October 29th, 2011

Professional Baseball’s First Championship

This story originally appeared in the 2011 Official Major League Baseball World Series Program, which is available at mlb.com. Now that the 2011 World Series is over—and it was one of the best in recent memory—permit me to share with you the story of a season finale like no other in baseball’s history. Today we date the modern World Series, between the pennant winners of the American and National Leagues, to 1903. However, students of the game will know that an earlier version of the World Series existed from 1884 to 1890, and that in all other years of professional league play, a champion was declared at the end of the regular season and that was that. (The Temple Cup Series of 1894–1897, held between the league’s top two finishers, did not convey a championship to the winner.)

Major League Baseball dates its inception to 1876, but nearly all of the men who played in the newly formed National League (NL) of that year had played in its predecessor circuit: the National Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NA), which operated from 1871 through 1875. In its final four years, the NA’s pennant winner was the Boston Red Stockings, who easily outdistanced the field. But in 1871, baseball’s first pennant race went down to the final day amid improbable and poignant circumstances that will never be equaled.

When the NA was founded in a meeting held at Collier’s Saloon in New York on March 17, 1871, it was ruled that each club would play five games with the other eight and the winner of three games will have won that “championship series.” This was a term designed to separate league contests from the many exhibition games that each club played along the way. The NA “whip pennant” would be awarded to the team winning the most series against the other league teams, not the most games (the rule until 1883) or the top winning percentage (ever since).

Of the nine clubs that paid a ten-dollar fee to enter the new league, three battled for the pennant from the outset: Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings took their name as well as several key players—including his brother George, the game’s greatest star—from his famous Cincinnati nine, undefeated in 1869 yet disbanded only a year later. Chicago had built its White Stocking club on the Cincinnati model, luring talented players from other clubs with rich offers. For 1871 the club officers would build a new ballpark at Randolph and Michigan on the lakefront‚ of which the New York Clipper opined, “They will have accommodations on their grounds to seat 6‚500 people. With the single exception of being somewhat narrow‚ they will have one of the finest ballparks in the country.” Philadelphia’s venerable Athletic Base Ball Club, founded in 1860 as an amateur organization, had paid their players since the Civil War in a more or less open secret. Despite the loss of third baseman Harry Schafer to the new Boston club, the Athletics reclaimed native son Levi Meyerle, a powerful hitter, from Chicago to take his place.

In this first year of league play, even teams that fell out of the pennant race (or out of the league itself, as with Fort Wayne’s Kekiongas) could point to enduring accomplishments. Troy’s Haymakers finished in the middle of the pack at 13–15 but provided professional baseball’s first Hispanic player in third baseman Esteban Bellán, as well as a Jewish slugger in Lipman Pike, who batted .377 and tied for the league lead in home runs.

Chicago broke from the gate with a rush, winning its first 19 games, including 7 league contests, before losing to the Mutuals in early June before 10,000 spectators at Brooklyn’s Union Grounds. The Athletics’ impressive array of hitters kept pace, taking a game from Troy on June 28 by a score of 49–33; each team scored in all 9 innings. However, on August 30, the Athletics succumbed to the visiting White Stockings by a score of 6–3‚ the club’s lowest run total since it started professional play. Chicago pitcher George “The Charmer” Zettlein held the Athletics to four hits.

On September 11, the White Stockings topped the standings with a record of 17–8, trailed closely by the Athletics at 17–9 and Boston at 15–9. (If these game totals seem low, reflect on the transportation difficulties of the era and each club’s copious scheduling of profitable exhibition contests.) Yet because games won and lost, and the resulting percentage, did not decide the champion, the important fact at this point of the season was that Boston and Chicago had each won three series from other clubs and lost none, while Philadelphia had won three but lost one, to Boston.

As the season wore on, the Athletics were increasingly hobbled by injury. Center fielder John “Count” Sensenderfer—any player who was a favorite of the ladies was invariably nicknamed thus—went out for the year with a knee injury. Second baseman Al Reach—who like Boston’s Al Spalding would go on to create a sporting goods empire—would sit out crucial contests in the final days. Pitcher Dick McBride missed three straight games in September.

Heading into the home stretch, Boston had only six games to play to complete all of its series and by sweeping them would take the championship. But they lost a critical game at Chicago on September 29 that gave the interclub series to the White Stockings. On October 7, Boston rebounded to defeat Troy to claim that series.

On the next day, Sunday, October 8 at about 9:00 p.m., the great Chicago Fire commenced, legendarily when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a kerosene lantern. As it continued to rage on October 9, ultimately killing hundreds and destroying four square miles of the city, the Athletics defeated Troy, 15–3. The White Stockings were still very much in the race, but the conflagration had cost them their ballpark, their equipment and uniforms and, it appeared, their very livelihoods. Certainly they had an awfully rough time, most were broke, and they may have been actually hungry as they made their way from one ballpark to another in search of a payday.

While benefit games were hastily arranged for the citizens of Chicago, and towns all across the nation organized relief committees, no one came forward to aid the White Stockings. Desperate, the Chicago players decided not only to play their scheduled National Association games in the east, but all of the exhibition games that could be hastily arranged. Wearing borrowed uniforms of varying hues and styles, they won often enough; however, they were clobbered in a penultimate game at Troy on October 23, one that might have secured the championship; at one point they had trailed by 15–0.

The weather was bad for the White Stockings’ eastern swing; most of their exhibitions had to be canceled, and the deciding game with the Athletics—scheduled for Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, a neutral site—was postponed several times before finally taking place on October 30. An Athletics win would give them the pennant outright; a Chicago win would throw the race into a disputed tie, with Boston reentering the computation.

Play was called at 3:10 p.m., with Marty Swandell of the Brooklyn Eckfords as the umpire. Because of the wind and damp, only 600 fans occupied the grounds that had welcomed 10,000 in June when the White Stockings had played the Mutuals. Chicago appeared in suits of various origins, ragtag in the extreme. Mike Brannock, a player picked up for this eastern trip to fill in at third base, wore a complete Mutual uniform, except for the belt which was that of the Eckfords. Center fielder Tom Foley was attired in a complete Eckford suit. Zettlein wore a huge shirt with a mammoth “A” on the bib, no doubt from the Brooklyn Atlantics. Shortstop Ed Duffy appeared in a uniform borrowed from the junior Fly Aways. Some Chicago players wore black hats, others were bareheaded.

The Athletics were not without problems of their own. Without the services of Reach, Sensenderfer, and reserve Tom Pratt, they fielded only eight men at first as first baseman Fisler took Reach’s spot at second base and outfielder George Heubel came in to play first base. Hurriedly the veteran Nate Berkenstock, who had not played in a game since 1867, was drafted into service from the audience. Positioned in right field, the 40-year-old former Athletic would make a fine running catch to save a run, and made two other catches without miscue to gain his entry in the baseball encyclopedias as its oldest “rookie” until Satchel Paige.

The Athletics’ batting star was, not surprisingly, Long Levi Meyerle, whose three hits gave him a season-ending batting average of .492, the high-water mark in professional baseball history. But the hero of the game was pitcher Dick McBride. Pitted against Chicago’s ace Zettlein, who allowed only two earned runs himself, McBride took a shutout into the final frame.

Battling to avert a “Chicago”—a blanking synonymous with their city through a famous 9–0 blanking by the Mutuals in 1870—Zettlein sent a hot grounder to Meyerle which he kicked over to shortstop John Radcliff. He picked up the ball and made a try for the putout at first but threw wild, Zettlein making second. Zettlein scored on an out, but that was all the offense Chicago could muster. When Fred Treacey flew out to Berkenstock to end the game, the applause was as much for the plucky fight of Chicago as the championship secured by the Athletics. The impoverished White Stockings played exhibition games into November, losing to the Mutuals in Brooklyn and the Haymakers in Troy, amid poor weather and slim attendance, just so they could earn their train fare home.

Baseball in Chicago, which had been built up with such great expectations and expenditures, would now be mothballed for the next two seasons; when the club returned in 1874 it would do so with a chip on its shoulder. Today we know this White Stocking franchise as the Chicago Cubs.

Boston regrouped to capture the flag in each of the National Association’s following four years, eventually becoming so proficient that fan interest in other cities began to wane. In 1875 the Red Stockings’ astounding proficiency—a season record of 71–8, including a 37–0 mark at home; a 26–game win streak to open the season—may have destroyed the competitive balance required to hold fan interest. But the club continued in the new National League of 1876; they are the lineal forebear of today’s Atlanta Braves.

And what of the champion Athletics of 1871, who began play before the Civil War? They too joined the NL of 1876 but were expelled at season’s end, along with the Mutuals of New York. They bear no relation to later clubs calling themselves the Athletics, either in Philadelphia or Kansas City or Oakland.

***

Born to DH

In the game that settled the 1871 championship, Levi Samuel Meyerle led his team at bat, going 3-for-5. With one more hit he would have hit .500for the season! He dominated his league as no one would—major or minor—for half a century, driving in 40 runs in 26 games while scoring 45. His .700 slugging percentage would stand until Babe Ruth’s 1920 campaign.

A local lad, Meyerle came to the Athletics in 1869 at age 19, following three years with Philadelphia amateur clubs. A gangly kid at 6’1”—at a time when the average height of an American male was 5’6”—Long Levi was tried at every position on the field, disappointing at each. For the 1871 champions he manned third base with jaw-droppingly awful results: more errors (45) than assists (39), and a fielding percentage of .646.

That may explain why, after one more year with the A’s, he went on to play for a new club each year from 1873 through 1877, despite a lifetime batting average of .356 across the National Association, National League, and a three game swan song in the Union Association of 1884. After many years in the construction trades, Levi Meyerle died in 1921, his passing unnoted in the sports pages.

 

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