The baseball player who became a memorable trade unionist in the 19th century

tags: baseball, John Montgomery Ward

Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book is "A Secret Society History of the Civil War," published in 2011 by the University of Illinois Press.

I doubt many my age can greet the end of school or the warm weather without thinking about baseball. When I was young, it certainly seemed as if the nineteenth century promoters who had worked so hard to make it “the American game” had succeeded. Football remained the domain of colleges, but baseball–despite its pastoral imagery (or maybe because of it)–had become endemic to workingclass life in America. Growing up in a blue collar town dominated by the shoe industry, we not only had baseball but most of its variants, including cork ball, which developed in the narrow spaces of the warehouse and in the alleyways of the city.

In a history often preoccupied with the jostling of owners and promoters, it’s worth remembering the contribution of John Montgomery Ward. Born at Bellefonte, Pennsylvania in 1860, he became an outstanding shortstop, a brilliant pitcher, and memorable trade unionist.

Beginning as clubs of players, baseball drew crowds which, by the 1840s and 1850s, were starting to generate considerable money by paying admission to the playing field. In short order, entrepreneurs and investors gained control of the clubs and became “owners” who did not themselves play the game. It was a process reflecting much of what happened in trades like shoemaking. The owners started a loose National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1869, but reorganized their National Association on a more clearly business model in 1871. In 1875, this became the National League. 

That same year, Ward’s Pennsylvania State College fielded a baseball team. He had gone there two years earlier, but quickly took to the game. The athletes strained at the rigidity of the college rules and regularly found themselves in trouble. In the spring of 1877, Ward left school and took to the rails. In desperation, he took a place on a local baseball team in the railroad town of Williamsport, where he quickly developed his reputation as a pitcher, even as the state hanged Molly Macguires up the line. As tensions built towards the great 1877 rail strike, Ward found himself at Philadelphia, making his first effort to enter the new profession.

Ward entered that profession the next year... 

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