Way back when the 20th Century ended, the SABR people got together and picked the most significant contributors to Baseball in the 19th Century. Henry Chadwick won, there was a tie between Harry Wright and Albert G. Spalding for second. I’m not sure I’d place Chadwick above Wright and Spalding, but it’s a matter of taste. There’s certainly no argument that Spalding was a major contributor to the origins of Major League Baseball. He owned the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs), promoted a 19th Century around-the-world tour to tout baseball, founded a major sporting goods company that bore his name, was instrumental in forming and promoting the Abner Doubleday myth (OK, so not everything he did was positive), led the attack that crushed the Brotherhood union (see what I mean about not everything being positive), and finally made the Hall of Fame. But that’s not what I want to dwell on. Spalding was also a heck of a ball player.
Spalding was an early amateur and later professional who caught the eye of Harry Wright. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed and Wright took over as manager of the Boston team. He convinced Spaulding to come on board as the team’s pitcher. It was a great choice, because Spalding became the premier pitcher in the Association and dominated the league in a way that no other pitcher has ever duplicated.
In the five years the Association existed, Spalding pitched in 282 games, starting 264. His record? How about 204-53 for a winning percentage of .794? Now this was an era when there was only one pitcher and he threw from 45 feet away, but those are still astounding numbers. In the five years of the Association Spaulding won, in order, 19, 38, 41, 52, and 54 games. He lost, again in order, 10, 8, 14, 16, and 5. Read that last pair closely. In 1875, Spaulding went 54-5 (.915 winning percentage). There are some caveats here. His team, the Red Stockings, were a lot better than their competitors and the number of games played by the team increased every year. But part of the reason the team was a lot better than everyone else is because they had Spalding and no one else did. His ERA for the five seasons was 2.21 (ERA+ of 131). He struck out only 207 men in the five seasons, topping out at 75 in 1875. But the pitching rules were different then and there simply weren’t a lot of strikeouts. He has one of my favorite set of numbers that, to me, help illustrate just how different 1870s baseball was from the modern game. For the life of the Association he gave up 1552 runs, only 577 earned (37%). That means a lot of guys were hitting the ball off him, and a lot of his teammates weren’t catching them. As a hitter he averaged .323 with an OPS of .721 (OPS+ of 121).
He pitched one complete season in the newly formed National League (1876). He went 47-12 for the White Stockings (Cubs), had an ERA of 1.75 (ERA+ of 140), completed 53 of 60 starts, plus one relief job (he didn’t get the save), had eight shutouts (which was tough in 1876), and the Cubs won the first NL pennant (wonder if the Cubs could use Spalding today?). The next season he appeared in four games, started one, won it, picked up a save, but spent most of the season as the first baseman. In 1878 he played one game at second base, became club secretary, then he took his money and bought the club and went on to glory (or infamy if you were a Brotherhood fan).
Spalding is one of those guys that it’s difficult to like. He was cold, aristocratic, tough-minded, and in the minds of many of his players a tough SOB. But he was, despite all that, one great pitcher.