Cooperstown is considered a sacred place to baseball fans. Nestled in rural mid-state New York, it houses the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which troves of fans visit every summer to be close to the legends of the game’s past.
The Hall of Fame has honored 306 of the game’s greatest players, managers, umpires, and executives over the years, but it hasn’t come without controversy. There are several different ways to gain membership into the Hall of Fame, but the most common way is to gain 75 percent of the vote in the annual Baseball Writers Association of America election. This year’s election received more attention than normal, as the sportswriters drew lines in the sand and debated if players suspected of using steroids — these players are all still officially eligible for election — should be voted into the Hall. The argument reached its breaking point when former Miami Herald columnist and ESPN host Dan Le Batard, one of more than 500 writers who vote, got sick of the moralizing and turned his ballot over to Deadpsin in secret to allow fans to determine his ballot for him (he was subsequently banned for life from all future Hall of Fame elections).
I’m not usually one to pay attention to who heads to Cooperstown each July, but this year’s extensive media coverage made the news pretty hard to miss. I found myself wondering one afternoon if there were any Penn Staters in this elite group of players. I later learned that Penn State does have a Hall of Fame player to call one of its own.
Yes — John Montgomery “Monte” Ward, the second man to pitch a perfect game in professional baseball history, called the Nittany Valley home 150 years ago. He is also the first Penn State baseball player to throw a curveball — he is sometimes incorrectly given credit for inventing the pitch– witnessed by a crowd of students in front of Old Main. But Ward’s place in baseball history is not only due to his impressive pitching and batting records: He was honored posthumously by the Hall of Fame in 1964 for revolutionizing the sport by leading a revolt against the unfair treatment from baseball’s board of directors. His forward thinking prompted others to change the way the sport was regarded, as both a pastime and a business.
“Baseball is not a summer snap, but a business….A player is not a sporting man,” Ward reflected in a New York Clippers newspaper article in 1896, two years after his retirement. “He is hired to do certain work and do it as well as he possibly can.”
Ward’s father, James, and uncle were drawn to the developing Victorian town of Bellefonte, located just a few miles from State College, at some point during the mid-1800s. The brothers were attracted to the potential of Centre County, with legislators selecting the comparatively isolated region over stiff competition from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as the place to cultivate the premiere agricultural education institution for Pennsylvania. The Ward brothers opened a small shop where they made threshing machines and began courting local girls.
James’s first two wives died soon into their marriages from illness. With his third wife, Ruth Hall, James had three children, one of which was John Montgomery Ward.
Born on March 3, 1860, Ward grew up in a house a mile from downtown Bellefonte along the Lewistown Pike — known today as Blanchard Street. Both of Ward’s parents died while he was very young.
At the age of 13, Ward took his 5′ 9″ and 165 pound frame a dozen miles away to attend the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania — soon to be renamed the Pennsylvania State College — in the fall of 1873. His age was not out of the ordinary, as 14 and 15-year-old college freshmen were typical. There was no tuition fee, the exception being for special music courses, but it was expensive for students to pay for room and board. Freshmen enrolled in one of three areas: agricultural, scientific, or classical. Ward decided to study the classics, taking courses in Latin and Greek composition and reading the Aeneid, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Cicero’s orations, and Herodotus, among others.
Ward was one of 25 freshmen in an undergraduate population of 58. He was marked as a delinquent for his frequent bending of the rules, so he had to drop out during his first year. He returned the following fall to repeat his freshman year, becoming a top student in the Class of 1878.
There was a strict honor code at the young agricultural college; rule breakers were forced to pay high fines and suffer through menial punishments. For example, one student was sentenced to a day’s worth of cleaning recitation rooms for leaving campus without permission.
The first athletic event hosted at the college was a gymnastics competition in 1866. That same year, students formed the Union Baseball Club, similar to an intramural league today. Without hefty budgets like the Ivy League schools, the newly-formed baseball team played other clubs in the area, like Boalsburg, Philipsburg, Williamsport, and Bellefonte. Ward and his teammates received permission to build a field north of Old Main. The friends spent several weeks digging base paths, a batter’s box, and pitching box, erecting a backstop, and leveling the field.
The baseball club soon became notorious on campus for pranks, leading the faculty to frequently call players, including Ward, to address misbehavior. One such example occurred in October 1874, when baseball player William Reid was caught drunk on campus. Faculty swiftly dismissed Reid, which angered the student body enough to start a petition to get him reinstated. Faculty told Reid he would only be given two months of room arrest, extra work, and term-long probation if he confessed who sold him the alcohol. Reid admitted he bought it from three members of opponent Philipsburg’s team. Coincidentally, a few days later, the Philipsburg club proposed at game with Penn State’s baseball club. The faculty did not allow the matchup “because of the immoral reputation” of the Philipsburg Club.
Like most of his teammates, Ward did not adhere to Penn State’s strict honor code. He was almost dismissed from the college for stealing a bushel of apples from a teammate’s father. Another incident involved him leaving the campus to play a game against Williamsport with the Lock Haven team; Ward was suspended because he didn’t ask faculty for permission to leave. Students rallied behind Ward and brought a petition to bring back one of Penn State’s most popular students at the time. Five weeks later, the faculty agreed to allow Ward to return.
But nothing could save Ward when he was caught stealing chickens with a friend. Ward tried to deny it but was proved to be lying.
“Mr. Ward and Mr. McCormick were reported to have been out of the building Thursday night. They first went to the church at Centre furnace and then up the road to Mr. Strouss where they were seen… to enter the barnyard, and from the noise, it was known that they took chickens with which they returned across the fields to the College,” according to the official report on the incident.
Despite outrage from the Centre County community and student body, Ward was dismissed from Penn State. As author Bryan Di Salvatore notes, “At this point, Ward was a 16-year-old expelled liar and a chicken thief.”
With no hope of continuing his education in central Pennsylvania, Ward got a job in sales, although the position did not last long. He hitched a ride on a train and jumped off in Renovo, Pa. He was hired to pitch by one of the town’s two baseball leagues, the Resolutes, for $10 a month. Ward did not believe the sport he loved would be able to support him, but he couldn’t keep away from the game.
“I intended to continue [to play baseball]only until I should be able to find other employment,” Ward wrote in his 1888 book “Base-ball: How to become a player.”
He didn’t stay in Renovo long because the Williamsport club offered him a place on its top league for a higher salary. The struggling Williamsport team hadn’t been doing well before Ward arrived. During the first game Ward pitched, he threw a four-hitter against Sunbury. Two days later, Ward threw another four-hitter. The whole town was ecstatic about the team’s sudden resurgence.
The Williamsport league eventually collapsed, so Ward traveled to Philadelphia before being picked up by several amateur teams, including ones in Wisconsin and Buffalo. In 1878, the same year he was supposed to graduate from the Pennsylvania State College, Ward signed a contract with the Providence Grays of the National League, where he would share most of the pitching duties with fellow Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn. In Ward’s first year of professional baseball, his earned run average and his opponent’s batting average were the lowest in the National League for full-time pitchers.
As baseball’s popularity grew in the United States, so did Ward’s. Boston and Providence sportswriters called him one of the best general players in the country and a “great favorite” of the baseball world. After four years, the Providence Grays picked up another pitcher, so Ward decided to sign with the New York Gothams in 1883.
He continued to pitch but his arm grew weaker, so he switched to center field, where he learned how to throw left-handed. When his right hand improved, Ward moved infield and began throwing with his right arm again.
Ward and other players became increasingly frustrated with the strict rules enacted by team owners and league officials. Much of the players’ earnings had to be given back to their baseball organization through fines and other charges. Players were charged 50 cents per day for board on road trips and $30 per season for uniforms. The athletes were fined between $5 and $20 for minor offenses, such as profanity. The players even had to pay to launder their own uniforms.
In 1879, each team picked its five best players to put on reserve, making it known that those athletes were not allowed to sign with any other team for the 1880 season, even if the players had only signed one-year contracts for the 1879 season. That policy expanded each year until essentially the entire roster was on reserve for the team. Those players were known as their team’s “property,” with the National League essentially blacklisting an athlete if he refused to re-sign. These were the early years of professional baseball’s notorious reserve clause.
After a salary cap of $2,500 was announced, the New York players met and formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base-ball Players, one of professional sports’ first organized unions. Ward was elected president and widely believed to be the mastermind behind the union, even though he was one of the highest paid players at the time. Within a year, brotherhood chapters existed in all eight National League cities, with membership being about 90 percent of the rostered players.
“We believe it is possible to conduct our national game upon lines which will not infringe upon individual and natural rights,” Ward said on behalf of the brotherhood in 1889. “We ask to be judged solely by our business conducted more intelligently under a plan which excludes everything arbitrary and un-American, we look forward with confidence to the support of the public and the future of the national game.”
Team owners refused to recognize the union as a legitimate organization, so Ward decided to start a rival league, The Players’ National League of Professional Base-ball Clubs, in 1890. Fifty-six National League players joined the Players’ League, including 15 future Hall of Fame inductees. The players’ league existed just long enough to scare owners into lifting the salary cap.
Ward’s last professional game was officially on September 29, 1894. He is still ranked highly on lists of all-time great players from his sixteen-year stint, although statistics are hard to come by or compare for what is known as the Dead Ball Era. It was an entirely different game. In all, Ward finished with a 164-103 win-loss record (including 47 wins one season — unthinkable in today’s terms), 2,107 hits, and 540 stolen bases.
After his baseball retirement, Ward worked as a successful New York attorney, representing baseball players in lawsuits against the National League. He became an excellent golfer and helped form several amateur leagues around the city. In 1925, while on a golfing visit to Augusta, Georgia, he caught pneumonia and passed away at age 65. Thirty-nine years after his death, Ward was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, now joined by 245 other elite men who played the game.
It wasn’t until 1976 that the reserve system Ward despised would be abolished. Although this occurred long after his death, Ward is still widely credited for his forward thinking in his efforts to revolutionize the sport.
“Base-ball cannot be learned as a trade. It begins with the sport of schoolboy, and though it may end in the professional, I am sure there is not a single one of those who learned the game with the expectation of making it a business,” Ward wrote in his 1888 book. “There have been years in the life of each during which he must have ate and drank and dreamed base-ball. It is not a calculation but an inspiration.”
Sources: University Archives, The Centre County Library & Historical Museum, and Bryan Di Salvatore’s “A Clever Base-ballist”