Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buyer Beware!

I subscribe to an eNewsletter published by the folks at Old Cardboard: Vintage Baseball Cards. In their December 2009 issue they made note of an interesting item that was recently auctioned off at Here's what the eNewsletter stated:

A piece of baseball memorabilia that caught our attention in last week's Leland's Sports auction was Lot #232: a walking stick presented to J. Ward, Jr. in 1886 by the "Star B.B. Club."
At first glance, the walking stick in the auction might be attributed to Hall of Famer John Ward, who was 36 years old at the time the piece was engraved. In fact, the title and description of the lot in the auction catalog state that the piece did indeed belong to HOFer Ward.
However, it was later determined that the subject piece did not belong to HOFer John Ward and that there is no known connection between Ward (the Hall of Famer) and the "Star B.B. Club." An "update" statement to that effect was added to the online lot description before the auction closed.
Old Cardboard's initial research revealed several baseball teams that were active in the mid-1880's and named themselves "Star's." None that we have found so far, however, included a J. Ward (or J. Ward, Jr.) on their roster. Perhaps one of our readers from the Society for Baseball Research (SABR) might be in a better position to link player J. Ward, Jr. to the Star B.B. Club. Please let us know if you can provide any additional info.

It sounded like a good challenge, so I thought I'd dive in.

I took a look at the description of the lot (#323)at the Lelands web site. The lot is titled "1886 John Ward Walking Stick Presented by the Star Base Ball Club" and, indeed, below the title is a note stating "UPDATE: This is a baseball player J. Ward Jr. not John Ward the Hall Of Famer."

The lot description reads as follows:

Who developed the first curve ball? Who also put together the very first labor union for baseball players? The same guy: John Montgomery Ward. He was an American Major League Baseball star pitcher, shortstop, and manager. Multi-talented John Ward, Hall of Famer, is also credited with developing The Players' League and even graduated Columbia Law School (in 1885) -- a highly educated man and highly accomplished athlete. After retiring from playing baseball at 34, he practiced as an attorney who represented baseball players. This 14K gold-topped smooth wooden walking stick is gorgeously engraved with small sunbursts and ornate swirls on the gold section. A few tiny scratches to the color of the wood. It was presented to John Ward by the Star Base Ball Club in 1886, and stands at 35" tall. It is in excellent condition with minor wear. The top is engraved with "Star B.B. Club to J. Ward Jr. 1886." It is in near mint condition with slight wear affecting the first "J." Also on one side of the gold top, stamped down the length of the gold are "2", just below it a script "S", and then a "49." The complete opposite of pedestrian.

The very first words of the description raised a red flag. John Ward "developed the first curve ball?" Ridiculous. What's going on here?

Reading further, other tidbits about the famous player are listed: his involvement with the Players' League, his graduation from Columbia Law School, etc. It is not until nearly halfway through the lot description that the walking stick itself is actually mentioned, at which point it is stated that it "was presented to John Ward by the Star Base Ball Club in 1886." This is the statement that Lelands later retracted with the blurb just below the title of the lot. In short, the first half of the description is worthless. Indeed, it could be argued that it is a subterfuge.

That Lelands would state that the cane had anything whatsoever to do with John M. Ward is appalling. Very simple, straightforward research clearly reveals that John Ward was not a "junior" (his father's name was James). Additionally, he was not associated with any "Star Base Ball Club" in or around 1886. With a common name such as "Ward," it is nothing short of reckless to jump to the conclusion that the J. Ward on the cane was John M. Ward, the Hall of Famer.

So who is "J. Ward, Jr." and what is the story behind the cane?

First, let's take a look at the images provided by Lelands:

The last image shows that "STAR B.B. CLUB / TO / J. WARD, JR. / 1886" has been inscribed on the knob handle.

Unfortunately, as noted in the Old Cardboard eNewsletter, numerous baseball clubs of the era adopted the "Star" nickname. This, in combination with the common name of "Ward," didn't give me much hope of making any progress. Nevertheless, I remained diligent and eventually came across an article in the Boston Daily Globe of July 14, 1886, which noted:

The Star club of Lawrence has several open dates in July and August, and would like to arrange games with strong amateur teams having enclosed grounds. Address J. Ward, Jr., manager, Lawrence, Mass.

This seemed quite promising. Here was a "J. Ward, Jr." affiliated with a Star club, not as a player, but as their manager. During this era of the game, by the way, a club manager was more akin to a business manager rather than a field manager. Indeed, in tracking down a precious few box scores of the club, no "Ward" showed up on the field.

A second note in the Globe of the following year also provided a helpful clue. In the April 18, 1887, issue it stated that:

The Stars of Lawrence, champion amateurs of Essex county, have reorganized for the season of '87, and would like to arrange games with clubs having enclosed grounds. McCreadle, c.; Clucher, p.; Judd, s.s.; Sullivan, 1b.; Maxwell, 2b.; Woodhall, 3b.; McGibbon, l.f.; Toohey, c.f.; Rowan , r.f. Average age, 23 years. J. Ward, Jr., manager, Lawrence.

Evidently the Stars were no run-of-the-mill club, but the amateur champions of Essex County for 1886!

Though I don't have complete access to City Directories from Lawrence, Massachusetts, it appears that at this time the only J. Ward, Jr. in Lawrence was one "James Ward, Jr." This may or may not be the same James Ward, Jr. who in the 1890s frequently advertised in The Phillipian, the longstanding newspaper of Phillips Academy (aka Phillips Andover) in Andover, Massachusetts, just down the road from Lawrence. Here's an example from the January 10, 1894, issue of The Phillipian:

So, though the research is far from complete, all signs point to a J. (James?) Ward, Jr. of the Star Base Ball Club of Lawrence as being our man. Indeed, I think it is not unlikely that after the club won that 1886 championship they awarded their manager this engraved walking stick. Most importantly: Buyer Beware! Hall of Famer John Ward had nothing to do with this cane.