David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 2

William A. Hulbert

William A. Hulbert

This is the second installment of David Voigt’s history, as fine a brief telling of the tale as I know. This series commenced yesterday at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2016/01/19/david-voigts-history-of-baseball/

The First Stable League: The National League

President William A. Hulbert of the Chicago White Stockings was the driving force behind the coup that dethroned the National Association. Determined to field a strong team in Chicago, Hulbert in 1875 signed Boston pitcher Al Spalding to play with Chicago the following season, along with three other Boston stars: Ross Barnes, Jim White, and Cal McVey. Hulbert also signed Adrian Anson of the Athletics, who later became Chicago’s longtime player-manager and the first major league hitter to notch over 3,000 hits.

Fearing possible reprisals from the player-run National Association, Hulbert moved to create a new league run by business-minded club investors. Backed by representatives from the St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati clubs, Hulbert met with representatives of several eastern clubs, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Hartford, in February 1876. Out of this meeting came the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.

The first permanent major league embraced Hulbert’s thirteen-point plan of organization. In keeping with its title, the league emphasized the interests of member clubs over those of the players. Admitted as members were well-financed, joint-stock company clubs, each of which paid annual dues of $100 which were used to finance the league administrative body’s handling of disputes, recordkeeping, and officiating fees. The latter expense went for a staff of umpires, each to be paid $5 a game.

The eight charter clubs of the new National League were aligned on an east-west basis, and each team was granted a monopoly over its territory. For the 1876 season, each team agreed to play each rival ten times, with expulsion from the league the penalty for failing to do so. Adopting a high moral stance, NL leaders ordered member clubs to ban gambling, liquor sales, and Sunday games, and to draw up tightly written contracts aimed at preventing players from “revolving.” For the players this was tough medicine, but with the strongest teams enrolled in the new league, there was little to do but submit. Indeed, the National Association never survived the NL coup and collapsed in 1876.

Spalding's New Ball for 1876, Clipper

Spalding’s New Ball for 1876, Clipper

As the “Father of the National League,” Hulbert presided over its fortunes from 1877 until his death in 1882. However, this most powerful of NL presidents to date owed much to his chief lieutenant, Al Spalding, who retired from the field to become the NL’s most powerful advocate and defender. As a reward for his loyal support, Spalding’s fledgling sporting goods company received the contract to supply the league’s balls and to publish its annual guidebook. Beginning in 1877, Chadwick became the perennial editor of the league’s official Spalding Guide.

Although its debut was auspicious, the NL’s first four campaigns were marred by flagging profits, a major scandal, and opposition from a strong rival in the International Association. In 1876 Spalding pitched and managed the Chicago White Stockings to a 52-14 record, topping their closest pursuer by six games.

Chicago Champions of 1876

Chicago Champions of 1876

Because of this runaway, attendance tailed off, prompting two teams, the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Mutuals, to forgo playing their final games in the west. For this breach of rules, Hulbert expelled the pair, thereby depriving the NL of franchises in the populous Philadelphia and New York areas until 1883. However, Hulbert made no effort to replace the two; hence only six teams took the field in 1877, the year the NL adopted a formal schedule of games. Spalding’s decision to quit pitching that year dashed Chicago’s hopes, but Louisville’s hopes ran high until late in the season, when Wright’s Boston Reds overtook them and won by seven games.

But revelations that gamblers had bribed four Louisville players to lose key games marred Boston’s victory. Faced with a major crisis, Hulbert responded by banishing the four players (Jim Devlin, George Hall, William Craver, and Al Nichols) for life. In the wake of the scandal, Louisville dropped from the league, followed by Hartford and St. Louis. To replace them, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Providence clubs joined the league.

Meanwhile the NL also faced strong competition from the rival International Association. A loose league of mostly cooperative (gate-receipt-sharing) teams, the International Association threat prompted NL leaders to form a “League Alliance” of independent teams. By paying fees of ten dollars a year, League Alliance teams won the right to play exhibitions with NL teams, and the NL also pledged to honor their territorial rights and player contracts.

The hard-pressed NL suffered another profitless season in 1878, with Boston winning a second pennant by four games over Cincinnati. Still challenged by the International Association, the NL retaliated by raiding the circuit’s teams and playing rosters. Over the winter of 1878-1879, Syracuse and Buffalo were persuaded to quit the Association for memberships in the NL, while Milwaukee and Indianapolis were dropped from the NL. Troy and Cleveland were also admitted to bring the number of NL teams back to its original eight.

Such tactics undermined the International Association, which fielded an enfeebled minor league called the National Association in 1879.

1879 Providence Grays

1879 Providence Grays

In returning to an eight-team format in 1879, NL teams imposed rigid austerity measures. Among them, salaries were slashed and players compelled to buy their own uniforms and share the costs of meals. Moreover, player mobility was limited by the adherence to a reserve clause in player contracts. Limited to five players per team in 1879, by 1883 the reserve system was applied to most player contracts.

Thereafter the reserve clause became a major bone of contention between owners and players. Meanwhile Providence won the 1879 pennant race; managed by George Wright and paced by John M. Ward’s pitching, the Providence Grays won by 5 games over Wright’s Boston Reds.

NL Campaigns of the 1880s

As the sole major league in 1880, the NL saw its fortunes rise with those of the Chicago dynasty. Winners of three consecutive pennants over the years 1880-1882, the Chicago team was led by player-manager Cap Anson, a popular hero and the leading hitter of the nineteenth century. Fielding a nucleus of stars, including colorful Mike “King” Kelly, pitchers Larry Corcoran and Fred Goldsmith, and catcher Frank “Silver” Flint, Chicago topped Providence by 15 games in 1880, by nine games in 1881, and by three games in 1882. In an unofficial postseason encounter with the rival American Association’s Cincinnati champs, the two teams split a pair of games before AA officials canceled this 1882 harbinger of the World Series.

1879 Chicago Team, Anson at top

1879 Chicago Team, Anson at top

The rise of the AA threatened the dominant NL, which was left leaderless by Hulbert’s death in 1882. At Spalding’s suggestion, A.G. Mills was elected president. That fall the NL strengthened its position by dropping Troy and Worcester and planting teams in New York and Philadelphia. The NL playing schedule was increased to 98 games.

In the hotly contested 1883 race, Boston ended Chicago’s reign by edging Anson’s team by four games. That fall Mills ended the AA war by negotiating the National Agreement of 1883, which conceded major league status to the rival AA. Under the agreement, the AA adopted the reserve clause, the two leagues ceased raiding each other’s players, and postseason World Series play between the two leagues was accepted. The agreement provided for major league control over lower levels of professional baseball by recognizing the territorial rights of minor league signatories.

With frequent changes, this National Agreement remained in force until the American Association war of 1891.

In 1884 the two major leagues faced competition from another major league aspirant. To combat this Union Association incursion, the NL and AA extended reserve coverage to all players and upped their playing schedules to 112 games. The surfeit of major league games contributed to lower attendance for all three embattled leagues, but the Union Association suffered more and was driven out. Least damaged was the NL, whose sprightly 1884 campaign saw pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn employ the new rule legalizing overhand pitching with telling effect. Radbourn won 60 games to lead Providence to 10.5-game victory over runner-up Boston. And in the first officially sanctioned World Series, Radbourn defeated the AA champion Mets in three straight games.

"$10,000 Beauty" Kelly

“$10,000 Beauty” Kelly

The following year Anson’s White Stockings regained the heights as they won the first of two consecutive pennants. With ace pitcher John Clarkson winning 53 games, Chicago held off the New York Giants by two games to land the 1885 NL pennant. The Giants’ surge owed to a piece of skullduggery by its owner. Having acquired a financial interest in the AA New York Mets, the Giants plucked ace pitcher Tim Keefe from them, and Keefe won 32 games for the Giants in 1885. Such trickery by the NL now had AA leaders wary of their rival, but in the World Series of 1885 AA prestige rose when the St. Louis Browns tied the powerful Chicagoans, and it soared further in 1886, when the Browns defeated Chicago in the $15,000 winner-take-all World Series of that year. The loss blighted Chicago’s gritty 2.5-game victory over Detroit in the 1886 NL campaign. Following the loss, Spalding sold King Kelly to Boston for $10,000. The sale electrified baseball fans, but it also signaled the end of the Chicago dynasty.

In the memorable 1887 campaign, Detroit won the pennant by 3.5 games over the Philadelphia Phillies. Wildly inflated batting averages resulted from rule changes that modified the third-strike rule and scored bases on balls as hits. Detroit feasted under the new rules as Sam Thompson and the “big four” of Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Hardy Richardson, and Jim White keyed a league-leading .343 (.299 when adjusted for that year’s counting of walks as hits) team batting average. In World Series play, Detroit thrashed the Browns, winning ten of the fifteen games. That fall the rules committee scuttled the average-inflating rules and the NL increased its playing schedule to 132 games.

1887 World Series Program with Detroit

1887 World Series Program

As Detroit faded, the New York Giants captured the next two NL pennants. Managed by Jim Mutrie and captained by John Ward, the well-balanced Giants defeated Chicago by 9 games and humbled the Browns in the 1888 World Series. The following year the Giants repeated, edging Boston by a single game and then trouncing the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in the World Series.

The profitable 1889 season marked the passing of the first golden age in major baseball history. Over the next two seasons the NL fought two costly interleague wars that overshadowed the pennant races. In 1890, as the NL battled the serious challenge of the Players League, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, who were enticed to jump the AA for the NL, won by 6.5 games over Anson’s Chicago Colts. And in 1891, as the NL battled the AA, manager Frank Selee’s Boston Beaneaters defeated Chicago by 3.5 games. By then the interleague wars had ended with the NL the victor in both frays. Thus as the 1892 season dawned, the NL once again reigned supreme over major league baseball.

Major League Baseball’s Golden Age: 1880-1889

As the decade of the 1880s dawned, major league baseball was only a pale reflection of the enormously popular spectacle that it would soon become. In 1880 the NL reigned supreme, but the league’s financial performance was dismal. Thus far no NL club had matched the profits of Wright’s 1875 Boston Reds, player salaries barely exceeded those of the 1869 Cincinnati Reds, annual membership changes underscored the league’s instability, and the NL was unrepresented in the populous New York and Philadelphia areas.

At this point, however, a powerful stimulus came from the nation’s booming economic and urban growth, and professional baseball expanded vigorously. The first to prosper was the NL, but its rising fortunes inspired rivals like the American Association (AA), which was recognized as a major league under the 1883 National Agreement. The following year another rival, the Union Association, vied for major league status, but the NL and AA joined forces to crush the pretender and maintain the dual major league system. The dual major league system lasted from 1883 to 1891, when it was replaced by a single major league. But in its heyday the dual major league system, with its annual World Series competition between the two leagues, proved to be popular and profitable. By 1889 leading clubs from both circuits counted annual profits of over $100,000.

While most of the profits went to club owners, player salaries increased, averaging $2,000 a season, with a few stars getting as much as $5,000. Such gains by players were modest enough, but club owners still sought to limit player salaries. In opposing salary ceilings, players banded together under the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, which also opposed the unwritten reserve clause, unreasonable fines, and the sale of players from one club to another. In this decade the NL’s Chicago team received $10,000 apiece from the sale of “King” Kelly and John Clarkson to the Boston club.

1886 The Sporting News First Issue

1886 The Sporting News First Issue

The prosperity of the major league game was further evidenced by the expanded seasonal playing schedule. From 84 games a season in 1880 the NL increased its schedule to 132 games by 1889, while the AA upped its seasonal schedule to 140 games in 1889. To accommodate growing numbers of fans, including the 2 million who attended major league games in 1889, clubs erected new wooden parks with double-decked stands. To serve them, concessionaire Harry M. Stevens introduced the now classic baseball lunch of hot dogs, soda pop, and peanuts. And to sate the public’s hunger for baseball news, daily newspapers expanded their coverage of games, and two weekly journals devoted to baseball, Sporting Life and The Sporting News, sprang to vigorous life in this decade. Moreover, at the peak of baseball’s popularity, Spalding dispatched, in 1888-1889, two major league squads on a world tour in hopes of spreading the American game to other lands.

If Spalding’s mission fell short of its goal abroad, at home the professional game was spreading to all corners of the land. In 1889 some 15 minor leagues were operating. Under the National Agreement of 1883, and its subsequent revisions, minor leagues were recognized as a part of organized baseball. Territorial rights and player rosters of such teams were protected by the major leagues.

Fleet Walker (Helmar)

Fleet Walker (Helmar)

But black players and teams were increasingly excluded from organized baseball. In the past, gentlemen’s agreements barred black teams from the amateur National Association and the professional National Association. At this time a few blacks played briefly in the major AA and in some minor leagues, but the presence of the segregated Negro league in Pennsylvania, in 1889, plus the existence of all-black independent professional teams, signaled the trend toward segregation of black players from organized baseball. Not until 1946 would the color barrier be lifted.

In this dynamic golden age, professional baseball’s maturation as a field sport was speeded by a rash of rule changes. In 1881 the pitching distance was extended to fifty feet; in 1884 overhand pitching was legalized; in 1887 a uniform strike zone was established; in 1888 the three-strikes rule and in 1889 the four-balls rule were permanently adopted. These and other changes in playing rules resulted from pragmatic experiments by major league rules committees, whose constant tinkerings kept the game in a state of flux. Some short-lived changes, like the 1887 rule scoring bases on balls as hits and employing a modified four-strike rule, aimed at correcting the pitching-batting imbalance. But these quixotic rules inflated batting averages and produced sixteen .400 hitters before they were discarded at the close of the 1887 season.

Rival Leagues of the 1880s: AA and UA

The NL’s most formidable nineteenth-century rival, the American Association of Base Ball Clubs, was organized by promoters who opposed the NL’s monopoly. In wooing prospective clubs, the AA promoters saw an opportunity: New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis were good baseball cities that were not represented in the league. They also established a basic 25 cent admission price and allowed member clubs the option of selling booze and playing Sunday games. To entice good players, the AA promoters rejected the NL’s reserve clause; and to ensure orderly play, a salaried corps of umpires was hired, an innovation soon imitated by the NL.

In its maiden season of 1882, the AA’s six teams (Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) prospered.

All six finished the season, with Cincinnati winning the pennant by 11.5 games over Philadelphia. Emergent stars of the AA included pitcher Will White and second baseman Bid McPhee of Cincinnati, first baseman Charles Comiskey of St. Louis, and outfielder Pete Browning and pitcher Tony Mullane of Louisville among the contenders.

Cincinnati 1882, with each position on the field marked by its own jersey

Cincinnati 1882, with each position on the field marked by its own jersey

In 1883 the AA expanded to eight clubs by adding Columbus and the New York Mets. By opposing the NL’s reserve clause, the AA lured a number of disgruntled NL players into its ranks. Thus strengthened, the AA staged another profitable campaign, which saw the Philadelphia Athletics edge the St. Louis Browns by a single game.

The AA’s sprightly season prompted the NL to accommodate its rival. That fall NL president Mills and AA president Denny McKnight negotiated the National Agreement of 1883, which recognized the AA as a major league and instituted World Series play between the two leagues. For its part, the AA adopted the reserve clause.

The agreement between the NL and AA was barely concluded when a new league made a bid for major league recognition. The rival Union Association of Base Ball Clubs was organized in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1883. To entice players from the established majors, the UA leaders proclaimed their opposition to the reserve clause. A few major league players jumped to the new league, but most remained with the clubs out of fear of blacklisting, or in some cases because they were bought off by salary increases.

Trade card promoting UA

Trade card promoting UA

With mostly unknown players in their ranks, the eight-team UA commenced playing a 128-game schedule in 1884. From the start the league suffered from unbalanced funding and talent distribution. The UA’s principal backer, Henry V. Lucas, poured most of his money into his St. Louis Maroons, a team which won its first twenty-one games and made a shambles of the pennant race. Plagued by financial losses, only five charter teams survived the campaign. Nevertheless, the UA drained attendance from the established majors–especially the AA, which unwisely expanded to counter the threat. In the fall of 1884, the UA folded when Lucas accepted an offer to enroll his St. Louis Maroons in the NL.

The collapse of the UA left the dual major league system intact, but relations between the NL and AA were strained. AA leaders accused their NL allies of duplicity for persuading the AA to expand to twelve teams to counter the UA’s incursion. As a result the AA suffered heavier financial losses in its 1884 campaign, which the New York Mets won by 6.5 games over Columbus. The Mets’ victory was soured by their loss to Providence in the first officially sanctioned World Series. But even more damaging to the AA was the revelation the Mets had come under the ownership of the NL New York Giants.

Moreover, AA suspicions of NL duplicity were heightened by the UA peace settlement which brought the St. Louis Maroons into the NL, where they competed directly with the AA’s St. Louis Browns. As it turned out, the Maroons were no match for the Browns, whose profitable formula of cheap baseball, liquor sales, sideshows, Sunday games, and winning baseball was making a folk hero of the Browns’ colorful president, Chris Von der Ahe. Beginning in 1885, player-manager Charles Comiskey led his team to four consecutive AA pennants. In 1885 the Browns won by 16 games over Cincinnati; in 1886, by 12 over Pittsburgh; in 1887, by 14 over Cincinnati; and in 1888, by 6.5 over a beefed-up Brooklyn team. Star players like infielder Arlie Latham, outfielder Tip O’Neill, and pitchers Dave Foutz and Bob Caruthers paced the Browns to the first three pennants.

Then, when Von der Ahe sold Foutz and Caruthers to Brooklyn in 1888, Comiskey came up with pitcher Silver King, whose 45 victories helped land a fourth consecutive pennant. In World Series play the Browns tied Chicago in 1885 and defeated Anson’s team in 1886. But the team was drubbed by Detroit in 1887 and by the Giants in 1888.

1888 St. Louis Browns, cabinet card by Guerin.

1888 St. Louis Browns, cabinet card by Guerin.

Bitter rivalry between the Browns and Brooklyn Bridegrooms dominated the 1889 race, which ended with the Bridegrooms on top of the Browns by 2 games. But the Bridegrooms lost to the Giants in World Series play. Over the winter the St. Louis and Brooklyn factions battled over the choice of a new AA president, and in the stormy aftermath Brooklyn and Cincinnati joined the National League. The loss of these clubs, together with the loss of key players to the newly organized Players’ League, crippled the AA. Forced to field weak teams in 1890, the AA ran a poor third to the NL and the Players’ League. The AA’s dismal race was won by Louisville, which only the year before had finished dead last in the AA with a 27-111 record.

Part 3 tomorrow.

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