Not in the Cards

Now in St. Louis they will know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. I’d love to turn you on … to the very first player move of this magnitude. There have been several, in which an all-time great relocates at the height of his career, leaving the hometown fans in despair. One thinks of Babe Ruth going from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920; or Jimmie Foxx going to the Red Sox in Connie Mack’s fire sale of 1935; or Rogers Hornsby or Barry Bonds, Nap Lajoie or King Kelly. Among pitchers a quick spin of the mental wheel offers up Cy Young, John Clarkson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez.

Fans like to think that before free agency, the best players stayed with one club for life. In fact, players have always moved around at about the same frequency—although in recent times the relocation of a superstar has most often been at his election rather than the club’s. From 1883, when the reserve clause came into the game, until 1974, when free agency kicked in, a player’s obligation to provide his services to his club endured in perpetuity. The club, for many decades, could dismiss him with ten days’ notice.

But at the dawn of Major League Baseball, before the advent of the reserve clause, player contracts ran for the length of the playing schedule only, excepting the highly unusual multiyear deal. At season’s end, all players were free agents and could sign on with whichever club they pleased. Some owners, seeking to gain an edge, offered contracts in midseason that, after mutual signatures, they mothballed and then postdated. Players sometimes signed with one club in this fashion but, knowing that the deal was secret because it was out of bounds, proceeded to sign with another club after the season if it offered better terms.

In 1874 the Chicago White Stockings of the National Association (NA) were nervous that their star shortstop, Davy Force, would desert them at season’s end, as he had left three other clubs in the previous three autumns. In September, they signed him to a renewal contract for 1875, knowing that, because the season was still in progress, NA rules rendered the contract invalid. Chicago signed Force to another contract in November, but the organization blundered by backdating the contract to September, thus voiding it once again. In December, the Philadelphia Athletics offered Force a contract, and he signed it. The NA governing council, led by a an officer of the Athletics, upheld Force’s deal to play in Philly.

William Hulbert, the Chicago club president, seethed at the injustice, feeling that an anti-Western bias by the older clubs of the East was at the root of all his worries. Albert Sopalding star pitcher with Boston at the time and future sporting-goods kingpin, wrote in America’s National Game (1911):

It was borne to him one day that the reason why Chicago, whose phenomenal achievements on other lines were attracting the wonder of all the world, could make no better showing on the diamond was because the East was in league against her; that certain Base Ball magnates in the Atlantic States were in control of the game; were manipulating things to the detriment of Chicago and all Western cities; that if the Chicago Club signed an exceptionally strong player he was sure to be stolen from her; that contracts had no force, because the fellows down East would and did offer players increased salaries and date new contracts back to suit their own ends.

Within a few months, Hulbert proceeded to give the Easterners, who had rustled his prize shortstop, a taste of their own medicine. He not only raided Boston for Spalding but also snatched Ross Barnes, who would bat .364 in his final season with Boston; Deacon White, who would hit for an average of .367; and Cal McVey, who would bat .355. From the hated Philadelphia Athletics Hulbert took another Western boy and perhaps the top prize, Adrian Constantine Anson, then known as “Baby,” not yet “Cap” or “Pop.”

When word leaked in the summer of 1875 that Chicago had stripped Boston of its stars for the following season, a columnist for the Worcester Spy wrote of Boston’s loss: “Like Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted because the famous baseball nine, the perennial champion, the city’s most cherished possession, has been captured by Chicago.”

This is about how St. Louis feels today.

But Hulbert had real cause for worry. His club’s contracts had been signed yet again in midseason, so the NA could invalidate them and even, perhaps, expel Chicago for gross misconduct. Then, he came up with a truly big idea. “Spalding,” he said to his eventual ally in revolution, “I have a new scheme. Let us anticipate the Eastern cusses and organize a new association before the March [1876] meeting, and then see who does the expelling.”

And thus was founded, on February 2, 1876, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, the beginning of what today we call Major League Baseball.

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