David Voigt’s History of Baseball

David Q. Voigt

David Q. Voigt

My old friend and illustrious colleague David Quentin Voigt died on January 16 at the age of 89. I asked him to create for the first edition of Total Baseball (1989) a section on the history of baseball for they who must run as they read; he provided an overview that was remarkably erudite and entertaining. I will serialize it over the coming days. On April 24, 1999, Albright College staged a symposium to honor Emeritus Professor Voigt, with two panel discussions in the morning followed by a baseball game between the Reading Phillies and the Erie Angels at Reading Memorial Stadium. With authors Lee Lowenfish, John Bloom, and Jules Tygiel, I served on a a panel discussing the then current state of baseball. I can recall David enjoying my remark that nostalgia was curdled history, that in baseball the real story was better. Here David Voigt tells it as it was.

Introduction

Deeply embedded in the folklore of American sports is the story of baseball’s supposed invention by a young West Point cadet, Abner Doubleday, in the summer of 1839 at the village of Cooperstown, New York. The yarn originated in 1907, in the final report of a committee commissioned by major league executives to inquire into the origins of “America’s National Game.”

The claim that the game was invented by the late Doubleday, who also won enduring fame as a Union general in the Civil War, was based on the dubious testimony of Abner Graves, a retired mining engineer. Indeed, Graves claimed to have actually witnessed the long-ago event. The Graves account appealed to committeeman Albert G. Spalding, a former star player and club owner, and concurrently a famous sporting goods tycoon and a fervently patriotic American.

He persuaded his colleagues to accept the Doubleday invention account without further ado. With the release of the final version of the committee’s report, the legend of baseball’s immaculate conception began to worm its way into American mythology. Ever since then, sports historians have repeatedly and futilely assailed the Doubleday account, arguing that Abner Doubleday never visited Cooperstown in 1839, that his diaries contain no reference to the game, and that the form of baseball he supposedly invented far too closely resembled the game as it was played in the early 1900s.

Indeed, sports historians have marshaled impressive evidence showing that American baseball, far from being an independent invention, evolved out of various ball-and-stick games that had been played in many areas of the world since the beginnings of recorded history. Among many suggested precursors of baseball, a Russian ball-and-stick game called lapta was recently advanced by propagandists in the last years of the Soviet empire. But in early America, precursors of baseball included informal games of English origin such as paddleball, trap ball, one-old-cat, rounders, and town ball. The latter was a popular game in colonial New England and was played by adults and children with a bat and ball on an open field.

From Robin Carver's Book of Sports, 1834

From Robin Carver’s Book of Sports, 1834

Moreover, printed references to “base ball” in America date back to the eighteenth century. Among these accounts is one of Albigence Waldo, a surgeon with Washington’s troops at Valley Forge who poetically told of soldiers batting balls and running bases in their free time. And in the early 1820s, the grandfather of the late novelist Samuel Hopkins Adams vividly recalled playing “base ball” on Mr. Mumford’s pasture lot. Similarly in 1834 Robin Carver’s Book of Sports related that an American version of rounders called “base” or “goal ball” was rivaling cricket in popularity among Americans. Indeed, cricket played a role in the evolution of organized baseball. From this British game came umpires and innings, and early baseball writers like Henry Chadwick used cricket terminology such as “batsman,” “playing for the side,” and “excellent field” in describing early baseball games.

Likewise, the pioneer baseball innovator Harry Wright, a cricket professional turned baseball manager, drew heavily on his cricket background in promoting baseball as a professional team sport in the United States.

As an evolutionary blend of informal bat-and-ball games and the formal game of cricket, baseball needed no virgin birth to become a popular American field sport. By the 1840s various forms of baseball vied for acceptance, including the popular Massachusetts and New York versions of the game. The Massachusetts game utilized an irregular four-sided field of play, with the four bases located at fixed, asymmetrical distances from each other and the “striker’s,” or batter’s position away from the home base. “Scouts,” or fielders, put men out by fielding a batted ball on the fly or on the first bounce, or by hitting a runner with a thrown ball. But this lively version of the game was overshadowed in the late 1840s by the “New York game,” a popular version of which was devised by the members of the New York Knickerbocker Club.

Knickebockers' First Recorded Game, at Hoboken, October 6, 1845

Knickebockers’ First Recorded Game, at Hoboken, October 6, 1845

Organized in 1845 by a band of aspiring gentlemen and baseball enthusiasts, the Knickerbocker version was devised by one of their members, Alexander J. Cartwright. Cartwright prescribed a diamond-shaped infield with bases at ninety feet apart, a standard which has stood the test of time. The pitching distance was set at forty-five feet from the home base, and a pitcher was required to “pitch” a ball in a stiff-armed, underhanded fashion. The three-strikes-are-out rule was adopted, and a batter could also be put out by a fielder catching a batted ball in the air, or on the first bounce, or by throwing a fielded ball to the first baseman before the runner arrived. Other innovations included the nine-man team and three outs ending a team’s batting in their half of an inning. Thus Cartwright’s version of baseball became the basis of the game as presently played. Over the years, other innovations were added, including the nine-inning standard for games, changes in the pitching distance, and so on.

Once it was published and propagated by the Knickerbockers, the “New York game” was speedily adopted by other baseball clubs that sprang up in the New York City area and in other towns and cities of antebellum America. In the 1850s the rise of baseball clubs and team competition helped to meet the recreational needs of Americans who were caught up in an increasingly urban and industrial society. By the 1860s one of every six Americans lived in towns or cities, and by then newspapers were covering games and noting the booming popularity of baseball.

Mostly a northern and midwestern phenomenon, baseball fever ran highest in the New York City area, where in the 1850s games were being played “on every available green plot within a ten-mile circuit of the city.” Spearheading the baseball boom were formally organized clubs with officers, clubhouses and playing grounds. Among the many clubs, the Knickerbockers sought to rule the game by posing as arbiters of play, rules, and decorum. Since no leagues or playing schedules existed, formal games in the 1850s were arranged by correspondence between club secretaries. The lordly Knickerbockers resisted such overtures, preferring to play among themselves, yet insisting on their preeminence over all other clubs.

But the dynamic American game was not to be bound by gentlemanly monopolists or by arbitrary codes of amateurism. By the end of the 1850s, victories and the prospect of gate receipts were becoming more important factors. As more clubs embraced these goals, greater emphasis was placed on obtaining good players at whatever affronts to amateur standards.

In 1858 the Knickerbockers were dethroned as would-be overlords of baseball by the newly organized National Association of Base Ball Players. That year, representatives of twenty-five clubs formed the Association for the ostensible purpose of codifying rules and establishing guidelines for organized clubs and team competition. But the Association speedily established itself as the new arbiter of the game. Among its early rulings were the establishment of a pitcher’s box and the standardization of the nine-inning game. The Association also approved the practice of charging paid admissions at games and that year saw 1,500 spectators pay 50 each to watch a game played between Brooklyn and New York “all-star” teams. Although the Association established no league or formal playing schedules, its authority was accepted and it lasted until 1871, when it was replaced by a lame organization called the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players, to differentiate it from the newly founded National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

Meanwhile, by 1860 some sixty clubs had joined the first National Association; mostly they came from the East and Midwest, but a sprinkling of college teams was included. By then, the mounting hostilities between the North and South account for the absence of southern clubs.

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, NC

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, NC

American baseball’s popularity was at high tide when the Civil War broke out, but the South was excluded from major league baseball competition for many years. Indeed, one of the smaller legacies of the war between the states was major league baseball’s east-west alignment of its franchises. And yet the war, which claimed 600,000 American lives, also popularized the game in all sections of the country, as soldiers in both armies played the game in camps and in prison compounds. This infusion of interest in the game set the stage for an even greater baseball boom which swept the North in the immediate postwar era.

Meanwhile, as the war raged toward its conclusion, baseball’s popularity diminished for a time on the northern home front. Still, strong teams like the Brooklyn Excelsiors, the Brooklyn Eckfords, and the Brooklyn Atlantics delighted fans by their spirited competition.

At the time, pitcher Jim Creighton of the Excelsiors became a popular hero by leading his team on a victorious eastern tour in 1860. In 1862 and 1863 the Eckfords laid claim to being America’s best team, and the Brooklyn Atlantics, led by Dickey Pearce, boasted consecutive unbeaten seasons in 1864 and 1865.

The game’s popularity among returning soldiers helped to inspire a major baseball boom in post-Civil War America. By 1865 the game was widely touted as America’s “national game,” and its growing popularity was evidenced by the proliferation of organized clubs. In 1865, ninety-one clubs had joined the Association; the following year membership swelled to nearly two hundred; and 1867 saw more than three hundred clubs enrolled, including more than a hundred from midwestern towns and cities. At their own expense, the powerful Washington Nationals embarked on an unprecedented midwestern tour in 1867; they were beaten in one game by the previously unheralded Rockford (Illinois) Forest City nine.Washington National Invitation_a

Although the Nationals’ tour suggested that some type of organized competition was needed, it failed to produce such reforms as an organized league or a fixed playing schedule. However, editor Frank Queen of the New York Clipper, a popular sporting journal, hit upon the idea of giving gold awards annually to the best team and the nine best players. But such judgments were arbitrary and inadequate. Meanwhile, the style of play continued to improve in the late 1860s. Pitchers became more than passive servers as one of them, Arthur “Candy” Cummings, popularized a wrist-twisting, curved-ball delivery. Moreover, fielders became more mobile, baserunners took to sliding to avoid fielders’ tags, and a rule change outlawed the one-bounce-and-out catch.

But baseball’s dynamic postwar growth also confronted the shaky National Association with vexing problems. Rampant commercialism was one of them. As more clubs charged admission to games, many took to dividing receipts among the players. This trend swelled the ranks of “professional” players, whose presence posed a serious threat to the Association’s amateur code. In 1863 Association leaders debated the problem, but vacillated by grudgingly allowing professionals to retain their memberships.

The following year the Association defined a professional player as one who “plays base ball for money, place, or emolument.” The definition embraced many players, some of whom drew straight salaries, or shared gate receipts, or occupied jobs that were awarded as a subterfuge to conceal their ball-playing activities. What’s more, some of the professionals were jumping their contracts for better offers from other clubs. Dubbed “revolvers,” they posed a major threat to the shaky authority of the National Association.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1869 

By the late 1860s baseball was becoming more of a business, and playing competitive baseball was becoming a recognized career. As baseball writer Henry Chadwick observed in 1868, a new rank ordering among ball players was evidenced by the makeup of the Brooklyn Atlantics club. At the top was the club’s elite professional team, followed by the club’s amateur nine, with the lowly “muffins,” or third-rate players, at the bottom. As baseball clubs came to be dominated by professional interests, some clubs financed their operations by selling stock shares and becoming joint stock companies, while others, which depended on shared gate receipts, operated as “cooperative nines.”

Until 1869 the professional movement in baseball was mainly a covert trend, but in that year the Cincinnati Red Stocking club boldly announced its intention of fielding an all-salaried team which would compete against the top teams in the land. This forthright move was the brainchild of club president Aaron B. Champion, a Cincinnati businessman and local booster.

The Reds were not the first professional team, nor the first all-salaried team, nor the first team to go undefeated over a season. But as the first openly announced all-salaried team, the Reds, led by player-manager Harry Wright, who became known as the “Father of Professional Baseball,” toured the country in 1869, winning some 60 games without a loss. The following year, the well-drilled Reds won another 24 before losing in June to the host Brooklyn Atlantics by an 8-7 score in eleven innings.

Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869

Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869

Although the Reds’ effort was financially unremunerative to its stockholders, who voted to return to amateur play after the 1870 season, the experiment inspired an enduring myth that professional baseball in America arose out of this episode. In truth the professional movement was already strongly entrenched. But the Reds’ example inspired imitators and brought the smouldering amateur-professional controversy to a head.

Thus when the National Association, at its annual meeting in 1870, sought to curb the professional movement, the professional delegates withdrew and formed their own organization in March 1871. This successful coup stunned the amateur National Association, which never recovered and died in 1874. It also marked the beginning of major league baseball in America. From 1871 to the present day, most changes in American baseball rules and style of play would be inspired by the professional major leagues.

The First Major League: The National Association, 1871-1875

America’s first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was also the first major league. In its ranks were the strongest teams and the best players. The players controlled the league and enjoyed full freedom of contract and movement. Financial support came to those clubs whose stockholders or investors derived more prestige than monetary rewards from their sponsorship. And in this artist-patron relationship, player salaries had a higher priority than investor profits.

The National Association was created by a single evening’s work on March 17, 1871. Structurally the league resembled the old amateur National Association, whose constitution was modified to serve professional interests and whose playing rules were adopted. Admission to the professional league required the payment of a ten-dollar entry fee, in stark contrast to the multimillion-dollar price tag now placed on a major league franchise. Like its predecessor, the professional National Association lacked a fixed schedule of games; each team was expected to play each rival five times in a season, with playing dates to be arranged by secretarial correspondence. The championship pennant was awarded to the team with the most victories, and a championship committee was empowered to rule on any disputed claims.

Although the National Association dominated organized baseball in 1871-1875, its structural defects portended its coming demise.

Collier's Saloon (right) where NA formed March 17, 1871.

Collier’s Saloon (right) where National Association formed on March 17, 1871.

The player-run organization wielded little control over players or teams. The easy admission policy made for a chronic dropout problem as disenchanted teams found it easy to turn their backs on ten dollars. Because of the absence of a fixed playing schedule, few contending teams played their required quota of games. Disputes over officiating stemmed from a reliance on volunteer umpires. Teams also quarreled over ticket pricing and the division of gate receipts. Indeed, most teams lost money, and such losses fueled the tension between players and investors. Critics accused the player-controlled league of failing to discipline players, especially the contract jumpers, drunkards, and alleged game fixers. Unresolved problems like these sowed the seeds of the league’s eventual collapse, but while it lasted, the National Association also provided spectators with a sprightly brand of baseball.

Campaigns of the National Association

The Association’s 1871 campaign featured an exciting three-way battle between the Chicago White Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, and Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings. The Chicago team, which was housed in a new 7,000-seat wooden park and which boasted a $4,500 salaried star among its players, set a fast pace until the city’s tragic fire destroyed the park. Forced to play their remaining games on the road, the White Stockings finished third and dropped out of the league until 1874. At the season’s end, the Athletics and Red Stockings each had won 22 games, but the championship committee awarded the pennant to the Athletics, who had fewer losses.

Harry Wright’s plea that his Boston Reds had come closer to meeting their scheduled obligations was disallowed. Thus in spite of continuing controversy and a devastating fire, the National Association enjoyed an auspicious debut.

Most clubs profited, and only one dropped out of the race. At the Association’s annual meeting, the professionals tightened their hold on the league by electing one of their own, Bob Ferguson of the Brooklyn Atlantics, to serve as president.

George Wright, by Warren

George Wright, by Warren

Eleven clubs entered the lists for the 1872 campaign, but hopes for a wide-open race were crushed by Harry Wright’s powerful Boston team, which rolled to the championship on a 39-8 record. Stocked with stars like pitcher Al Spalding, infielder Ross Barnes (whose bunting prowess permitted him to take maximum advantage of the then-prevailing fair-foul hitting rule), and shortstop George Wright, the Red Stockings won the first of four consecutive pennants. They were the first of many powerful major league dynasties to come, a phenomenon which, over the course of major league baseball history, consistently made a mockery of the idea of competitive balance.

With nine teams competing in 1873, the Reds won a second pennant by staging a late-season drive to overtake the front-running Philadelphia “Phillies,” or “Whites.” Two Boston newcomers, catcher Jim White and outfielder Jim O’Rourke, contributed to the Reds’ 43-16 winning gait. Although overall league revenues were disappointing, only one club dropped from contention during the course of the season.

In 1874, Wright’s Reds posted a 52-18 record, to lap the New York Mutuals by 7.5 games. That year Wright’s team was the only one to play its full schedule of games, an impressive feat considering that Wright’s team, in company with the Philadelphia Athletics, embarked upon a six-week baseball tour of Britain in hopes of persuading English sportsmen to adopt America’s “national game.” Like this first baseball mission, the Association’s 1874 season was a financial bust.

Although only one club dropped out of the race, accusations of gambling and fixed games clouded the league’s reputation.

The 1875 season was the last campaign of the National Association. Thirteen teams entered the fray, but Boston’s juggernaut, headed by Spalding, Barnes, O’Rourke, White, and George Wright, buried all rivals. With four Boston men topping the league’s hitters, the Reds posted a 71-8 record to finish 15 games up on their nearest pursuers. Of the thirteen contenders, seven failed to finish the 1875 season.

Now in full disarray, the sullied National Association reeled under problems of competitive imbalance, financial losses, and excessive player freedom. The time was ripe for a reformist coup, and a new breed of club directors, headed by William A. Hulbert of the Chicago White Stockings, moved to raise a rival major league that would better serve the interests of the club owners.

Harry Wright, Ars Longa rendition

Harry Wright, Ars Longa rendition

But the pioneering National Association was by no means a failure. For all its weaknesses, the Association had popularized professional baseball. Supporters like Henry Chadwick, the innovative sportswriter who now wore the title of “Father of Base Ball,” publicized the league by his coverage of games and by his statistics-laden guidebooks. Chadwick’s game coverage provided detailed accounts of games with box scores, including a lasting version which he devised in 1876. Such coverage enhanced the game’s popularity and inspired widespread coverage by leading newspapers. Chadwick also served on the Association’s rules committee, which approved a pitching change that allowed the underhanded pitchers to utilize wrist-snapping curveballs. But Chadwick’s quixotic proposal to make baseball a ten-man game failed.

The Association’s most solid innovator was Harry Wright, who set high standards for professional promotion. Wright’s Boston payroll was baseball’s highest until the early 1880s. As Boston’s manager, Wright presided over a $35,000 annual budget and dealt creatively with such problems as proper groundskeeping, equipment design and procurement, advertising, and the recruiting and training of players. Wright’s mastery paid off in his team’s astonishing success. He was honored in these years as the “Father of Professional Base Ball,” and his envious colleagues also referred to the National Association as “Harry Wright’s League.”

Part 2 tomorrow.

4 Comments

Tremendous writing and research. What a gifted scholar. Thanks, John.

With a great gift for condensation, as you will see when the story progresses in this space, day by day this week and next.

Pingback: David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 2 « Our Game

My condolences on the passing of your close friend. Seems as if the survivor is destined to suffer a Pyrrhic victory.

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