Posts Tagged ‘National League’

Truly Awful Teams

March 31, 2010

There must have been something in the air, or maybe it was the water, in the late 1880s and the 1890s, something that reached up and attacked baseball teams with poor play. The period served up over and over some truly awful teams. Almost yearly some team wasn’t within the same time zone of a pennant.

I define truly awful teams as teams that play below .300 baseball. In modern terms (a 162 game season), a team that goes 48-114 has a winning percentage of .296 and is a truly awful team. OK, I know it’s arbitrary and that a 49-113 team with a winning percentage of .302 isn’t really any better, but I need a cutoff and .300 works for me.

In 1884 the Union Association went under, the players worthy of distribution to the remaining teams got jobs and the big leagues went back to a 16 team format. From that point on there is almost always a team under .300. Remembering that the National League (NL) lasts through the entire period, that the American Association (AA) folds in 1892, and that the Player’s League (PL) only exists in 1890, here’s a brief list of them:

1885: none

1886: Kansas City NL (30-91, .248); Washington NL (28-92, .233)

1887: Indianapolis NL (37-89, .294); Cleveland AA (39-92, .298)

1888: none

1889: Louisville AA (27-111, .196)

1890:  Pittsburgh NL (23-113, .169), Brooklyn AA (26-72, .265), Buffalo PL (36-96, .273)

1891-1893: none

1894: Louisville NL (36-94, .277)

1895: St. Louis NL (39-92, .298); Louisville NL (35-96, .267)

1896: Louisville NL (38-93, .290)

1897: St Louis NL (29-102, .221)

1898: St. Louis NL (39-111, .260)

1899: Cleveland NL (20-134, .134)

1900: none

What we have is that almost yearly there is at least one team that can’t play .300 ball. In 1890 there are, with the one year advent of the Player’s League, three leagues. In 1892, the National League expands to twelve teams and the American Association goes under. In 1900, the National League drops four teams and becomes an eight team league. Those are the changes in team numbers for the period. Three of the worst teams occur in 1890, but not in either 1892 or 1900.

So why is this? Well, my guess is that several things are going on. First, the country simply doesn’t have enough quality players to sustain sixteen, and in 1890 more than sixteen, teams that play reasonably well. Second, there is simply shoddy ownership, owners who don’t have any idea how to run a team. Third the abiliy of owners to control more than one team, which peaks in the 1890’s, especially in the destruction of Cleveland in 1899, makes them place their talent on one team and leaves the other to take it on the chin. Finally, the leagues are segregated and unable to draw on a rich pool of players that could and probably would have improved the play of the teams, including those that end up on the bottom. There are probably other reasons, and if you have one feel free to add it.

Baseball works best when teams are competitive. That doesn’t mean the same team can’t win year after year, but it does mean that someone must be able to challenge them for superiority. As this season is set to begin, there are teams that have no chance of winning a pennant, and others that are locks for the playoffs (unless the unforeseen occurs, which it frequently does). We are lucky that we are in an era where the number of truly awful teams is minimal. Pity the poor 19th Century fan that had to watch the teams listed above.

The Beer and Whiskey League

March 19, 2010

William Hulbert made so many enemies as President of the National League that you begin to wonder if he simply had an aversion to friends. He managed to alienate most of the other league owners at one time or another in his tenure. Doing so in 1880 gave him a new rival for his league, the American Association.

In 1880 the Cincinnati Reds were in trouble financially, not to mention on the field. To solve their financial problem they decided to ignore three significant National Legue rules. First, they began renting out their park on off days and when they were on the road to local semipro teams. Then those teams  began selling beer in the stands. Finally, as Sunday was always an off day, the semipros began scheduling games on Sunday. It wa all too much for William Hulbert and the other owners. On 4 October 1880, the owners met in Rochester, NY and voted to “prohibit the sale of every description of malt, spiritous or vinous liquors” on league grounds. Cincinnati more or less politely told them to go to hell. On 6 October 1880, Cincinnati was expelled from the National League.

It took a year of planning and plotting, but Cincinnati struck back in 1881. On 2 November of that year a number of businessmen joined together to form the American Association. It had six clubs and six owners. Every owner was involved in the liquor business in some shape or form (brewer, distiller, saloon owner, etc). That led to the immediate nickname of “The Beer and Whiskey League.”

The Association began play in 1882 with teams located in Cincinnati (who won the initial pennant), Philadelphia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore. In 1882 they were joined by teams in New York and Columbus, Ohio. From the beginning the Association was a thorn to the NL. They raided teams, brought new teams into NL towns, they charged less for tickets, allowed beer and liquor to be sold in the stands, and were just simply a nuisance that cut deeply into NL attendance. The quality of play varied, but some of the teams were good.

In 1883, the two leagues settled their differences and created the League-Association Alliance that bound the two groups to honor each other’s contracts, create a common reserve rule, and to accept each other’s black lists. In 1884 they agreed to a postseason contest between the two league champions. This “World Series” lasted until 1890.

At the end of 1890, the two leagues argued over the spoils of the now defunct Player’s League (see previous post). The Association was already in deep financial trouble, and when the NL managed to corral almost all the top Player’s League talent, the Association bolted from the agreement and went it alone. The decision was fatal. The Association floundered and the NL moved to kill it off. The League offered to absorb four Association teams: St. Louis (now the Cardinals), Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville. Each team accepted and the Association died.

The Association died for a number of reasons, not least of which was the loss of four of it’s strongest teams. But it also had other problems. The Association never had the funding the NL had. It’s teams were owned by magnates with smaller fortunes (that’s, of course, not universally true, but as a rule is correct) thus less money was available. The cities were smaller. The Association put teams in Columbus, Milwaukee, Toledo, Rochester, Syracuse, Kansas City and Richmond. Nice towns, but not big metropolitan centers. They each had trouble drawing crowds. Finally, the Association was, for about haf its history not particularly competitive. Of 10 pennants, St. Louis won four. The others were won by different teams, but one of them, Brooklyn, immediately bolted for the NL, and Cincinnati, which had been critical in instituting the Association, moved back to the NL at a later date. That’s not real good for stability when your pennant winners are moving out as quickly as possible.

For ten years the Beer and Whiskey League gave Major League baseball a second league to compete with the already established National League. They also ended up winning the war over beer and alcohol and Sunday games because the NL adopted both ideas as soon as the Association folded. Finally the ballpark hot dog was, according to legend, invented by the Association (specifically in St. Louis). If that’s true, then that alone guarantees the American Association an honored place in baseball. Pass the mustard.

The First Postseason Series’

March 16, 2010

Between 1882 and 1891 Major League Baseball comprised two leagues (actually in 1884 and 1890 there were three), the National League and the American Association. For seven of those years the leagues existed in an uneasy and unequal truce, the National League being the dominant partner. They did agree that their pennant winners probably ought to meet up at the end of the season to determine who was the true champion of the big leagues. They were the first version of the modern World Series, although sometimes it’s tough to tell.

These series of games were in many ways more akin to exhibitions. The two teams would meet for a specified number of games, the number varied from 3 to 15, and the team winning the most was declared the winner. One of the problems was that the teams were supposed to play all the games (although that didn’t always happen) even after it became clear which was going to win the most games. The big 15 game series ended 10-5, although eight wins was enough to determine a winner. The three games series went three, although the same team won all three. That made the latter games frequently unimportant, and this effected both the quality of play and attendance greatly. The quality of play was universally panned. It was alleged that players weren’t playing to the best of their ability since the games were postseason and the money they were getting was nothing special.  Some teams had players skip the series altogether. Finally, many of the games were road games for both teams. This was supposed to allow for more fans to see the postseason games, but tended to depress the gate when the local fans had no rooting interest in either team. So it certainly didn’t make for the spectacle and excitement we know today. Having said that, some of them could be interesting, some exciting, some almost silly. Here’s a short recap of each with the National League team listed first.

1884–Providence vs. New York (3 games). Charles Radbourne, winner of 59 games (or 60 depending on your definition of “win”) shut down New York by pitching three complete games in two days and giving up no earned runs. Although Providence took the first two games to clinch the series, game three was played anyway on the afternoon of game two. It was Providence’s only series appearance. All three games were played in New York.

1885–Chicago vs.St. Louis (7 games). One of the most controversial series. Game one was a tie, then game two was declared a forfeit with Chicago (now the Cubs, but then the White Stockings) winning 5-4. The next four games were split and the two teams agreed to count the seventh game as the decisive game (ignoring the first two games). St. Louis won 13-4. Games were played in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to go along with St. Louis and Chicago.

1886–Chicago vs. St. Louis (7 games). This series is the one that most closely resembles a modern World Series. Among other things they played three games in each city.  Chicago and St. Louis split the first four games, then St. Louis won the next two, making the seventh game unnecessary. For a change, they didn’t play it.

1887–Detroit vs. St. Louis (15 games). Having seen sense prevail in 1886, the leages returned to silliness in 1887.  The series saw games played in not just St. Louis and Detroit, but also in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Chicago, and Baltimore.  Detroit won it’s eighth game, and the series, in game 11, but the final four games were played anyway. For what it’s worth, the teams split them.

1888–New York vs. St. Louis (10 games). With games in Brooklyn and Philadelphia to go along with home games in each city, the series was scheduled for an even number of games. That was the idea of the St. Louis owner (he ran a brewery and I’m not going to speculate on how sober he was when he proposed an even number of games). New York won five of the first six, then took game eight to wrap up the series. Giants pitcher Tim Keefe won four of the games to tie the record for a single postseason series (Three pitchers in the 15 game series each won four). 

1889–New York vs. Brooklyn (11 games). Another series that stopped when one team got to six wins. New York repeated as champions six games to three.  This time Cannonball Crane won four games for New York.

1890–Brooklyn vs. Louisville (7 games). The last 19th Century World Series between the National League and the American Association. Brooklyn (the team that is now the Los Angeles Dodgers) jumped to the National League and won a watered down championship. The Player’s League joined to create a third league, but was frozen out of the postseason.  Brooklyn became the first team to participate in consecutive postseasons for different leagues. All games were played in Brooklyn and Louisville.  Game three was a tie and the teams split the other six. Because of the late date (October 28 for game seven) and the weather, the teams agreed to play a game at the beginning of the next season to determine the season champion. Things changed during the offseason when the Player’s League collapsed. The NL and the AA split and the series was never completed. 

Following the 1890 season the two leagues went their separate ways, as mentoned above. The American Association collapsed after the 1891 race concluded (it got a lot of help from the NL, but that’s also a story for another time). There were other attempts to create a postseason after 1890. None were successful until 1903 ushered in the first modern World Series.

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.

Worth Reading

January 21, 2010

I do a lot of reading. Sometimes it’s baseball related, sometimes it isn’t. Got a book that you should find worthwhile: Deadball Stars of the National League. The book is edited by Tom Simon and is a SABR production. The publisher is Brassey’s Inc. and the publication date is 2004. 

This book is a series of baseball biographies of various National League players in the period 1900-1920. Most bios are only a couple of pages long and concentrate on the baseball aspects of the individual’s career. The book is sorted by team in order of winning percentage for the era. That alone is a wonderful step. When you look at the quality of the players discussed you begin to see why the Giants are first and the Cardinals last.

That’s one of the great virtues of the book. A sceond is the depth of players rviewed. Despite the title, they’re not all “stars”, at least not to the contemporary mind. There’s Mathewson, McGraw, McGinnity, Chance, and Brown. There’s also Ivy Olson, Bill Sweeney, and Mike Mowrey. So you get a sense of the types of men who populated the deadball era of baseball. Additionally, most of the team owners are detailed and the first section of biographies is a set of National League executives and umpires, giving the reader even more feel for the men (and one woman in St. Louis owner Helene Robison Britton) of the age.

None of the bios is hard to read, so take some time and read this book. (A disclaimer–I get no funds from the book). Think you’ll enjoy it.