Posts Tagged ‘Cincinnati Red Stockings’

“The Father of Professional Baseball”

April 24, 2013
Aaron B. Champion

Aaron B. Champion

There are a bunch of debates over who is the father of baseball. Most of you know the Abner Doubleday myth. Some of you know about Henry Chadwick and his efforts; others know of Alexander Cartwright, Duncan Curry and the rest of the Knickerbockers. You might decide you pick one over the other and I wouldn’t argue with you about which you picked (except maybe Doubleday). But the creation of a solely, openly acknowledged professional team goes back to a specific man, Aaron B. Champion of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Aaron B. Champion was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1842. His family was wealthy enough for him to attend Antioch College from 1856 to 1860. He studied law (law schools were a thing of the future in 1860s Ohio) being admitted to the bar in 1864. He moved to Cincinnati and opened a law office. He was immediately successful. he also was interested in baseball. He joined the ownership of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, becoming second president of the club. the Red Stockings were good, but shared city prominence with the Buckeyes. Champion, looking to build a winner, hit upon an idea that would revolutionize the game. He hired 10 men and paid them to play baseball.

Let’s stop a second and go over a couple of things. Champion did not invent professional baseball, so to call him “the father of professional baseball”, as one article I read did(it’s where I got the title for this little commentary), is technically incorrect. Ballplayers were being paid at least as far back as Jim Creighton in 1860 and probably prior to that. There were generally two ways of doing this. One was to pay the guy under the table and hope no one found out (Lip Pike was paid this way in the late 1860s). The other was for some company to hire a guy, pay him a salary for a particular job, then make sure he spent most of his time working for the local ball team (Harry Wright made money this way). What Champion did was to jettison the under the table aspect of salaries, dump the fiction that the town’s star player was really just a clerk at the bank, and openly pay the entire team. It made for a fully, and acknowledged, professional team. His reasoning seems to have been that if you openly paid players, you could get the very best to come play for you because you could offer top dollar.

It worked. With Champion as owner and Harry Wright taking care of the baseball duties (managing, making hotel arrangements, etc), the team flourished. With George Wright the highest paid player ($1400) and utility sub Dick Hurley the lowest paid ($600), the team proceeded to run off the only undefeated season in professional baseball history. They began playing local and regional teams, went East later in the season, and dominated the best teams in New York, Philadelphia, and the other Eastern cities. Finally they moved West to take on the best teams in California. They were 57-0 when their season ended. Their undefeated streak finally came to an end at 81 games.

Things went south in 1871. Two cliques developed on the Red Stockings, causing the team to split. The Wrights, Cal McVey, and first baseman Charlie Gould left for Boston. The others joined the Washington Olympics in the fledgling National Association of Base Ball Players.

Champion, seeing the team falling apart, and noting declining revenues, resigned as chairman and went back to his law firm. He dabbled in politics, serving as a delegate to the 1876 Democratic Convention. It nominated Samuel Tilden, who lost one of the more famous  American Presidential elections (try finding info on “The Compromise of 1876” or sometimes it’s dated 1877). Champion became a leading Cincinnati “booster” and died in 1895 while on a visit to Great Britain. He was buried in London.

Andy Leonard

April 17, 2013
Andy Leonard

Andy Leonard

One of the best overlooked players of the mid-19th Century in Andy Leonard. He starred prior to 1869, he starred for the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 and 1870. He was a major player in the National Association. By the time the National League arrived, he was on the wane. Here’s a look at this interesting player.

Andrew Jackson Leonard was born in Ireland in 1846, his parents immigrating to Newark, New Jersey  shortly afterward. This begs the question is he named for the United States President Andrew Jackson? If so, is this an indication that his parents were contemplating leaving Ireland and named their son after Old Hickory?  It makes a good story, but I don’t know if it’s true.

Leonard was a prodigy on the diamond. By 1864 he was playing for Newburgh in New York. He played several infield positions, but his arm made him a natural in the outfield. Although an amateur, he was gaining national attention. In 1868 he was one of two players coaxed west to play for the Cincinnati Buckeyes, a local team. It’s unknown if he was paid to move or if he was offered a job that would pay him while he played ball. That was fairly common in the era and helped maintain the illusion of amateurism in the sport. Today, we call those guys “ringers”.

By 1869, the other Cincinnati team, the Red Stockings, were creating the first avowedly professional team. Manager Harry Wright approached Leonard offering him the left field job for $800. He took the offer and became one of the better players on the team. One source indicates that he was the third best player on the team (behind George Wright and Cal McVey). The Red Stockings were dominant in 1869 and 1870 and Leonard was part of the reason.

With the forming of the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1871, Leonard moved to the Washington Olympics. The Olympics were the premier team in Washington so Leonard was joining an established team. They finished 15-15 with Leonard being their best player. In 1872 Leonard jumped to the new team in Boston, also called the Red Stockings (no idea if he brought his old Cincinnati socks with him or not). There he rejoined Harry and George Wright along with Cal McVey of the old Cincinnati team. They rolled to a pennant with Leonard hitting .349. One great statistical oddity shows up in Leonard’s 1872 campaign. He didn’t walk one time in 46 games, making his OBP also .349 (don’t see that often).

Leonard remained with Boston through the remaining life of the National Association (1873-5), putting up quality numbers and helping them to four consecutive pennants. For his Association career his triple slash numbers are .320/.324/,397/,721 (OPS+ 122). Over 286 games he had 456 hits for 60 doubles, 20 triples, and three home runs, amassing 565 total bases. He scored 326 runs, had 256 RBIs, and 74 stolen bases (28 caught stealing). He struck out 11 times and walked nine (about two strike outs per season and less than two walks a year).

With the death of the Association, Leonard and Boston joined the newly formed National League in 1876. He was already 30 and was slipping. He never hit .300 in the NL, but helped Boston to consecutive pennants in 1877 and 1878.  He retired at the end of the 1878 season claiming his eyesight was weakening and he was having trouble seeing the ball, especially in the field. He played one season at minor league Rochester, then tried to get back to the Majors in 1880. He played 33 games in Cincinnati, wasn’t very good, and was released. He worked for Wright and Ditson, a sporting goods company formed by his old teammate George Wright and died in Boston in 1903.

Leonard is given credit as the first Irish born professional. He did play in the first National Association game and repeated the feat in 1876 when he played in the first ever National League game.

The Little Brother

April 16, 2013
The 1869 Red Stockings, George Wright at top center

The 1869 Red Stockings, George Wright at top center

I’m an oldest child so that means I have my own particular problems. But I know several people who are youngest children. Each of them has in common the desire to keep up with their elder siblings, sometimes to absurdity. If you look at George Wright’s career, you wonder sometimes if it wasn’t all an attempt to show up his older brother, Harry.

George Wright, unlike older brother Harry, was born in the United States. He was born in New York in 1847, 12 years after Harry. Dad was a cricketer (as was Harry), but George took to the more American game of Base Ball. He was good. By age 15 he was playing with the Gothams, one of the earliest New York teams. At 18 he was their regular catcher. He moved to shortstop the next season and began a migratory period in his career. He played in Washington, D.C. where the local team, in lieu of paying him outright, managed to find him a job in the Treasury Department. He played for the Gothams again. Back in New York he played for the Unions.

By 1869 he was established as one of the finest shortstops in baseball. Older brother Harry had moved to Cincinnati and was in the process of putting together the first acknowledged all-professional team. He called on George to come west and anchor the infield. George Wright did so, becoming the star of the team. For a salary of $1400 the Red Stockings got a .633 batting average and 49 home runs over 57 total games (all victories). I looked all over but could find no other stats for George Wright for the 1869 season.

The Red Stockings folded after the 1870 season, but professional baseball was moving toward forming an all professional league. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players opened its first campaign. Wright (along with bother Harry) moved to the Boston team, also called the Red Stockings. In 16 games, Wright hit .413, stole nine bases, scored 33 runs, and struck out once. Boston finished a disputed second.

From 1872 through the remainder of the life of the Association (1875) Boston dominated the league. Wright was one of the mainstays of the team. He led the league in triples once and, as the lead off hitter, led the league in at bats twice. Other players proved more dominant with the bat, but Wright was considered the premier shortstop in the National Association. If you look at his numbers they don’t look all that great today, but are very good for the era. He is supposed to have invented playing deep in the hole at short and charging the ball. A number of other players are also supposed to have done this, so I have no idea who really did it first.

With the end of the Association, Wright set up shop with the Boston team in the new National League. He was 29, and never did as well in the NL as in the Association. He helped his team to pennants in 1877 and 1878, then was offered the job as player-manager of the Providence Grays in 1879. He led the team to its first pennant. It was also his last big year. 

By this point, Wright was moving into the sporting goods business fulltime. He played sparingly (and did not manage at all) in 1880 and 1881, preferring to work at his business, Wright and Ditson. Ditson was Henry Ditson and the company is still around. In 1882, Harry Wright became manager at Providence and asked George to play fulltime one last season. He did so, getting into 46 games and hitting a buck-62. He retired after the season and was through with playing baseball.

But unlike a number of former ball players who have no idea what to do with themselves when their career is over, George Wright flourished in retirement. Wright and Ditson was successful, he played cricket locally and he got into golf and tennis. He designed Boston’s first public golf course in 1890. He donated the land for the second (which became the George Wright course, in his honor). His sons won both doubles championships and one US Championship (now the US Open) in tennis, with Beals winning an Olympic gold medal. In 1906 he was part of the Mills Commission that determined baseball began in Cooperstown with Abner Doubleday. Apparently Wright’s role on the committee was minimal and I’ve been unable to determine if he agreed with the commission findings. In 1937 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and died, a wealthy man, later the same year. He was 90 and outlived Harry by 42 years.

George Wright's grave in Brookline, Mass

George Wright’s grave in Brookline, Mass

For his career (National Association and National League) Wright hit .301, had an OBP of .318, slugged .398, and ended with an OPS of .715 (OPS+ of 125). He led the Association in triples once, but has the Association record with 40 triples. He played 591 games, had 866 hits, 124 doubles, 60 triples, and 11 home runs for 1143 total bases. He scored 665 runs and knocked in 326. He stole 47 bases in the Association (his National League totals are unavailable). As a fielder he leads his league in assists, double plays, putouts, and fielding percentage several times, giving proof to his reputation as a great middle infielder.

One of the things you always ask yourself about 19th Century players is “how good were they?”. With George Wright you face the same problems you always face: few games, wretched fields, poor equipment. Unlike the other brother combination (the Waners), I think it’s fair to put both Wright’s in the Hall of Fame. George deserves it as a pioneer (which is technically why he got in). He’s also a pretty good player, one of the better fielding middle infielders in early baseball.

A Great Year for a Dead Guy

January 3, 2011

Bid McPhee

Back several years ago, my son and I were rummaging through a baseball almanac looking at various stats. You’ve seen these. At the back of the book is a long list of stats by career, season, playoffs, etc. Usually they pick a cutoff number and list everybody with that specific stat above the cutoff. In looking over the triples list we ran across the name “Bid McPhee.” Neither of us had ever heard of him, so we did a little bit of  searching and found out a minimal amount of info. Then the Veteran’s Committee announced it’s pre-1919 list of winners and there was McPhee, enshrined in Cooperstown in 2000. So we got out the newest version of the almanac and looked him up again. Strange, but he seemed to have gained about 20 triples. We went back and looked at the old one, and sure as taxes he had gained 20 triples (We chalk that up to SABR research). So in one year McPhee gained 20 triples and a ticket to Cooperstown. That led my son to comment, “He had a great year for a dead guy.”

Born in 1859 in New York, John McPhee moved with his family to Illinois immediately after the American Civil War. He played baseball for the local town team, was signed by a nearby minor league team and remained in the minors to 1880, when he left baseball for a job as a bookkeeper. He was a short man and was refered to as “Little Biddy.” The name stuck as “Bid”.  Apparently you could make more money keeping books than playing baseball, and McPhee decided he needed the money. By 1881 he was back in Akron, Ohio playing baseball for the town team. He caught the eye of the fledgling Cincinnati team of the newly formed American Association. He was signed in 1882 as a second baseman (seemingly for more than the bookkeeping job). Cincinnati won the inaugural Association pennant with McPhee hitting all of .228 with 43 runs and 31 RBIs. He was, however, first in putouts and fielding percentage, third in assists and range among Association second sackers. He would remain an excellent bare handed second baseman for all his career, until age began to show. His hitting steadily improved and he eventually led the Association in both triples (1887) and home runs (1886) one time each.

McPhee spent his entire career with Cincinnati, moving with the team to the National League as the Association began collapsing in 1890. He remained a solid second baseman, and with the advent of the 60’6″ mound, he finally hit over .300. In fact, if you didn’t know about the change in the pitching distance, you’d swear he got a lot better as he got into his mid and late 30s. Another major change occurred for him in 1896. He broke a finger and began using a glove. His fielding percentage took off and he set an all-time high percentage for second basemen (.978) that lasted until 1925.  By 1899 he was 39 and through. He managed the Reds in 1901 and 1902 without much success, then became a scout, holding the position through the 1909 season. He retired to California and died in 1943. The call from Cooperstown came in 2000. He is one of only two Hall of Fame members, Johnny Bench is the other, who played their entire career in Cincinnati. In 2002 he joined the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.

For his career McPhee hit .272 with a .355 on base percentage, slugged .373, had an OPS of .728 (OPS+ of 106). He had 2258 hits, comprising 3098 total bases with 303 doubles, 189 triples, 53 home runs, and 1072 RBIs. He scored 1684 runs and stole 568 bases. The stolen base total is both incomplete and includes bases stolen prior to the modern rule being adopted in 1898. His fielding percentage was ..944, which is great for the 1880s and 1890s, he had 6552 putouts and 6919 assists.

As with most players of the era, there is some difference in the statistics of McPhee. The stats listed above are from Baseball Reference.com and differ from Nemec’s numbers in his 19th Century baseball almanac. Either way, McPhee shows up as an excellent player. When starting this look at McPhee, I went took a cursory look at the other second basemen of the 19th Century. I’ve concluded that, along with catcher, second base has to be the weakest position overall in the century. It’s tough to find a really outstanding player whose numbers reach out and grab you. I like Bobby Lowe and Nap LaJoie, but to me LaJoie is a 20th Century player and Lowe, although very good, isn’t truly outstanding. You could make a case for McPhee as the best 19th Century second baseman. Not sure I would, but he’d certainly be in the mix. But you gotta give him some credit for picking up those 20 triples 57 years after he died.

“Start”ing at First

December 13, 2010

Joe Start

A few years back my son suggested I sit down and began trying to find out who were the best players in the old National Association (1871-5). Most of the guys I came up with were the usual suspects: Cap Anson, Al Spaulding, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, etc. But the more I looked the more I kept coming back to an obscure player neither my son nor I had ever heard of in all our baseball reading, Joe Start. He turned out to be a heck of a player.

Start was born in New York in 1842. He was a good enough teenage player that he drew the attention of the Brooklyn Enterprise Club in 1860 and in 1861 joined the  Brooklyn Atlantics, one of the major amateur teams of the era. He played first base for them all the way into 1871, including during the American Civil War. Remember, that the initial couple of years of the Civil War, volunteers comprised the Union Army. The draft began only in 1863, leading to riots in New York, among other places. As he was playing in 1862, he obviously didn’t volunteer. He was still with the Atlantics, helping them to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, so he also missed the draft (I don’t mean to imply he “dodged” it.).  In an 18 game season in 1864, Start clubbed 11 home runs and led the team. On 6 September 1869, he had one of the great days in amateur baseball. He is credited with hitting four home runs, notching seven hits, and 21 total bases in a game against the Eckfords (also a Brooklyn club). Between 1861 and 1869, Start helped lead the Atlantics to five championships (1861, 1864-6, and 1869). In the famous 1870 game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Start knocked in the first run in the 11th inning and scored the game tying run. The Atlantics won, upending the previously undefeated Red Stockings (For a good overview of this famous game, see DMB Historic World Series Reply’s 29 November post. You can find the link to the site on the blogroll at right.).

With the formation of the National Association in 1871, Start jumped to the Mutual of New York, where he played for entire life of the Association. He hit .295 with an OPS of .665, 475 total bases, and an OPS+ of 110. He had 187 RBIs and 262 runs in 272 games. The Mutuals finished as high as second (1874). While with the Mutuals, one source credits Start with originating the practice of playing off the bag at first to cover more ground. There are a number of other sources that credit a number of other players with inventing this, now common, practice. Frankly, I don’t know who started it.

In 1876 the National League replaced the Association and Start moved with his team to the new league. In 1877 he went to Hartford, then to Chicago in 1878. In 1879 he settled in at Providence where he stayed through 1885. While at Providence, he helped lead the Grays to National League pennants in 1879 and again in 1884. In September of the latter year, he hit his only home run of the season, a three run shot that clinched the pennant for Providence. The year 1884 saw the first “World Series” played between Providence and the American Association team in New York. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games. Start didn’t do well, managing one hit and one RBI in ten at bats. In 1886 he played his last season for Washington at age 43. He hit a miserable .221 with 17 RBIs in only 31 games. For his NL career he hit .300 with a .700 OPS (125 OPS+), 1031 hits, 590 runs, 257 RBIs, and 1269 total bases in 798 games, all but one at first base (plus a couple of pinch-hitting performances).  In all he played from 1860 through 1886 inclusive, a total of 27 years. I’m not sure that a record for the 19th Century, but it has to be close.

After his retirement, he moved to Warwick, Rhode Island where he ran a hotel. He died in March 1927 at age 84. He’s buried in Providence.

It’s difficult to evaluate Start, as it is all the players of the era. To begin with, he’s 29 when the National Association begins play. His best years, which must have been pretty good if you believe the handful of reports available, were behind him. And that’s the crux of the problem. His best years are behind him and the record of those seasons is spotty. He’s a good enough player in both the Association and the NL, but not spectacular. Maybe he was spectacular in the 1860s, but we simply don’t know enough to make an informed statement. All we can honestly state is that he was a good enough player to hang around 27 years. That alone means he was pretty good.

The Original Ace

October 30, 2010

Asa Brainard

We all know how to define an ace in baseball terms. It’s the top pitcher on the team. Ever wonder where the term originated?

Asel Brainard was born in Albany, New York in 1839. His name was shortened to Asa, pronounced Ace-a (You already see where this is going, right?) as a child. He joined the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860 as their second baseman. In 1862 he moved to the pitcher’s box (no mound yet, team) and became the top pitcher for one of the best barnstorming teams of the era. With the coming of the Civil War, baseball suffered  with players joining the army (one member of the Excelsiors even went South). Brainard wasn’t one of them. He continued to pitch for a much weakened team, and by 1867 had moved to Washington to play for the Nationals, another of the great barnstorming teams of the era and obviously not the modern team currently playing in DC.

In 1868, Harry Wright convinced him to move to Cincinnati where he became the pitcher for the Red Stockings.  The next season the Red Stockings became the first openly acknowledged all professional team in baseball. They were also very good. The team went 57-0 for the season, Brainard doing the bulk of the pitching. He appeared in 55 games, but didn’t pitch in every one of them, so his record is a little hard to pin down. Whatever it was, he was obviously undefeated. The next year the team went 66-7-1 and disbanded following the season. The success of the team helped lead to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Brainard was in demand for the new league.

He signed with the Washington Olympics, but his great years were behind him. He was 32 and a heavy drinker. He was also something of a “ladies man” having a series of “flings” that made the papers. He had married in 1869, but abandoned the family shortly afterwards (the exact date seems to be unknown), so on top of the drinking, he was gaining something of an unsavory reputation among both players and fans. He could get away with it as long as he pitched well, but by 1871 he was slipping badly. He was 12-15 with more walks than strikeouts in 1871, 2-9 in 1872, 5-7 in 1873, and 5-22 in 1874. Each year he walked more than he struck out and had more hits than innings pitched. (All stats from ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, 2006). With those numbers there was no 1875 season for Brainard. He did a little umpiring that season, but didn’t catch on as a fulltime umpire (apparently he couldn’t be trusted to be sober on game day).

Out of baseball, Brainard ran a cigar store for a while, then a pool hall. He also got married for a second time. This time it was a banker’s daughter. He moved to Denver to run the Markham Hotel billiard room. Next next year he caught pneumonia and died 29 December 1888. He is buried in Brooklyn.

All sources agree that the abbreviation of Asa to Ace is the origin of our use of the word to describe a baseball team’s first line pitcher. I listened to the announcers call game one of the World Series. They used the term “Ace” to describe both pitchers a number of times. In doing so, they made a, probably unknowing, tip of the cap to Asa Brainard.

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…