Before there was Marvin Miller…

John Montgomery Ward

…there was John Montgomery Ward. He was a lawyer, a ballplayer, a union man, and an organizer. He was, in short, the players best friend and the owners worst nightmare.

First, let’s clear up something. He is not to be confused with the retail magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward who started the first mail order catalogue business in 1872. When I was growing up we had a bunch of “Monkey Wards” stuff in the house, but it had nothing to do with a baseball player.

Our Ward was born in Pennsylvania just prior to the Civil War in 1860. By 1873 he was attending Penn State University (yes, that makes him age 13), but left in 1874 when his parents both died. He wandered around some, working as a salesman and minor league pitcher until 1878 when the Providence Grays of the National League signed him to pitch for them. He stayed there until 1882 (two years before Providence won the pennant) playing outfield, pitching, and hurling a perfect game in June 1880 (the second one in Major League history). In 1883 he was sent to the New York Gothams (now the San Francisco Giants) where he became a full-time shortstop occasionally patroling the outfield and pitching 43 games.

While with the Giants, Ward attended law school at Columbia in New York City. He became the leading player spokesman for detailing grievances. By 1885 he was vocal in opposing the reserve rule and demanding more money for the players. This didn’t hurt his playing ability. Between 1883 and 1889 his batting average was as low as .226 and peaked at .338.  He averaged 130 hits, 86 runs, stole a bunch of bases (remember stolen bases were figured differently then). OK, he wasn’t Honus Wagner, but those aren’t bad numbers for the era. In 1888 and 1889 the Giants won the National League pennant and won the 19th Century version of the World Series both seasons.

By 1890, Ward had enough. He had already helped form the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first sports union, and served as both its leader and spokesman. After a particularly bitter fight with management over salaries (the NL adopted a rule that capped player’s salaries at $2500 in 1889), Ward decided the Brotherhood would form a new league, called the Player’s League.

The Player’s League was run by the union, with Ward as it’s major spokesman. They placed teams in eight towns (New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo), with Ward managing the Brooklyn team. He finished second, 6.5 games out. He played short, hit .337, scored 134 runs, and  had 189 hits as the player-manager. Unfortunately, the league was not entirely successful. Baseball simply couldn’t afford three leagues, The Player’s League drew reasonably well, but not well enough for the bottom handful of teams to survive.  With all three major leagues suffering, and the American Association almost moribund, the players blinked first. On 14 January 1891, Ward and the Brotherhood gave up the Player’s League and returned to the other two leagues (in such a way that it was fatal to the American Association). I want to do a post on the Player’s League at a later date and will detail what happened at that time. Ward ended up with the National League Brooklyn team (one day to become the Dodgers) and was player-manager for two seasons. He finished his career back with the Giants as player-manager in 1893 and 1894. 

For his career, Ward hit .275 with 2107 hits, 1410 runs, and 869 RBIs. His career fielding average is .887, not bad for the 1880s. All in all a nice little career, but not really first rate.

He spent the early years of his retirement as an attorney representing players against management, then joined the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) as a joint owner prior returning to the law. He was actively involved in the Federal League of 1914-15 (you knew he would be), handling the business affairs of the Brooklyn team. He turned to golf after his retirement and did well in a number of amateur tournaments (I wonder if Tiger Woods can pitch). Fittingly, he died in Augusta, Georgia in 1925 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.

Ward, for better or worse, invented the sports union. He worked tirelessly to improve the lot of players, and used his legal skills to upset management’s plans on a number of occasions. Without him there would be no Player’s Union today. There would be no strikes, but there would be no free agency either. When you look at baseball as a business, you look at it thanks to the vision of John Montgomery Ward.


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