The First Professional League

Over the next few posts, and those will come over a couple of weeks as I’m cutting back on my production, I want to look at the National Association which flourished from 1871-1875. It is the first professional league. As with the Negro Leagues, I’m no expert on the era, but find it interesting. So, again as with the Negro Leagues, I begin with a few miscellaneous notes.

1. The Association was run by the players, not by owners. It’s official title is The National Assocation of Professional Base Ball Players (in the 19th Century, baseball was two words, so that’s not a typo). That’s very different from the modern situation.

2. Salaries were frequently tied to gate receipts. The more people who showed up, the more money the players made. There were set salaries, but they did not exist across the board.

3. Teams crashed and burned with regularity. Teams would start up then fold before the season ended, sometimes to be replaced by other teams so that the teams which started the season could play something like a full schedule. Of the nine teams starting the 1871 season, only four were still around when the league folded in 1875.

4. Speaking of schedules, they were odd by today’s standards. Teams were allowed to barnstorm during the season so the total number of games played per team was all over the place. They sometimes played each other in games that didn’t count toward the league standings. Only officially recognized association games were to count for pennant purposes. That meant that no team played a lot of games that counted. In the five years the Association existed its pennant winner played the following number of games (in order 1871-75): 29, 48, 60, 71, and 82. So you can see the seasons kept getting longer, but there never seems to have been a predetermined number of games necessary to decide on a pennant winner. In the same period, the team in second place played the following number of games: 33, 58, 53, 65, and 86.

5. Because of the short season, especially in 1871, the stats are goofy. Anybody can get hot for 29 games (or 33, or 58) so there are some amazing percentages put up by players you’ve probably never heard about. Also because of the short season, the raw numbers can’t be nearly as large as modern numbers where players clock in for 162 games.

6. The rules make it difficult to compare the players to their modern counterparts. The pitcher was 45′ away, he had to throw underhand (although that changed to a low sidearm delivery as early as 1872). The hitter could ask for a high (above the waist) or low (below the waist) pitch and if the pitcher missed then it was a ball. It was three balls to a walk, but the ump (there was only one) was requied to warn the hurler for missing the strike zone a number of times (at the ump’s choice) before issuing the three balls. There was no hit batsman (Plunked? Ball one.). The rule making a foul ball a strike until there were two stikes didn’t exist, so a batter could foul off pitches at will (if he could hit the ball). There were no gloves and no catcher’s equipment. So the catcher was a long way back and if he caught a foul on the first bounce the batter was out. Obviously he didn’t have to catch the third strike. Even the batters box was different. There was a line running through it even with the corner of the plate (which was diamond shaped with one point aimed at the pitcher) and the batter was required to have one foot on either side of the line.

7. The fielding was atrocious. There were, as I said above, no gloves. But the fields also were of dubious quality. In 1871 Levi Meyerle had a fielding percentage in the 690s at third base for the pennant winners. And that’s not as bad as it sounds because the guy who led all third basemen in fielding percentage was at .795. So there are a lot of runners on base and a lot of unearned runs in most games. One of the central themes of baseball is that fielding has progressed over the century and a half of the sport. Considering where it started, that’s not surprising.

8. The parks weren’t much better. They were all wooden with mostly bleachers and sometimes even ropes to keep the fans away from the diamond and define the outfield.  Things were so bad that the Chicago team in 1871 had to play the last handful of its home games on the road because the Great Chicago Fire destroyed its park. They still managed to finish third.

9. Major League Baseball says that the National Association was not a Major League. They say the schedules were too lax, the rules not enforced, so it can’t count as a Major League. I say that’s nonsense. It was a professional league. The players involved were the best professionals playing at the highest level available in the era. The Hall of Fame recognizes its players as Major Leaguers, as do most baseball historians. So for the purposes of any posts involving the National Association I will treat it as the first major league.

10. Finally, the stats are greatly in dispute (even one of the pennants is still in dispute). For consistancy purposes I have chosen to take all stats (at least as far as he has them) from David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. Other encyclopedias have differing numbers and you may use them as you want. I’m sticking with this set.

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One Response to “The First Professional League”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Hi, Just wanted you to know I did a long-overdue Shout-Out for your blog, and a couple of others, on my baseball blog. Take care, Bill

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