This is the third installment of David Voigt’s history, as fine a brief telling of the tale as I know. This series commenced at: http://goo.gl/E4adJX.
The Players’ League War: 1890
The Players’ League of 1890 arose out of the long smoldering hostilities between major league players and owners, dating back to the NL seizure of power in 1876. Under NL control, players lost money and freedom of movement, and were subjected to harsh disciplinary codes backed by threats of expulsion and blacklisting. To the list of player grievances was added the reserve clause in player contracts, which players viewed as a device for lowering salaries and a denial of one’s right to sell his services to the highest bidder. For their part, owners credited the clause for stabilizing teams and increasing profits. Although legal challenges sustained the players’ position, such victories were too limited to overturn the reserve clause. Nor were players helped when rival leagues attacked the clause because the AA soon embraced the clause and the UA was driven out of business.
Frustrated on these fronts, in 1885 the players resorted to collective action by forming the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Initially organized as a benevolent association, the Brotherhood, under the leadership of star player and lawyer John Ward, became a collective-bargaining agency by 1887. In confronting the major league owners, the Brotherhood sought redress on such matters as the reserve clause, the sale of players, and the threatened salary ceiling, known as the Brush classification plan.
In 1888 protracted negotiations between the Brotherhood and the owners broke down when the NL owners refused to budge on the salary ceiling issue, which had been accepted by the AA as part of the National Agreement. When the owners rejected Ward’s ultimatum on the key issues, the Brotherhood moved to field a rival major league in 1890. With most of the best players in the fold, the Players’ League attracted financial backers who accepted Ward’s plan of sharing profits and power with the players. In 1890 the eight-team PL opened play with well-stocked teams in every NL city except Cincinnati.
Faced with a head-to-head battle for survival, the NL relied upon its war committee headed by Spalding. Spalding met the PL head-on by scheduling games on the same dates as PL teams, bribing PL players to jump ranks, initiating costly lawsuits over the reserve clause, lowering ticket prices, cajoling press support by threats to withdraw advertising, and raiding the AA and minor league rosters for players.
Loyal managers like Anson, Wright, Bill McGunnigle, and Jim Mutrie persuaded good players to stay with the NL. Roster raids on AA teams lured stars like Billy Hamilton and Tommy Tucker; and promising rookies like pitchers Kid Nichols and Cy Young, infielder Bobby Lowe and outfielder Jess Burkett beefed up the NL teams.
Although beaten in the courts and at the turnstiles by the PL, which finished its season with Mike Kelly’s Boston team beating out Ward’s Brooklyn team by 6.5 games, the PL’s financial losses were too much for its backers to bear. In the fall of 1890, the disenchanted PL backers broke ranks and sued for peace. Magnanimous in victory, Spalding imposed no reprisals on PL players, but he gave no ground on the key issues. With the NL girding for war with the AA in the upcoming 1891 season, the salary ceiling implementation was delayed until the latest struggle was over.
The collapse of the PL afforded little relief for the stricken AA. In 1891 all-out war erupted between the NL and AA over the return of players and the relocation of franchises. When the AA’s weak Cincinnati club folded, its popular manager Mike Kelly joined the Boston AA team, but after a few days he joined the Boston Nationals. With Kelly gone, the Boston AA team won the pennant by 8.5 games over the Browns, but Boston fans flocked to watch Kelly captain the Boston Nationals to the NL pennant.
The 1891 season was the last for the AA. That fall four AA clubs, St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, quit the dying circuit to join the expanded twelve-club National League.
The “Big League”: The National League, 1892-1899
The defeat of the AA in 1891 saddled the NL with a $130,000 debt, which was incurred by buying out four of the defeated circuit’s clubs. The remaining four AA teams, Baltimore, Louisville, St. Louis, and Washington, were added to the NL to form the twelve-club National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs.
From 1892 to 1899 this monopolistic “big league” represented major league baseball. Enthralled by their newly created baseball “trust,” the league’s owners styled themselves as magnates presiding over a million-dollar entertainment industry. The magnates fully expected their monopoly league to produce unprecedented cash and glory. But such dreams were dashed by external factors, including a chronic national recession, the 1898 war with Spain, and the league’s competitive imbalance. Eight seasons of play under the twelve-club format underscored its imbalance.
With Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn winning all the races, fans in other cities lost interest. As profits dwindled, owners imposed a $2,400 ceiling on player salaries and battled one another over the division of gate receipts. Lacking strong leadership, each individual owner ran his club like a feudal fiefdom. Indeed, the blustering antics of the owners often upstaged players in newspaper accounts of this time. Some magnates hatched grandiose schemes aimed at making the monopoly league work more efficiently. Thus Andrew Freedman of the Giants advocated the annual pooling and redistribution of players and profits, provided that the “strongest and most lucrative franchises” got the best players.
And another, Cincinnati owner John T. Brush, proposed harsh disciplinary measures aimed at curbing rowdy players, while also experimenting with minor league farm systems as a cheap source of talent.
Indeed, owner infighting over these and other issues damaged the big league’s image, but the biggest threat to the league’s credibility was the “syndicate” issue. The term “syndicatism” used at this time referred to interlocking club ownership schemes. Following bitter debate in 1898, two such interlocking directorates were approved by the owners. One of these schemes permitted owner Frank Robison of the Cleveland and St. Louis teams to transfer his best players to St. Louis; the other allowed owners Ferdinand Abell and Harry Vonderhorst of the Brooklyn and Baltimore teams to stock the Brooklyn team with the pick of those two squads.
These operations made a farce of the 1899 pennant race and prompted the NL to return to an eight-club format in 1900; the cutback was accomplished by dropping Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville from the NL.
The return to the eight-club format ended eight wayward seasons of major league baseball played under one unwieldy league format. Nevertheless, major league baseball continued to mature in the 1890s. Surprisingly enough, there were no franchise changes in these years. In 1898 the 154-game playing schedule was introduced, a format which dominated until 1961. And in 1893 a major change in playing rules fixed the pitching distance at 60’6″ from home plate and also replaced the pitching box with a rubber slab atop a mound. This permanent change was introduced that year to correct the pitching-batting imbalance, a desirable goal which to this day remains elusive. The immediate effect of the lengthened pitching distance was not to give a mild boost to batting averages, but to send them soaring.
Thus in 1894 the Phillies posted a .349 team batting average, with the four-man outfield of Ed Delahanty, Sam Thompson, Billy Hamilton, and Tuck Turner combining for a .400-plus batting average. Sluggers also prospered, as Thompson hit 129 homers in this era, and Washington outfielder Buck Freeman hit 25 homers in 1899; both these records endured for twenty years. (Later recounts gave the career record to Roger Connor and the single season mark to Ned Williamson who had 27 tainted homers in 1884.)
It took pitchers several seasons to adapt to the increased distance, but they did so by developing curves, changeups, and ball-doctoring trick deliveries to go with their fastballs. Meanwhile two offensive styles vied for acceptance in this era. For a brief time the “manly slugging” style feasted on pitchers, but the “scientific style” mastered by the Baltimore and Boston teams, which stressed bunting, stealing, sacrificing, and the hit-and-run, became the dominant offensive style of the next twenty years.
At this time other rule changes allowed player substitutions, established the infield fly rule, treated foul bunts as strikes, defined sacrifice flies and bunts, and introduced the pentagon-shaped home plate. On the playing fields, players wore stylized uniforms and most sported gloves, with catchers employing the big “Decker” mitt and wearing masks and chest protectors. When in action, teams played heady ball, using signals to trigger offensive and defensive movements. Defensively, infielders aligned themselves to turn double plays and outfielders coordinated their play by using backups, cutoffs and relays. Offensively, bunting, sacrificing, sliding, stealing, and hit-and-run plays were familiar tactics.
But when teams like the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Spiders augmented their play with roughhouse tactics like spiking and jostling runners, baiting umpires, and bench jockeying, this “rowdy” brand of ball stirred the ire of reformers like Indianapolis owner John Brush.
But hard-nosed baseball survived its critics, as did Sunday baseball. Despite fervent opposition from Sabbatarians, Sunday games were permitted by local option, although eastern cities held out against such games for twenty years. By then, major league clubs had outgrown the wooden parks of this era. A spate of ballpark fires late in this era inspired tougher safety codes that soon prompted the replacement of the vulnerable old wooden parks with concrete-and-steel edifices.
NL Campaigns: 1892-1899
During the big league’s eight-year existence, pennant monopolizing was the rule as only Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn teams won pennants. Managed by Frank Selee, the powerful Boston Beaneaters won back-to-back pennants in 1892-1893 and in 1897-1898. Paced by pitcherKid Nichols (who won 297 games in this decade), Boston won the 1892 race played under a split-season format. Boston easily won the first half, but lost the second half by 3 games to manager Pat Tebeau’s Cleveland Spiders, whose ace pitcher was the great Cy Young. In the postseason playoff, after the two teams played a scoreless tie, Boston swept the rest of the games to land the 1892 pennant.
In 1893 the unprofitable split-season format was dropped and the pitching distance was increased to 60’6″. In a campaign marked by heavy hitting, Boston won by 5 games over Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s Frank Killen won 34 games to lead hurlers, and outfielder Billy Hamilton batted .380.
The following year saw Boston fall to the Baltimore Orioles, who rebounded from an eighth-place finish in 1893 to win the first of three consecutive pennants. Although plagued by poor pitching, the offense-minded Orioles batted .343, with every regular topping the .300 mark at the plate. Future Hall of Famers on this star-studded team includedDan Brouthers, Hughie Jennings, John McGraw, Joe Kelley, Willie Keeler, and Wilbert Robinson. The Orioles won the 1894 pennant by 3 games over the Giants, but lost the first postseason Temple Cup Series, played between the first- and second-place finishers. In this inaugural Temple Cup Series, manager John Ward’s Giants swept the Orioles in four straight games.
The following year manager Ned Hanlon’s Orioles repeated as NL champions by edging the Cleveland Spiders by 3 games. A .324 team batting average and a brilliant 54-14 home won-loss record keyed the 1895 Orioles. But once again the Orioles failed in Temple Cupplay, this time falling to the Spiders by four games to one. In 1896 the Orioles won a third consecutive NL pennant by 9.5 games over the Spiders and swept their rivals in postseason Temple Cup play.
Bolstered by newcomers Billy Hamilton, Chick Stahl, and Jimmy Collins , Boston regained the heights in 1897-1898. Nichols won 30 games as the 1897 Beaneaters edged the Orioles by 2 games. But the Orioles won the postseasonTemple Cup four games to one, the last year of this unremunerative and “shabby spectacle” which, one observer said, no more resembled the old World Series than a “crabapple does . . . a pippin.”
Boston repeated in 1898, in a baseball campaign overshadowed by the Spanish-American War, beating the Orioles by 6 games. But by then the unprofitable “big league” was in its last throes. In a race marred by ludicrous syndicate ventures, in 1899 the Brooklyn Superbas won by 8 games over Boston. A syndicate team, the Superbas were managed by Hanlon, who stocked the Brooklyn team with the best players from the Brooklyn and Baltimore rosters.
A similar venture that season had Robison’s St. Louis-Cleveland syndicate loading the St. Louis team with the pick of these two clubs. But Robison’s venture failed miserably as St. Louis finished fifth while the Cleveland team’s 20-134 record was the worst by any major league team playing a 154-game schedule.
In the aftermath of the 1899 campaign, the owners scuttled the twelve-club big league and cut back to eight teams.Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington, and Louisville were dropped at a cost of $100,000, a buyout shared by the eight surviving teams. Born in debt, the monopoly big league died in debt, but the dawning twentieth century soon saw major league baseball prospering under a revived dual league format.
The American League War: 1901-1902
The American League’s struggle for major league recognition began in 1900, a propitious time for such an incursion. The NL owners had recently shed four teams, which left many unemployed players and some promising territories. Moreover, NL owners were distracted by an abortive attempt by other outsiders to revive theAmerican Association , and by the NL’s prosperous season of 1900. With a hefty boost from the nation’s booming economy, most NL teams made money that year. In a close race the Brooklyn Superbas repeated as NL champs by beating a strong Pittsburgh team by 4.5 games.
Such distractions favored the cause of the American League schemers.
Prior to 1900, the newly proclaimed American League had operated as the Western League, a strong minor league based in the Midwest. Since 1894 the Western League’s president, the able, dictatorial, and hard-drinking Byron “Ban” Johnson, had dreamed of making his circuit into a major league. To this end he had battled with NL owners over the drafting of his league’s players, a practice which underscored his league’s inferior status. Johnson’s opportunity to press toward his goal came in 1899, when the NL cut back to eight teams. With the backing of lieutenants like Charles Comiskey and Connie Mack, Johnson renamed his circuit the American League, his clubs snapped up surplus NL players, and Comiskey moved his team to Chicago, where his White Stockings boldly confronted the NL’s Cubs. With solid financial backing and a new ballpark, Comiskey’s team of major league castoffs and promising youngsters captured the first AL pennant in a profitable campaign.
Emboldened by the AL’s successful 1900 campaign, Johnson took note of the expiring National Agreement and unilaterally proclaimed the AL to be a major league. This 1901 declaration formally opened the American League war, and Johnson’s promoters commenced hostilities by invading the NL’s Philadelphia and Boston territories and occupying the former NL sites of Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit. To stock their teams, Johnson’s financiers offered higher salaries to NL players, and in 1901 over a hundred NL players snapped at the bait. The jumpers included a bevy of stars, among them Cy Young , Clark Griffith, Jimmy Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Then, in a hotly contested and profitable pennant race, Comiskey’s Chicago team edged Boston by 4 games to capture the 1901 AL pennant.
The timing of the AL’s assault was excellent. In 1901-1902 the leaderless NL owners were locked in a bitter struggle over the choice of a league president. Two factions, one headed by owner Andrew Freedman of the Giants and the other by Spalding, battled to a standstill. In 1902 a temporary Control Commission headed the NL, which finally elected Henry Clay Pulliam as its president. In a complicated settlement the controversial Freedman sold his New York Giants interests for $125,000, on the condition that one of his cronies be permitted to plant an AL franchise in New York in 1903. By then, the AL had concluded another profitable season. With more NL players joining AL ranks, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics landed the 1902 AL pennant by beating the Browns by 5 games.
In the fall of 1902, with most war-weary NL owners favoring a return to the dual major league structure, the NL sued for peace with the AL. Early in 1903 Johnson and Comiskey met with Pulliam and Cincinnati owner August “Garry” Herrmann and negotiated the National Agreement of 1903. Under its terms, the NL and AL would operate as separate but equal major leagues, bound by common playing rules, harmonized playing schedules, and mutually recognized territories and player contracts. The player contract accord restored the reserve clause and ended the AL’s roster raids. The agreement also allowed an AL franchise to be located in New York, which Johnson secured by moving the financially shaky Baltimore Orioles to Manhattan, where in time the team prospered as the New York Yankees. Among other points, the Agreement reclassified the minor leagues and set new rules for the drafting of minor league players. Indeed, in this era minor league baseball grew lustily, reaching an all-time peak in 1913, when 46 leagues started the season. But if the National Agreement stimulated the growth of organized baseball, it did little to empower major league players. Major league players were denied representation on the controlling National Commission , and over the years 1902-1913 two attempts by players to organize unions were beaten down. And if the National Agreement included no salary ceiling plank, the Agreement unequivocally embraced the reserve clause and asserted the right of the National Commission to control baseball “by its own decrees . . . enforcing them without the aid of law, and making it answerable to no power outside its own.”
The power to enforce these baseball laws came via a master stroke when the negotiators created a three-member National Commission charged with enforcing the National Agreement and keeping peace between the rival major leagues. As earlier demonstrated by the uneasy coexistence that marked the dual major league system of the 1880s, some such high-level executive and judicial body was needed to settle disputes between two independent and highly competitive major leagues. It was a challenge that the National Commission successfully met for seventeen years.
Heading the National Commission were league presidents Johnson and Pulliam and Cincinnati magnate Garry Herrmann, who served as the Commission’s permanent chairman. On the face of it, this gave the NL two votes, but Johnson and Herrmann were close friends.
Together they served during the lifetime of the National Commission, while four relatively weak presidents represented the NL, whose owners feared to empower any president. By contrast Johnson reigned as the most powerful president in major league history. As the AL’s entrenched “czar,” Johnson used his powers to safeguard his league against any NL treachery. In defending his league, Johnson personally held all AL franchise leases, ruled on ownership changes, fixed playing schedules, set basic admission prices, and imposed his standards on owners and players. Inevitably such powers incurred enmities among AL owners, but until the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, Johnson’s domination of the AL held firm.
Over the years 1903-1920, with Herrmann’s support, Johnson dominated the National Commission. In those years the Commission functioned as baseball’s Supreme Court, settling disputes between clubs (mostly involving rights to player services), supporting the interests of club owners, disciplining players, defending umpires, fending off Federal League interlopers, defusing a players’ union threat, and overseeing relations with the minor leagues. But the most important achievement of the National Commission was its profitable administration of the revived World Series. Initially revived in 1903, the World Series got off to a shaky start when the Giants refused to play the AL champion in 1904. But in 1905 the two leagues adopted a new World Series format that placed the conduct of the classic under the control of the National Commission. With 10 percent of World Series revenues set aside for financing National Commission activities, the Commission faced a stern test. By capable administration the Commission met the challenge and the annual World Series became a profitable and permanent part of each major league season. By 1910 profits from World Series games had increased tenfold over those of 1905. But the Commission was responsible for any World Series chicanery; thus the rigged World Series of 1919 precipitated the downfall of the National Commission.
Part 4 tomorrow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The newspaper account reported that he “found the shoes lent him were too irritating and he deliberately took them off after the first inning,” playing the “last eight innings in his stocking feet.” But the phenom in question was not Joe Jackson (or Joe Hardy, of Damn Yankees) but instead Michael Joseph Landmann, whose shoelessness was the least startling thing about his professional baseball debut.
You are not likely to have heard of Shoeless Mike for he never cracked a big-league box score. But all he did in this first game in Organized Baseball was to toss a no-hitter, a feat never accomplished before and, to my knowledge, only once since. [See bracketed comment below.] The New York Tribune reported, on the day after the contest of August 30, 1888:
The game at Oakland Park, Jersey City, yesterday was remarkable for the discovery of an apparently genuine baseball phenomenon, in the shape of a big-raw boned individual who … is about twenty years old, six feet high and carries around a pair of genuine Chicago feet. This young man was full of baseball ambition, and he hunted up manager [Pat] Powers and said he wanted to pitch for the Jersey City club [in the Central League]. Manager Powers thought his visitor a “crank,” but told him to put on a uniform and he would see what was in him.
The stranger did so well that Powers told him to get ready and he would pitch him against the Allentown team later in the afternoon. When the game started, Landmann, the phenomenon, was put in to pitch, although Manager Powers had seen him but two hours before. Landmann’s first appearance was a remarkable one. Not a base hit was made against his curves, and his opponents did not score a run. In fact, the Allentown players succeeded in getting but two balls past the infield, and both of these were easily caught by [left fielder Pat] Friel.
More information may be gleaned from other accounts of this game, and from the box score. Landmann’s Jersey City Skeeters won by 3-0 over the Allentown Peanuts, before some 200 spectators. Rival pitcher Harry Zell allowed only one earned run and seven hits, two of them by Landmann himself. The barefoot neophyte struck out three, walked one, and hit another: Frank “Piggy” Ward, who would play many years in baseball, six of them in the majors. The Jersey Journal reported:
In the fifth inning Ward, unable to hit Landmann, tried the baby act of holding his bat to be struck by the ball. “Chick” [Hofford, the catcher] put on the mask and concluded to spoil his game. A ball from the pitcher struck Ward on the head and he managed to get his base, where he was left.
The game account in the New York Evening Sun told us more about Landmann and his amateur or semipro experience in Brooklyn.
Mr. Landmann was hampered in the first inning by shoes which cramped his well-developed toes. Taking his penknife from his pocket he ruthlessly cut the leather, but this afforded him little relief, as the jagged leather cut his toes cruelly.
Impatient of this annoyance he removed his shoes and threw them far beyond first base. Then unhampered and unrestrained, he sent the outshoot, the inshoot, the up-curve, the down-curve at those Allentown chaps and they sought for the ball in vain.
He swept through the lineup “as a scythe cuts a hay field.” (Why don’t they write like this today?) For some time the six-foot, 185-pounder—“forty inches around the chest and his legs are like the cedars of Lebanon”—had been connected with amateur clubs in Brooklyn. He had recently starred with the Park Baseball Club: in a game against the Cypress Club he had struck out eighteen men in the first six innings.
Romping quickly past fact and into hooey, the Sun reporter declared that Landmann wore a modest suit of blue flannel, topped by a dilapidated derby. He did not drink, except for an occasional glass of beer—his favorite drink being soda water. “He says this keeps his nerves steady.”
No records survive for the Central League of 1888, though it was written in mid-October that Landsmann had won all of his games. In addition to Jersey City, four of the Central League’s other clubs had played in the International League in the momentous season of 1887, when the color line was drawn: Binghamton, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Newark. The last named club featured pitcher George Stovey and catcher Fleet Walker, who famously and profanely were ordered from the field before an exhibition contest against Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings.
On the same day that Anson succeeded in removing the “colored battery,” the directors of the International League met in Buffalo to transfer the ailing Utica franchise to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It must have pleased Anson to read in the next day’s Newark Daily Journal:
THE COLOR LINE DRAWN IN BASEBALL. The International League directors held a secret meeting at the Genesee House yesterday, and the question of colored players was freely discussed. Several representatives declared that many of the best players in the league are anxious to leave on account of the colored element, and the board finally directed Secretary White to approve of no more contracts with colored men.
After the 1887 campaign Skeeters owner John B. Day, who also owned the New York Giants of the National League, transferred the Jersey City club to the Central League, declaring to the New York Times that he would “run it as a reserve for the New-York club,” i.e. as a farm team. “He thinks that the only way to secure a club in a minor league and develop young men.”
This intent would explain a brief notice spotted in the New York Herald on September 22, 1888: “Pitcher Landman [sic; both spellings are common], of Jersey City, may play with New York next season.”
He did not, however, instead returning to pitch for Jersey City until July 27, 1889, when the franchise, relocated to the Atlantic Association, blew up. Pat Powers returned to the International League, finding a job as manager of the Rochester club. The Jersey City players were sold piecemeal, and Landmann returned to Brooklyn, where he pitched for the Brooklyn Ls (the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad team of 1889, which played at Dexter Park). On August 12 the Brooklyn Eagle placed outcasts Landmann and Stovey on the same playing field:
On Wednesday the Brooklyn L Base Ball Club will cross bats with the (colored) All Americans at the Brooklyn Athletic Association Grounds. The L boys are going to do their utmost to win and will have Landmann and Healey in the points against Stovey and Collins for the All Americans.
In the next year Landmann was at liberty once more. From the Eagle of January 5, 1890: “Michael Landman, the ex-Jersey City pitcher, is now open for an engagement. His address is 105 Central avenue.” He landed with the Greenpoint Athletics, but any pitching exploits thereafter are lost in the sands of time.
Michael Joseph Landmann, virtually unknown to baseball fans until now, was born in Brooklyn on November 7, 1867, and died there of myocarditis on January 28, 1920. In between he married Lizzie Delany [Delaney] on December 24, 1891, and divorced her in December 1897, winning custody of their son. Landmann was married again, to the former Ernestine Heisinger. Landmann had been a Brooklyn policeman.
Where does his no-hit debut fit into baseball history? Attempts to document equivalent firsts might include Pud Galvin’s perfect game (history’s first) of August 17, 1876 at a tournament in Ionia, Michigan. He pitched for the St. Louis Red Stockings, a professional club not admitted into the National League. But the eighteen-year-old Galvin had pitched to a 4-2 record for the same club when it was in the National Association of 1875, and his perfecto in 1876 was not his first start of that year.
Joe Borden, who in 1876 won the first game played in the National League, had thrown a no-hitter in 1875, but not in his first start. Lee Richmond, nominally an amateur pitcher for Brown University, threw a seven-inning no-hitter against the Chicago White Stockings in an exhibition game for which he had been invited to pitch for the minor-league club from Worcester, but he had moonlighted previously as a pro with the Rhode Islands of Providence in the League Alliance of 1877.
Bumpus Jones pitched a no-hitter in his first big-league game, on October 15, 1892, and like Landmann it was said of him that he was signed “off the sandlots”—but he had gone 24-3 for the Joliet club in the Illinois-Iowa League earlier that year, and had played for four professional clubs in two leagues in 1891.
Ted Breitenstein in 1891 and Bobo Holloman in 1953 pitched no-hitters in their first big-league starts but these were not their first big-league, let alone minor-league, games.
The only other pitcher besides Landmann whom I know to have tossed a no-hit game in his first professional game–though I know my readers will help me if I have missed any!–is Myles Thomas, a spot starter with the 1927 Yankees. Signed by New York in June 1921 after graduating from Penn State, Thomas was optioned to the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League (where Lou Gehrig had been playing first base under the name “Lou Lewis,” trying to preserve his collegiate eligibility at Columbia). On July 5, 1921, in his first professional game, Thomas threw a no-hitter against the Springfield Ponies, winning 3-0. [After initial publication of this story, estimable researcher and old pal Bill Deane alerted me to another such game: Denny McLain’s no-hitter on June 28, 1962. Pitching for Harlan, KY of the Class-D Appalachian League, McLain beat Salem, 3-0, striking out 17.]
But Myles Thomas–whom Babe Ruth nicknamed “Duck Eyes”–was not the first. For that, all hail Shoeless Mike Landmann.
You all know about sabermetrics, Bill James’s neologism for an analytical approach to baseball. Bill honored SABR with this coinage because SABR represented intellectual traits he admired: a dedication to research (it is, after all the Society for American Baseball Research), a conviction that significant aspects of the game are invisible to the naked eye, and a skepticism about received wisdom. In the early days of SABR many of its most skilled researchers concerned themselves not only with the relative merits of men who played in different eras but with determining who the players WERE. Hundreds of players were absolute ciphers, about whom nothing but a last name was known–a box score entry, that was all. Lee Allen and Bill Haber hunted for headstones; Vern Luse and Bill Carle scoured the squibs in Sporting Life. Today the number of major leaguers about whom absolutely nothing is known has been reduced to a relative handful, and for most men we even have a photographic or woodcut portrait. One player who resisted all efforts to go beyond a last name has been “Stine” or “Stein,” a one-gamer with the Philadelphia Athletics of 1890.
Sabermetrics is great, but this is old-fashioned SABR metrics, hard work and enormously gratifying. Richard Malatzky, a brilliant researcher, posted this to the Nineteenth Century Base Ball Research listserv on January 6.
It seems that half of the missing players found by the Biographical Research Committee in the last ten to fifteen years are corrections to misidentified players in the original Turkin and Thompson from 1951.
As is my habit, I was checking another 19th century one-gamer, this time Harry C. Stine, listed for July 22, 1890 with the Philadelphia Athletics. I was surprised that the box score had the spelling as Stein. A search of Sporting Life said that Stein was a left handed pitcher from the Interstate League.
It turned out that Baseball Reference had a Stein, no first name, who pitched for Dover, Delaware and Wilmington, Delaware. This turned out to be our man. He appeared in box scores in 1889 and 1890 and when he was signed by Dover it was said that he played near Trenton in 1888.
So that was 2010 and the listing eliminated Harry C. Stine and replace him with Stein, no first name. I recently subscribed to Newpapers.com and checked the Philadelphia Times for the game story. It said he came from the Lebanon, PA team. A search came up with his signing with Lebanon and it said he had been with Wilmington. His name is William Stein. So we finally had his first name.
Yesterday I was searching for an amateur in Philadelphia from the 1892 one-gamers and turned up an article about John Deasley. the manager of the Defiance baseball club, which mentioned that he signed pitcher Stein of the Hartfords. Baseball Reference had a Stein with Hartford of the Connecticut State League.
I thought that an amateur club would most likely have local players. So I checked the Philadelphia City Directory for William Stein and found five of them, including a William H., William J., and William W. A search of the 1900 census showed William H. who was born in Pennsylvania in April 1868 and two other Williams born in 1870 and 1872.
William H. was a bartender so that was the most likely one being 20 in his first year and a very common profession for a ball player.
I searched the Philadelphia Times for William H. Stein and found a 1903 article that said that the William H. Stein Base ball team of Nicetown can be reached at William H Stein, Bristol Street, Nicetown . This was a great clue.
I searched the census for our man born 1867 to 1869. He turns up in Plattsburgh, NY in the 1940 census with his daughter Isabelle Fisk and son in law Morgan Burleigh Fisk. They are in the local city directory up to 1941 and then are in Philadelphia in Fisk’s World War II draft registration.
Our man’s wife Anna died in 1933, with her husband listed as William H. Stein, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Holy Redeemer Cemetery. William Henry Stein, it turns out, was born on April 9, 1868 in Telford, PA and died November 11, 1945 in Philadelphia. He is buried with his wife.
Many missing players have been found but have taken 10 to 20 years to be verified, as their obituaries don’t mention baseball. I hope that the baseball connection here is enough.
This epistle to President Theodore Roosevelt appeared in the very first issue of the great Baseball Magazine, in May of 1908. Teddy had just entered upon his final year in the White House, having forsworn another term despite his entitlement to take another run at the Presidency: he had served only one full term and part of another, taking the nation’s helm after the death of President McKinley in 1901. What was our leader, the hero of San Juan Hill, the trust buster and safari hunter, to do next? Grantland Rice had an idea. If President Obama is uncertain about his next steps, this might pique his interest.
Teddy, when your work is through in the presidential chair,
When another takes the shift where you’ve learned to do and dare,
You will need another job—one that’s a monstrosity,
That will soak up, day by day, all your strenuosity.
It must be a husky job—full of smoke and fire to boot,
And in looking ’round I’ve found only one I know will suit.
Only one where your Big Stick will be needed day by day;
Only one to fit in, Ted, with your rough-and-tumble way;
Only one where in the end you will someday long for rest,
Where your energy will wane and your spirit be depressed.
You will find it diff’rent from any nature-faking fuss;
You will find it harder than mauling up the octopus;
It will a rougher job than a charge up San Juan Hill,
Or a battle with the trusts—it will take a stronger will.
Fighting predatory wealth or the kings of high finance,
Culling railroad moguls down will not be a circumstance.
All in all ’twill suit you fine, never having been afraid
Of aught else upon this earth—you should be an umpire, Ted!
That’s the only job for you—take your tip now, Theodore;
Think of how your pulse will leap when you hear the angry roar
Of the bleacher gods enraged; you will find the action there
Which you’ve hunted for in vain in the presidential chair.
Chasing mountain lions and such, catching grizzlies will seem tame
Lined up with the jolt you’ll get in the thick of some close game.
Choking angry wolves to death as a sport will stack up raw
When you see Kid Elberfeld swinging for your jaw.
When you hear Hugh Jennings roar, “Call them strikes—you lump of cheese!”
Or McGraw comes rushing in, kicking at your shins and knees;
When the bleachers rise and shout, “Robber—Liar—Thief and Dub!”
You’ll be sorry for the gents in your Ananias Club.
You’ll find it’s a diff’rent thing making peace with old Japan
Than when you have called a strike on O’Connor or McGann.
Holding California down isn’t quite the same, I’ll state,
As is calling Devlin out on a close-out at the plate.
Though I’ve hunted far and near, there is nothing else to do
Where you’ll get what’s coming, Ted—all that’s coming unto you—
You should be an umpire, Ted, and I’ll bet two weeks would be
Quite enough to curb your rash, headlong stren-u-os-i-tee.
- Norman Arthur Elberfeld, Yankees player-manager.
- Hugh Ambrose Jennings, Tigers player-manager.
- John McGraw, Giants manager
- John Joseph O’Connor, Browns’ player-manager, known as “Rowdy Jack.”
- Dennis L. “Dan” McGann, Boston Nationals player.
- Arthur McArthur Devlin, New York Giants player.
- “The Strenuous Life,” speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899; full text at http://www.bartleby.com/58/1.html
With apologies to Mozart, I don’t know why I didn’t share this good if elderly column earlier. It’s not about baseball as such, but it is about sport, and language, and things that matter. As we stand ready to form New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, I suggest: don’t do a thing; you are fine just as you are.
In the November 18, 2004 issue of Nature, Dennis M. Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman wrote that distance running, not bipedal walking, was what made Homo erectus look like you and me … well, like you, anyway. I recognize myself more clearly in the authors’ description of the diffident Australopithecus: short legs, long forearms, and high, bookwormishly shrugged shoulders. Our nearer ancestor, Homo erectus, had shorter arms, longer legs, a skinnier ribcage and pelvis and–key to the further evolution of the species–buns.
Like chimpanzees today, proto-humans had narrow pelvises that could not support the robust gluteus maximus for which Homo sapiens is known (and you thought he was differentiated by his brain!). Identifying 25 other traits besides strong buttocks that made Homo sapiens born to run, the authors also noted the development of a nuchal ligament at the back of the neck. As with other mammals capable of high-speed or long-distance running, this connective tissue permits a runner to keep his noggin still, unlike the pigs that Bramble and Lieberman set to racing on treadmills as bobble-head surrogates for Olivia Newton-John.
In summing up the duo’s findings for the New York Times, John Noble Wilford wrote: “Endurance running, unique to humans among primates and uncommon in all mammals other than dogs, horses and hyenas, apparently evolved at least two million years ago and probably let human ancestors hunt and scavenge over great distances. That was probably decisive in the pursuit of high-protein food for development of large brains.”
While I was pleased thus to have confirmed my own notion that the ass figured large in human development, I was disquieted by its connection with running after food or anything else, except perhaps other asses. My friend Larry McCray, who had sent me Wilford’s report, commented, “I note in passing that both sexes have developed the runner’s backside, so I guess it wasn’t deeply true that the men always hunted and the women always gathered.” I found other holes in the story.
As I have long used my own gluteus maximus to connect the otherwise lonely armrests of my favorite chair, and to act as a counterbalance when I might otherwise be falling down drunk, the authors of this Nature study did not convince me that the ability to run long distances is crucial to the survival of the species, or ever was. If anything, their article made me wonder why our early ancestors were (a) so hungry that they would consider running long distances after food yet (b) so unimpaired by starvation that they could muster the energy to race across the veldt and into adjoining counties. Running just a little bit–I could see that as a useful evolutionary accretion. The laws of natural selection would tend to favor the effective hunters (and maybe even mobile female gatherers), who could sprint after game or away from those who would make game of them. This Darwinian trend would lead and breed to ever more muscular if not more ample glutes; the latter awaited the invention of television and fast food.
Scientists will tend to assign human progress to evidence of increasing strength, power, speed, and problem-solving skills, such as the making of tools. Artists will see the ascent of man in his rise up the great chain of being, from the bogs of the lowliest invertebrates to the spiritual realm of the angels. I believe the posterior is anterior to progress of both kinds–whether it is the bounteously insured booty of J. Lo or the bag of pudding hanging from yours truly. Not only does the gluteal region propel fight or flight or pursuit, as the Nature study suggests, it is also the seat of wisdom, weighing against the impulse to rush off and do something, anything, to scratch an itch.
Whether you call it an ass or an arse, a butt or a bottom, the troika of gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus forms the muscles upon which we sit as we await inspiration or contemplate action, and many things are better engaged in the contemplation, from homicide to exercise. By the grace of the three glutes we may have been born to run, but it is by enabling us to sit comfortably that these magical muscles have aided Newton, Einstein, and Alistair Cooke in the formulation of their greatest ideas. If these brainy men and others like them had sat less and run more, they might have captured a scampering bunny or two but the rest of us would have descended into a race of intellectual girlymen.
Which is where we’re headed, anyway. The liberal arts are suspected of undermining Americans’ drive to a service economy. Book lovers are regarded as sentimental castrati. Deconstructionists and semioticians create a mock aestheticism around hip-hop music and slasher films, and the fans roll in and snuffle the nonsense as if they were cats and it catnip. Once upon a time the unexamined life was deemed not worth living; now it is worth forensic examination.
The focus of American men’s lust has lately been reported to have shifted from breasts to bottoms, bringing our sexual politics, if not our foreign policy, into alignment with the rest of the world. Plastic surgeons are said to be doing more butt reshaping than either breast enhancements or facial reconstructions, excepting possibly eyelifts. Unwilling to accept the river of life that makes all of us more similar than not, we regard life as an extended masquerade ball in which we may appear younger than we are, thinner than our heredity would demand, more appealing in the bedroom. In our pharmatopia no shortcoming, real or imagined, must be endured. Endorphins, pheromones, ecstatic transport–all are but a mouse-click away.
That oxymoronic term “Reality TV” has moved from sleepover to makeover, with reconstruction of homes, physiques, family relationships. The do-over craze has extended to our surroundings, our bodies, our body politic. A swirl of action, like Sally Rand’s fan-dance way back when, convinces observers that they have seen something they haven’t.
I grant that some things are less easily accomplished on one’s butt than with it: war, procreation, windsurfing (did I miss anything?), yet the sedentary pursuit of such active sports is frequently less hazardous to all who might otherwise be involved or affected. The Tao has a useful construct for armchair adventurism: wei wu wei–literally “do/don’t do,” but better understood as purposeful inaction, which contrasts nicely with the world’s tendency to purposeless action. When we call someone an ass, it is seldom because they failed to get off theirs.
In our heedless rush to renovation–Enlarge your debt! Reduce your penis! (or was it the other way?)–who suggests getting on a spiritual StairMaster? Who says, chisel your knowledge as you would your abs? Who points out that interior decoration endures while exterior changes imply a mannequin within?
We were born not merely to run, but also to fly. Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph, the one he wrote in his youth, highlights the one true makeover, against which all others wither:
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.-
Yet the Work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new
And more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and amended
BY: The Author.
No workout or makeover is required; ladies and gentlemen, be seated.
From: “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, December 2, 2004
Not knowing whether to wish readers of Our Game a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Christmas, or a Joyous Kwanzaa, I halve the difference with the title of this post. Herewith, an array of baseball greetings of the season, for all baseball fans. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I will be both copious and brief. For some of the Babe Ruth Christmas cards below, my thanks to Bruce Menard, whom I encourage you to visit on Twitter: @BSmile.
Just the other day, a writer for Men’s Health requested an interview with me about the origin and evolution of the jock strap, supporter, and cup–which prompted my recall of the venerable Jacques Strop, a character in Robert Macaire, a once-famous play of the 1830s. I had little else to offer the interviewer, but this essay, penned for The Woodstock Times a decade ago, leapt to mind. I think it’s still pretty good (probably I should say swell); maybe you will too.
Miss Doherty’s assignment to her English section of sophomores at Richmond Hill High School was to write a single-page essay on “My Favorite Books.” My response was to award the palm to Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the book I had most recently read; mild approbation to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and mysteries in general; and short shrift to the entire genre of military books, which I said I just “couldn’t stand.” Miss Doherty indulged my opinions and kindly graded the essay at 90, but noted in the margin that my chatty remark that had meant to tar-brush everyone from Martial to Churchill was “colloq” [colloquial] and thus deficient. By way of explanation after returning the paper to me, she added that good writing was “elevated speech.”
For decades I had displayed that naïve and frankly not so hot (“colloq”) essay in a frame on the wall of my study, to chasten me and to hearten others who might pause to read it. Today it resides in a box in storage, and I have come to like Miss Doherty less well than I did when I was her pupil in 1960. Only in recent years have I realized the lasting impact of her offhand observation that good writing is somehow more formal, more structured, more dignified than good talk. I became an English major in college and wrote stiff and stuffy if well received papers. I became a professional writer of sports-history books, differing from my peers in that my prose seemed generally professorial and chilly where theirs was often imprecise yet energetic.
Well, folks, Miss Doherty was wrong – it turns out that the best writing is that closest to the best talk, if not the same damn thing. I could have learned this from Mark Twain, from Joseph Mitchell, from H.L. Mencken – from Walt Whitman, above all! – and countless others who often turned fancy phrases but never abandoned their unique voices. But for the longest time I somehow thought that it was a delicious subtlety for an author to throw his voice across the room like a ventriloquist. When I would toss a colloquial or slang term into an archly constructed sentence my purpose was to jar, to amuse, and then to return, invigorated, to an expository manner. I knew I was injecting pop into otherwise staid sentences but I didn’t wonder why it was that I could rely upon that outcome, or what particular powers these “low-brow” words had.
Lately I have begun to come around, and it is my prolific email habit that I have to thank. Writing speedily and often thoughtlessly, I have neatly bypassed Miss Doherty’s censors (and more importantly my own) and defaulted to my own voice, my own ear, and my own love of words once all the rage but now quaint—swell (first appearance in print 1897), crummy (1859), nifty (1868), jerk (1935), groovy (1941). I had always been archaeologically inclined, ever since boyhood, wondering how things began, how they migrated from there to here, why they flourished or why they disappeared. Whether my curiosity attached to rock ‘n’ roll and advanced backwards to the blues and jazz and West African music, or to baseball and its bat-and-ball variants going back to the Egypt of the pharaohs, or to the special argot of all sport with its capacity to originate terms that come into common parlance or to purloin terms from other fields and redefine them, my path was always the same: learn the story behind the thing at hand and use that as a lens with which to see and understand both the past and the present.
The power of patois is that it comes from the bottom up, without social sanction, often from special-interest subcultures (surfers, techies, druggies) or ethnic or sexual minorities, and always with a slanting, often humorous, stance toward majority culture. Most of it vanishes rapidly – notably in our day once the mass-media gurus get their hands on it (“Here come da Judge!”) – indeed, so rapidly that even a generation later we are left to wonder what the catch-phrase meant in the first place. The derivation of off-color terminology was particularly amusing to trace when I was a schoolboy, and my enduring interest in such sleuthing is one of the many ways in which I have proudly arrested my development. (When I wrote a column called “The Magic Glute” a few weeks back I had a long and, to me at least, fascinating explanation for how one’s bottom came to be termed an ass; however, I couldn’t wedge it into that story any more than I can into this.)
Other men may lust after Boxters, iPods, and trophy wives; I have my microfilm reader, my Harry Potter magnifying glass, and my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me adventure is at all times but a step away. Although I am a nerd (first appearance in print 1957; probable origin a character in a Dr. Seuss book of seven years earlier, If I Ran the Zoo), I am not singular in such pursuits. I have a good many friends who would proudly describe themselves as geeks (1875!). One, Skip McAfee of Virginia, engaged in a spirited debate over the meaning of the baseball phrase “Out of Left Field,” answering a query by Professor Bill Rubinstein of Australia by refuting certain explanations offered by amateur philologist and professional word maven (“colloq”) William Safire of the New York Times. Another, George A. Thompson, contributed to a thread I had started on a bulletin board for aficionados of nineteenth century baseball about the nautical origins of such baseball terms as “skipper” (captain, later manager, of a nine), “on deck” (next batter), “in the hold” (next batter after that), “around the horn” (a double play initiated by the third baseman, then on to the second baseman, and finally the first baseman, but earlier derived from ships sailing around Cape Horn to Western ports, and earlier still, from the Dutch city of Hoorn), and “skyscraper” (an early baseball term for a pop fly, but even earlier, in 1794, a triangular topsail also called a moon-raker).
Priscilla Astifan of Rochester wrote to me about these matters nautical, saying, “it’s fascinating the way old references prevail even when the associations that initiated them are long gone,” a fine observation to which I replied: “I love these archaisms or vestiges, too. It’s downright hilarious that sportswriters today will write ‘Martinez was knocked out of the box’ or ‘Boston notched three runs in its half of the inning.’ Not a mother’s son of them seems aware that we haven’t had a pitcher’s box since 1892 and we haven’t counted runs by scoring notches into a stick since the 1840s.”
Peter Morris convinced me that his explanation for the derivation of the baseball word “fan” was correct: that the term was originally used in derision, as an insiders’ (players, managers, owners) dismissal of outsider wannabes (first appearance in print rather recent, 1988). As I wrote to him, “The idea of ceaseless tongue-flapping being a metaphorical fan seems right, and the ‘controversy’ of ‘fanatic’ vs. ‘fancy’ [as the source of ‘fan’] seems contrived and incongruent with the class character of the baseball set…. Imagine looking upon a crowd of several thousand people all fanning themselves – might you not refer to the congregants themselves as fans, just as the original operators of typewriters were themselves named for their instruments? (Only later were they called typists.) Or maybe the name comes from the incessant chatter and debate by which true baseball devotees are known.”
In a similar example of synecdoche, in which the name of the part is transferred to the whole, today a visibly athletic male (or oddly and increasingly, and no longer disparagingly, a female) is termed a “jock.” This term derives not from a horse jockey but from the jock strap worn to support the male genitalia in active sport. Okay – but where does “jock strap” come from? Not from the racetrack, I suggest, but from Jacques Strop, a supporting character in Robert Macaire, an obscure 1830s play by Benjamin Antier. Ya heard it here first.
Ditto for the true origin of Murderers’ Row, a term used to describe the middle of the batting order of the 1927 New York Yankees. While the usual etymology for this term is plausible – that it derives from a row of cells in New York’s Tombs prison reserved for the most dastardly of criminals – Murderers’ Row was an actual alley in Manhattan long before the Civil War, starting where Watts Street ended at Sullivan Street, midway along the block between Grand and Broome Streets. Checking an 1827 listing of street names, I found that such location matched a street name: Otter’s Alley, which ran from Thompson to Sullivan Streets between Broome and Grand Streets.
Other sports terms besides those in baseball hold wonderful trace memories of their early days. The football field is called a gridiron because a hundred years ago it was marked not only by horizontal lines representing each five-yard distance, but also vertical lines five yards apart. And to this day basketball players are sometimes called, notably by headline writers short of character space, “cagers.” Why? Because the game was originally played within a metal cage designed to keep the ball out of the stands and the fans in them. Given the [then; 2004] recent fracas in Detroit, a cage seems an idea whose time has come back.
There are peculiar antique terms in all of our sports that many will struggle to explain. Mention “mashie niblick” and you’ll always get a perplexed laugh. But in the days when few golfers carried what we could call a full complement of clubs, the number of irons was reduced. A mashie equated to a five iron and a niblick to a nine iron (the club whose face slanted more than any club except a wedge). Those not carrying both clubs might opt for a mashie niblick, which would equate to a seven iron.
I could go on, but space constraints begin to pinch. John Ayto, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, writes in the preface to that volume: “From the earliest exposes of underworld cant from writers such as John Awdelay and Thomas Harman in the sixteenth century, through Francis Grose’s pioneering Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley’s seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904), and Eric Partridge’s influential Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1936), to Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994 – ), the development of colloquial English vocabulary has been voluminously and enthusiastically documented.”
SIDEBAR: A Selection from The Oxford Dictionary of Slang
Here, not voluminously but certainly enthusiastically, are some words and phrases I particularly like, along with the often surprising date of their first appearance in print using their current meanings. Almost always the first appearance of a slang word in print does not mark the beginning of its usage, and with almost equal certainty, the first appearance is substantially earlier than one might have imagined.
Bees Knees (1923)
Cats Pajamas, Meow, Whiskers (1921-23)
23 Skidoo (1926, origin unknown)
86 (1936; the folks at Chumley’s Restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in NYC will tell you different)
Makin’ Whoopee (1928)
Rave or Rave-Up (1960)
Chill Out (1980)
The Blues (1741—derives from blue devils)
Hep (1957; surely the editors have this pegged too late)
Hot (sexual desire, 1500; erotic, 1892; skillful, 1914; fashionable, 1908)
Swinging (1958 as “trendy”)
Fox (1961, back formation from foxy of 1895)
Dude (1883, but in sense of “fancy dan”)
Lousy (1596; yes)
Crummy (1859; from crumb as body louse)
N.B.G. (no bloody good, 1903; today often seen as N.F.G.)
Turkey (as stinker, 1927)
Grody (1965; from grotesque)
Stoked (1963, surfing term)
Kook (1951, surfing derivation
Bad (as good) 1897
Wicked (as good) 1920
Far Out (1954)