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A History of Major League Baseball, Part II: The National Association

This is a contribution by Jason E. Castro. Jason is a writer from Staten Island who has published several short stories in on-line literary magazines such as Danse Macabre, MediaVirus Magazine, Sparkbright Magazine and Greensilk Journal. He also has two books to his credit, “Rowdies” published in 2011 and “Cricket for Souls” which has been accepted by Muse It Up Press.

This will be a multiple part series.

Part I: The Knickerbocker Rules                 

James Creighton baseball player

James Creighton

James Creighton was a pitcher for the Brooklyn Excelsiors in the early 1860’s. At a time when pitchers were expected to merely serve the ball so batters could put it in play, the unusual speed at which Creighton was able to deliver his pitches kept hitters off balance and resulted in numerous allegations of wrongdoing (pitchers could only throw the ball underhanded, keeping the elbow and wrist straight). In addition, Creighton’s own hitting prowess gave him nationwide notoriety. By the time he was twenty-one years old, Creighton was considered a dominant force not only in baseball, but cricket as well. And while the game was outwardly for amateurs only, Creighton was receiving under-the-table payments.

But the party wouldn’t last for poor James Creighton. On October 14, 1862, a home run swing created abdominal pain that would hemorrhage, killing him four days later.  The cause of death was originally reported as a ruptured bladder, but contemporary research indicates that a damaged hernia, or spleen, or even appendix, could have been the cause. He is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Henry Chadwick Baseball Player

Henry Chadwick

Around this time, English immigrant Henry Chadwick was gaining fame as a prominent sportswriter for base ball and cricket. Chadwick edited several popular baseball manuals during his career, including guides produced by sporting goods companies such as A. G. Spalding & Brothers and A. J. Reach & Company, as well as the first one ever created for public sale, “The Beadle Baseball Player.” To better determine which players were of more value to their teams than others, Chadwick introduced a concept in the 1861 Beadle guide that would eventually become as synonymous with baseball as peanuts and Cracker Jack—statistics. Today, we can use his formulas to determine a player’s Earned Run Average or Batting Average and decide whether or not to add that player to our fantasy baseball squads. In addition, we can thank the man known as the “Father of Base Ball” for devising the score card, box score, and even the “K” abbreviation for strikeouts. Like James Creighton, Henry Chadwick is also buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

In 1867, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club joined the NABBP. Better known as the “Red Stockings” due to their distinctive uniforms, Cincinnati was one of several clubs likely compensating their players on the side. But when professionalism was finally permitted in the game two years later, the Red Stockings embraced it like no other squad, becoming baseball’s first fully professional franchise. The move paid off—led by Hall of Fame brothers George (shortstop) and Harry (centerfielder/manager) Wright, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings would finish with a record of 65-0, and would also win their first 24 games of 1870 for a combined 89 straight victories. It wasn’t until June 14, 1870, that the Red Stockings were finally upset in an 8-7 loss to the Atlantics in Brooklyn. However, on-the-field success was not matched by profits at the gate, and the Red Stockings were no more by 1871.

But professional baseball was here to stay, and the first major league of professional ballplayers, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (simply known as the National Association, or NA) was founded in 1871.

the national association of baseball players

The National Association

March 17, 1871. It was St. Patrick’s Day in New York City, and representatives from ten major base ball organizations were gathered at a watering hole called the Collier’s Rooms, located just south of Union Square at Broadway and 13th Street. Under these most ironic of circumstances, the National Association was born.

For a ten dollar entry fee (about $180 in today’s dollars, less than the dues for many fantasy baseball leagues), eight of the clubs present signed up—the Athletics (Philadelphia), Mutuals (New York), White Stockings (Chicago), Haymakers (Troy, New York), Olympics (Washington D.C.), Forest Citys (Cleveland), Forest Citys (Rockford, Illinois—and no, that’s not a typo; there were two teams called the Forest Citys in the original NA), and Red Stockings (Boston; they took on the persona of, and many of the best players from, the Cincinnati Red Stockings). The other two clubs present (Brooklyn Eckfords and Washington Nationals) declined to join, but a small-market club from Fort Wayne, Indiana called the Kekiongas would become the ninth, and final, entry.

Kekionga Base Ball Grounds

The lineup card at Kekionga in 1871

The league, and perhaps Major League Baseball itself, opened for business on May 4th, 1871, at the Kekionga Base Ball Grounds (also referred to as the Grand Duchess because of its lavish grandstand) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A crowd of about 500 people watched Bobby Matthews of the home squad shut out the Cleveland Forest Citys 2-0. It was a surprisingly low score; other NA matches that season ended with scores 49-33 and 37-16.

The original schedule dictated that every team would play every other team in best-of-five sets throughout the season, and the club with the most wins at season’s end would be declared champion. Because of the unusual structure, some teams played as few as twenty-seven games, while others took the field for as many as thirty-five. Matters were not helped when the Kekiongas ran out of money and were forced to disband, and were made worse when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly kicked over the kerosene lamp that ignited the Great Chicago Fire on October 8th, forcing the league’s top team to hit the road with no uniforms, equipment or money. The devastated White Stockings proceeded to lose their last three games and the pennant.

But who actually wound up with the championship was disputed at season’s close. As it turned out, an eligibility issue concerning one of the members of Rockford’s Forest City entry would cause four of their wins to be forfeited to the opposition, handing the two extra wins and the pennant to Philadelphia.

Perhaps it was a good thing the Athletics came away with the pennant that season. The Boston Red Stockings would dominate the NA’s final four seasons, and the lack of any real competition helped turn spectators away in droves. Clubs would come and go—Chicago, Rockford and Fort Wayne would be replaced the following season by Baltimore, two Brooklyn clubs (the Atlantics and aforementioned Eckfords), Washington’s Nationals and a nine from Middletown, Connecticut. Before the entire league folded in 1875, it could count nines from Elizabeth (New Jersey), New Haven (Connecticut) and Keokuk (Iowa) as members. One club, the 1873 Marylands, had a stint so short it doesn’t appear they even bothered with a nickname.

In addition, the NA lacked a central authority. The players ran the asylum, and gambling was rampant throughout the league.  With so many accusations of game-fixing going on, few took the venture seriously, and the NA would soon collapse under the weight of its own excess. Reform was desperately needed if professional baseball was going to survive in the United States.

Part III: The National League

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