

It didn't take the 18-year-old long to make an impression on his new club. Ward pitched shutouts in his first two starts on his way to a 22-13 mark and a league leading 1.51 ERA. Over the next two seasons, he became the Gray's ace and workhorse, winning an incredible 47 and 39 games each season while pitching over 585 innings in both campaigns.

On June 17, 1880 Ward became only the second man in history to pitch a perfect game, defeating future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin 5-0. On August 17, 1882, he pitched the longest complete game shutout in history, blanking Detroit 1-0 in 18 innings.

By 1882, however, Ward's days as a pitcher were nearing an end due to a nagging arm injury that first occurred in 1881 while he was sliding into a base. Since he had already played a limited amount of 3B, OF, and SS while not pitching with Grays, Ward decide to continue his career as a position player. The Grays however, feeling his best days were behind him, sold their former ace hurler to the New York Giants.

Ward joined the Giants for the 1883 season and continued his career on the mound, posting a 16-13 record and 2.70 ERA, while also playing 64 games in the field. By the 1884 season, Ward had almost completed his transition to a position player. He played over 100 games in the field, splitting time between the outfield and second base, while only appearing in 9 games as a pitcher. He would post just a 3-3 record, with a career high 3.41 ERA. That season was the last Ward would appear on the mound. He finished his pitching career with a 164-102 record and a sparkling 2.10 ERA.

Ward was moved to shortstop for the 1885 season and remained a fixture there for the next five seasons. Not yet a polished hitter, he struggled to a .226 average in 1885, but improved greatly with a .273 mark the following season. In 1887, Ward came into his own, finishing fourth in the NL with a .338 average.

In addition to being a ballplayer, Ward attended law school in the off season for several years. He received a Law degree from Columbia University in 1885 and a Political Science degree in 1886. Ward was not only intelligent, but also fair. In 1887, 60 years before Jackie Robinson, he reportedly had talked Giants owner John Day into signing star Negro League hurler George Stovey, but when other owners and players complained, Day backed off.

In 1885 Ward was the driving force behind the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players -- sport's first labor union. Ward and the players had become frustrated with the owners reserve clause, which allowed them to sign players to one year contracts and then not allow them to negotiate with other teams when those contracts expired. Basically the owners had absolute power -- "You either play at my price or don't play at all."

At first the players made some headway, getting the freedom to negotiate with other teams when they were asked to take a pay cut by their current team. Their success would be short lived, however. After helping the Giants win the NL Pennant and defeating St. Louis of the old American Association in a "World Series" in 1888, Ward headed off with a group of All Stars on a barnstorming world tour.

(Note: The first official World Series between the American and National Leagues occurred in 1903, which is why the term appears here in quotes)

Meanwhile, the crafty owners took advantage of the situation at their winter meetings, creating a classification system that would determine a players' salary. Under the system the most a player could earn was $2,500. As a personal jab at Ward, the Giants sold him to Washington for a record price of $12,000.

When Ward received news of this, he was furious and left the tour early. He then demanded a meeting with the owners, and said he would refuse to play for Washington unless he received a large portion of his record sale price. Washington would eventually refuse payment on the transaction, nullifying the deal.

The owners denied Ward's request for a meeting discussing the new classification system, saying there would be no talks until after the up coming season. Ward, to his credit, didn't allow the off-the-field turmoil to affect his play, as he hit .299 and helped the Giants capture their second straight "World Series" title in 1889.

When he realized negotiations with the owners were going nowhere, Ward threatened to create a Players League for that would begin play the following season. The owners, figuring he was bluffing, wrote it off as an idle threat.

What the owners failed to realize however, is that Ward was well connected in the business community, and began to launch the new league. This new Player's League included a profit sharing system for the players and had no reserve clause or classification plan.

The season began in 1890 with over half of the National League's players from the previous year in it's ranks. Ward acted as a player/manager for the Brooklyn club and finished seventh in the league with a .335 batting average.

While the Player's League drew well at the box office, the team's owners grew nervous when the money didn't come in as expected because of the profit sharing system. Soon they began holding secret meetings with their NL counterparts and, one by one, sold their teams to the rival league.

While Ward's vision had been crushed after just one season, he had succeeded in getting the owners to drop the classification standard. Under the new agreement, Ward would stay in Brooklyn as player/manger for their NL team in 1891.

Following the 1892 season, Ward expressed his desire to return to the Giants, and was sold to his former club for $6,000. Following the 1894 season, he retired at the age of 34. He finished his career with a .275 average, 2,104 hits, and 540 stolen bases. He is the only man in history to win over 100 games as a pitcher and collect over 2,000 hits.

While Ward would never play or manage again, he would remain close to the game. Immediately following his playing days, he opened a successful legal practice and acted as a player agent, representing some of the games biggest stars.

In 1909, Ward nearly became president of the National League, but AL president Ban Johnson and White Sox owner Charles Comsikey blocked the move at the last minute. In 1912 he became the part owner of the Boston Braves before jumping over to the Federal League as the business manger of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops.

At first Ward, was excited about the establishment of the rival Federal League, seeing it as a chance to improve players' rights. Soon, however, he began to realize the owners of this new league were merely trying to gain leverage so that they could purchase teams in the National and American Leagues. He resigned shortly after.

On March 25, 1925, John Montgomery Ward died at the age of 65 at his home in Augusta, GA. Because of his anti-establishment stances, no doubt, he was left out of the Hall of Fame for nearly four decades. Finally in 1964 a Special Veteran's Committee moved to rectify the gross oversight, and voted Ward into the game's greatest shrine.

-David Zingler, September 2003

Simply Baseball Notebook

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