The Spitter History Project: The National League Begins: 1876-1881
A/K/A: The National (kinda) League Begins and Almost Ends.
Best Teams: 1876 Chicago White Stockings (52-14), 1877 Boston Red Stockings (42-18), 1879 Providence Grays (59-25), 1880 Chicago White Stockings (67-17),
Worst Teams: 1876 Cincinnati Reds (9-56), 1876 Philadelphia Athletics (14-45), 1878 Milwaukee Grays (15-45),
Average Roster Size: 15
Average Pitching Staff Size: 4
Roster Highs: 1881 Detroit Wolves, 26 – They weren’t bad (usually, bad teams ran through players like crazy), but they used a lot of short term fill-ins, especially from clubs from other leagues that went bust.
Roster Lows: 1876 St. Louis Brown Stockings and 1878 Boston Red Stockings, 10 – Both were excellent clubs. St. Louis’ sub was 40-year old Dickey Pearce, a star of the previous decade, but Boston used the same nine for all but two league games. The lone sub was former third base stalwart Harry Schafer, who retired at the end of the 1878 season at 31.
Staff Highs: 1878 Providence Grays, 8 – Behind John Montgomery Ward (you’ll learn more about him for sure, later), the Grays tried a rookie and a few journeymen with limited success, and two position players pitched.
Staff Lows: Some teams used a change pitcher only in relief, but in 1877 Jim Devlin was the staff for the Louisville Grays. That may not have worked out in the long run, as you will see.
Players Who You Should Know (But May Not): Ross Barnes, Silver Flint, Joe Start, Lee Richmond, George Bradley, Charley Jones, Tommy Bond, Terry Larkin, Jim Devlin, Orator Shafer, Will White, John Cassidy, John Peters
Names, Names, Names: Foghorn Bradley, Whitey Ritterson, Paddy Quinn, Live Oak Taylor, Chub Sullivan, Buttercup Dickerson, Tricky Nichols, The Only Nolan, John “Kick” “Diamond John” Kelly
Died Too Soon: Ed Somerville, Jimmy Hallinan, Chub Sullivan, Steve Dignan, Lefty McMullin
Solid Leadership: Cap Anson, George Wright, Harry Wright
Horrible Mismanagement: 1876 New York and Philly deserve a mention here, but the Reds were a disaster for most all of the first NL seasons.
Rule Changes: The fair-foul bunt was eliminated in 1877. The number of balls it took to walk went to eight in 1880, and there were no more ‘no pitches’ for balls outside the preferred hitting zone. A pitcher had to face a batter now at some point instead of facing another direction totally while pitching (the full Tiant, as it were). In 1880, the catcher had to catch the third strike.
The big, big change was in 1879, with the establishment of the reserve clause. At first, it seemed benign. Whoopsy.
Let’s Play the Feud: Philadelphia and New York vs. the National League. Louisville vs. its players and gamblers. Cincinnati vs. teetotalers. Charley Jones and others vs. the blacklist.
So, Here’s the Thing: After it was pretty obvious that the National Association was a lost cause, William Hulbert, the backer of the Chicago squad, decided to form a better, stronger league. He was pretty sick and tired of Boston gathering up the best players and the NA having an East Coast bias and also tired of clubs not journeying to Chicago to fulfill obligations.
So, he got some of the western clubs together, then approached the stronger eastern teams, and set about to form a tightly controlled league of baseball clubs. Of course, he did this after singing many of the best players onto his team, but no matter. Eight teams entered the league, pledging to the idea of square and honorable dealings in contracts and schedule, no gambling, no drinking at the park and no Sunday baseball. Hulbert wanted a clean, gentlemanly game.
He also wasn’t someone to mess around with, either. Somehow, by sheer force, he willed the league to survive.
Right off the bat, near the end of the first season, the New York and Philadelphia clubs decided that their last road trip of the season was a lost cause, and didn’t venture out. This happened all of the time in the NA, but it wasn’t going to fly in the NL. Even though the New York and Philadelphia markets were vital to the game, and had the longest organized ball histories, they were 86’d from the league.
In 1877, the then six-team NL faced a huge crisis. Louisville were in control of the pennant race, up 3 ½ with 12 games to go. Led by ace pitcher Jim Devlin and outfielder George Hall, they were certain to claim the prize.
Until they started to lose games, and lose them suspiciously. As in, obviously trying to lose games. Funny thing is, after playing like idiots in an NL game, they’d turn around any play like champs in the next day’s exhibition games.
Turns out that four players, including Devlin and Hall, were part of a scheme to throw the league games using a code that third graders could figure out, and transmitting it via telegram to boot. Devlin, Hall, and the others were ceremoniously booted from the league, and in the aftermath (due to contracts, and other suspicious shenanigans), three teams (Louisville, Hartford, and St. Louis) left the league.
The 1877 Cincinnati team basically gave up the ghost and released its players, but soon after new investors came in and bought the franchise. A few players had already signed elsewhere, but were returned to the Reds. (That’s why Charley Jones had two games with Chicago in 1877.)
So with two strong teams (Boston and Chicago), and one teetering team (Cincinnati), the NL entered 1878 with three new clubs in Providence, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. Only Providence survived, but when the International Association (a league similar to the old NA, but with more instability and rogue behavior) took a dirt nap for the most part, the NL swooped in and grabbed Buffalo, Syracuse, Cleveland, and Troy, New York. Worcester replaced Syracuse in 1880, and Detroit joined the league in 1881 replacing Cincinnati.
Yes, the ‘birthplace’ of professional baseball was booted out of the National League for having the temerity to sell alcohol on its grounds and allowing its field to be used for Sunday ball.
On the field, with all of the signings that took place in late 1875, no one touched Chicago in 1876. But Al Spalding tired of playing and retired after that year, and the powers-that-be outlawed Ross Barnes’ fair-foul hit (where he’d chop down on the ball so it hit fair and spun foul, with was a fair ball in 1876). Due to those events, the White Stockings faded. Boston won the next two years, and then Providence won its first pennant in 1879.
In 1880, Cap Anson was the on-field boss of Chicago, and working with Spalding and Hulbert (who still had a big stake in the club) worked to build a powerhouse. No one could touch the White Stockings in 1880 or 1881.
The teams that didn’t survive were done in by bad business habits, poor player selection, and poor character. The 1878 Indianapolis squad hired infamous pitcher Edward “The Only” Nolan. Nolan had a good fastball, a tantalizing curve, and an appetite for drinking, dicing, and whoring. He was suspended and blacklisted at least twice for either drinking and missing a game, or carousing in a brothel and missing a game (who knows, he may have been doing both each time). Every time he claimed he had ‘family’ obligations. Nolan usually insisted that the teams he played for be sub-par and that he’d be the only pitcher. Well, alright then.
The instability of the early years was seemingly over. Even without booming baseball markets such as Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, the league was at least profitable and it seemingly had weeded out some weaker teams and shady operations. The game was improving, too. While the occasional game got out of hand, the runs scored were now at a reasonable level as teams became more stable and professional.
There were rumblings, though. Hulbert’s iron rule came at a cost, as he blacklisted players like Charley Jones for demanding his August paycheck early in 1880 instead of waiting for them to come off the road. Even though Jones won the lawsuit against the team, he was expelled from the NL. Any player who stepped out of line was on the blacklist.
Areas such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and St. Louis were good baseball towns. They also had large immigrant populations, who had no hang-ups about Sunday baseball, or beer. The parsimonious NL wouldn’t have anything to do with them (the sacking of Cincy in 1881 showed them), so they felt left out.
They wouldn’t feel that left out starting in 1882.