Posts Tagged ‘Boston Red Stockings’

The Original Big Red Machine

March 28, 2013

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.

The First National League Power Hitter

March 26, 2013
George Hall

George Hall

One of the great things about the start-up of a new league is that everyone is a rookie (sorta). Another great thing about it is that no matter who it is or what it is, the guy who finishes first in a category is automatically the all-time league record holder. The next season he may be relegated to the scrap heap, but for one year he is the greatest who ever was. Such is the story of George Hall.

George W. Hall was born in March 1849 in Great Britain and came to the United States with his parents. He was good at baseball and by 1871 was considered good enough to be picked up by the Washington Olympics of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. He was a left-handed outfielder who also hit left-handed. He was a better than average fielder for the era, leading the Association in putouts and double plays while finishing in the upper half of the league in range and fielding percentage. But he was also a fine hitter. In 32 games he had 40 hits, three of them doubles, three triples, and two homers. He scored 31 runs and knocked in 17. His OPS+ was 114, the lowest he would have for his entire career.

The Olympics finished 15-15 (with two ties) and folded nine games into the next season. Hall, meanwhile moved to Baltimore where he played for the Canaries in both 1872 and 1873. Baltimore finished second and third those two seasons, with Hall being one of their best players. In 1874 he moved to champion Boston where he won his only pennant. The next year he was with Philadelphia. Again he did well enough with the Athletics to be considered an excellent player, but he was not in the absolute upper tier of Association players.

After the 1875 season the Association folded. At that point Hall was a career .311 hitter with an OPB of .321, a slugging percentage of .431, and OPS of .753 and an OPS+ of 133. He had 353 hits in 244 games with 273 runs scored and 181 RBIs. He amassed 489 total bases, including 46 doubles, 33 triples, and 8 home runs.

In 1876 the National League was formed. Hall and the Athletics joined. It was here that he made his mark. He hit .366, slugged .545, had an OPS of .929, and OPS+ of 204. He also set the NL record with five home runs, none after July. No one else on the team had more than one.  Charley Jones (the subject of the post just below) was second with four homers. A number of players tied for third with two home runs (including Hall of Fame players Cap Anson and Jim O’Rourke). It was the only offensive category in which he led the league.

Philadelphia had failed to finish the last Western road swing of the season and was tossed from the league. Without a team, Hall was picked up by Louisville for the 1877 season. He hit well enough (.323), but didn’t come close to his five homer total. There is some dispute about whether he had one or zero home runs in 1877, but he didn’t repeat as home run champion (Baseball Reference lists no home runs).

But Hall had a bigger problem than his lack of power. Late in the 1877 season the Grays were in contention for the pennant, then collapsed. Boston ultimately won the championship with Louisville finishing second.  An investigation determined that at least four Grays players, including Hall, were paid $25 a game to throw games down the stretch. Hall admitted to throwing exhibition games, but not league games. Nonetheless other information implicated him in throwing league games. He was thrown off the team and later banned from Major League baseball for life.

It’s very hard to track Hall after 1877. He asked Harry Wright for a chance and was turned down, but beyond that he seems to have stayed away from baseball.  He died in New Jersey in 1923 and is buried in Brooklyn.

How good was Hall? As usual with mid-19th Century players, it’s hard to determine. He plays seven seasons but only appears in 365 games. That’s just over two modern seasons. It’s also a much different game; a game where a power hitter can win a home run title with five home runs. He is 28 when he is banned. In current baseball that’s just entering a player’s prime. In the 1870s he was already getting old. He seems to have been a good enough player, but not a true star. Because he threw games in 1877, we’ll never know how much better he might have been with a full career.

Hall's grave in Brooklyn

Hall’s grave in 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.

Harry Wright

March 5, 2010

Harry Wright

I have something in common with Joe Girardi. I’ve managed a baseball team. Ok so mine was a Little League team while his is the winner of the 2009 World Series, we’ve still both managed a baseball team. Together Girardi and I, along with any person who’s ever managed a baseball team at any level, owe a debt and a tip of the hat to Harry Wright. After all, he invented the modern job of baseball manager.

William Henry “Harry” Wright was born in 1835 in Sheffield, England and immigrated with his parents to the US in 1837 finding a home in New York. His father was a professional cricket player and Harry, along with younger brother George, played both cricket and baseball.

In 1866, following the American Civil War, Harry moved to Cincinnati, Ohio as a professional on the local cricket team. The next year he joined the local baseball club. In 1869 George Ellard, a Cincinnati businessman, organized a fully professional team, the Red Stockings, naming Wright as the manager at a salary of $1200.

I remember years ago I wondered why the field leader of most teams is called a coach, but baseball refers to its leader as a manager. Turns out Harry Wright helped define the role. He led the team in as an on field coach, but also served as what would today be called a “general manager”, a “traveling secretary”, scout, and even the clubhouse man. Wright did all those things and did them well. Over the years the general manager,  traveling secretary, and scout duties went to other people and the clubhouse got its own man, but the title stuck.

As a manager, Wright was very successful. He is supposed to have invented backing up a play, using a cutoff man, and playing positions based on the tendencies of the hitter. I’ve found no definitive contemporary information proving those things and I’m not sure that Wright can be credited with all (or any) of those innovations, but the modern mythology says he did. Somebody had to, why not Harry?

As a player Wright was the center fielder on his earliest teams, but by the formation of the first professional league in 1871 was beginning to concentrate on managing the team while other people manned the field. As late as 1877 he appeared in one game as an outfielder, but he was by now the manager. He took over the Boston Red Stockings at the formation of the National Association in 1871 and led the team to a disputed second place finish in 1871 and four consecutive pennants from 1872 through 1875.

With the folding of the Association after the 1875 season, Wright’s Red Stockings, renamed the Red Caps, joined the newly established (1876) National League, finishing fourth in an eight team league. In 1877 the Caps gave Wright his first National League pennant winning a six team league by seven games. They repeated in 1878, winning by four games. It was Wright’s last pennant. He remained in Boston through 1881 finishing second in 1879, sixth in 1880, and sixth again in 1881. In 1882 he moved on to Providence where he stayed two years finishing second and third. In 1884 he took his expertise to Philadelphia remaining there for the rest of his managerial career, which lasted to 1893. He finished fourth in 1893. His health broke down and he retired before the onslaught of offense that peaked in Philadelphia the next season. He died in 1895 in Atlantic City. In 1953 the Hall of Fame finally got around to recognizing him by enshrining him, 16 years after his brother George made the Hall (There was a third brother, Samuel, who got into 45 games in the big leagues without much success).

Wright deserves to be remembered as the first of a breed, the manager. Yes, there were other men who did the job before him, but he became the first truly successful manager. As a not overly successful Little League manager I owe him a debt, as does Joe Girardi, and Sparky Anderson, and Tommy LaSorda, and…