Ed Williamson: A Home Run King Without a Headstone

This article was written by Dave Stevens

This article was published in SABR’s The National Pastime, Vol. 21 (2001). Click here to learn more about Ed Williamson’s new grave marker, dedicated by SABR in 2021.


Chicago’s own predecessor to Ruth, Maris, and McGwire is in a pauper’s grave two miles from Wrigley Field.

In 1999, while sports fans worldwide focused on the final days of the thrilling Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run race, it was discovered that the longtime Chicago Cubs star who held the single-season home run record for the thirty-five years prior to Babe Ruth is in an unmarked, pauper’s grave in renowned Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago’s North side.

Edward “Ned” Williamson’s major league home run record (27, set in 1884) endured longer than any but Roger Maris’s 61. Williamson lived only nine more years after setting the record, dying at age thirty-six. Cubs owner Albert Spalding’s mistreatment of Williamson contrib­uted to the popular shortstop’s demise, and was a rallying point in the most dramatic revolt by athletes in history-the Brotherhood Rebellion that led to most of the best National League players bolting their clubs to form the Players’ League.

Williamson rests in the same cemetery as Aaron Montgomery Ward, founder of Chicago-based Mont­gomery Ward’s, which signed Sammy Sosa as an endorser before going out of business at the end of 2000. Ironically, Aaron Ward’s distant cousin, short­stop-attorney John Montgomery Ward, led that players’ revolt as president of sports’ first union. John Ward was a close friend of Williamson’s.

Some baseball historians consider Williamson’s record a fluke, since it was aided by some very friendly confines. After Williamson set an all-time record for doubles (49) in 1883, the ground rules for the short right field fence (196 feet) at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were changed, making balls hit over it home runs in 1884, instead of doubles, as in the park’s first two years. Wisely, the right-handed Williamson altered his swing to take full advantage of the new ground rule. In 1885, the Cubs (then known as the White Stockings) moved to West Side Park, and the temporary home run boom ended.

Ned (also called Ed) Williamson was a superb all­ around athlete, starring on five Chicago pennant winners (including two world champions), and leading the league in fielding five times.

But Williamson was best-known for his kind heart, in an era when players beat up umpires, and even drank on the field. In the 1880s, there were some blacks in the minor leagues, and Williamson empathized with them, citing spikes-high slides by racist white oppo­nents as injuring blacks. He zeroed in on the hypocrisy of blacks in the majors being mistreated team mascots: “haughty Caucasians say it’s OK to have darkies carry water, but not in the lineup.” John Montgomery Ward fought to bring blacks to the majors, and through the players’ union to make baseball a cleaner game for fans. Williamson was one of the first to join the union, founded in 1885.

The plot heard around the world

In 1888, three years after baseball was unionized, sporting goods magnate Spalding set out to spread baseball through­ out the world by taking the White Stockings and an all-star team managed by Ward on an Australian Tour that became global. Columbia law graduate Ward and the articulate Williamson buried their heads in books, while their unmarried teammates partied.

In an exhibition game in Paris, Williamson fell in ter­rible pain attempting a steal on a rocky makeshift field beneath the Eiffel Tower. The contest came to a dead stop. According to longtime White Stockings manager, the great first baseman Cap Anson, he “tore his knee cap on the sharp sand and gravel … he was still confined to his room in London when we sailed for home.” The injury was improperly treated by a local physician. Williamson was forced to pay his own medical bills. Spalding refused to pay the union member anything, except $150 — his fare home.

By the time Williamson finally returned to the U.S., everything in baseball was about to turn upside down. While union president Ward was incommunicado on the Pacific, the owners had passed a plan that slashed salaries to a $2,500 maximum, and even required rook­ ies to sweep ballparks. The owners refused to meet with the union until after the 1889 season.

Midway through 1889, Williamson ventured a come­ back. While he limped, his comrades roared. In secret, they voted to launch their own league, with their own savings. Four days after the 1889 World Series, Ward announced the formation of the Players’ League. The mistreatment of Williamason was a graphic example of the owners’ callousness, and was a rallying point for the baseball Brotherhood.

That offseason, the players, bolstered by additional investors, built new stadiums. The Players’ League outdrew the other leagues in 1890, and played a cleaner, more exciting game, but the National League owners’ all-out war quickly wiped out the rebel effort. Ward racked up his league’s demise to: “Treachery, Stupidity, and Greed.”

Williamson hit only .195 in the Players’ League. He wired Spalding, pleading to return to Chicago and the National League. But Williamson never played again and was broken in spirit. He opened a Chicago saloon, encouraging his tendency to drink too much. Friends said the hard-working Williamson put too much of him­ self into his business. Anson lauded him as “good natured and good hearted.”

A bloated, almost unrecognizable Ed Williamson died of kidney failure three years later, on March 3, 1894-the thirty-fourth birthday of John Ward. He had blown up from his rookie weight of about 170 to almost 300 pounds. Death came to him at the Hot Springs, Ar­kansas resort where he had rehabbed his knee to prepare for the PL. Today he lies in Rosehill’s pauper’s row, along Peterson Avenue near Ravenswood Avenue, on the other side of the cemetery from the mausoleum of his retailing Chicago contemporaries Aaron Mont­gomery Ward and Richard Sears. More recently, Jack Brickhouse, longtime Cubs announcer was laid to rest in Rosehill.

In 1887, Williamson won $200 and a diamond locket for the second longest baseball throw to that time: 401 feet. Ed’s double-play partner, second baseman Fred Pfeffer, recalled that Williamson made the greatest play he ever saw. He leaped straight up, making a barehand stab fully extended. Then before Williamson hit the ground, he threw out a runner at home. In a poll of twelve baseball greats, taken the year Williamson died, he was the most frequent choice for the best player of all time. In 1900, Anson wrote, “Ed was in my opinion, the greatest all around player the country ever saw.”