Here’s the story of how baseball became a professional sport – Trentonian
In 1969, as professional baseball celebrated its centennial, a historic committee was formed and, among other things, determined which leagues in the past should be recognized as having been “major” leagues. It was easy to identify the existing leagues – the National League and the American League. It was almost as easy to include the American Association which competed with the National League from 1882 to 1891. The committee decided to include three other short-lived ventures – the Union Association (1884), the Players League (1890) and the Federal League (1914-1915).
It ostensibly excludes the National Association (1871-1875).
The committee decided that the National Association was poorly organized and that many of the results were player influenced and therefore fraudulent. Both of those statements are valid but, nevertheless, most of the best ballplayers of the day have played in the league and eight of them are now in the Hall of Fame. Additionally, the league has made many contributions to the evolution of baseball as we know it today. It should not be ignored and it is difficult to justify the fact that it was excluded.
The circuit’s full name was the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. There was meaning to those extra words.
The founders used the word “professional” purposely to distinguish between themselves and the National Association of Baseball Players – an amateur organization – which had existed since 1858. The word “players” is also important since the players themselves themselves, organized and operated the league and its teams. None of the clubs had a ticket office and the league certainly did not operate with a central office.
The league began in 1871, just six years after the Civil War ended. It’s not just a coincidence.
The war brought together soldiers from all parts of America and thousands were introduced to the game while wearing military uniforms. Back home, they enthusiastically organized clubs that would allow them to continue playing the sport they had learned in service. Things then happened very quickly.
Clubs challenged other clubs to games and found that people found baseball not only fun to play, but fun to watch. Matches drew spectators, leading some clubs to charge for entry. It was soon discovered that better teams attracted bigger crowds and clubs began to compete for talent. Eventually some of the best players got paid, even though at first the clubs refused to admit they were doing it.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 broke that mold. Under 22-year-old manager (and shortstop) Harry Wright, the Red Stockings were openly professional and embarked on a national tour in which they won all 65 games they played. The following summer, a few more clubs became fully professional operations, and a year later nine of them agreed in baseball’s first attempt at an organized league.
Put this in historical perspective. The first college football game between Princeton and Rutgers was in 1869. By 1871, a few other schools were forming teams, again as a student activity. Basketball hadn’t been invented yet. The first Olympic Games were still 25 years away. There was no Kentucky Derby or US Open.
Clearly, these baseball players were innovating. There was no pattern to copy and it was easy to make mistakes. They did a few, but they also succeeded a lot.
Professional baseball’s first season began in May 1871 and lasted until the end of October. There was no league program. The secretary of each club (one of the players) coordinated with his counterpart from each of the other clubs to organize the date and place of the matches. Sometimes a team would arrive in a town and stick around for two games, but that was rare. Most of the time, the visiting team would come in for just one game and then move on. It was not uncommon for teams to go a week or more between games.
When it was over, each team had played between 25 and 30 games and the Philadelphia Athletic Club (called the Athletics by local newspapers) was 21-7 and declared champions. Boston Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings finished close second and third. respectively.
It should be noted that the Boston team was led by shortstop Harry Wright, who still had about half of his 1869 Cincinnati team with him. He had changed towns but still fielded a quality team with distinctive hosiery.
The Red Stockings dominated the rest of the National Association’s brief history, winning four consecutive championships by substantial margins. In 1875, Boston went 71-8 and finished 18½ games ahead of the second-placed Hartford Dark Blues.
Each year, the number of games has increased, but also the number of problems. Every year, apart from the first, the clubs fold in the middle of the season. Also, the league didn’t know how to treat the players. Players caught taking bribes were suspended, but invariably reinstated.
It should be noted that in 1873 Elizabeth, NJ had a team, although it was forced to fold after losing 21 of its 23 games. One of their victories, however, was a July 4 triumph over the mighty Red Stockings.
A more successful team called the Philadelphia Whites also joined the conference that year, giving Philadelphia two starters. Some newspapers called the team the Phillies and were excited that they finished second in their first year of operation.
In 1875, a third Philadelphia team called the Centennials came on board, but three Philadelphia teams turned out to be one against many. The Centennials retired after losing 12 of 14 games.
Despite its many faults, the National Association proved that professional baseball could be a profitable business and by 1876 some of the most successful clubs had been taken over by businessmen (i.e. landlords) and the players were no longer in charge. Six of these owners have decided that the time has come to separate and form a new consortium. They invited two other clubs to join and established the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The new group was generally referred to simply as the National League.
The National League immediately replaced the National Association as baseball’s primary structure. According to the 1969 Historical Committee, Major League Baseball began at this time.
How stupid is that?
The level of play in the national association was probably better than that of the union association or the federal league. Besides his tangible history, he left a few nicknames that are still used today.
The Philadelphia Athletics were charter members of the National League but dropped out after one season. Seven years later, Philadelphia joined the league with a team called the Phillies, reviving the club’s unofficial nickname from the National Association. The name “Athletics” is not dead either. It was adopted by the city’s founding member club of the American League in 1901.
Chicago was also an original member of the American League and that team clung to the nickname – White Stockings – which was originally used in the National Association.
The Boston Red Stockings continued in the National League but dropped the nickname in 1883, arguing that it referred to spike injuries – a common illness of the day. However, the name remained popular in the city and in 1907 the American League team picked it up.
Cincinnati did not have a team in the National Association, but a club called the Cincinnati Reds joined the National League in its early days and the name lives on today. Thus Wright is responsible for the nicknames of two of baseball’s historic franchises.
You can’t convince me that all of this wasn’t part of Major League Baseball history.
SOME STATS (Wednesday games not included): Salvador Perez of the Royals is batting .141 in the 11 games he has caught. In four games as a designated hitter, he’s 7 for 15. Four of his five home runs were hit on his DH days… Anthony Rizzo hit eight home runs in his 49 games with the Yankees last year. This year, he has as many after just 17 games… The Mets have won their first six series of the season. It’s the first time in franchise history they’ve done this… Diamondbacks receiver Jose Herrera is 1 of 17. In nine games as a receiver, he’s had four errors and allowed two passed balls. On the plus side, he’s knocked out four potential base stealers… Over his last five games, Angels’ Mike Trout is 9 for 19, including a double, a triple and three homers… Rays’ Ji-Man Choi is averaging basis of 0.491. That’s 25 points more than any other player… The only complete game of the season was played by Walker Buehler of the Dodgers when he shut out the Diamondbacks… The Cubs won a major league lead 22 doubles games. The Phillies are second with 17… In 18 games, the Blue Jays have faced right-handed starting pitchers 17 times… The White Sox have been charged with 20 errors – including eight by their shortstops… The Rays have a 3.28 ERA . However, they allowed 17 unearned runs in 17 games… The Red Sox are 0-3 in extra innings… The Mariners’ Ty France led in a major league by leading 21 runs even though 17 of his 25 hits went been singles …Corbin Burnes of the Brewers has a 1.75 ERA. In four starts, he has not allowed a run in any of the first four innings.
Former Hall of Fame voter Jay Dunn wrote baseball for The Trentonian for 54 years. Contact him at [email protected]