Today we think of baseball at the highest level as a game between professionals who get paid to play the game. It wasn’t always that way. Initially baseball was a game of children and of amateur clubs. It morphed into the professional game we know in a rather short period of time; the period between 1845 and 1860. The following is a musing, admittedly incomplete, on how we got from amateur to professional in 15 years. It is certainly not a quest to find the first professional nor is it a definitive look at early professionalism.
Let me set some parameters and definitions first. In 1845 the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were published by the club. Without reference to whether they were the first written rules or not, they give us a beginning date. There is no evidence that anyone in 1845 was a professional baseball player. Games were between clubs of amateurs or played on sand lots by kids but no one was receiving money to play (at least as far was anyone can tell).
By 1860 both Jim Creighton and George Flanly were receiving a stipend from their team (in 1860 that would be the Excelsior in Brooklyn). Both men moved from the Niagaras (Buffalo) to play in New York and money changed hands. Frequently they, especially Creighton, are known as “The First Professional.” OK, maybe, but at least it gives us an ending date for our quest. In 1845 we can reasonably say “there are no professionals.” By 1860 we can say “there are professionals.”
Now we need to determine what makes a “professional”? The answer is usually “they’re getting paid to play.” And that’s true as far as it goes. But a common practice in the era was the use of government entities to pay players to work for the city while making sure the player had ample time to practice and play baseball. Both Brooklyn and New York City (they were separate towns in 1860) were particularly known for doing this. There’s a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which a young “Moonlight” Graham (played by Frank Whaley) talks about towns in the Midwest finding you a job so you can play for the town team on the weekends. In 1860 they were doing the same thing. So is this the mark of a professional or are we talking about something that is at most quasi-professional? You can make up your own mind on the issue, but I feel it is indeed professionalism because there is no evidence that men like Flanly, John Galvin, or Sydney Churchill Smith would hold a city job if they weren’t baseball players.
So why do we go from amateur clubs to professionalism? There are a number of reasons, most of which you can probably guess. The game was growing, getting more popular. There were more teams and more competition. The drive to win, to be the best surely was part of what happened. If you were good enough to be sought by multiple teams, certainly one of them was going to offer you an incentive like a job or cash. So they took it, either the job or cash or both. The formation of leagues that competed for dominance made it more important to the clubs that they concentrate the greatest level of talent in order to win. Money is quite an incentive to join a particular team that wants to win. If you add to that the civic pride factor then handing jobs to ball players by local government agencies adds to the mix.
The above should be pretty obvious to most of you, but, and this is the part of this post I want to stress, let me note a couple of post 1860 events also contribute to the wide growth and acceptance of professionalism; a couple of things you may not have considered. First is the institution of the enclosed ballpark. The Union Grounds of 1862 is generally recognized as the first fully enclosed baseball park. It was home of the Eckfords and is now gone, lost under buildings, highways, and an assortment of other things. But by enclosing the park the team could control the attendance and that meant that they could begin charging admission (no more cheapskates standing just outside the field boundaries watching for free). And quite bluntly if the owners of the park were making money, the players had to ask “why aren’t we getting a cut?”
Secondly, in 1866 the Athletic in Philadelphia had one of the greatest players of the era, Lip Pike, playing for them. They were paying him ($20 a week) and he was quite open about it. When a newspaper published this information things blew up. The league (The National Association of Base Ball Players) demanded a meeting at one of the more prominent Philadelphia hotels to decide what to do about Pike and the Athletic. Of course there were two problems with this approach. First Pike was too good to be kept away from the game. Someone was going to pick him up, and probably pay him a little more circumspectly (like maybe a sham job in the City Works Department). Second, if they punished the Athletic, they faced the prospect of losing their primary team in Philadelphia. The upshot was that neither the league nor the Athletic nor Pike showed up at the appointed hotel at the appointed time and the matter was allowed to drop. That opened the door to professionalism en masse. Knowing it wasn’t going to cost neither the team nor the player if a professional entered the game, payments flew from one player to another. At this point, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were close to inevitable.
So that’s a short musing on professionalism. It was, probably, impossible to stop its development and for those of us who are fans of the game at its highest level, that’s a good thing.
And now I’d like you to take a close look at the picture above. It shows Jim Creighton in the center of the top (he’s shrouded because he had died). But if you blow up the picture (which you can) you can take a look at some of the “Glory of Their Times” players of the 1860s. It gives you a chance to see what the Aarons, Mantles, Ruths, and Gibsons of their day looked like. Enjoy.