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.
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.