December 15th, 2011

The Most Important Game in Baseball History?

Was this game truly more important than that of April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a major league field? No, not when you take into account the resonant social and cultural issues of that event. One might look to other games too–the introduction of night ball, for instance, or the first game played by Knickerbocker rules, or Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. and so on. But this is my choice. If you think it’s a poor one, I’ll count on you to let me know! 

After the famous tour of the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, which took them as far north as Canada and as far south as Baltimore, the outbreak of war had quashed any thought of new junkets. Then in baseball’s boom year of 1867 the Washington Nationals, a club that had formed prior to the war, announced that it would take a trip unlike any thus far attempted. Their notice published in the Clipper read:

The famous Washington club will start upon their proposed Western trip on the 10th [of July], visiting and playing friendly games with the leading clubs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, reaching the latter place on the 24th. . . .

The Washington club was in fact not yet famous, but wished to become so. They had played only five match games in 1865, when they had welcomed clubs from Philadelphia and Brooklyn to play on the lot behind newly installed President Andrew Johnson’s White House.

Although the 1866 Nationals won ten games against five defeats, they were by no means a club to rank alongside the Atlantics, Athletics, Mutuals, or the champion Unions of Morrisania. Those Unions were led by handsome young George Wright, the coming hero of the age, whose older brother Harry had played with the Knickerbockers in the 1850s and had lately reverted to the role of a cricket professional, in Cincinnati.

In 1867 the Nationals strengthened themselves with additional recruits, giving each a patronage government job, and somehow persuaded Wright to join them too. Although the players were nominal amateurs, there can be no doubt of their uniformly professional status. The club president listed Wright’s place of employment as 238 Pennsylvania Avenue, at that time an open field and even today a parking lot.

During the three weeks of their Western tour the Nationals made a show of maintaining their amateur status by refusing payments of any kind, even declining reimbursement for travel expenses; these, of course, were covered by their employers, who had graciously permitted them to abandon the desks at which they had seldom been seen anyway. The aim of the National Club directors in going out on tour was not pecuniary gain but social éclat and pride of place: the Western farmers had been getting a bit chesty about their brand of baseball and, it was thought back East, needed a slap of reality at the hands of an experienced ball club.

The Nationals prepared for their trip with easy triumphs over local cupcakes until they journeyed to Cincinnati to play the Red Stockings on July 15, in a battle of two unbeaten nines. George Wright’s older brother Harry had left New York for the Queen City of the West in March 1865 to serve as the professional instructor and bowler of its Union Cricket Club. It may have seemed to him that as there was no real money to be made from baseball, and the distant cricket club was offering him $1200 annual salary, he might as well return to the trade of his father, Sam Wright, the formidable cricket professional of the celebrated St. George club.

By the summer of 1866 the Cincinnati Base Ball Club formed, and Harry Wright was enticed to be its pitcher. To devote his full attention to the new national game for 1867 the baseball club’s directors, many of them holding office in common with the cricket club, offered him the same salary he was already receiving to switch sports. The other players were local amateurs, including some doing double duty as cricketers, and they did not take the field until the end of September.

Leading up to their match with the Nationals, the 1867 edition of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club—already popularly named “Red Stockings” for the innovation of hiking their pants, better to display their manly calves in carmine hose, while all other players still wore long trousers—had drubbed four local clubs. But Harry’s expected pleasure in playing against his brother’s club soon was dashed: after initially holding their own against the Nationals, tied at 6–6 into the fourth inning, the Reds ultimately were humiliated by a count of 53–10. Although this would be their only loss of the year, it came against their only opponent from outside the tri-state area, and so a lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season the Red Stocking directors instructed Harry to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from distant places. The upshot, of course, was the brazenly professional Red Stockings of 1869, undefeated against all comers from coast to coast.

After crushing the Red Stockings and four other patsies, the Nationals headed for Chicago for highly anticipated games against that city’s best, the Excelsiors and Atlantics, named in emulation of Brooklyn’s finest clubs. The Forest Citys of Rockford had already played the Excelsiors twice that year, losing narrowly each time—the scores were 45–41 and 28–25—and thus ceded the state championship. All the same, the Rockford boys were given the consolation prize of an invitation to Chicago to play what amounted to a warmup game against the Nationals on Thursday the 25th at Dexter Park. On the following Saturday the Nationals would defeat Rockford’s nemesis, the Excelsiors, by a score of 49–4 (not a typo); on Monday the Washington nine would trounce the Atlantics by 78–17.

Facing a frightful outcome, the “corn crackers” of Rockford were led by novice pitcher Albert Spalding, not yet seventeen years of age. Four decades later he recalled:

I experienced a severe case of stage fright when I found myself in the pitcher’s box, facing such renowned players as George Wright, [Frank] Norton, [Harry] Berthrong, [George] Fox, and others of the visiting team…. A great lump arose in my throat, and my heart beat so like a trip-hammer that I imagined it could be heard by everyone on the grounds. I knew, also, that every player on the Rockford nine had an idea that their kid pitcher would surely become rattled and go to pieces as soon as the strong batters of the Nationals had opportunity to fall upon his delivery….

There were several interesting plays in the game, as noted in the contemporary press. In the third inning Al Barker of Rockford “went to his base on a ball which dropped from the bat.” Sounds like a bunt, doesn’t it? Yet the “baby hit” is thought today to have been invented by Tom Barlow some years later (Tommy is equally famous as baseball’s first drug addict, hooked on morphine in 1874). In the sixth inning George Wright “took the bat and by a splendid stroke to center field made a home run.” As Spalding recalled,

…the Forest Citys had by this time gotten pretty well settled and their stage-fright had disappeared, yet none of us even then had the remotest idea that we were destined to win the game over such a famous antagonist. The thought or suggestion of such a thing at that stage would probably have thrown us into another mental spasm.

At this psychological moment, Col. Frank Jones, President of the National Club, rushed up to George Wright, who was about to take his position at the bat, and said, in a louder voice possibly than he intended:

“Do you know, George, that this is the seventh innings and we are six runs behind? You must discard your heavy bat and take a lighter one; for to lose this game would be to make our whole trip a failure.” Col. Jones’ excited manner plainly indicated his anxiety.

This incident inspired the Rockfords with confidence and determination, and for the first time we began to realize that victory was not only possible, but probable, and the playing of our whole team from that time forward was brilliant.

The eighth inning produced a double play, still rare in these days before the glove: “Wright struck and went to first base. Fox followed and knocked a ball to Spalding, who threw it to Addy on 2b, and Addy immediately sent it to 1st, thus putting out Wright and Fox. This was very finely done.” Rockford and Spalding held their six-run lead, emerging victorious by a score of 29–23.

There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. Immediately it was alleged that the Nationals had tanked the game so as to narrow the odds for their coming contest against the Atlantics. When the Nationals won that game handily to close out their tour, the cries of fraud regarding the Rockford contest only grew louder. No one could have known that several of the Forest City lads would one day become nationally prominent players—particularly Spalding and infielder Ross Barnes.

The Nationals broke up after the season, but even in defeat their Steinbrennerian squadron had supplied the model for how baseball might succeed as America’s game. The club had brought together the best talent from distant places, and playing skill rather than local celebrity would be the path to victory ever after. Cincinnati began importing stars in 1868, and one year later took the Washington Nationals model to its logical conclusion—an all-star team.

While it is often written that the Red Stockings of 1869 were the first professional club, we have seen this not to be so. Every member of the 1867 Nationals was paid to play. That they lost to Rockford, a club that had been defeated by the Excelsiors, whom the Nationals went on to drub mercilessly, points to one of the game’s glories, routinely on exhibit every day.

You just don’t know who’s going to win.

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