The Star of the National Association

Major League baseball is in denial about a lot of things. Things like drugs and gambling and corked bats make a little sense. but strangely enough it is at odds with its own beginnings. MLB says that the National Association, which flourished from 1871-1875, wasn’t really a major league. Now let me see if I have this straight. Professional ball players are playing ball at the highest available professional level, right? That sounds to me like a “Major League”. Does it to you? As long as they refuse to admit the National Association into the fraternity of major leagues the players of that era are going to be even more obscure than they would otherwise be. That includes the undeniable star of the National Association, Ross Barnes.

Ross Barnes

Barnes was born in New York in 1850. He played league baseball beginning in 1868, becoming a professional in 1869. In 1871 with the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, Barnes joined the Boston Red Stockings, splitting time between second base and shortstop. He settled in at second base and became the dominant player in the league for the rest of its existence. In the five years Barnes played for Boston, the team finished a contested second in 1871, then rolled to four consecutive pennants.

With the collapse of the Association after the 1875 season, Barnes joined the Chicago White Stockings of the fledgling National League. As usual for his team, it won the pennant in 1876. So far so good for Barnes. Then came 1877.

 There are two versions of what happened to Barnes. In 1877 the NL changed the rule that allowed a bunted ball to be declared fair or foul depending on where it first landed. Barnes was a master of chopping the ball so that it landed fair, then slid foul. By the time the fielder caught up to it, Barnes had a hit. If the fielder played to take away the fair-four bunt, then Barnes would swing away. With this play now being simply a foul ball, Barnes’ ability to use it caused his career to crash. The second story is that in 1877 Barnes caught a fever (type undetermined) and simply never recovered. I’m not sure which is true. The first presupposes that Barnes simply couldn’t adapt to a new style of hitting, the second that he couldn’t recover his health enough to play. Both are a little far-fetched. Most good hitters (especially in the era before home run specialization) can do more than one thing well, and if the fever weakened him that much he still managed to live another 38 years. My best guess, and that’s all it is, is that his problem was a combination of the two. Physically weakened and without his best hitting weapon, his career sagged.

Barnes hung on through 1881, missing all of 1878 and 1880, then retired. He did some umpiring between 1874 and 1890. I’m not sure how you ump when you’re an active player, but it seems to have been considered acceptable in the earliest years of Major League baseball. Several people other than Barnes also do it. After retirement he spent time working in Chicago. He died in 1915 and is buried in Rockford, Illinois (later home of the Peaches).

Between 1871 and 1876 Ross Barnes’ numbers are astounding. Even in an era of high hitting stats, his are over the top. In five years in the Association, he hits above .400 three times and hits in the .360s and .340s the other two. He leads the league in on base percentage (OBP) twice, in slugging twice, and in total bases three times. He leads the league in hits and runs three times; in doubles twice; and in triples, stolen bases, walks and singles once each. In the NL’s rookie campaign he leads the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases (add Al Spaulding on the mound and you see why Chicago won the first NL pennant). For his career he hits .391 in the Association and .319 in the NL with OBPs of  .415 and .356. His OPS (on base plus slugging) is .933 and .757.  There are all sorts of variation in the numbers for Barnes’ era. The stats above are from Baseball Reference.com.

Barnes played a total of four years in the NL, making him ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Even if you add in his Association numbers he only has nine years. I’m going to argue that for guys who were in at the beginning of professional baseball the ten year rule should be waived. Barnes played prior to the formation of the NL and those years have to count for something. In my opinion the Association is a Major League and in the years prior to 1871 Barnes is a productive player for the teams of the era. I know it won’t happen, but it should.

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7 Responses to “The Star of the National Association”

  1. Kevin Graham Says:

    V,

    For me, Ross Barnes is a borderline HOFer. He only played in 5 seasons where he appeared in over 50 games. I just don’t think he played enough.
    His 5 years in the NA though impressive, hurt him as well because of the problem with the NA as a major league.
    The problem with the NA was that it didn’t function very well as a league. The players jumped around a lot, too many franchises folded every season, and some teams were no better than a Sunday afternoon pick-up team.
    Growing pains for sure. I think the National League learned from the NA’s mistakes, which made it a better run, more professional league.
    It served it’s purpose, but I think it falls short as a Major League.

    Kevin

    • verdun2 Says:

      Obvoiusly I disagree about the NA as a Major League, but I agree about Barnes as a borderline Hall of Famer. For HoF purposes from this period, I’d much rather see Cal McVey put in.
      thanks for reading
      v

  2. thebaseballidiot Says:

    I agree that the NA was a major league. The talent wasn’t what it is today, and the game was different in many ways, but it is still a major league. I’ve had this argument with several people over the years.

    I think the big issue is that Rob Neyer touts this line whenever he can, and becasue of his audience, its getting wider accpetance all the time.

    I also agree that the early players need to be looked at differently. They ahve to be judged against the players and times they played in, not contemporay times.

  3. William Miller Says:

    Gotta agree with you. It’s an arbitrary rule designed to protect…what exactly? The sanctity of The Hall? Don’t get me started on that topic.
    Thanks for enlightening me about Ross Barnes. I wasn’t very familiar with him.
    I come to your blog to learn something and to enjoy your writing. I am never disappointed.
    Regards, Bill

  4. Who’s In The Hall Of Fame- Harry Wright « DMB Historic World Series Replay Says:

    […] As a manager Harry won exactly 1000 games during his major league career. His 225 wins and 4 National Association  pennants do not count as major league wins, as it should be. Sorry V. […]

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