Posts Tagged ‘Harry Wright’

The All-Star Series

December 18, 2018

The first “All Star” Game

Baseball is odd. Among all the major team sports, it plays its games in a series. Football, soccer, hockey, basketball, play a game, take a break, play another (there are occasional exceptions), but baseball plays a handful of games (sometimes two or four, but usually three) together, then the teams move on to another venue and another set of, usually, three games.

It wasn’t always that way. At its inception, baseball, like the other sports, tended to play single games. One team would play a game against a second team, then move on to play, generally several days later, a game against a third team. But the modern system of “series baseball” took over and you always never see a game in isolation (except for a rainout) anymore. That began to change in 1858.

In 1858 the cities of New York and Brooklyn were separate (and would remain so until 1890). At that point, the best teams tended to cluster in either of the two towns. There were individual teams like the Athletic in Philadelphia or the Niagara in Buffalo, but no one had a group of top level teams except New York and Brooklyn. In New York there were the Mutual, the Gothams, the Knickerbockers. Brooklyn had the Excelsiors, the Eckford, the Atlantic. At some point someone was going to come up with the idea of city teams comprising the best players of each team, joining together to play the best players of another city (sort of an All-Star Game). That finally happened in 1858. But it wasn’t to be a single game, but was to be a series of games to determine which town, New York or Brooklyn had the better players.

Unlike a modern series, the 1858 all-star series was played over three months, one game in July, the second in August, and the final game in September. And unlike the current All Star Game, there were a series of games. So this initial “series” or initial “All Star Game” was a hybrid. To be fair to both sides, the games were held at the Fashion Place Racetrack (a horse racing track) in Queens.

The names today are mostly forgotten. Harry Wright played center field for New York in the initial game. Theodore Van Cott, unknown today, was the Gothams ace. Joe Leggett of the Excelsiors was the catcher for Brooklyn. He later became famous as Jim Creighton’s catcher. Dickie Pearce and Folkert Boerum of the Atlantic also played. Some historians credit Pearce with inventing the modern positioning of the shortstop and Boerum with working toward the invention of catcher’s equipment (neither can be entirely verified.

The games were high scoring affairs in comparison to modern baseball. New York won the first game 22-18 (lots of touchdowns, lots of missed kicks) with Van Cott leading the team with four runs scored and making only two outs (Harry Wright led the team with five outs). Excelsior second baseman, John Holder, had the game’s only home run. In game two the Brooklyn team returned the favor outscoring New York 29-8.

That made the September game the deciding game of the series. Daniel “Doc” Adams, Knickerbockers shortstop, umpired the game (remember, umpires in 1858 didn’t do all the same things they do now so an umpire with a rooting interest wasn’t as big a problem as it would be now). Joe Gelston, Eagles shortstop, led off New York’s part of the game with a home run and the team went on to pile up seven runs in the first. Union outfielder Joseph Pinckney hit another homer for New York later in the game, and the New York team ran up a 29-18 score to take game three and the championship two games to one.

The series would not be repeated. As the 1860s began, the Brooklyn clubs, particularly the Atlantic, began to dominate the baseball scene and not many New York teams wanted to face a Brooklyn all-star team that was composed mostly of players from the Atlantic. But it provides us with a look at a long ago series of games that would become more common and ushered in the idea of an all-star team.


My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1902

April 1, 2014

Another month, another look at My Own Little Hall of Fame. It’s time for the class of 1902. For those of you who’ve forgotten (or don’t know how to scroll down the page), the class of 1901 was: Ross Barnes, John Clarkson, William Hulbert, Tim Keefe, and George Wright. With all appropriate bells and whistles, here’s the class of 1902.

Dan Brouthers

Dan Brouthers

Dan Brouthers was arguably the finest hitter of the 19th Century. He had a career average of .342 with 2292 hits, 771 for extra bases. He led the National League in hits three times, in doubles twice, and in both triples and home runs once each. He led his league in total bases four times. In 1887 he helped his Detroit team to both a pennant and a win over the American Association champion Browns in a postseason series. His team also won the 1890 Players’ League championship and the 1894 National League championship. From 1892 through 1894 he was the all time Major League leader in batting average.


King Kelly

King Kelly

Mike “King” Kelly was one of baseball’s first superstars. During his career he played every field position, including pitcher, where he posted a 2-2 record. Primarily known as a hitter he hit .308 for his career with 1813 hits and 1357 runs scored. He led his league three times in runs scored, once in doubles, and twice in average, peaking at .388 in 1886. He helped Chicago to pennants in 1880 through 1882 and again in 1885 and 1886, then won pennants again with the 1891 and 1892 Beaneaters. He also managed Boston in the Players’ League to the league’s only championship. He is additionally famous for having invented the hook slide for baserunners, racking up 84 stolen bases in 1887.


Charles Radbourne

Charles Radbourn

Charles “Ole Hoss” Radbourn was the ace pitcher for 1884 pennant winning Providence. Won 60 games for the team, then three more in postseason series against the Gothams. He led the National League in wins twice, in ERA once, in winning percentage twice, in strikeouts twice, and in shutouts once. Never threw from a mound, but was a master of the box. Except for a stint in the Players’ League he won all his game in the National League.


Al Spaulding

Al Spaulding

Albert Spaulding was the premier pitcher in the National Association, leading the Association in wins each year of its five year existence. He also led the National League in wins its opening season. He led his league in shutouts four times and his .795 winning percentage is the highest ever. His team won four consecutive pennants in the Association and the first NL pennant in 1876. After his career ended he managed and owned the Chicago National League club. His sporting goods company published the first official Base Ball rule book.

Harry Wright

Harry Wright

Harry Wright was the premier manager from the origins of professional baseball into the 1890s. He managed and played center field for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. With the founding of the National Association his teams won four consecutive pennants. In the National League he won pennants in 1877 and 1878 and finished second three more times.

And now some thoughts on this list.

1. Brouthers was the easiest choice. When I initially planned this project, I presumed my first class would be Anson, Brouthers, Connor, Ewing, and either Clarkson or Keefe. Then I discovered that none of the position players would have been eligible in 1901. So as soon as Brouthers became available, he went in without a qualm. I believe he is one of the two or three best hitters in the 19th Century.

2. I didn’t realize I was putting in three members of the Players’ League Boston team until I began to look up the specifics on my preliminary list. It’s a fluke that three people from that team are on this list. It did ease any questions I had about choosing Harry Wright over John Montgomery Ward. With Ward’s association with the union and the Players’ League, I decided to put him off for another day lest this list look like nothing more nor less than an homage to the Players’ League.

3. Having said that, I was fairly sure Wright was going to be my contributor. He’s the first great manager and is credited with a number of innovations (cut off men for instance). I couldn’t find anything like definitive proof that he’d done any of those things, so they were not listed in my short comment on him.

4. Spaulding? Well, he’s a major contributor, but I’d already put Wright in that spot (although by rule I’m allowed two). But Spaulding was also a heck of a pitcher in a league where his team dominated and the pitcher wasn’t the factor he is today. But he was still the best pitcher in the Association, so he went in.

5. I found a bunch of stuff dedicated to Kelly. I don’t mean modern sites, but articles and commentary of a contemporary nature that made me believe he was easily the most well-known player of his era. He was also good, so that got him over the hump. As to whether or not he invented the hook slide, he certainly was getting credit for it in the era.

6. Which leaves Radbourn (whose name is spelled a couple of different ways). What  I could find (like Reach Guides, etc.) that actually gave him a number in 1884 gave him 60 wins. I know that number is no longer accepted, but it seems that when a number was given in 1902 it was 60. So I used it. I’ll remind you that there are plaques currently in Cooperstown that have erroneous info on them (for instance, Walter Johnson’s win total).

7. All of which brings me to two items that are unique to the era and to trying to do my Hall this way. First is the entire question of Monte Ward. The year 1902 was a year in which labor unions were looked upon with utter disdain. That means the idea of adding to a Hall of Fame a rabble rousing union organizer is about as absurd as adding a black man. But we all know Ward is terrifically important. If I’m to keep with the policy of putting in people who might reasonably get into a Hall of Fame in 1902, Ward can’t make it (and can’t get in until sometime in the 1930s, probably). The 1903 class is pretty much set in stone (Heck of a class), but 1904 is the next time I have to look at Ward and as much as I think he deserves to be remembered, I doubt he’ll get in. The other issue is what to do with Billy Sunday. A friend of mine dropped me an email asking if I’d considered Sunday as a contributor. Frankly, I hadn’t. But Sunday was one of the most well-known ball players of the era. He was instrumental in convincing people that a ballpark was a proper place to take your wife and children (although Mathewson was probably more important in this regard) for an afternoon’s entertainment. Is that enough to put him in? I still don’t think so, but it did remind me how differently people in 1902 looked at ball players and baseball than we look at them today.

“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.

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.

An Ugly Story

June 4, 2012

John Clarkson in the 1880s

Sport is about heroes, not tragedy. At least that’s the way most of us want it. Unfortunately, this is not a pretty tale. It’s an awful ending to the life of a great ballplayer. You watch a man play, you read about his life, you root for him, but you want everything to end well. In the case of John Clarkson, it doesn’t.

John Clarkson was born in July 1861 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up with two advantages. First, his father was a watchmaker and jeweller who made decent money for the era. Second, the father had a co-worker named Harry Wright (yep, that Harry Wright). There’s no direct evidence about the matter, but it’s likely that Wright made at least a small impression on Clarkson when it came to baseball. Whether Wright did or didn’t influence the kid, Clarkson played for his local high school team (both catcher and pitcher), then joined the family business while attending a local trade school. There’s a common rumor that Clarkson attended Harvard. Although the family lived in Cambridge and both brothers attended the university, John Clarkson didn’t.

He did play amateur baseball and played it well. In 1882 he pitched well enough against the Worcester Ruby Legs of the National League that the team offered him a contract. Don’t you just love both the nickname and the idea that Worcester, Massachusetts could have a Major League team in 1882? It shows you just how much Major League Baseball was in its infancy in the 1880s.

Now a professional, Clarkson was another of those players who wasn’t an instant success. He went 1-2 with an ERA of 4.50, but did hit .364 with two doubles in three games. He was released early in the season complaining of a sore arm. The next season he played in the Northwestern League. He did well enough to make it back to the National League in 1884, this time with Chicago.

This is as good a point as any to discuss the pitching changes that were to dominate Clarkson’s career. He began his career pitching at 45 feet and throwing underhand. The rules were changed to move him back to 50 feet and allow him to throw sidearm. Then came the change to throwing overhand. Finally the powers that be moved the pitcher back to 60′ 6″ and put in a mound. Clarkson pitched through all of those changes and did well until the final change. It’s something of a testament to his abilities that he managed to survive as many changes as he did before finally reaching a point where he was ineffective.

He did well enough in 1884, but his career took off in 1885. For the next five years he was utterly dominant. And for the following three seasons he was really good. He won 53 games in 1885 (second all time and  still the Cubs record), led the NL with 308 strikeouts (his career high) and 10 shutouts (also a career high).  Chicago finished first and participated in the postseason championship round against the winner of the American Association (St. Louis). He started two games, one ended in a tie and he lost the other. The Colts (now the Cubs) repeated in 1886 and Clarkson was 36-17, but this time Chicago won the postseason clash with Clarkson picking up two wins. He again led the NL in wins and strikeouts in 1887.

The next year was a watershed for Clarkson. Not only did he win 33 games in 1888,  but he changed teams. Dissatisfied with Chicago and an early member of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union in the US, he jumped to Boston (now Atlanta) for the enormous sum (for the era) of $25,000 for three years and $10,000 up front. Boston finished fourth. Clarkson stayed with the team through 1891, meaning that although a member of the Brotherhood, he didn’t jump to the Player’s League in 1890. It cost him friends and worsened an already developing drinking problem.

He had one last great season with Boston. In 1889 Clarkson won 49 games and lost 19. He led the NL in wins, ERA (2.73), winning percentage, shutouts (8), walks (203), and had 284 strikeouts to give him the pitching Triple Crown. His modern numbers show a WHIP of 1.277 and an ERA+ of 150. Both also led the National League.  

In 1892 he was traded to Cleveland where he joined a new pitcher named Cy Young as the mainstays of the Spiders. It was the year of the split season and Cleveland won a part of the pennant. They faced Boston, Clarkson’s old team, in the postseason and lost. Clarkson pitched in two games, losing both.

In 1893 came the move to a mound for the pitcher. Clarkson didn’t adjust well. His record was mediocre (16-17) and his ERA soared to 4.45. His previous high in a season in which he pitched more than three games was 3.27. He was even worse in 1894 and was traded to Baltimore. He refused to report and was through at age 32.

So what have we got at this point? Clarkson retired with 328 wins (an NL record at the time), 178 losses (.648 winning percentage), 1978 strikeouts, 1191 walks, a 2.81 ERA (ERA+133), 4295 hits, and 1417 earned runs in 4536 innings pitched. Most people ignore his hitting, but he was also a very good hitter for a pitcher (you knew that caveat was coming, didn’t you?). He hit .219 but had 24 home runs (a record at the time), 232 RBIs, and never struck out 20 times in a season. He also played 27 games in the outfield (and a handful at both first and third) and was an adequate fielder.

So far not too bad, right? But now comes the ugly stuff. He ran a minor league club, opened a cigar store (actually a chain of them) and was moderately successful. In 1905 his mind snapped. Something was wrong and the sources can’t seem to agree on exactly what went wrong. Some say he suffered paranoia, others depression, others come up with different theories. Whatever it was there is universal agreement that Clarkson was a heavy drinker and this added to his problems and to his instability. One story indicates he killed his wife; however, she survived him by several years so this tale can be discounted. Other versions of the story say he stabbed her but there is no record of an arrest nor any statement from her saying it occurred. Whatever happened, Clarkson was institutionalized. He spent much of the rest of his life in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts with occasional home visits allowed. By the end he was getting longer visits home, often lasting weeks, so apparently things were improving at least a little. In January 1909 he developed pneumonia and died in February. He is buried in Massachusetts in the same cemetery as longtime rival Tim Keefe. In 1963 the Hall of Fame enshrined Clarkson at Cooperstown.

I hate finding out things like this. You want your heroes to not only shine while playing, but also to have happy endings. Clarkson had a terrible end (except for the Hall of Fame, which he never knew about) and that’s a great shame. I prefer to dwell on the baseball hero, not the mental patient. Unfortunately, both are part of his legacy.

The Association’s Ace

December 15, 2011

Albert G. Spalding as a Red Stocking

Way back when the 20th Century ended, the SABR people got together and picked the most significant contributors to Baseball in the 19th Century. Henry Chadwick won, there was a tie between Harry Wright and Albert G. Spalding for second. I’m not sure I’d place Chadwick above Wright and Spalding, but it’s a matter of taste. There’s certainly no argument that Spalding was a major contributor to the origins of Major League Baseball. He owned the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs), promoted a 19th Century around-the-world tour to tout baseball, founded a major sporting goods company that bore his name, was instrumental in forming and promoting the Abner Doubleday myth (OK, so not everything he did was positive), led the attack that crushed the Brotherhood union (see what I mean about not everything being positive), and finally made the Hall of Fame. But that’s not what I want to dwell on. Spalding was also a heck of a ball player.

Spalding was an early amateur and later professional who caught the eye of Harry Wright. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed and Wright took over as manager of the Boston team. He convinced Spaulding to come on board as the team’s pitcher. It was a great choice, because Spalding became the premier pitcher in the Association and dominated the league in a way that no other pitcher has ever duplicated.

In the five years the Association existed, Spalding pitched in 282 games, starting 264. His record? How about 204-53 for a winning percentage of .794? Now this was an era when there was only one pitcher and he threw from 45 feet away, but those are still astounding numbers. In the five years of the Association Spaulding won, in order, 19, 38, 41, 52, and 54 games. He lost, again in order, 10, 8, 14, 16, and 5. Read that last pair closely. In 1875, Spaulding went 54-5 (.915 winning percentage). There are some caveats here. His team, the Red Stockings, were a lot better than their competitors and the number of games played by the team increased every year. But part of the reason the team was a lot better than everyone else is because they had Spalding and no one else did. His ERA for the five seasons was 2.21 (ERA+ of 131). He struck out only 207 men in the five seasons, topping out at 75 in 1875. But the pitching rules were different then and there simply weren’t a lot of strikeouts.  He has one of my favorite set of numbers that, to me, help illustrate just how different 1870s baseball was from the modern game. For the life of the Association he gave up 1552 runs, only 577 earned (37%). That means a lot of guys were hitting the ball off him, and a lot of his teammates weren’t catching them. As a hitter he averaged .323 with an OPS of .721 (OPS+ of 121).

He pitched one complete season in the newly formed National League (1876). He went 47-12 for the White Stockings (Cubs), had an ERA of 1.75 (ERA+ of 140), completed 53 of 60 starts, plus one relief job (he didn’t get the save), had eight shutouts (which was tough in 1876), and the Cubs won the first NL pennant (wonder if the Cubs could use Spalding today?). The next season he appeared in four games, started one, won it, picked up a save, but spent most of the season as the first baseman. In 1878 he played one game at second base, became club secretary, then he took his money and bought the club and went on to glory (or infamy if you were a Brotherhood fan).

Spalding is  one of those guys that it’s difficult to like. He was cold, aristocratic, tough-minded, and in the minds of many of his players a tough SOB. But he was, despite all that, one great pitcher.

The First Stats Guru

January 28, 2011

For the next three posts, I’m going to step away from the men who play baseball and concentrate on those who do the same thing I do, write about it. Three of them have been hugely important in the history of the sport. One is honored in Cooperstown with a plaque, one is honored with an award named for him, and the other should be in Cooperstown too.

Henry Chadwick

To be a baseball fan is to be at least slightly enamoured of statistics. They permeate baseball from the sublime to the ridiculous. Want to know the fielding percentage of a left-handed, red-headed shortstop in 1892? I’ll bet someone has that stat. For both the good and bad of that, we owe Henry Chadwick.

Chadwick was, like his contemporary Harry Wright,  British. Chadwick was born in 1824 and moved to New York, along with his family, in 1836. He loved cricket and by 1850 he was working for the Long Island Star newspaper as their cricket reporter. Somewhere around this time he discovered baseball, fell in love with it, and began writing about it for his newspaper. By 1857 he was providing sports reporting for several New York newspapers. He covered the baseball scene in New York and Brooklyn and became known as an authoritative voice of the sport. By the civil War he was editing The Beadle Dime Baseball Player, published by Beadle and Company, the first baseball guide published for public sale. And before anybody asks, I don’t know if Beadle was related to Michelle Beadle of ESPN. Chadwick would, at various points edit both the Spaulding Guide and Reach Guide, the other two major baseball publications of the 19th Century. He died in 1908, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery under a headstone noting him as “Father of Base Ball” (which, considering his impact in spreading it may not be far from the truth), and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1938.

If what’s mentioned above is all Chadwick had done, he’d be important enough, but he became the great-grandfather of SABR. He began to fiddle with the info available and more or less invented modern baseball stats. He invented the box score, which he adopted from cricket. It was very different from the modern sheet. Here’s an 1876 example from Chadwick’s Wikipedia page:

Box Score, 1876

 Note it doesn’t show any pitching info and has more fielding info than is usual on modern box scores.

He’s also credited with inventing the batting average statistic, the earned run average statistic, being the first to use K to denote a strikeout (K being the last letter of “struck”). He also apparently began using a D for walks (D being the last letter of “walked”), but it didn’t catch on.

So far, Chadwick is the only writer actually in the Hall of Fame (the other writers are put in differently). I wish that wasn’t true (and will post my candidate later), but if you’re only going to have one, Chadwick certainly works. So do me a favor. The next time you get into a heated stat fight with someone, or use a stat to prove that one player is better than another, make sure you give a nod toward Brooklyn and Henry Chadwick. He deserves it.

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.