A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward , by Bryan Di Salvatore. Pantheon Books, 477 pages, $27.50.
John Montgomery Ward, one of New York’s first sporting superstars, played professional baseball from 1878 to 1894; the plaque in the Hall of Fame squeezes his career into the following telegram-style sentence: “Played important part in establishing modern organized baseball.” Ward was inducted into the Hall in 1964, near the end of an era during which baseball owners and their stenographers in the sporting press argued that the game was so precious it needed protection from the ravenous demands of the free market. It’s no surprise, then, that the Lords of Baseball and their courtiers really didn’t know what to say about Ward, a man who, in the halcyon days of the late 19th century, declared baseball to be a business just like any other. The Hall of Fame’s terse summary of his career is a tribute to the discomfort he still inspired 40 years after his death.
John Montgomery Ward was like a combination of Curt Flood, the St. Louis center fielder who challenged baseball’s infamous reserve clause in the late 1960’s, and Marvin Miller, the labor lawyer who organized baseball’s proletariat and opened the way for free agency. (Both men, neither of them in the Hall of Fame, also “played important part in establishing modern organized baseball.”) Ward, a rare college man in the rough-and-tumble world of late 19th-century baseball, insisted that “a [baseball] player is not a sporting man. He is hired to do certain work, and do it as well as he possibly can.” That’s exactly how Flood and Mr. Miller would have put it 80 years later.
Ward’s abilities as a player made his radical views especially dangerous, for he was a genuine star, a marquee attraction and one of the game’s highest-paid players. So when, in 1885, he founded the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, which sounded a lot like a dreaded union, and when he jumped in 1889 to the short-lived Players’ National League of Base Ball Clubs, a renegade outfit meant to break the owners’ monopoly on the game, he incurred the sort of wrath that descended on the likes of Mr. Miller, Flood and the early free agents of the mid-1970’s. “The action of Ward compared with that of the man who slew the goose of golden egg fame, tends to make the latter appear as a man of keen judgment and foresight,” wrote one Detroit newspaper of Ward’s role in the Players’ League.
Ward was the scourge of profiteers like the legendary Albert Goodwill Spalding, team owner and founder of the sporting-goods empire who spared not a letter of his middle name for ballplayers like Ward who demanded to be paid free-market salaries. Then, as in the 1960’s, owners screamed that high salaries would ruin the blessed, sainted, all-American game of baseball. The reserve clause that bound a player to a team for life (or until management traded him) dates to Ward’s playing days.
Ward was a favorite with the New York media, a handsome, stylish and gifted athlete whose courtship and marriage of actress Helen Dauvray inspired DiMaggio-Monroe-type coverage in the press, especially when the marriage ended in a very messy divorce. After learning the game in his home state of Pennsylvania, Ward broke in with Providence and in 1883 signed with New York’s National League franchise, later called the Giants. He also played with the Brooklyn franchise in the Players’ League. He started his career as a pitcher, winning 158 games in less than seven full years and pitching baseball’s second perfect game. Then, after
career-threatening arm trouble, he moved to shortstop. He finished his career with more than 2,100 hits and a .275 batting average. And after baseball, he remained in the public eye in New York as a politically connected lawyer and a champion amateur golfer.
Perhaps to make amends for the single, information-free sentence summing up Ward’s importance in baseball history, Bryan Di Salvatore has written a book with a great many sentences, too many, in fact. A Clever Base-Ballist would have benefited from a 100-page chop (just as four or five pages could have been trimmed from his nine pages of acknowledgments, the bulk of which are devoted to tales of a writer engaged in research). Of Ward’s life and times, there is far too much of the latter, so much so that the reader loses track of the former.
We could have been spared the author’s debunking of the Abner Doubleday theory of baseball’s invention, which adds nothing to Ward’s story and isn’t exactly ground-breaking anyway. And Mr. Di Salvatore’s unnecessary stylistic flourishes (for example, his ventures into second-person storytelling) further take away from his otherwise fascinating subject. Here’s Mr. Di Salvatore’s description of Ward’s professional debut: “You are 17, a nervous country mouse and a bit of a swellhead.… You’re not a Nig or a Dummy or a Bug or a Lady. But you are a whelp. A jug-eared, willowy, peach-fuzzed, overreaching punk. A college boy to boot! With a middle name that.… Comin’ at you, Percy … Don’t muss your skirt M O N T G O M E R Y!”
Mr. Di Salvatore notes that Ward actually left a memoir of his debut, but the author finds it too bland and quotes only a portion of it before rendering his novelistic version of his subject’s milestone. And that isn’t Mr. Di Salvatore’s only foray into New Nonfiction. He describes Opening Day in New York in 1883 without wasting too much time on documentary evidence: “Dead horses lie in the streets. Dying horses snicker their last.… Steaming piles of horse shit, glistening, nostril-scorching fountains of horse piss. Livery stables–one every other block. Egg shells and coffee grounds.… Keep your eyes ahead–don’t mind the belching, flatulent drunks staggering down the sidewalk.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. See you in the footnotes.
When he’s not exercising his writerly muscles, Mr. Di Salvatore brings his subject to life through Ward’s own writing, which offers a delightfully clear-eyed look at an era that was far from the gauzy, pastoral myth of baseball’s supposedly innocent beginnings. And Mr. Di Salvatore himself does a fine job of getting beyond the Currier & Ives view of the game’s roots. He reminds us that the blowhards who associate baseball with some folk memory of rural, innocent America have been watching too many cheesy television documentaries. Baseball was an urban game; its stars were not farm boys, but tough city kids. Mr. Di Salvatore’s description of Hall-of-Famer Cap Anson, one of baseball’s old-time legends and a repellent racist, should
reopen a discussion of Pete Rose’s absence from the Hall of Fame. In the mid-1880’s, Anson refused to play against
teams that signed blacks (Anson called them “brunettes,” among other things). When Ward was trying to get his New York team to recruit black players from Newark, Mr. Di Salvatore tells us, the “rumor created such a stir–fueled by Anson–that the supposed offer was rescinded.” Is Mr. Rose’s gambling worse than Anson’s refusal to play against teams with blacks? Apparently so.
A Clever Base-Ballist clearly was a labor of love for Mr. Di Salvatore, which accounts for its bulk and its occasional flight-of-fancy prose. Labors of love ought to buy a certain amount of reader indulgence. At a time when publishers will give writers lots of money to write short books about shallow people, Mr. Di Salvatore has chosen to write a long book about an obscure but intriguing individual.
So forgive him his sins. Some of them. Where else, after all, would you learn that Ted Turner’s Atlanta ball club owes its name to Tammany Hall? Mr. Di Salva-tore writes that when Ward was named president of the club in 1912 (it was in Boston, then), his fellow investors were nearly all members of New York’s Democratic machine. So Ward “puckishly suggested” that the team “adopt the symbol of Democratic Tammany Hall: the Delaware Indian chief, Tammamend, in ‘full headdress'”–hence the Braves. It’s a fun anecdote, although Mr. Di Salvatore prefaces it with a cautionary phrase: “The story goes …” It would be nice to know for sure.
What Mr. Di Salvatore proves beyond a doubt is that all those grouchy sportswriters and ignorant sports-radio hosts who pine for baseball’s good old days have no idea what John Montgomery Ward stood for more than a century ago. They’re the folks who make up the audience for ESPN’s baseball-nostalgia documentary entitled When It Was a Game.
The show’s terrific. But as John Montgomery Ward could have told you, the name’s all wrong.