April 2014

Picture Portfolio No. 4: Baseball in the 1880s


Having launched this miniseries with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and then Women in Baseball, I’d like to offer here the first of a decade series on the old ball game. Chronology may be God’s way of telling a story–and thus an unassailable organizing principle–but the seat of my pants tells me to start with the booming 1880s. This is an era of plentiful baseball cards, gorgeous chromolithography, and the dawn of action photography. My self-imposed limit if 15 images truly chafes. Backdrop:

On February 2, 1876, in a meeting at the Grand Central Hotel in New York, William A. Hulbert, Albert G. Spalding, and the Western faction of owners had left the National Association (NA) and created a new National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NL). As it would turn out, the new league won the war, sending the NA into instant oblivion, but not the peace. The remaining years of the 1870s were dicey indeed.

Once both were eliminated from the 1876 pennant race, dominated by Hulbert’s new powerhouse White Stockings, their concluding Western swing of the season portended nothing but losses at the gate. Anticipating no consequence to their action, the Mutuals of New York and the Athletics of Philadelphia declined to fulfill their remaining schedule; after all, in the NA such conduct had been tolerated–and the Mutuals and Athletics had been accustomed to determining their own fortunes. Not only were they among the original National Association franchises of 1871, they had been playing ball under their own banners since the 1850s.

The Mutuals, who did not play fourteen of their scheduled seventy games in 1876, and the Athletics, who canceled eleven contests, were by no means the only financially straitened clubs in the NL ’s inaugural campaign; in fact only Chicago was in the black (a state of affairs that would endure all the way up to 1880, as the economic effects of the Panic of 1873 lingered in a long recession rivaling the current one).

At the league meetings in December 1876, despite the financial implications of losing the nation’s two biggest markets and having to limp along with only six entrants in the upcoming season, Hulbert expelled the two franchises. The NL would not return to New York or Philadelphia for six years.

In 1880 Hulbert expelled the Cincinnati franchise for selling “spirituous and malt liquors” on the grounds, which in truth violated neither his sensibilities nor league statute. With this heavy-handed action Hulbert, the former firebrand, sparked an insurrection: a rival league, the American Association (AA) of 1882, centered in the fun-loving, hard-drinking, and now deeply resentful city of Cincinnati. The rival circuit may also have sprung into being because its organizers saw that the NL had at last begun to stop bleeding money.

The AA soon became known as not Alcoholics Anonymous but the Beer and Whisky League, and by charging only twenty-five cents admission while occupying some of the very population centers the NL had abandoned, it gave the league a good run for its money for a decade. This competition, against which the NL had railed, ultimately saved baseball and created a groundswell of enthusiasm that propelled the two major leagues into seemingly permanent status, while giving rise to two one-year rivals as well: the Union Association of 1884 and the Players League of of 1890.

When the NL succeeded, after the 1891 season, in removing all rivals to its supremacy, it found itself once again sliding into disfavor, a condition from which another pretender–Ban Johnson’s American League–rescued it at the dawn of the 20th century. Here are fifteen images from Major League Baseball’s first era of prosperity, what Mark Twain termed the “outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”


Baseball as One Word or Two: More

1885 Base Ball ABC, McLoughlin

1885 Base Ball ABC, McLoughlin

On August 16, 2012, I ran a column called “Baseball or Base Ball?” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/08/16/is-it-baseball-or-base-ball/). For those who recall the story or prefer not to follow the link, here are some highlights of that anonymous scribble in the Trenton Evening Times of November 13, 1915.

A small but influential minority con­tinue to adhere to the old notion that baseball isn’t baseball at all, but base ball. That is, that it is not one word, but two…. In the early days of the game “base ball” was universal. After a time, as the game increased in popu­larity, many publications adopted the hyphenated form, and it became “base-ball.” At a still later period along in the ’80s, as nearly as can be discovered—the newspapers began to drop the hyphen, and “base­ball” came into use.

With the aid of modern online databases and applications, plus some good old-fashioned ingenuity, we can bring data to the question of “Baseball or Base Ball?” My estimable friend Bruce Allardice searched the extensive newspaper set at genealogybank.com for each word in each yera from 1859 to 1900, and then 1905 and 1910 as a confirmation of the trend by which baseball superseded “base ball” forevermore.  Bruce writes:

Base Ball for Beginners, 1921

The general trends are clear. The exact numbers for any year depend on the vagaries of the OCR reads, and the OCR handling of the hyphenated (due to a line break) “base-ball.”

What strikes me is that the two-word “base ball” usage lasted far longer than previous scholars have thought. 1896-97 marks the time when baseball came to be used more often than base ball.

The chart below also illustrates the rise of newspaper reporting of the game. Note that the GenBank search process generally counts the hyphenated form, “base-ball,” as two words (i.e., as “base ball”).

Hits in GenBank Newspapers, by year

Year  “Base Ball”       “Baseball”  Total  1-Word %

1859  328                   26          354      7.3

1860  600                   32          632      5.0

1861  193                   23          216      10.6

1862  268                   14          282      5.0

1863  214                   11          225      4.9

1864  395                   34          429      7.9

1865  1544                 107         1651     6.5

1866  3354                 196         3550     5.5

1867  5656                 557         6213     9.0

1868  4559                 419         4978     8.4

1869  4840                 577         5417     10.6

1870  5926                 827         6753     12.2

1871  5126                 809         5935     13.6

1872  3445                 422         3867     10.9

1873  3355                 952         4307     22.1

1874  6567                1124        7691     14.6

1875  8029                1180        9209     12.8

1876  6530                 983         7513     13.1

1877  4941                 908         5849     15.5

1878  4779                1152        5931     19.4

1879  5444                1086        6530     16.6

1880  3740                 886         4626     19.1

1881  4512                 991         5503     18.0

1882  6307                1848        8155     22.7

1883  8307                2716        11023    24.6

1884  8847                3129        11976    26.1

1885  9207                3864        13071    29.6

1886  11681               4328        16009    27.0

1887  15605               6744        22349    30.2

1888  16057               9648        25705    37.5

1889  18973               8370        27243    30.7

1890  18654               9032        27686    32.6

1891  17555               9363        26918    34.8

1892  12821               9517        22338    42.6

1893  11932               8796        20728    42.4

1894  13722              10779       24501    44.0

1895  15762              14411       30173    47.8

1896  15763              15046       30809    48.8

1897  16135              20866       37001    56.4

1898  13165              15322       28487    53.8

1899  14728              18565       33293    55.8

1900  12194              21157       33351    63.4





1905  16384              43989       60373    72.9





1910  16180              78295       94475    82.9

An additional test may be run through Google’s marvelous Ngram Viewer, which graphs the appearances of baseball vs. those of “base ball” across all the books published (and digitized) from 1800 to 2000. [http://goo.gl/5tez3u]. You may view the disparity at intervals, or jog the results year by year.




Outsiders in the Ragtime Era

Outsider Baseball, Scott Simkus

Outsider Baseball, Scott Simkus

This guest column is by Scott Simkus, author of the new Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950, available at all booksellers. If it is not at your local bookstore, become irate. As I say on the back of Scott’s dustjacket, “This is the best baseball book you will read this year.”

The early morning phone call wasn’t much of a surprise. Inebriated, the star first baseman stumbled into a downtown Chicago theater, where he attempted to accost his wife backstage. Handlers gained control before the situation unraveled, and had the 29-year-old slugger ushered into a taxi cab.

At four o’clock in the morning, James “Nixey” Callahan, manager of the semipro Logan Squares club, sauntered across the cobblestones of 34th street, bailing his man out of the local police station. His man was none other than Mike Donlin, one of the most feared hitters during the deadball era, and a world-class carouser off the field. Eight years earlier, Donlin was actually locked up in a northern California prison when he first learned he’d been signed to a major league contract, and he’d spend several more times behind bars before his career was over. Truly, the only surprising thing for manager Callahan on that muggy August day was the fact Mike Donlin had made it almost five consecutive months without a major incident.

Just two years earlier, in 1905, Donlin had had the best year of his career, when he batted .356 (third highest in the NL, just a few points behind Honus Wagner) with 16 triples and 33 stolen bases. His 1906 campaign began exactly where it had left off the previous season: Donlin was leading all National League batters with a .364 mark before breaking his ankle during a game in Cincinnati. He’d eventually return near the end of the year, and while playing with a noticeable limp, managed only 1-for-14 in mostly pinch-hitting situations, lowering his overall batting average to .314 in 37 games.

Mike Donlin and Mabel Hite, 1908

Mike Donlin and Mabel Hite, 1908

The outfielder fully recovered over the winter, then began a spirited public contract negotiation with his employer. Seventy years before free agency, a reserve clause ballplayer didn’t really have much in his arsenal, in terms of dickering over compensation. The Giants were offering $3300, the same figure Donlin had been paid the previous two seasons, even though he’d been injured. Donlin wanted a clause added, effectively having both parties wager on his off-the-field behavior. If he could stay out of trouble during the championship season, Mike wanted New York to pay him an extra $600 bonus, bringing his total salary to $3900. If he fell off the wagon, he would be docked $600 by mutual agreement, lowering his annual compensation to $2,700. The Giants balked.

Donlin threatened to join the theater, if the Giants didn’t agree to his terms. His pretty young wife, Mabel Hite, was a nationally known actress, and Mike had already performed with her on the vaudeville circuit. Reporters wondered if Donlin was upset over how he had been treated when injured the previous season; although he admitted that he had paid the $75 medical bills from his own pocket, he wasn’t the sort of fellow to hold a grudge over such a small dollar figure. The Giants officially rejected Donlin’s proposal on February 13, and two days later, reports surfaced that the outfielder was entertaining offers from Chicago-area semipro teams, where Donlin had been spending his offseason.

Mike Donlin

Mike Donlin

With spring camp just around the corner, New York Giants ballplayers living in the Midwest were instructed to meet in Chicago, where they would connect with John McGraw and the rest of the team, on their way to Los Angeles. Roger Bresnahan was the first to arrive, where he joined Donlin, who was hoping to hammer out a deal before heading out west. Sammy Strang, Cecil Ferguson, Frank Bowerman and a couple of rookies arrived shortly thereafter. Within a couple days, Donlin had convinced everybody (with the exception of Bresnahan) to hold out for more money. He was trying to drag one quarter of the club into his own contract negotiation. When McGraw and the rest of the Giants arrived, the miniature player rebellion almost immediately collapsed. Everybody got on the L.A.-bound train, with the exception of Donlin and Bowerman, who were both being offered $400 a month to play for a Kewanee, Illinois semipro outfit.

The newspapers sizzled with conflicting reports on March 11. One story claimed Donlin and his wife had purchased the St. Joseph franchise in the Western League and that he’d run the club from the bench. On the same day, another report said Donlin and McGraw had worked out their differences and that Mike would be rejoining the Giants in the near future. Both were erroneous.

On April 4, after meeting with McGraw in Louisville, Mike Donlin officially ended negotiations and accepted a deal to stay in Chicago, where he’d play baseball for the independent Logan Squares during the day, then work nights at the Whitney  Opera House. He’d kept in shape by exercising at the Bartlett Gymnasium on the University of Chicago campus and was ready to go. His wife was the female lead in a musical comedy called “A Knight for a Day,” and had signed a 62-week contract with the Whitney Opera House, reportedly worth $1,400 per month. Her husband was being kept on retainer by the theater, being paid $50 a week to stay in town. Sometimes he collected tickets at the theatre door, other times he appeared on stage during the performance, and still other times he’d simply show up drunk and try to start fights with his wife.

My Cinderella Girl starring William Norris, not Mabel Hite, was a 1910 hit in Chicago.

My Cinderella Girl starring William Norris, not Mabel Hite, was a 1910 hit at the Whitney.

During the day, he was playing first base for Nixey Callahan’s team in what was arguably the most controversial baseball league in the country. For his services, Donlin was collecting an annual salary of $1500, on top of his $50 weekly stipend from the theater. For the remaining 39 weeks of 1907, he could see an income of $3450 from his two jobs, slightly higher than the $3300 offered by the New York Giants. His wife was scheduled to earn $13,728 thru December 31. Combined, the Donlin–Hite team would earn more $17,000, or twice what the highest-paid baseball players, such as Napoleon Lajoie and Honus Wagner, were making at the time.

Mike Donlin’s manager with the Logan Squares, Nixey Callahan, had broken into the major leagues in 1894, then became player-manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1903, at the tender age of 29. The next year, Callahan resigned his post as manager in midseason to focus on his role as an everyday ballplayer. Then after 1905, Callahan surprised White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey by quitting altogether. He was going to build his own ballpark on the city’s north side, joining the ranks of the independent professionals. At 32 years old, he was still a productive ballplayer when he walked away, and the National Commission blacklisted him. During his first season at the helm of the Logan Squares, Callahan claimed to have earned $12,000 for his efforts, probably three times what he would have earned had he stayed with the White Sox.

Callahan, 1907 Logan Squares

Callahan, 1907 Logan Squares

By the time Mike Donlin joined the Logan Squares in 1907, they were performing in what was more a loosely organized coalition of ball clubs than an actual league, but the talent in Chicago was legitimate and the money green. Callahan and Donlin’s arch rivals during the summer were Rube Foster’s Leland Giants, the “colored” champions of the Midwest, and the Havana Stars, featuring the best baseball players from Cuba. The other local clubs, such as the Gunthers and West Ends, featured former and future big leaguers. Cap Anson even had a team in the circuit. A teammate with Callahan and Donlin was former major leaguer Harry “Moose” McCormick. McCormick played under an alias (“Harrison”), then returned to the big leagues in 1908, becoming a central figure in the famous “Merkle Boner” incident late in the season.

Another rogue free agent who signed with the Chicago City League, rather than play in the majors, was Jake Stahl, who’d served as player-manager of the Washington Senators the previous year. Callahan, Donlin, McCormick, and Stahl all suited up for the same all-star team in a heated championship series with Rube Foster’s Leland Giants. The all-star team’s line-up was comprised almost entirely of former and future major leaguers, but lost their hotly contested set with the Leland Giants.

On the field, Mike Donlin was dominant. After a slow start, he turned on the afterburners, smoking line drives throughout the summer. In 50 surviving box scores, Donlin batted .419 with 27 doubles and 3 home runs. He was one of the best players in the world, performing in a baseball environment on par with a high minor league. Against the black teams, Donlin’s average was .321 in eight games played. Callahan batted about .339 in 62 games in 1907, including a .303 mark versus the Cuban and black clubs.

Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927) featured an aging Donlin

Donlin in Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927)

This is what free agency looked like in the ragtime era: active major leaguers carving out niche opportunities in large cities such as Chicago, where the population’s thirst for baseball far outstripped the ability of its two existing major league clubs to service it. And at the neighborhood level, the game was colorblind. Even Cap Anson, the so-called architect of professional baseball’s color line, suited up once and played against the Leland Giants. (He went hitless.)

Callahan, Donlin, McCormick, and Stahl all paid heavy fines, but eventually returned to the big league ranks. Mike Donlin and Mabel Hite patched up their differences and together had another successful theatre run later on, but the actress tragically succumbed to stomach cancer in 1912, after a twelve-month struggle. She was only 29 years old. Donlin remarried, but never really changed his partygoer ways. After his playing days were over, he forged a decent career as a film actor in Hollywood, but squandered much of his earnings. He passed away in 1933, virtually penniless.