This article was written by Chris Rainey
Hitting a round ball with a round stick is generally regarded as one of the most difficult feats in sports. Baseball players must certainly have physical talents superior to the average person. But personality is nearly as important as physicality in making a memorable player. Fans are drawn to the personable, but maybe even more so to the “flake.”
“Old Joe” Ardner may have gotten his nickname because he did not start playing professionally until he was 25. More likely Ardner got the moniker because of his easygoing style, gracious manner, and charm. Consider his approach to umpires: “Umpires remind me of dogs and cats. You can get so much more out of them by love and kindness than brutality.”1 Or his introduction to the baseball community in Youngstown, Ohio in 1896 where he claimed to have been born on February 29, 1860. He lamented “they call me “Old Joe” when the fact is I am the youngest man in the business” as a “leap baby” with only nine birthdays.2
Joseph A. Ardner was actually born on February 27, 1858 in Mount Vernon, Ohio. An 1860 census listing has proven to be elusive. In 1870 the census found Anna Ardner and her five children in Mount Vernon, but there was no mention of a father. A check with the Knox County Historical Society did not indicate a death during the Civil War. So his identity remains a mystery.3 Ardner had moved to Cleveland by 1878 when he played for a prominent local team called the Forest Citys. He was the third baseman and change catcher on a team that featured future major leaguers Jack Glasscock, George Strief, and Bill Phillips. Ardner batted right and threw right and is listed in with a playing weight of 160 pounds. His height is not listed in reference materials, but throughout his career there were never any references to his being “tiny”, “gangly”, “short”, “stringbean” or adjectives that suggested he was anything but typical size for a middle-infielder.
Ardner took a job as a clerk at a hotel called Joy House in Findlay from 1879-81. He joined the local team known as the Nine Spots where he played catcher and second base. He also spent some time in 1880 with the team from Norwalk, Ohio and performed well enough to earn praise as “a good ballplayer and at home at any position.”4 He returned to Cleveland in 1882 and played for the White Sewing Machine team. In mid-June he joined a team in Philadelphia. He also played a few games for a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania team.
After a winter in Cleveland, Ardner went east again in 1883. He joined the Reading Active in the Interstate Association. He suffered a leg injury in preseason and did not play until May 11. Plagued with leg and finger woes he was only able to play 17 games, mostly in center field. It was reported that he fielded a horrific.578 in the outfield.5He was released in late July and headed to Pittsburgh to join an independent team. That commitment lasted only a short while until he was recruited by Altoona in the Western Interstate League. He returned to his normal role of infield and catcher performing much better than with Reading. It was reported that Altoona had a $600 a month salary with $180 going to their pitcher and catcher. That quite likely left $50 or $60 a month for Ardner. In the off-season he worked as a stage hand in the Cleveland theatre district. According to census figures his Altoona pay was quite likely twice what he earned backstage.6
The 1883 National League Cleveland Blues had been in the pennant race finishing fourth with a 55-42 record. Early defections in 1884 by Hugh “One-Arm” Daily and Fred Dunlap to the Union Association forced them to bring a dozen new faces to training camp. Jack Glasscock left the team partway through the season and the pitching staff featuring Jim McCormick underachieved resulting in a 35-77 record and a seventh place finish. For his part, Ardner was asked to replace the talented Dunlap who had hit .302 over the previous 4 seasons. In his first game at Providence Ardner went 0-for-3 and made 3 errors. He followed that performance with three more errors in Boston on May 3. Before he was replaced by George “Germany” Smith on June 25 he batted .174 in 26 games. After his June benching he saw little action, his final appearance came as catcher in a July 16 exhibition in Youngstown. After the Blues released him he joined Springfield in the Ohio State League. Returning to Cleveland in the off-season, Ardner made a fateful journey when he walked Ada Trappe down the aisle on November 23. Ardner became an instant family man by welcoming the widow’s three children. The couple stayed together until Ada’s death in March, 1923.
Manager Harry Fisher returned to Springfield for the 1885 season and retained Ardner. The franchise joined the Interstate League and teams in Erie, Pa., Youngstown, Dayton, Frankfort and Lexington, Kentucky. The League planned a 90 game slate of games, but was forced to disband in mid-June. Ardner played second base and reunited with pitcher Harry Arundel from his semi-pro years. In May Springfield played a touring team from Richmond, Indiana sponsored by roller skate maker M.C. Henley. When Springfield disbanded, Ardner joined the Henleys. In mid-August they departed on a month long tour playing Ohio semi-pro and minor league teams. After the tour, their season continued on into October. The family stayed the winter in Richmond. Ardner weighed offers from various managers and finally decided to join Oswego in the International League.
The Starchboxes put Ardner at second base and batted him third or fourth. His .239 average and .304 slugging percentage epitomize the weakness of the Oswego line-up. The team finished last at 23-72; a .242 winning percentage. When the International League ended on September 25, Ardner joined Scranton in the Pennsylvania State League for five games before heading back to Cleveland.
Walt Goldsby, outfielder/manager of the Topeka franchise in the Western league spent the winter signing players. By the time the 1887 season started he had assembled a top-notch collection of former and future major leaguers, most notably Bug Holliday. Ardner enjoyed his finest offensive season playing second base. He hit .307 and had a .385 slugging percentage. The league was a hitter’s paradise, from the first game of the league season, won by Denver 37-12 to late September when Topeka scored double digits in 14 of their last 15 games. That many base runners can lead to eye-popping box scores. A prime example was Ardner’s line from the September 28 loss to Denver, a 25-18 beating. Ardner recorded 13 putouts and 5 assists at second base. The major league 9-inning record for putouts is 12. Topeka ran away with the pennant, finishing 83-24.7
Topeka may have won the pennant but they did not fill the wallets of the owners. Ardner found himself looking for a new team in 1888 and joined teammates Spud Johnson and Joe Gunson on the Kansas City Blues in the Western Association. He had a strong season at bat, posting a .272 average, placing him third amongst the regulars (Johnson and Jim Manning were one and two). The Blues got off to a slow start and were 34-36 on August 13. Suddenly the team caught fire, but Ardner was hit by a pitch on August 24 in a game versus Milwaukee and missed the astounding stretch drive. By season’s end the Blues were 74-42 and mere percentage points behind Des Moines. The franchise consolidated with the American Association Kansas City Cowboys. Ardner was reserved by the Cowboys, but then released to St. Joseph in the Western Association.
Blues teammates Ed Cartwright and Bill Krieg joined Ardner in St. Joseph. One of Ardner’s finer performances came in an exhibition against Cleveland when he had three hits including a double in a 3-1 win. Ardner’s stats with St. Joseph included a career high seven home runs and his performance earned praise throughout the league. He even took a turn as one of four managers of the “Clay Eaters”. In December he was signed by the Cleveland Spiders and went to spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The team broke camp and played exhibitions in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. Ardner had won the second base job and was batting seventh. The season would be a struggle for the Spiders even though they debuted rookies, and future Hall of Famers, George Davis and Cy Young . Victories were hard to come by and Manager Gus Schmelz was replaced by Bob Leadley. The Sporting Life reported that Ardner and first baseman Peek-a-boo Veach were let go in mid-July. Veach was replaced by Jake Virtue, but when Ardner’s replacement, Pat Lyons, batted a mere .053 in 11 games, Ardner got his spot back. In late August he was replaced by Bill Delaney. Ardner played 84 games and hit .223. In October he was released by Cleveland. He spent that winter working at the Cleveland Opera House and juggling offers for the next season.
In 1891 Tacoma in the Pacific Northwestern League recruited a Cleveland double play combo in Ardner and Owen “Oney” Patton. The pair left the team in late July and Ardner hooked on with last place Jamestown in the New York/Pennsylvania League. He played second on August 7 then played a few games at shortstop before going back to second. He arrived just in time for the league to shrink to four teams. Jamestown benefited from the addition of players from disbanded franchises and became a late season powerhouse. After hitting .203 out west, Ardner’s bat revived and he hit .254 with two homers in 28 games with Jamestown. Over the winter Ardner had hopes of signing with a Western League club, but nothing materialized.
In March, 1892, Ardner’s teammate from Tacoma, Leech Maskrey was appointed manager of the Atlanta Firecrackers in the Southern League. Maskrey added Ardner to the squad on May 13. Maskrey resigned in June, but Ardner’s play had secured his position. He was eventually joined by journeyman Pop Smith to form the oldest keystone combo in the league. In late July/early August he was dropped in favor of Frank Scheibeck and returned to the sandlots in Cleveland and his work in the theatre district. Ardner hit .262 in 61 games down south.
The baseball bug had a firm grip on Ardner. Now 35 years old, most players were out of the game, but he loved the sport and was not ready to slow down. He joined the Akron Summits in the Ohio-Michigan League. When they disbanded he joined his Akron manager Charles Hazen with Johnstown in the Pennsylvania State League. After only eight games Ardner returned to Cleveland and assembled “Ardner’s Leaguers”. This was a collection of the best semi-pros in town- Tom Delahanty, Paddy Boyle, Jim Gilman, and Sam McMackin. In 1894 he managed and played second for the “Old Leaguers” featuring pitcher Frank Knauss and Boyle. In June Ardner took over as player-manager of a team in Sharon, Pennsylvania. The club was not in organized ball, but played the same towns that would form the Class C Iron and Oil League in 1895.8In the fall he returned to the Leaguers and the Cleveland semi-pro scene.
In March, 1895 Ardner signed with Schenectady in the New York State League. He reported in late April and was installed at second base for the opener on May 1. The team played just under.500 ball in their 47 games before the league disbanded. Now 37, Ardner seemed rejuvenated. The wily veteran swiped 11 bases and based upon surviving box scores ( 38 of 47) in Sporting Life batted .302. After a brief return to Cleveland he joined the Celeron, New York team in the Iron and Oil League for the last month of the season. He returned to Cleveland and took over the helm of the “Old Leaguers” again.
Charles Hazen convinced Ardner to join the Youngstown Puddlers in the Class C Interstate League in 1896. Catcher Eddie Zinram from Schenectady also signed. Hazen recruited a 20-year old Elmer Flick to patrol the outfield. On May 12 Ardner was hit by a pitch in a game with Wheeling. The injury ended his season. He returned to Cleveland and when recovered he played for any team that would have him; most frequently the Main Stars and Euclid.
Ardner’s professional career was over, but he continued to play well into his forties. He was a mainstay of the “Baehrs” lineup along with Paddy Boyle and Bill Phillips, but he happily played for anyone who asked him. An active member of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees since 1895 he did committee work for the union. He was also a member of a benevolent association that cared for past members. In connection with that association he took it upon himself to decorate the graves of former stagehands each Memorial Day. In 1936 his grave was decorated by the President of the Theatrical Mutual Association of Cleveland in honor of his life and work.9
He appeared in numerous Old Timers game along with Cy Young, Chief Zimmer, Ed McKean and others. Between games of a September 30, 1934 doubleheader he and George Streif served as managers of two teams of Old-Timers. Well into his 70’s Ardner worked sparingly backstage, but also maintained a baseball scoreboard in the Central Market keeping shoppers and merchants abreast of the latest scores. A combination of pneumonia and cardiac failure caused his death on September 15, 1935. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland with a host of other East side ballplayers from the turn of the century.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Denver Rocky Mountain News
Pittsburgh Daily Post
Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania)
1 Cincinnati Post, December 23, 1908; 6
2 Sporting Life, May 2, 1896: 4
3 In 1870 another Joe Ardner was found near Mansfield, Ohio. A check with a longtime sports writer did not produce any indications this was the ballplayer. Ancestry.com also has a family tree posted for Nicholas and Susannah Ardner that includes Joe, but he would have been born a mere 5 months after another child. Thanks to SABR member Bill Carle for advice on this search.
4 Cleveland Leader, August 18, 1880: 5
5 Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Daily Independent, November 10, 1883: 1
6 The 1880 census suggests that the average pay in the nation was a $1 a day.
7 Sporting Life, October 12, 1887: 4
8 Sporting Life, August 4, 1894: 7
9 Cleveland Press, May 18, 1936 Article in HOF File on Ardner had no page number.