September 24th, 2011

MLB’s 200,000th game: How it was determined

Major League Baseball will mark its 200,000th game with one of the games played later today (Saturday, September 24, 2011). Which cities will vie for the honor of hosting that game is as yet uncertain, with rainouts providing the wild card.

How MLB and Elias Sports Bureau came to this calculation makes for a twisty tale of interest to the historically minded. Here’s the background.

Months ago, we knew that MLB would bump into its 200,000th game, but there was conflicting precedent as to what we would recognize as the first game, way back when. Professional baseball began to ramp up in the years after the conclusion of the Civil War, but not in organized fashion. In 1869, for example, the celebrated Cincinnati Red Stockings went undefeated, taking on all comers from coast to coast. They are among MLB’s honored forebears; indeed, in 1969, MLB celebrated the centennial of the professional game, and in ’94 again, hailed Harry Wright’s Red Stockings with a 125th-anniversary patch that all players wore.

But 1869 was not when league play began; that event came on May 4, 1871, with the first game of the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The problem with settling on that date for MLB’s Game 1 was the loosely organized National Association itself, which had a few strong cities, many fly-by-night franchises, erratic scheduling and a mix of salaried clubs with those that shared the gate receipts.

All the same, the players who would eventually stock the eight clubs in the first year of the National League (1876) overwhelmingly came from the National Association, which, after five seasons of play, disbanded to make way for the NL. Until 1969, MLB and its encyclopedias recognized the National Association as its point of origin; testifying to that status was the muted celebration of MLB’s 100,000th game on Sept. 6, 1963, between the Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators (the home-team Senators won, 7-2).

With the creation of the NL in 1876, the gate-sharing cooperative nines of the National Association would give way to stock companies, and gambling and drinking would diminish, if not disappear. Small-market clubs, like the Kekionga of Fort Wayne, Ind., or the Westerns of Keokuk, Iowa, or the Elm City of New Haven, Conn. — which had plagued the National Association through their inability either to compete or to complete their scheduled road trips or to draw enough fans at home to cover the expenses of visiting clubs — would be cut adrift.

In 1968-69, MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee ruled on a number of disputed points, including the Major League status of the National Association and later rival leagues. MLB was henceforth defined as having commenced with the first game of the National League, played on April 22, 1876, between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics. The score was tied, 4-4, after eight innings. But visiting Boston scored two in the top of the ninth and held on, as the Athletics could push across only one run before third baseman Ezra Sutton grounded feebly back to the pitcher. Joe Borden, who sometimes pitched under the nom de guerre of Joe Josephs, pitched the complete-game victory for Boston. Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke notched the first hit, and his fellow Cooperstown inductee, George Wright, scored two of Boston’s runs. Oddly, while all the players that day were making their MLB debuts, one — left fielder Bill Parks of Boston — was playing his last game.

In accordance with its new definition of the first game, in 1976, MLB celebrated its centennial year as the nation celebrated its bicentennial. Omitting the 1,086 National Association games meant that MLB would celebrate its 200,000th game not on July 4 of this year, but on Saturday.

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