Posts Tagged ‘National Association’

A Review of Players and Teams of the National Association: 1871-1875

December 22, 2014
Players and Teams of the National Association

Players and Teams of the National Association

I haven’t done a book review in a while, so here’s a year-end review of one. You still have time to pick it up for the holidays.

Paul Batesel has written Players and Teams of the National Association: 1871-1875. The book is from 2012 and published my McFarland and Company of North Carolina. The book is composed of two sections. The first is a series of short (half page average length) biographies of the men who played in the first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Each biography concentrates on the baseball aspects of the man’s career, so these are not comprehensive bios of the earliest professionals, but baseball bios. Some are quite short, as there is little known about the man. Others are somewhat longer. In some cases there is a picture of the man, in other cases no picture is available.

The second part of the book is, to me, the more interesting. It’s a biography of each of the teams that played in the National Association. The list is alphabetical by team name and includes a brief history of the team, a short squib on the stadium, a list of managers, a description of the team uniform, and then a year-by-year synopsis of the team’s actions in the NA. There is, when available, a picture of at least one player in uniform so that you have a visual of the uniform as well as the description. For the stadia, there are contemporary pictures of the town. Sometimes you can pick out the field, other times the picture description tells you where in the picture the stadium was located. I found this to be one of the more interesting aspects of the book.

If you are interested in the National Association, the book is worth a look. It’s not stat heavy, but relies more on the bios of both players and team. It’s available from Amazon.com for $31.50 and is 228 pages long.

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The Grand Experiment

February 1, 2013
Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third ffrom left top row)

Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third from left top row)

It’s now black history month in the USA, so it’s time for my annual journey into black baseball. For this blog it’s a very successful month. I’ve noted a major uptick in hits during February. Most of the hits are on articles involving black baseball. I ascribe this to a bunch of school kids trying to find something to write about or present for black history month. So, I think I’ll oblige all those students who need the help. Don’t take it too badly, kids, you’ll survive even this.

When Moses Fleetwood Walker died in 1924, the Brooklyn Eagle commented that his one year in the Major Leagues in 1884 was a “Grand Experiment.” Walker was black and played a single year in the Majors. The 19th Century was a tough century for black ball players. They were allowed to play, they were excluded, they were cheered, they were vilified. It was, in other words, a fairly standard period of black Americans.

The close of the Civil War may have changed the nature of freedom in the US, but it didn’t do much for the acceptance of Black Americans in baseball. Many universities were open to integrating teams, some not so much. The newly emerging professional teams and leagues tended to follow current trends. Some teams were integrated, others segregated. Some leagues were integrated, others segregated. The first truly professional league (and quasi-major league), the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, had no black players in its 1871-75 existence. I can find no evidence it was official policy to segregate the league, but when players the quality of Bud Fowler aren’t playing in the league you have to wonder.

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

The National League replaced the National Association in 1876 and things improved (sorta). As early as 1879 a black player may have been on a Major League team. On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays first baseman, Joe Start, was unable to go. The team added a one-day replacement named Bill White to the team. White went one for four and scored a run. In 2003 SABR research noted that the Brown University baseball team had a player named William Edward White on its roster. White was of mixed race (which in 1879 American made him “black” regardless of his skin tone). They concluded that the two White’s were probably the same person, thus making White the first Black American (and only American born a slave) to play in the Majors. There is much speculation about this so don’t take it to the bank just yet.

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

By the mid-1880s black players like Frank Grant, a middle infielder who is in the Hall of Fame and pitcher George Stovey were excelling in minor leagues. Neither ever got a chance to play in the Majors. Fleet Walker did. He was a catcher for the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings when Toledo made the move from the Northwestern League (a minor league) to the American Association (a Major League) in 1884. Toledo finished eighth, Walker caused a great deal of controversy for not only the opposition but also within his own team. As a catcher he was supposed to be superior. If you line up his hitting stats with the other first string catchers in the 1884 American Association he ends up firmly in the middle of the pack. In 1885 Toledo, and Walker, along with his brother who played a handful of games with Toledo in 1884, were back in the minors. As a short aside, Hank O’Day, who was just elected to Cooperstown as an umpire, was a teammate of Walker’s.

After 1884 the National League (followed by the American League after its founding in 1901) became a segregated league. There was never an official written policy excluding Black Americans, but none ever showed up on either an NL or AL field during a game. Cap Anson of the Colts (now the Cubs) gets much of the blame for this. He was apparently an ardent racist and led a move to exclude blacks from the game. But it’s a little unfair to blame Anson for the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” (considering what was being agreed to the word “gentleman” certainly seems out-of-place here, doesn’t it?). It’s not like Anson was a bastion of reaction in a sea of tolerance. The mass of players, executives, owners, and fans had to acquiesce to Anson’s views or they could not have prevailed.

By 1890, segregation in both baseball and the United States in general was firmly in place. There were still a few places where a black ball player could join an integrated team, but the number of such places was dwindling. The black response was to form all black teams that would play either independently or in leagues of their own. Some of them did well, others poorly. This system was to remain in place in to the 1940s when it would be broken down gradually and a modern integrated Major Leagues would emerge.

The Original Big Mac

September 21, 2011

Cal McVey

Most fans know about the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. It’s claimed they were the first all professional team, which may or may not be true (the records are pretty scant on some of the teams of the era). They were a pretty typical team for the era. You had ten players and most guys were asked to play multiple positions. For the Red Stockings the most famous are Harry Wright (who played center and managed) and his brother George (who played shortstop and did some work at second). Both are in the Hall of Fame: Harry as a manager, George as a player. But easily the most versatile was Cal McVey, who was probably never really called “Big Mac”.

McVey was born in 1849 in Iowa. That alone makes him fairly unusual for the era. Most of the better players were from the East Coast (Cap Anson was another exception) but there was a growing contingent of Midwestern players that was making their mark in the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players. McVey, by now relocated to Indianapolis, was one of them. By 1868 he had spent time with both the Actives and the Westerns (local teams that were NABBP members) as a pitcher and a better than average hitter. He was 18 during the bulk of the 1868 season. He came to the attention of Harry Wright who watched him pitch in a losing effort to the current Cincinnati team (not the Red Stockings). When the Red Stockings were formed the next year, Wright brought him on as the right fielder at a salary of $500 to $700 dollars (the sources vary).

McVey was recognized immediately as one of the Stockings’ finest players. He fielded well for the day (no gloves yet), could pitch a little, and hit well enough to frequently take the cleanup spot. The Red Stockings went 65-0 and showed just exactly how good an all professional team could be. The next season they were 24-0 before they lost to the Atlantic (and Lip Pike, the subject of the post on 14 September). The streak broken, the team began losing fans (and five other games) and folded at the end of the 1870 season.

McVey joined the Wrights as the cornerstones of the new Boston franchise of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. They finished second in 1871 on a disputed claim about how many games were considered “championship contests” and thus counted for pennant purposes. McVey was terrific in the five years of the National Association, all but 1873 with Boston. In 1871 he led the league in hits (with 66), In 1874 he led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. In 1875 he had a career year leading the league in doubles, RBIs, total bases, slugging, and OPS. His OPS+ was 195. When the NA folded after the 1875 season, McVey held the record for RBIs with 277. During his tenure in the NA McVey played catcher, right field, and first base for most of his games, but saw time at second, third, short, and pitched three games (going 1-0). It was common for players to slide from position to position, but few could play three well. 

With the founding of the National League in 1876, McVey joined the team in Chicago (now the Cubs) and helped lead them to the first National League pennant. He hit .347 and was easily one of the ten best players in the league. He put together the first 30 game hit streak in the NL that season (1 June through 8 August) and set the record for hits (12) in consecutive games.  He stayed in Chicago in 1877, then moved to Cincinnati for his final two seasons. He retired after the 1879 season. He was thirty. The reserve rule was adopted after the ’79 season and speculation is that McVey wanted nothing to do with it and left the Majors.

McVey moved to California, did a lot of local baseball work in the San Francisco area (Pacific Coast League), both playing for and managing local Minor League clubs through the 1880s. The numbers here get pretty obscure, so it’s tough to tell how good he was in California. In other words, it’s difficult to assess how quickly his skills eroded. After retirement he worked as a night watchman at a lumber yard, which considering he how well wielded baseball “lumber” is kind of appropriate. He died in 1926.

Because of the way McVey’s career breaks out, he has three sets of numbers: his National Association numbers, his National League numbers, and his combined numbers. Because Major League Baseball does not consider the Association a Major League, McVey’s “official” numbers only include his NL stats. I’m going to give you all three here. McVey plays nine years (5 in the NA, four in the NL). He plays 530 games (265 in each league–bet that took some doing), had 869 hits (476 NA, 393 NL), 1123 total bases (635 NA, 488 NL), 133 doubles (81 NA, 52 NL), and 449 RBIs (277 NA, 172 NL). He hit .346 (.362 NA, .328 NL), slugged .447 (483 NA, 407 NL), with an OBP of 354 (366 NA, 340 NL) for an OPS of .800 (849 NA, 747 NL) and an OPS+ of 152 (162 NA, 141 NL). As a fielder he wasn’t  bad for the era. There are some better, but a lot are much worse. As a pitcher he made a heck of a hitter. He wents 9-12 (1-0 in the NA) with 16 walks and 37 strikeouts (1 of each in the NA),, and gave up 75 earned runs (6 in NA) in 176 innings (11 in the NA).

For my money, McVey is either the best or second best player on the Red Stockings. George Wright is his only competition. McVey is also younger by two years than Wright. In the Association they’re pretty much a wash, but by the time the NL is formed, McVey is much better.

Because he plays the same number of games in both leagues over approximately the same number of years (5 to 4) one can compare McVey in the two leagues. He’s clearly better in the Association than in the League. That may reflect his aging (although he’s only 30 when he retires) or it may reflect that the NL was a tougher league than the NA. It would take more time to research this than I’m willing to devote, so I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which is true and just how much better one league was than the other.

Is McVey a Hall of Famer? Well, there’s the little issue of the 10 year rule that keeps him out no matter what you think of his stats. And if you recall that MLB doesn’t recognize the Association as a Major League, then he only has four years in the Majors. But I also think that the Hall should consider waiving the ten-year rule in the case of players who spent significant time in the National Association and time in the pre-Association leagues. Other than that he still faces the two problems players of his era face: the number of games in a season and the nature of the rules differences between the era and the modern game. So I don’t think he’ll ever make it, but I would be willing to vote for him. Having said that, he wouldn’t be my first choice among 19th Century players for enshrinement in Cooperstown (Deacon White would be).

“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 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.

Why 1910 Matters

October 11, 2010

Since April I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time running all over the 1910 baseball season. Part of that is simply because it was 100 years ago and a centennial is worth remembering. It’s also because the season is interesting in itself. But primarily I’ve been focusing on the 1910 season because it is a watershed season for Major League Baseball. There are a lot of reasons why. Here are some in no particular order.

1. The appointment of Hal Chase as manager of the Highlanders (Yankees) is not, for managerial purposes, all that important. What is important is the ability of the owners and the National Commission (which ran baseball before Judge Landis) to look the other way when it came to gambling in the big leagues. Failure to crack down on this sort of activity meant that it was going to get worse and that eventually something like the Black Sox scandal was bound to occur. The players likely to participate in this kind of thing now had proof that not only were the powers that be not going to do anything about gambling,  but might actually reward a player if the situation was right. I don’t want to compare it directly with the steroid situation of the 1990s, but it does seem that Malamud was right, we really don’t learn from our mistakes (The book “The Natural”–not the movie–has this as one of its central themes.).

2. During the 19th Century the National Association, the Union Association, the American Association, and the Player’s League had all existed, as had the National League. By 1892 they were all gone. Only the American Association survived 10 seasons, and by the tenth was on life support. By contrast the American League, founded in 1901, was now ten years old and flourishing. The 1910 season marked a decade of success both as a business and on the field. Frankly, baseball had not had this kind of stability in its history. Ban Johnson had managed to create a new Major League and made it work. By 1910 there was no question the AL was here to stay and that the National League finally had a partner co-equal to it. 

3. The Athletics had created the first successful AL dynasty. From league founding in 1901 through 1910, four teams won all the AL pennants: Chicago (1901, 1906), Philadelphia (1902, 1905, 1910), Boston (1903-1904), and Detroit (1907-1909). None of the pre-1910 teams created a dynasty. OK, Detroit won three years in a row, but was defeated in all three World Series matchups, which is kinda hard to call a dynasty. Let’s be honest, dynasties work, especially if they happen to be your team. Baseball seems to do best in attendance and popularity when there is a dynasty. They give fans both a hero and a villain (depending on whether you like the team or not) and 3500 years of drama tell us that nothing  in entertainment sells like heroes and villains. On top of that, it was easy to like the A’s. Connie Mack was a nice enough human being (except when it came to paying his players–a common problem in the era). You hear very few negative comments about Eddie Collins, Frank Baker, or Stuffy McInnis. And in the case of  Chief Bender, he was a sympathetic figure to many fans because of all the racial riding he took (he was an American Indian). All those things went together to help boost attendance and cash.

4. The Cubs dynasty had come to an end. If one dynasty was born in 1910, another died. The “Tinker to Evers to Chance” Cubs had their last fling in 1910. Between 1906 and 1910 the Cubs dominated the NL. They won four of five pennants (losing in 1909 to Pittsburgh) and two World Series’ (1907-8). But 1910 was the end. In the Cubs Postmortem post I detailed what went wrong, so I don’t intend to do it again. But the loss of the Cubs dynasty is signficant because it allowed for a more wide open NL. If having a dynasty is good for baseball, having two isn’t. One league has to remain open for fans to believe their team has a chance to win. With the death of the Cubs dynasty hope could rise for other teams in the NL, notably John McGraw’s New York team, but also in the next ten years Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati would also win pennants (as would the Cubs in 1918). The end of the Cubs dynasty also ushered in the beginning of the Cubs mystique as the “loveable losers.” With only sporadic exception, the Cubs have been non-factors in the NL since.  After four pennants in five seasons, the Cubs have won the NL title exactly six times (1918, 1929, 1932, 1935. 1938, 1945). They are now a synonym for “loser”, a tradition that began with the end of the 1910 season.

5 The AL became the dominant league. I said earlier that the reasons 1910 mattered were in no particular order, but this one is last on purpose because it’s the most important. Between 1903 and 1909 there were six World Series matchups. The NL won four (1905, 1907-09) and the AL only two (1903, 1906). By 1910, the AL hadn’t beaten the NL in four years. All that changed in 1910. Take a look at the next ten years, actually 11 because I’m going to ignore the 1919 “fixed” Series. Between 1910 and 1920 inclusive the NL wins one untainted World Series, 1914. And it took a team known as the “Miracle Braves” to do that.  The AL won everything else: Philadelphia in 1910-11, 1913; Boston in 1912, 1915-16, 1918; Chicago in 1917; and Cleveland in 1920. And that kind of dominance continues in some measure all the way to 2010. Here’s the World Series wins by league by decade since 1910 (going from the zero year to the nine year to determine a decade, thus 1920-29, 1940-49, etc.) 1910-19: AL-8, NL-2 (including 1919), 1920-29: AL-6, NL-4, 1930-9: AL-7, NL-3; 1940-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1950-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1960-9: AL-4, NL-6, 1970-9: AL-6, NL-4; 1980-9: AL-5, NL 5, 1990-9: AL-6, NL-3 (and no series in 1994): 2000-9: AL-6, NL-4. In each decade except the 1960s, when the NL actually wins more World Series championships and  1980s when the each win five, the American League has won the more often. I think this is much more significant than the results of the All Star game which saw the NL have along period of dominance in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not really impressed with winning an exhibition game. So the American League has been the superior league in most of the last 100 years, and that began in 1910.

I’ve enjoyed going over the 1910 season. I learned a lot, some significant, some trivial. I’ve begun to celebrate the players of the era more by having done this, and I consider that a good thing. Hope you enjoyed it.

The Father of the National League

March 12, 2010

There’s a lot of dispute about who invented baseball. There’s the old Abner Doubleday story which is mostly debunked as a myth today. There are those who pick Alexander Cartwright and those that say all he did was write down what was already being done. Whoever you pick, and there are other choices, it gets simpler when you move forward in time. The National League was formed 2 February 1876 and the man who put it tgether was William A. Hulbert.

Hulbert was born in New York in 1832 and the family moved to Chicago in 1834. He married into money, or at least into a successful grocery business, then used the profits to make considerable cash in coal. He was also a huge baseball fan, backing the local club, the White Stockings, when it entered the fledgling National Association in 1871. The club lost its park in the Great Chicago Fire (Hulbert’s holdings in town seem to have been spared) and Hulbert provided a lot of the funding to restore the team to its status in the Association after it had to regroup following the fire. That got him a job wth the club and in 1875 he took over as team President.

The National Association floundered in 1875. There were problems with gambling, scheduling, salaries, competitiveness, rules. Well, there were a lot of problems and the league simply was in the process of collapsing.  By the end of 1875 Hulbert was convinced that the Association was failing, although some of the fault lay with him and his own contract practices. He decided to abandon the Association and establish a new league. Prior to the end of 1875 he had gotten agreements with the major western teams to form a new league. In the baseball language of the day “western” meant west of about Harrisburg, Pennsylvania not west of Albuquerque, so we’re talking teams in Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis.

In February 1876, Hulbert met with teams from Boston, Hartford, New York, and Philadelphia in a hotel in New York City (I’m informed that the hotel no longer exists-pity) to pitch the idea of a new league. According to legend, Hulbert locked the door to the room, pocketed the key, and wouldn’t let the other team presidents out of the room until they had an agreement. He got the agreement and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed. It still exists.

It’s important to look at the title of the first two professional leagues for a second. There is the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. I’ve highlighted the last word in each name for a reason. It marked the real difference between the leagues. The players ran the Association but the owners ran the League. In a comment on the Pike case  post, Bill Miller noted that there was a baseball cabal that organized together for their mutual benefit. He’s right. That’s the most fundamental change that occured in February 1876. Now the clubs would run the show, not the players.

The National League worked and did so for a number of reasons. It was run on solid business principles, which meant it could turn a profit. It cut down on gambling. The money belonged to the owners and they could, and did, parcel it out as they wanted. Ultimately this became a huge problem that led to the Black Sox when owners became more parsimonious with their cash (Having just written that I can’t believe that there were owners more parsimonious than Hulbert, but there were.). Finally, the League made baseball respectable. Beer and whiskey were banned from games, there were no games on Sundays, cursing on the field was fined, as was public drunkenness. That put wealthier patrons in the stands and put more money in the pockets of the owners, some of which trickled down to the players.

Frankly, nobody liked Hulbert (well, maybe Mrs. Hulbert) so the owners drew straws (literally) to determine the first President of the National League. Morgan Bulkeley of Hartford won, but Hulbert remained the power that ran the league. In 1877 Hulbert followed Bulkeley as President (Bulkeley didn’t like the job and wasn’t all that good at it, so he didn’t even bother to attend the meeting to elect a President for 1877.) and remained the man in charge until 1882.

Hulbert ran the National League the same way Judge Landis ran the Commissioner’s office later on. Things were done his way and woe to the villain who crossed him. He tossed both New York and Philadelphia out of the league for refusing to make a western swing after they were eliminated from a possible pennant. The western teams lost gate revenue because of this and lost revenue was something akin to sin in Hulbert’s eyes. He established the idea that the National League office would set up schedules, not the teams. He handled the Louisville scandal quickly (another post for another time). He set up the first reserve rule for players to prevent contract jumping, and in 1881 expelled Cincinnati from the league for playing games on Sunday and selling beer in the stands. In 1882 he had a heart attack, dying the same day. In 1995, 58 years after Bulkeley, Hulbert was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have liked Hulbert. I admire his desire to establish a league that would last, but he’s just not my cup of tea. It seems to me he spent most of his life looking for a fight and generally found one. But we baseball fans owe him.

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.

The First Big League Game

March 3, 2010

It rained in Washington on the 4th of May 1871. The Boston Red Stockings and the Washington Olympics were scheduled to kick off the inaugural season of the newly formed National Association professional league. The rain stopped that from happening, so the first game between professional teams in a professional league was played in Fort Wayne, Indiana with the local team, the Kekiongas (named after an old Miami Indian settlement), facing the Cleveland Forest City. The powers that be in modern Major League Baseball don’t recognize the league as a Major League, but that idea is easily dismissed as silly. If you got two teams playing professional baseball at the highest level possible then that’s the Major Leagues and this is an account of the first game.

In Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball there is a play by play account of the first Major League game taken from the New York Herald  (and the stats differ slightly from Retrosheet’s version). I don’t propose to copy it, you can read it for yourself. I do want to look at four innings and make a couple of comments.

In the first inning Cleveland catcher Deacon White doubled, then was out on a double play when he wandered away from second on a line shot to Fort Wayne second baseman Tom Carey. A foul out ended the inning. In the bottom of the first with two outs Fort Wayne’s Jim Foran singled but died at first when the inning ended on another foul out. You have a couple of firsts here. Deacon White recorded the first hit, and the first extra base hit in big league play. Tom Carey got the first ever unassisted double play in big league history. Jim Foran had the first single and the first hit by the home team.

In the bottom of the second, catcher Bill Lennon led off with a double, then scored with two outs on center fielder Joe McDermott’s single. Here we have the first run scored and the first RBI in the big leagues.

There was no more scoring until the bottom of the fifth when Fort Wayne’s Bill Kelly singled, advanced two bases on two passed balls  and scored on a ground out by Frank Selman. That ended the scoring for the day. In the top of the ninth, Deacon White again led off with a hit (a single), but was thrown out trying to stretch it to a double. Then a fly out, and outfielder Art Allison struck out to end the inning, but not the game. Under existing rules, the game had to have a bottom of the ninth. Fort Wayne went in order to finish the game and win the first ever big league game.

The line scores read Fort Wayne two runs on four hits while Cleveland had no runs on five hits. The winning pitcher was Bobby Mathews, who threw the frst ever big league shutout (it was also the lowest scoring game of the season), with Al Pratt taking the loss. Mathews line was nine innings pitched, four hits, no runs, one walk, and six strikeouts. Pratt had nine innings pitched, five hits, two runs (one earned), one walk, and no strikeouts. The game took two hours and someone named J.L. Boake was the umpire.

Pratt ended up 10-17 while Mathews went 6-11 with one shutout (this game). Pratt only pitched only two years, going 12-26 while Mathews pitched all the way into 1882 going (National Association and National League stats combined) 297-248. Deacon White, who got the first hit, was probably the biggest star to come out of the game. There are a handful of 19th Century players not currently in the Hall of Fame who might have, if properly studied, potential to reach the Hall. White is one of them.

On the one hand, the game wasn’t particularly important. Cleveland managed to finish seventh in a nine team league and Fort Wayne finished just behind them in eighth, folding at the end of the season. But it is one of the most significant games played in the last 140 or so years. Why? Simply because it was first.

The First Professional League

March 1, 2010

Over the next few posts, and those will come over a couple of weeks as I’m cutting back on my production, I want to look at the National Association which flourished from 1871-1875. It is the first professional league. As with the Negro Leagues, I’m no expert on the era, but find it interesting. So, again as with the Negro Leagues, I begin with a few miscellaneous notes.

1. The Association was run by the players, not by owners. It’s official title is The National Assocation of Professional Base Ball Players (in the 19th Century, baseball was two words, so that’s not a typo). That’s very different from the modern situation.

2. Salaries were frequently tied to gate receipts. The more people who showed up, the more money the players made. There were set salaries, but they did not exist across the board.

3. Teams crashed and burned with regularity. Teams would start up then fold before the season ended, sometimes to be replaced by other teams so that the teams which started the season could play something like a full schedule. Of the nine teams starting the 1871 season, only four were still around when the league folded in 1875.

4. Speaking of schedules, they were odd by today’s standards. Teams were allowed to barnstorm during the season so the total number of games played per team was all over the place. They sometimes played each other in games that didn’t count toward the league standings. Only officially recognized association games were to count for pennant purposes. That meant that no team played a lot of games that counted. In the five years the Association existed its pennant winner played the following number of games (in order 1871-75): 29, 48, 60, 71, and 82. So you can see the seasons kept getting longer, but there never seems to have been a predetermined number of games necessary to decide on a pennant winner. In the same period, the team in second place played the following number of games: 33, 58, 53, 65, and 86.

5. Because of the short season, especially in 1871, the stats are goofy. Anybody can get hot for 29 games (or 33, or 58) so there are some amazing percentages put up by players you’ve probably never heard about. Also because of the short season, the raw numbers can’t be nearly as large as modern numbers where players clock in for 162 games.

6. The rules make it difficult to compare the players to their modern counterparts. The pitcher was 45′ away, he had to throw underhand (although that changed to a low sidearm delivery as early as 1872). The hitter could ask for a high (above the waist) or low (below the waist) pitch and if the pitcher missed then it was a ball. It was three balls to a walk, but the ump (there was only one) was requied to warn the hurler for missing the strike zone a number of times (at the ump’s choice) before issuing the three balls. There was no hit batsman (Plunked? Ball one.). The rule making a foul ball a strike until there were two stikes didn’t exist, so a batter could foul off pitches at will (if he could hit the ball). There were no gloves and no catcher’s equipment. So the catcher was a long way back and if he caught a foul on the first bounce the batter was out. Obviously he didn’t have to catch the third strike. Even the batters box was different. There was a line running through it even with the corner of the plate (which was diamond shaped with one point aimed at the pitcher) and the batter was required to have one foot on either side of the line.

7. The fielding was atrocious. There were, as I said above, no gloves. But the fields also were of dubious quality. In 1871 Levi Meyerle had a fielding percentage in the 690s at third base for the pennant winners. And that’s not as bad as it sounds because the guy who led all third basemen in fielding percentage was at .795. So there are a lot of runners on base and a lot of unearned runs in most games. One of the central themes of baseball is that fielding has progressed over the century and a half of the sport. Considering where it started, that’s not surprising.

8. The parks weren’t much better. They were all wooden with mostly bleachers and sometimes even ropes to keep the fans away from the diamond and define the outfield.  Things were so bad that the Chicago team in 1871 had to play the last handful of its home games on the road because the Great Chicago Fire destroyed its park. They still managed to finish third.

9. Major League Baseball says that the National Association was not a Major League. They say the schedules were too lax, the rules not enforced, so it can’t count as a Major League. I say that’s nonsense. It was a professional league. The players involved were the best professionals playing at the highest level available in the era. The Hall of Fame recognizes its players as Major Leaguers, as do most baseball historians. So for the purposes of any posts involving the National Association I will treat it as the first major league.

10. Finally, the stats are greatly in dispute (even one of the pennants is still in dispute). For consistancy purposes I have chosen to take all stats (at least as far as he has them) from David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. Other encyclopedias have differing numbers and you may use them as you want. I’m sticking with this set.