A History of Major League Baseball, Part III: The National League
June 18, 2012 Leave a Comment
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.
Late in the 1875 season, Chicago White Stocking owner William Hulburt pulled off a massive coup d’ etat, inking five superstars—Boston’s Albert G. Spalding, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, and Deacon White, as well as Philadelphia’s Adrian “Cap” Anson—to contracts for 1876. Fearing reprisals from NA leaders, he lured several other owners to a supposed league meeting at New York City’s Grand Central hotel on February 2nd, 1876. However, his intent was not to discuss reforms for the existing league; rather, he looked to sell other owners on the concept of creating a new league that eliminated player influence on the business side of the game, providing increased profitability for the men paying the bills. Furthermore, he pushed for an emphasis on honest play and prohibitions on drinking, swearing and gambling meant to attract a class of spectator willing to pay more to attend matches. His efforts were rewarded when eight clubs (four of which had already committed before the New York meeting) signed up for the venture. And on April 22, 1876, the National League would begin play when the Boston Red Stockings (who would undergo several nickname changes in later years before settling on Braves in 1912; the nickname would survive moves to Milwaukee, and later Atlanta) defeated the Philadelphia Athletics at Philly’s Jefferson Street Grounds.
The NL’s early years were not without controversy. With the Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs) comfortably in first place during the inaugural season, the Philadelphia and New York franchises undermined the schedule by abandoning their final western road trips. Forced to respond, Hulbert surprised everyone by expelling them, stripping the league of its two most populous cities and trimming the circuit to just six teams for the next two years. The fledgling circuit would be tested again a year later, when it was found that four members of the Louisville squad, including their star pitcher, Jim Devlin, had conspired to throw a hotly contested pennant race to Boston. Hulbert (now officially having been named the NL’s President; Hartford’s Morgan Bulkeley was a figurehead in that position for about a year) banned them for life. By 1878, only three of the original eight franchises remained.
And the players still wielded too much power. Most teams were losing money, thanks to players jumping from team to team for better salaries after their contracts expired. To quell this practice, team owners agreed to the creation of reserve lists that would allow each organization to keep up to five players at the same salary as the previous year. The system proved successful, and the lists would expand year after year until everyone on every roster was covered, forcing players into a form of indentured servitude where they could only play for one organization at whatever salary was offered unless they were traded or released. By 1887, a reserve clause was written into every standard contract, and generations of professional baseball players would battle the system in the courts, during pre-season hold-out protests, and even by forming their own league (or joining illegal ones) until the advent of free agency in 1976.
The National League saw its status as the only game in town challenged when the American Association began play in 1882. Unlike the stuffy, rigid old NL, the AA (also referred to as the “Beer and Whiskey League”) offered such innovations as alcohol sales, Sunday games and lower ticket prices. For half of the 1882 season, teams even wore uniforms that were color-coded by position (which they smartly jettisoned). They initially set up shop in six large cities without NL teams at the time—Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Louisville, and Baltimore—and drew well enough gate in those areas to convince NL brass that holding out an olive branch to their competitor might do better than wielding a billy club. The league champions even faced off in a two game end-of-season exhibition, the first time pennant-winning nines from two rival major leagues would do so. The NL’s Chicago White Stockings and AA’s relaunched Cincinnati Red Stockings would split the exhibition, which would be revived two years later as a formal, if disorganized, “World’s Series.”
The NL and AA co-existed as major leagues for the better part of a decade. They would respect the other league’s contracts and blacklists most of the time, but played by different regulations and to different classes of spectators. The 1880’s were a time when baseball rules were in flux anyway—rule-makers constantly tinkered with minutiae such as pitching deliveries (until 1884, when restrictions barring overhand deliveries were removed), the number of called balls needed to reach base (reduced from eight in 1880, to six in 1884, five in 1887 and the present-day four in 1889), what should be done if a batter is hit by a pitched ball (he wasn’t awarded first base until 1887) and the distance between the pitcher’s box and home plate (45 feet in 1880, 50 feet from 1881 until 1892, 60.5 feet after 1893). In fact, the entire 1887 season itself was quite the anomaly—to date, it is the only season in which walks were recorded as base hits, as well as the only season something other than three strikes were needed to record a strikeout (four strikes).
One particular AA innovation could have altered American history dramatically if it had stuck…