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The New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club formed as a group of merchants in 1845 to pursue the game of baseball. They regularly played at the grounds across the river in Hoboken, NJ called Elysian Fields. For the first time in the history of the sport, a game between two official clubs took place, the Knickerbockers and the New York Baseball Club. The New Yorkers beat the Knickerbockers 23-1. It was the first occasion where admission was charged for a game of baseball. There was a reported attendance of some 4,000 spectators at fifty cents a head.
The National Association of Base Ball Players(NABBP) formed in 1857 as a way to regulate the game. There was a total of 16 teams as part of this new association and was considered the first professional sports league. Despite the name of the league, the association was made up of clubs, not players. The first mention of the game being billed as “The National Pastime” was on December 5, 1856 by a writer for the New York Liberty, but the league was represented primarily by the boroughs of New York.
Prior to the Civil War, baseball’s competition was cricket and “rounders”, or town ball. Town Ball was the precursor to baseball with similar rules, but was much less restricted so to allow more players the chance to play. A runner could literally be “thrown out” buy striking him with a thrown ball. The game was very popular in places such as Philadelphia and along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
After only a decade, the league grew from 16 to over 100 clubs, and to 400 within the next two years with teams on the west coast in San Francisco and to the south in Louisiana. The NABBP was initially established with the principles of amateurism in mind, but human nature prevailed and it was revealed that some players were being compensated indirectly or secretly. James Creighton of Excelsior and Lip Pike of the Philadelphia Athletic were two of the first offenders.
The situation of having paid or professional athletes seemed inevitable, and it was addressed at the 1868 Winter meetings to retain a certain amount of integrity for the game. At the time, Henry Chadwick stated that every noteworthy club had violated the rules of amateurism. It was decided that for the upcoming season there would be a professional category with rules covering(Henry Chadwick)when professional players could be used against amateur teams.
This was the beginning of the end for the NABBP. Teams were breaking away from the concept of playing the game for fun. Money was involved and there was a plethora of shrewd business men waiting to capture as much as they could. The NABBP prided itself on its amateur status and the game was evolving, spelling doom for the fledgling league.
The National Associational of Professional Base Ball Players-1871
William Henry “Harry” Wright
Harry Wright moved with his family at the age of three from Sheffield, England so his father, Samuel, might take the job as head groundskeeper at St George Cricket Club in New York. Harry and younger brother George apprenticed as “club pros”. They played baseball as well and were quite good at it. Harry was a star with the NABBP while George, 12 years younger grew into the era of the professional league(NAPBBP)or better known as the National Association which was created in 1871.
Mr Wright was the manager of the Red Stockings and literally changed the way the game was played. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Wright “eats base-ball, breathes base-ball, thinks base-ball, dreams base-ball, and incorporates base-ball in his prayers”. He taught his outfielders to back up players on base hits, and the shifting of players in the field according to a hitters tendencies. Probably the greatest compliment bestowed upon Harry Wright was from the magazine Sporting Life: “Every magnate in the country is indebted to this man for the establishment of baseball as a business, and every patron for furnishing him with a systematic recreation. Every player is indebted to him for inaugurating an ocupation by which he gains a livlihood, and the country at large for adding one more industry to furnish employment.”
Cincinnati Red Stockings
With ten professional ball players being paid between $600 and $1400 each for six months, March 15 to November 15, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings took the nation by storm. The team won an unprecedented 57 games and tied 1. They traveled the country by train from Boston to San Francisco. The first season ended November 6 at home with the Cincinnatis beating the Mutuals of New York 17-8.
That team consisted largely of imports from other teams, with John Hatfield and Fred Waterman from the NY Mutuals, Asa Brainard from Brooklyn as the ace pitcher and Doug Allison, a catcher from Philadelphia. The lone local besides Harry and George Wright was Charlie Gould from the Buckeye club as its first baseman. The 1870 team started where the previous team ended. The Red Stockings’ winning streak finally ceased at 81 games as Cincinnati fell to the Brooklyn Atlantics, 8-7, in extra innings in Brooklyn.
From 1871 to 1876 there existed the NABBP playing by the Knickerbocker Rules which relied on amerteurism and the NAPBBP who were paid professionals. The National Association was not stable due to lack of strong authority, poor scheduling and the dominance of the Red stockings. Along with the fact that many of the better NABBP players were jumping from team to team only exacerbated the problem. The NABBP was dying a slow death and eventually dissolved and reverted back to Town Ball. With a national population that was expanding and an accomplished railroad system, it was time for the NA to regroup.
The National League (1876)
Born in Burlington Flats, NY, the Hulbert family moved to Chicago in 1834. William married into a successful grocery business and then the coal industry. He was an avid White Stockings fan and became a director in 1874 and team president in 1875. He was a ruthless, relentless cutthroat. His interests were not so much for the game of baseball but corporate greed. He envisioned baseball as a means to build an empire.
There were no restrictions on players in respect to their contracts. They were only expected to fulfill their commitments for the year that they were currently playing. They could then sell their services to the highest bidder. His shortstop, Dave Force was a player that was referred to as a “contract jumper”, and Mr. Hulbert decided that he would lock Force up by signing him to a 1875 contract while still playing out the 74 schedule. This was a violation of league rules and in December ’74 Force signed a second contract with Philadelphia, which Hulbert protested. The Association Judiciary committee sided with Hulbert originally but when a Philadelphia man was elected to the vacant position of league president, the ruling was reversed and Force was allowed to play with the Athletics for the 1875 season.
Hulbert was convinced that the Eastern ball clubs were determined to make the Western teams the red-headed step-child, so raided the roster of the Boston Red Stockings. Even though the 1875 season was in progress, he signed Illinois native Al Spalding along with Cal McVey, Deacon White, and Ross Barnes. He then hung a carrot in the faces of Cap Anson and Ezra Sutton of the Philadelphia Athletics.
Hulbert was well aware that there would be disciplinary repercussions so he decided to create his own league. He approached the owners of Western clubs Louisville, St Louis, and Cincinnati and convinced them to negotiate with the Eastern club owners regarding the possibility of a new league founded on the principles of fairness with regards to every team. He wanted to improve the integrity of the game by prohibiting on and off field drinking, no Sunday baseball and no gambling.
The new league would also have more definitive by laws. Teams would only be established in cities with a population of at least 75,000, give clubs exclusive territorial rights and teams would be required to follow a strict predetermined schedule. The owners of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Hartford bought in to the idea and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed.
Hulbert’s 8-team league commenced play in 1876, with Hulbert as league president. He instituted the practice of determining the clubs’ schedules through the league rather than through club secretaries, as had long been the custom. He also hired umpires to strengthen the public’s confidence in the integrity of the game. During that first season, with a mere 15 games remaining, a game fixing scandal emerged involving the Louisville club. Hulbert quickly expelled for life Bill Craver, Al Nichols, George Hall and star pitcher Jim Devlin. The Grays of Louisville were driven out of the league, soon to be followed by St. Louis and Hartford.
With the Dave Force debacle fresh in his mind, Hulbert created the practice of reserving the services of players so as not to let them auction themselves off to the highest bidder. Hulbert felt that by so doing, fans and management would be able to associate with their team for years to come knowing the players would return for each season. At first owners could single out 5 players that they could protect, which was fine for those players because they were assured a job for the next year. Before long, all players were subject to the reserve clause meaning that ownership held all the cards. A player could be retained, traded, or sold to another team. There was no recourse for the player other than to sit out and not be paid, and by its very nature this structure kept salaries in check.