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John Montgomery Ward and the Great Player Revolt (Part 1)

By Tamar Chalker

December 28, 2021

*** The current lockout along with the lawsuit filed by the Staten Island Yankees and other former minor league teams last week has me thinking a lot about the history of labor relations in baseball. By the time Curt Flood challenged MLB’s reserve clause, it had been a part of the game for almost 100 years and he had not been the first to try to gain the players more power over their careers.

In 1878, John Montgomery Ward was a pitcher for the Providence Grays of the National League, which had begun in 1876. Ward was a great pitcher, going 22-13 in his first season with an ERA of 1.51. On June 17, 1880, he threw the second perfect game in baseball in a 5-0 victory over the Buffalo Bison. He then, in 1882, threw the longest complete game shutout in history as the Grays beat the Detroit Wolverines 1-0 after 18 innings.

Ward had begun to shift to the outfield in the 1880s, as he had injured his arm sliding into a base. Despite only being 22, the Grays felt Ward’s best days were over in 1882 and they then sold him to the New York Giants. In 1884, another baserunning injury to his right arm effectively ended his pitching career, but not content to sit out the season, Ward taught himself to throw left-handed and finished out the season in the outfield. In 1885, he became the Giants’ everyday shortstop – and graduated from Columbia Law School.

Not only was Ward a talented baseball player, but he took his legal education and formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first American sports union. Ward led this group of players in attempts to negotiate regarding the reserve clause, but the owners really saw little reason to talk with the players and change the way baseball did business. The union’s only real success was that the players were allowed to negotiate with other teams if their team required them to take a pay cut.

Despite the Grays’ thought that Ward’s best days were behind him, the shortstop led the Giants to a Championship season in 1888 and was captain of an All-Star team that went on a world barnstorming tour with Cap Anson’s team from Chicago. Meanwhile, the owners met for their winter meetings and devised a classification system that would determine a player’s salary. The most a player could earn was $2,500, which would be comparable to a little over $73,000 today.

Meanwhile, as Ward was on tour, the Giants sold him to the Washington Nationals for a record-breaking $12,000 (or a little over $350,000 today). Ward immediately left the tour, livid about the sale and demanding a meeting with the owners. He said he refused to play for Washington unless he was given a portion of this record-setting sale, however, the Nationals refused and Ward returned to the Giants, leading them to another Championship in 1889 and hitting .299/.339/.349.

Ward clearly liked to stay busy, so despite his baseball career, legal career, and work with the union, he added author to his resume. In 1888, Ward published a book about baseball, but prior to that he penned an article for Lippincott’s Magazine titled “Is the Base-BallPlayer a Chattel?” This piece, published in August 1887, set the stage for the Brotherhood and the short-lived Players League. But that part of this story will have to wait until next week.


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