Posts Tagged ‘Al Spaulding’

The First Professional

January 12, 2011

Jim CreightonFor his day he was Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson rolled into one. He was Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson come to earth as one player. He was Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson from 45 feet away. He was Jim Creighton and baseball had never seen his like. At 19 he was the biggest star in the game, maybe in its history to that time. He’s been called the first professional player (but probably wasn’t) and the first great pitcher. By 22 he was dead.

Creighton was from Brooklyn, born in 1841. He played street ball, joined a neighborhood team, and by 1858 was an infielder for the Niagaras. He pitched a little, including a game against the Brooklyn Stars. They were impressed and in 1859 brought him onboard as their star pitcher. He was an immediate success and in 1860 jumped teams once again; this time going to the more respected Excelsiors. With the Excelsiors he became the biggest star in fledgling baseball. The team won a lot of games, made a lot of money, and rumors abounded that much of it went into Creighton’s pockets. No one could prove it, so he continued to pitch in the strictly amateur league.

Creighton in Excelsior uniform

The Excelsiors participated in a “national” tour (they went to upstate New York, then down the East Coast) in 1860, during which Creighton is credited, in November 1860, with throwing the first ever shutout in baseball history. In an era where 35-25 wasn’t an unreasonable score, the feat was astounding. He wasn’t a bad hitter either. In 1861 he is reputed to have made an out only four  times all season, all on the base paths. There are no available box scores to either prove or disprove this.

In 1862 he was having another great year when, on 14 October, he took an exceptionally fierce swing with his bat that apparently caused some sort of internal injury. In great pain he completed the game, then went home. He died four days later. There seems to be no official doctor’s account of what happened, so speculation centers around rupturing an appendix, bladder, or spleen, or lacerating something in such a way as to create great internal bleeding. Whatever happened he was not yet 22. His funeral was a major event in Brooklyn, and in dying young Creighton became an almost mythic figure in early baseball.

It’s possible that Creighton invented something akin to a fastball. In the era, pitchers were required to throw underhanded with a stiff elbow and wrist. Creighton apparently began practicing with a lead ball the size of a baseball to increase arm strength, then developed a motion that sent his arm far backward, then bending at the waist, he brought the ball in low (one source says only about two to three inches off the ground) and slung it forward with such speed and an upward trajectory that it was virtually unhittable. It sounds like a combination of the submarine style of a Jeff Nelson combined with the softball “rise ball” of a Cat Osterman, and it must have been especially difficult to hit in an era when there was almost no arm motion in pitching.

As usual with players of this era, it’s impossible to say how truly good he was. There were few games, the rules were different, and in Creighton’s case the pitching rules make it impossible to compare him with a modern player. Back several months ago on this site someone commented (and I looked and couldn’t find it, so I don’t know who it was, but I thank you) that the Hall of Fame should take a number of current members and move them into a special wing for “Pioneers”. I kind of like that idea. It lets us look at guys like Candy Cummings, Al Spaulding, and Henry Chadwick in the context of the founding of the game rather than looking at them the same way we look at Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. Not sure how you’d determine who goes where, but it’s worth a thought. I can’t imagine they’d ever really do it, but if  they did, I’d like to nominate Creighton for one of the first slots.

Creighton's grave in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

The Star of the National Association

October 29, 2010

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.

The Red Stockings of Boston

March 7, 2010

Boston, unlike New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington had not been a major player in the 1860s baseball world. That changed in the 1870s. The National Association had five pennant winners. Four of them were the team from Boston, the Red Stockings. The other year they finished second. They dominated this league the way the New York Yankees dominate the modern American League.

The game, as I’ve emphasized before, was different in the 1870s. Among other things the rosters were much smaller. In 1871 the Red Stockings had only 11 men on their roster for the season. In 1872 it dropped to 10, was 13 in 1873, back to 11 in 1874, and ended at 13 in the National Association’s final year. That meant that players need to be versatile. Most players could be plugged into different spots in the field, so the idea of a dominant third baseman is not something that happened in the Association. As we look at the individual players, all (except McVey who truly did utility work) were plugged into a primary position, but all were to a degree something akin to modern utility players.

In 1871 the Red Stockings ended the season with the most wins of any team, 22 (tied with Philadelphia) but had 10 losses and ended in second place (Philly had only seven losses). There was some confusion about an illegal player and forfeits involving him. So under one scenario the Stockings actually end up in first place with a record of 20-10. Modern baseball acknowledges the Philadelphia team as the winner. Obviously it was a season in which the team played few league games.

Over the next four seasons the Red Stockings were dominant, winning the pennant by 7.5 games in 1872, four in 1873, 7.5 again in 1874, and 18.5 in 1875. If you were a Boston fan, this was great, but if you were a fan of another team, well, you were just out of luck. Boston’s dominance is generally cited as one of the reasons the Association folded. The pennant races just weren’t competative enough.

So who were these guys?  Here’s a brief rundown of the major players on the Red Stockings.

Harry Wright was the manager and occasional center fielder. His major contributions come from his managerial abilities which I touched on in an earlier post.

Al Spaulding was the pitcher. During the life of the Association, the Red Stockings played 294 games, winning 227 of them (a .772 winning percentage). Spaulding won 204 of them (89.87%) while never leading the league in either strikeouts or ERA. In some ways it’s fair to say that no pitcher ever dominated a league quite like Spaulding dominated the National Association. In defense of more modern pitchers it’s fair to point out that Spaulding never pitched overhand and stood only 45′ away from the batter.

Cal McVey was one of the best hitters in the game and I’m saving him for a later post.

George Wright was the shortstop and Harry Wright’s younger brother. He was considered the premier shortstop of the era and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Ross Barnes was a second baseman who led off. He won two batting titles, was second once, and was a decent (for the era) middle infielder.

Harry Schafer was the third baseman and in the lineup primarily for his glove. OK, it was his hands, they didn’t use gloves that far back.

Deacon White came over from Cleveland after 1871 and became the catcher. He was the most prolific hitting backstop for the entire period of the National Association and a player I would support for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Andy Leonard also came over from Washington and became the regular left fielder. He ended up becoming the all-time games played leader for the Association.

There were other players, but these were the centerpiece players. Both Wrights, McVey, and Leonard  played for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called first professional team making them already familiar with each others skills. That, along with great talent, made the Boston team the greatest team of the era.