Early Labor Leader John Montgomery Ward Earned His Niche in the Baseball Hall of Fame


John Montgomery Ward was a 19th star on and off the field.Photo byPublic domain

By Dan Schlossberg

A Renaissance man who became a ballplayer, John Montgomery Ward was Marvin Miller before Marvin Miller.

A Penn State product who broke into the National League with the Providence Grays in 1878, he posted remarkable numbers one year later: a 47-19 record, 239 strikeouts, and a 2.15 earned run average. He later pitched a perfect game and an 18-inning shutout.

But the right-handed pitcher hurt his arm — probably from overuse — and turned himself into an outfielder who batted left-handed. As the starting center-fielder for the 1885 New York Giants, he became the only major-leaguer to win more than 100 games as a pitcher and collect more than 2,000 hits (yes, Shohei Ohtani should join him eventually).

Ward, who also stole 540 bases and knocked in almost 1,000 runs, spoke five languages, earned a law degree, and soon started using his legal expertise to sue the Giants for selling his contract to Washington for $12,000 — a record at the time — without paying him a penny to accept the transfer.

Fed up with both his team and prevailing league rules that included a salary cap, Ward and like-minded colleagues founded the Players League, an eight-team circuit that offered profit-sharing, three-year contracts, and no reserve clause. Three of every four National Leaguers signed up.

Ward not only played for and managed the Brooklyn franchise but hit .335 with 63 stolen bases, led PL shortstops in assists, and spent whatever spare time he had handling scheduling, media relations, and league matters — often in concert with fellow player-lawyer James (Orator) O’Rourke, who had a law degree from Yale.

It was O’Rourke, a catcher and outfielder, who had teamed with Ward to form the first union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, in 1885. Among other things, it objected to the common practice of teams using players to clean seats and toilets, charging them to launder uniforms, and making family members pay for tickets.

Never mind the miniscule meal money and cut-rate road hotels that sometimes had players sharing beds.

Arthur Soden, owner of the Boston Red Stockings, even charged players $100 to cover his alleged losses on a world baseball tour.

Although the infant league drew well in 1890, the only year it operated, a combination the Supreme Court and collusion by club owners led by sporting goods czar Al Spalding, who also owned the Chicago White Stockings, killed it.

The establishment prevailed, with the National League expanding to 12 clubs, absorbing four from the rival American Association, and the owners punishing labor leaders, breaking multi-year contracts, and greatly reducing player salaries that had been meager anyway. Pitcher Tim Keefe, who once won 19 games in a row, revealed he’d been branded a “robber” for seeking a salary of $2,100.

Even the establishment of the new American League in 1901 didn’t help. It soon joined the NL in tightening the reserve clause, clamping down on dissent, and restricting union activities.

As for Ward, he devoted full time to his law practice after his 17-year career ended. Players being sued by owners were among his first clients.

After those same owners stopped Ward’s bid to become president of the National League, he joined one of its teams — the Boston Braves — as president and part-owner. Not surprisingly, he was one of the early boosters of the upstart Federal League and became business manager of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops.

Ward wasn’t elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1964, two years before Marvin Miller was hired as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Miller succeeded where Ward failed, removing the hated reserve clause in 1975, 88 years after Ward had called it “wage slavery.” But he too had a long road to Cooperstown.

Rejected seven straight times by various derivations of the Veterans Committee, Miller finally made it posthumously. His 2021 election came 39 years after he retired and nine years after he died.

But John Montgomery Ward would have approved: following in the footsteps of the 19th century star, Miller won the first collecting bargaining agreement in pro sports history and also led the first strike by major-league players.

Salaries and benefits improved dramatically during his tenure, although it took nine work stoppages (one of them a 232-day strike) to achieve his goals.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ edits weekend editions of Here’s The Pitch, writes 10 columns a month for forbes.com, and authors many books and articles about baseball, which he has covered since 1969. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

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