A few years back my son suggested I sit down and began trying to find out who were the best players in the old National Association (1871-5). Most of the guys I came up with were the usual suspects: Cap Anson, Al Spaulding, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, etc. But the more I looked the more I kept coming back to an obscure player neither my son nor I had ever heard of in all our baseball reading, Joe Start. He turned out to be a heck of a player.
Start was born in New York in 1842. He was a good enough teenage player that he drew the attention of the Brooklyn Enterprise Club in 1860 and in 1861 joined the Brooklyn Atlantics, one of the major amateur teams of the era. He played first base for them all the way into 1871, including during the American Civil War. Remember, that the initial couple of years of the Civil War, volunteers comprised the Union Army. The draft began only in 1863, leading to riots in New York, among other places. As he was playing in 1862, he obviously didn’t volunteer. He was still with the Atlantics, helping them to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, so he also missed the draft (I don’t mean to imply he ”dodged” it.). In an 18 game season in 1864, Start clubbed 11 home runs and led the team. On 6 September 1869, he had one of the great days in amateur baseball. He is credited with hitting four home runs, notching seven hits, and 21 total bases in a game against the Eckfords (also a Brooklyn club). Between 1861 and 1869, Start helped lead the Atlantics to five championships (1861, 1864-6, and 1869). In the famous 1870 game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Start knocked in the first run in the 11th inning and scored the game tying run. The Atlantics won, upending the previously undefeated Red Stockings (For a good overview of this famous game, see DMB Historic World Series Reply’s 29 November post. You can find the link to the site on the blogroll at right.).
With the formation of the National Association in 1871, Start jumped to the Mutual of New York, where he played for entire life of the Association. He hit .295 with an OPS of .665, 475 total bases, and an OPS+ of 110. He had 187 RBIs and 262 runs in 272 games. The Mutuals finished as high as second (1874). While with the Mutuals, one source credits Start with originating the practice of playing off the bag at first to cover more ground. There are a number of other sources that credit a number of other players with inventing this, now common, practice. Frankly, I don’t know who started it.
In 1876 the National League replaced the Association and Start moved with his team to the new league. In 1877 he went to Hartford, then to Chicago in 1878. In 1879 he settled in at Providence where he stayed through 1885. While at Providence, he helped lead the Grays to National League pennants in 1879 and again in 1884. In September of the latter year, he hit his only home run of the season, a three run shot that clinched the pennant for Providence. The year 1884 saw the first “World Series” played between Providence and the American Association team in New York. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games. Start didn’t do well, managing one hit and one RBI in ten at bats. In 1886 he played his last season for Washington at age 43. He hit a miserable .221 with 17 RBIs in only 31 games. For his NL career he hit .300 with a .700 OPS (125 OPS+), 1031 hits, 590 runs, 257 RBIs, and 1269 total bases in 798 games, all but one at first base (plus a couple of pinch-hitting performances). In all he played from 1860 through 1886 inclusive, a total of 27 years. I’m not sure that a record for the 19th Century, but it has to be close.
After his retirement, he moved to Warwick, Rhode Island where he ran a hotel. He died in March 1927 at age 84. He’s buried in Providence.
It’s difficult to evaluate Start, as it is all the players of the era. To begin with, he’s 29 when the National Association begins play. His best years, which must have been pretty good if you believe the handful of reports available, were behind him. And that’s the crux of the problem. His best years are behind him and the record of those seasons is spotty. He’s a good enough player in both the Association and the NL, but not spectacular. Maybe he was spectacular in the 1860s, but we simply don’t know enough to make an informed statement. All we can honestly state is that he was a good enough player to hang around 27 years. That alone means he was pretty good.