Over the winter of 1888-’89, John Montgomery Ward managed and played for a special team of major league baseball players on a worldwide tour. During a game in Italy against the powerful Chicago White Stockings, later nicknamed the Cubs, Ward’s All Americas scored seven runs in the fifth inning. The locals stormed the field, thinking the game was over, and the White Stockings panicked and fled. But Ward, who understood Italian, told his players to stay put and notched a forfeit win.

Ward, the subject of David Stevens’s biography Baseball’s Radical for All Seasons, was also an idealist concerned about players’ rights. Unlike today’s well-compensated major leaguers, the average player in the late 19th century was little more than chattel. In 1879 the National League had adopted the reserve rule, which bound players to their teams for life. Owners paid them as little as possible; injured players weren’t paid at all. Those who made noise risked getting blacklisted.

In 1885 the two major leagues–the National League and the American Association–slashed players’ salaries to a maximum of $2,000 and increased the number of games in a season from 112 to 132. In reaction, Ward and eight of his New York Giants teammates formed the Brotherhood of Professional Ball Players, the first sports union. Ward was elected president. But four years later the owners adopted another salary cap and a payment scale that allowed them to shrink a player’s salary based on his game performance and conduct off the field. The brotherhood then founded the Players’ League in the spring of 1890, attracting athletes from both the NL and the AA. The new league, which established its offices in the Chicago Opera House, near the site of the infamous Haymarket riot, tried to create a more harmonious relationship between players and owners. Investors, some of whom were also players, were called “backers” instead of “owners”; all players shared decision-making power; and home and visiting teams split the gate receipts evenly, which helped teams from small markets.

Initially the Players’ League–which employed most of the stars–outshone the National League, especially in Chicago. But the National League, led by White Stockings owner Albert Spalding, fought back with tactics like advising contractors to gouge teams for new stadiums and smearing the PL in the newspapers. The acrimony alienated fans, and both leagues lost money. By the fall, many of the PL’s backers had sold out to the National League.

In December Spalding knew he’d won the fight and set up a peace meeting with Ward. Ward gave Spalding a warning: “Baseball would amount to very little when stripped of its sentimental features. The patrons of the PL must be satisfied or you will have to depend upon a new generation for the support of the game. You may replace myself or any of the players . . . but you can’t replace the patrons of the game so quickly.”

Stevens, a Chicago social worker for Travelers and Immigrants Aid, began researching the brotherhood during the 1994 baseball strike. He found himself intrigued by Ward, and after Baseball Weekly turned down his article about the player, he decided to write a book.

Ward was born just outside Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1860. His father and uncle owned a business that made threshers for farmers, and his mother was a schoolteacher. Orphaned by 14, he was sent by an uncle to Penn State’s preparatory school, which expelled him and a friend after they stole chickens from a nearby farm.

From 1878 to 1894 Ward played for NL franchises in Providence, New York, and Brooklyn, apart from his one-year stint in the PL. He started as a pitcher, but switched to center field, shortstop, and second base after hurting his arm. He tossed the second perfect game in major league history and is the only major leaguer to surpass both 100 wins and 2,000 hits. During his stay with the Giants, he earned degrees in law and political science at Columbia University, training that encouraged him to fight for the rights of players.

One of Ward’s toughest competitors was Adrian “Cap” Anson, a captain and first baseman for Spalding’s White Stockings who was not above disciplining players with his fists or playing dirty tricks on the field. Yet each man respected the other’s drive. Following the col-lapse of the Players’ League, Anson said of Ward: “There’s a man you can’t keep down. . .too good a man to waste his time practicing law.”

After his playing days were over, Ward did practice law, working as an attorney for the National League and occasionally representing players battling their teams. He briefly owned part of the Boston Braves and served as team president. He died in 1925 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame 39 years later.

Stevens says if owners had adopted Ward’s views sooner, they could have prevented the racial exclusion, gambling scandals, and labor battles that have tarnished the game. “Other than Babe Ruth, I think he’s the most important baseball figure in 100 years. He could still have an impact on the game because of his ideals.”

Stevens will discuss Baseball’s Radical for All Seasons at 7:30 this Wednesday at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake in Oak Park (708-848-9140). –Michael Marsh