The Spitter History Project: The National Association

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Years:  1871-1875

A/K/A: The National Association Lives (and Dies)

Best Teams: The Boston Red Stockings (won 4 of the 5 titles)

Worst Teams: 1871 Rockford Forest Citys (4-21), 1872 Washington Nationals (0-11), 1872 Brooklyn Eckfords (3-26), 1873 Baltimore Marylands (0-6), 1873 Elizabeth Resolutes (2-21), 1875 New Haven Elm Citys (7-40), 1875 Keokuk Westerns (1-12), 1875 Brooklyn Atlantics (2-42)

 Average Roster Size: 14

Average Pitching Staff Size: 3

Roster Highs: 1875 Brooklyn Atlantics (35 – including 14 with just one game played and four others with two)

Roster Lows: 1872 Boston Red Stockings (10 – sub Dave Birdsall played 16 games at catcher and outfield, and others shifted when he played).

Staff Highs: 1875 Brooklyn Atlantics (8 – four pitched just one game and one pitched just two)

Staff Lows:  Many full-time clubs used just two. Al Spalding started every game in 1872 and all but two games in 1874. Harry Wright was used to give him a rest during games as Spalding went to the OF.

Players Who You Should Know (But May Not): George Zettlein, Bobby Mathews, Cal McVey, Davy Force, Lip Pike, Dickey Pearce, Levi Meyerle, Candy Cummings

Names, Names, Names: Cherokee Fisher, Count Sensenderfer, Count Gedney, Trick McSorley, Pidgey Morgan, Packy Dillon, Holly Hollingshead, Favel Wordsworth, Sy “Warhorse” Studley

Died Too Soon: Al Thake, Elmer White, Cy Bentley, Charlie Mills, Charlie Hodes

Solid Leadership: Harry Wright, Dick McBride

Horrible Mismanagement: Anyone who entered an unqualified club in the league. Charlie Pabor was 13-64 as a manager (or team captain, as it were).

Rule Changes: The only major change was regulation of ball size and weight.

Let’s Play the Feud: Philadelphia Athletics vs. Boston Red Stockings. Chicago vs. the Fire.

So, Here’s the Thing: There had been championships in the past, more of a challenge format than anything else. There were now professional clubs filled with professional players. But now, a new organization, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, formed and created a structure to crown a champion of professional baseball.

For the low, low price of $10, a club could enter themselves in the annual championship. Teams had to agree to play other teams five times, and those five games would count in the championship. Of course, other games between clubs could be arranged.

Basically, if your club had ten bucks, you were in, and then you scheduled the games against other clubs. What could go wrong?

It went wrong right off the bat.

There were nine clubs signed up in the initial year. No club played the 40 games that you would think would be required, and two clubs (Ft. Wayne and Rockford), fell apart during the year, while others declined to make trips due to the expense. Somehow, due to rain and other issues, the 1871 Philadelphia Athletics won the championship by going 21-7. Boston went 20-10, and Chicago went 19-9.

Chicago had other issues besides the close pennant race. During the season, the Great Chicago Fire erupted, and the city was devastated, including their ballpark. They finished out what they could of the season, and then went into mothballs until 1874.

Games were high scoring, and many were lopsided. Fort Wayne lost to Washington 32-12, and Boston 30-9. That wasn’t the worst. Troy lost to Philadelphia 49-33 on June 28th. The next game Troy beat New York 37-16. This was baseball, remember.

After the first season, Boston decided to strengthen their club, and signed a few new players. The result was a four year dynasty that basically led to the end of the NA.

This was before the reserve clause, and players could play for whoever they wanted after their contract expired. This led to many players signing contracts to other clubs in mid-year for the next season. Boston used those rules to their advantage (as did Philadelphia’s Athletics) and kept their club stacked with the best talent. They also paid well.

Meanwhile, each year, different clubs entered the Association, and several didn’t last the year. In 1872, just four of the 11 clubs played more than 40 games. The next year, six of nine clubs lasted the year. Some stability occurred in 1874, where every club played at least 43 games and only the Baltimore Canaries folded. That was a false sense of security.

The last year of the Association was chaotic. Thirteen clubs played league games. Three gave up before 20 games were played, and three others didn’t make the cut. Those six clubs were 20-144 combined, so there was definitely some imbalance there.

One issue was that the NA allowed teams to join even if there was another club in the same city. In that last season, there were two teams in St. Louis and Philadelphia. Another was that any club could join, leading to the Keokuk Westerns trying their hand at the NA.

The worst thing was that some teams were just so overmatched, there was no incentive for fans to support the teams, and players often left their teams when they weren’t paid or paid late to join other clubs (either in the NA or outside of it). The smaller clubs usually had to pad their roster with local sandlot players, or leftovers from other teams. That was explainable.

However, longstanding clubs also had horrible seasons. Brooklyn had two clubs, the Eckfords and the Atlantics, that were around for years before the NA was formed. In 1872, the Atlantics went 9-28 and the Eckfords wound up 3-26, being outscored by 10 runs a game. The worst was in 1875, when the Atlantics were an astounding 2-42, beating New Haven twice, and losing their last 31 games in a row.

It was thought that instead of these games being on the level, many were thrown or influenced by gamblers. While nothing was ever proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it was known throughout the league that it was the case that some players were on the take. Gamblers were seen at most every NA game, especially in New York and Brooklyn.

You can imagine that by 1875, interest in professional baseball was waning. The players were in charge of the Association, but they were financed in many cases by magnates and industrialists who bankrolled them. Those financiers wanted to protect their investments, and took matters into their own hands. Well, William Hulbert took matters into his own hands.

During the 1875 season, Hulbert, money man for the reconstituted Chicago club, had signed many of the Boston players for the 1876 season. After the 1875 season, he got with club owners who wanted to form a clean, solid, baseball league made of solid franchises run like a business. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed.

That. Changed. Everything.

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