A CLEVER BASE-BALLIST

The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward

By Bryan Di Salvatore

Pantheon. 477 pp. $27.50

The best thing about Bryan Di Salvatore's biography of John Montgomery Ward is that it may help restore this long-forgotten man to something approximating his proper place in the history of baseball and, for that matter, of American labor relations. The worst thing about the book is . . . well, how much time -- not to mention interest -- do you have?

More about the manifold deficiencies of A Clever Base-Ballist in a moment. First, though, a few words about John Montgomery Ward, who had absolutely nothing to do with the famous chain store and catalogue business. Born in 1860 in the Western Pennsylvania town of Bellefonte, Ward began playing baseball as a pre-teenager, developed his skills during a brief stint at what was then still called Pennsylvania State College (which he entered when he was 13 years old!), played for several professional "town teams" in his home state before moving along to the National League, briefly with the Philadelphia Phillies, then with the Providence Grays (for whom, in 1880, he pitched the second recorded perfect game), and finally to the team that in time became known as the New York Giants.

Ward was a pitcher until 1883, when he moved to center field and then to the infield, eventually settling in at shortstop, which required, he wrote, "more than ordinary suppleness and activity." Pitching for Providence, he won 47 games in 1879 and 39 in 1880, leading the league in several statistical categories. Di Salvatore writes: "Ward was the sort of player that other players appreciate as a teammate and curse as an opponent. Whether he was pitching or playing the infield or outfield, he was a hustler, a scrapper, a playmaker, a gamer, a thinker, an analyzer. He beat you invisibly as often as he beat you visibly." At a time when baseball strategy was still in its formative period, he mastered "the sport's vital edges: pickoffs, relay throws, brushback pitches, drawing the infield in or moving it out, hit-and-run plays, signals. . . ."

He was also an unusually interesting man who led a life quite unlike that of most professional athletes. He was intelligent not merely in baseball terms but in larger ones as well. Though he was expelled from Penn State for a minor offense, he matriculated at Columbia University Law School, studied the law while playing for the Giants, received his degree, employed his legal skills in the interests of himself and his fellow players, and practiced the law in New York after leaving the game. He was a skillful and lively writer who published articles in leading magazines of the day and, in 1888, a book: Base-Ball: How to Become a Player, with the Origin, History and Explanation of the Game. He was also something of a bon vivant, whose active amorous life included marriage for a time to a well-known actress, Helen Dauvray, and assignations with other women of comparable beauty and allure.

But baseball in those days had other, if not many, skilled players whose interests went beyond what Scott Fitzgerald, in his obituary for Ring Lardner, called "the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond." Though educated Americans tended to regard professional ballplayers as ruffians and louts -- not, then as now, without reason -- there were exceptions such as Christy Mathewson and Frank Schulte and Ward. But Ward's real claim on the attention of history is his role in the first serious revolt by players against the game's owners. As Di Salvatore writes, employing the overstatement he is incapable of resisting:

"In 1890, John Montgomery Ward persuaded his teammates -- his colleagues, his co-workers, his brothers -- to rise against team owners and the executives of the National League. To compare this war, which become known as the Brotherhood Revolt, to the American Revolution or the Civil War, would be hyperbolic, profane. The Revolt was more analogous to the War of 1812. Both struggles were brief; neither struggle is much remembered today; both were acts of attempted reclamation and both would-be reclaimers -- the British and the players -- lost, but not before, briefly, storming the Capitol and setting it afire. For that short and not necessarily glorious time, Ward's executive skills, his shrewd mind, his honest and clear-eyed habits, his temperance, his foresight and his rhetorical skills caused him to be the most discussed -- reviled, applauded -- man in America and, as far as the members of the Brotherhood were concerned. the most needed man in baseball."

"The most discussed man in America," indeed! Perhaps DiSalvatore has spent too much time in the musty files of the New York Clipper, a "sports and entertainment weekly" that he calls -- ready? -- "the most interesting and eclectic American newspaper" of the period. Presumably the Clipper, from which Di Salvatore learned much about Ward and his activities, didn't have its eye on J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Benjamin Harrison and others whose names, one cannot but suspect, probably were on more American lips than was John Montgomery Ward's. But be that as it may, when, in 1885, Ward and eight of his New York teammates formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, they set off a succession of events the repercussions of which the game still feels, more than a century later.

Within a year of its formation, the Brotherhood had enrolled about 90 percent of the National League's players, testimony to the "widespread anger, wariness and cynicism of the players toward their employers; dissatisfaction with baseball working conditions generally; and, to a lesser extent, 19th-century player demographics," by which Di Salvatore means the insularity and fraternization of this very small group of men. The Brotherhood was organized largely in reaction to the establishment, in 1879, of the "reserve clause," which bound players to the teams to which they were contracted and almost entirely eliminated their freedom of movement.

"Like a fugitive slave law," Ward wrote in Lippincott's magazine in 1887, "the reserve-rule denies [the player] a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape." Two years later the players decided to form their own league, "to conduct our national game upon lines which will not infringe upon individual or natural rights." While it is true, as the labor leader Samuel Gompers said, that this was "practically a fight of capital against capital," it was a fight all the same. It lasted only a year; though the Players League had more success in 1890 than the National League in many respects, the players caved in during the off-season, merging much of its operation with the owners' and leaving the reserve clause to all intents and purposes intact. Not until Curt Flood's one-man fight against the clause in the early 1970s, and Marvin Miller's aggressive leadership of the players' union in that same decade, did players begin to achieve the same right to unfettered employment that other Americans take for granted; but the rebellion that Ward led was the first battle in the long war, and he deserves to be remembered -- and respected -- for the precedents he set.

Alas, A Clever Base-Ballist has little to recommend it beyond the information Di Salvatore puts on the record. Some of that information is useful and some is not, but Di Salvatore is incapable of discriminating among it. The book is twice as long as it needs to be, because Di Salvatore quotes everything he can get his hands on, no matter how trivial, and insists on recounting the history of early baseball, a subject well known by now to anyone with even passing acquaintance with the game. His penchant for hyperbole, as noted, is extreme, and sometimes finds expression in the gratuitous, intrusive use of exclamation points. He has an unerring eye for cliches and uses them at every available opportunity. His enthusiasm is appealing, but it takes a lot more than enthusiasm to make a good book.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.