Boston, unlike New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington had not been a major player in the 1860s baseball world. That changed in the 1870s. The National Association had five pennant winners. Four of them were the team from Boston, the Red Stockings. The other year they finished second. They dominated this league the way the New York Yankees dominate the modern American League.
The game, as I’ve emphasized before, was different in the 1870s. Among other things the rosters were much smaller. In 1871 the Red Stockings had only 11 men on their roster for the season. In 1872 it dropped to 10, was 13 in 1873, back to 11 in 1874, and ended at 13 in the National Association’s final year. That meant that players need to be versatile. Most players could be plugged into different spots in the field, so the idea of a dominant third baseman is not something that happened in the Association. As we look at the individual players, all (except McVey who truly did utility work) were plugged into a primary position, but all were to a degree something akin to modern utility players.
In 1871 the Red Stockings ended the season with the most wins of any team, 22 (tied with Philadelphia) but had 10 losses and ended in second place (Philly had only seven losses). There was some confusion about an illegal player and forfeits involving him. So under one scenario the Stockings actually end up in first place with a record of 20-10. Modern baseball acknowledges the Philadelphia team as the winner. Obviously it was a season in which the team played few league games.
Over the next four seasons the Red Stockings were dominant, winning the pennant by 7.5 games in 1872, four in 1873, 7.5 again in 1874, and 18.5 in 1875. If you were a Boston fan, this was great, but if you were a fan of another team, well, you were just out of luck. Boston’s dominance is generally cited as one of the reasons the Association folded. The pennant races just weren’t competative enough.
So who were these guys? Here’s a brief rundown of the major players on the Red Stockings.
Harry Wright was the manager and occasional center fielder. His major contributions come from his managerial abilities which I touched on in an earlier post.
Al Spaulding was the pitcher. During the life of the Association, the Red Stockings played 294 games, winning 227 of them (a .772 winning percentage). Spaulding won 204 of them (89.87%) while never leading the league in either strikeouts or ERA. In some ways it’s fair to say that no pitcher ever dominated a league quite like Spaulding dominated the National Association. In defense of more modern pitchers it’s fair to point out that Spaulding never pitched overhand and stood only 45′ away from the batter.
Cal McVey was one of the best hitters in the game and I’m saving him for a later post.
George Wright was the shortstop and Harry Wright’s younger brother. He was considered the premier shortstop of the era and ended up in the Hall of Fame.
Ross Barnes was a second baseman who led off. He won two batting titles, was second once, and was a decent (for the era) middle infielder.
Harry Schafer was the third baseman and in the lineup primarily for his glove. OK, it was his hands, they didn’t use gloves that far back.
Deacon White came over from Cleveland after 1871 and became the catcher. He was the most prolific hitting backstop for the entire period of the National Association and a player I would support for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
Andy Leonard also came over from Washington and became the regular left fielder. He ended up becoming the all-time games played leader for the Association.
There were other players, but these were the centerpiece players. Both Wrights, McVey, and Leonard played for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called first professional team making them already familiar with each others skills. That, along with great talent, made the Boston team the greatest team of the era.