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.”