The Original Big Red Machine

We all know “The Big Red Machine.” It played in Cincinnati in the 1970s and won the World Series twice. It featured Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and an entire slew of pitchers no one ever heard of, right? But 100 years prior to the Cincinnati team, there was another Big Red Machine that utterly dominated its league. It was the Boston Red Stockings of the 1871-1875 National Association and featured the likes of Harry and George Wright, Deacon White, Cal McVey, and the most dominant pitcher of the age, Albert Spaulding.

In the 1860s Boston was known as a decent baseball town, but not the hotbed that Brooklyn, New York, and Philadelphia were. It certainly hadn’t known the success of those three towns (Brooklyn was still an independent city in the 1860s). When the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in 1871, Boston was included in the league, but needed talent to be able to compete at what was now the highest level. The first thing the team did was reach out to Harry Wright of the defunct Cincinnati Red Stockings. Wright agreed to join the new Boston team, also nicknamed the Red Stockings, and brought with him several members of the old Cincinnati ball club: Cal McVey, Andy Leonard, and his brother George Wright. the team was an instant success. It rolled through the 1871 season going 20-10 and finishing a disputed two games behind league leader Philadelphia. Boston claimed that a couple of games Philly played didn’t count, Philly claimed they did, and a meeting of the league leaders awarded the pennant to the Athletics. It was the last time the Red Stockings would lose anything major.

In 1872, they started strong, won 22 of 23, including 19 in a row, and won the pennant by seven and a half games. Second baseman Ross Barnes won the batting and slugging titles, and led the league in hits and doubles. Pitcher Spaulding was 38-8 on a team that went 39-8 (Harry Wright won the other game).

The 1873 team went 43-16 and won the pennant by four games. It may have been the best of the Boston dynasty. Hall of Famers the Wrights, Deacon White, Jim O’Rourke, and Spaulding dominated the league. Good players that are forgotten today, Andy Leonard, Barnes, Harry Schafer, and Bob Addy put together a team that won 16 of 17 games down the stretch (before dropping the final two meaningless games). Barnes won the batting title, led the league in OBP, slugging, OPS, runs, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, and walks (heck of a year, right?). White won the RBI crown. Spaulding was 41-14 and Harry Wright led the NA in saves with four (something he never knew). Here’s a picture of the 1873 team:

1873 Boston Red Stockings

1873 Boston Red Stockings

George Wright is in the front row on the left with the cap in front of him. Harry Wright sits in the middle of the second row (the man with the beard). Deacon White is second from the right on the back row.

In 1874 they won their first 13 games and rolled to a 52-18 record. The won the pennant by seven and a half games, winning a game in October by a score of 29-0. This time Cal McVey, who had departed and returned, led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. O’Rourke won the home run title with five and George Wright led the NA in triples. Spaulding was 52-16 and led the league in shutouts. Harry Wright had three saves (and the other two Boston losses–get that bum off the mound). So far the Red Stockings had won three of four pennants in the NA and still disputed the initial pennant.

By 1875 the Red Stockings were so dominant that the pennant race became a joke. They started the season 26-0-1 and scored in double figures in 18 of those wins (the tie was 3-3 against the Athletics). By the end of the season they were 71-8 and coasted to the pennant by 15 games. For the season they had a run differential of six and scored in double figures 46 times, including a 10-10 tie against the Athletics (bet you have it figured that the Athletics came in second). Deacon White won the batting title and O’Rourke repeated as home run champion. Barnes led the NA in runs, hits, and OBP while Cal McVey won the slugging, OPS, total bases, doubles, and RBI titles. Spaulding was 54-5 (a .915 winning percentage) and led the league in both saves and shutouts.

But success had its price. Boston was so dominant by 1875 that attendance was falling in the rest of the league. Fans weren’t coming out to see teams they knew had no chance of winning a pennant and even the arrival of Boston in town wasn’t helping attendance much as fans understood their team had little chance of winning against the Red Stockings. In the entire 1875 campaign, Boston only lost two in a row one time–5-3 on 21 August to St. Louis and 13-11 on 23 August to Chicago (both were road games).  At the end of the season the league was in trouble financially and franchises were failing. There were a lot of reasons, but Boston’s continued dominance was one of them. Prior to the 1876 season, the National Association collapsed.

That same year, the National League was formed. Boston was a first year member (and is still around, although moved to Atlanta via Milwaukee). It was expected to win, but lost to Chicago. They were back in 1877 and 1878, but were never as much a lock as they had been in the Association days.

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4 Responses to “The Original Big Red Machine”

  1. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    I liked the article, V.

    One thing, though. Gary Nolan, Don Gullett, Jack Billingham, Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon, Wayne Granger, Jim Merritt, Wayne Simpson, and many more. Pitchers I remember well.

    But you’re right, though. Compared to the Big Red Machine’s offense, they didn’t have much of a pitching staff. Maybe one reason that Sparky Anderson was the first manager to not hesitate to go to his bullpen (and thus earned his humorous nickname, “Captain Hook”!)

    The same with the Pittsburgh Lumber Company of the early 70s. Other than Dock Ellis, Nelson Briles (I can’t believe that they’re both dead; it’s still kind of a shock to me), and a good bullpen with Dave Guisti and Mudcat Grant, not too much compared to their awesome offense.

    Going back to that Boston franchise, they did have some good years in the 20th Century, of course. 1948, when they won the pennant but lost to Cleveland. And their great years in Milwaukee in the 50s (unfortunately, had the Yankees to contend with). And of course their great record of the 1990s in Atlanta.

    It IS kind of strange about how people didn’t go to see the Red Stockings when they came to town. This seems to contradict the kind of thinking that I’m used to— that when a great team comes to town, they are a draw REGARDLESS of whether their home team gets beaten or not.

    I was much more likely to go to Shea Stadium to see the mediocre Mets of the early 70s play the Reds. Pete Rose— the most colorful player in baseball- I mean, who could resist a guy who ran FULL SPEED running to first base on a walk??? He was fun to watch, as were the other hitters on the Big Red Machine.

    Or the Dodgers. Or the Pirates.

    And, IF the Mets happened to BEAT these colorful and great teams, it was just an added bonus, and so much the better!

    Glen

  2. William MillerW Says:

    Given the era in which they played, the length of schedule, etc., do you think it would be fair to rate this team as one of the ten best in baseball history? Do you think, for example, they could have matched up well with the Reds of the 1970’s, or do you think the game had changed too much by then for the earlier version to have had any chance against them?
    Bill

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