Baseball and America

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Part I: In the beginning…

It was the 1870s and America had entered its “age of enterprise”. The civil war was in the past and reconstruction efforts were well underway. We were becoming an industrialized economy on the verge of creating wealth as never considered possible. Over the next 15 years output of manufactured goods would increase 150 percent and per capita income would rise by 50 percent over the same period of time. The transcontinental railroad, the steel industry and the grassroots of the oil industry were leading the way. Andrew Carnegie founded US Steel, John D. Rockefeller created the Standard Oil Company, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the leader in building the railroad industry, and Cyrus McCormick created the reaper. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, and Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone, they were the Steven Jobs and Bill Gates of the era in leading the way into new technology.

The Great Western Movement was continuing along with the war against Native American Indians. Back east newspapers were telling the story of General George Custer’s demise by Sitting Bull at the Massacre at Little Bighorn. Indians were being forced into reservations and eventually their children into white man schools to learn the way of the white man. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show featuring Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley became a big hit in the East and the West.

Rutherford Hayes had replaced Ulysses S. Grant as President and sat gloriously in the White House witnessing this robust economic era but also lurking in the background was labor unrest and violence.

Enter professional baseball – a product of entrepreneurs in this age of enterprise. Baseball was not new, it had been around in some form or another for 50 years. Originally it was adapted from the English game of cricket which was played with a wicket, a ball and divided into innings. Later it was transformed into rounder or town ball, a game played with a stick and ball and a home plate to count runs. The rudimentary form of the game was played at encampments of union and confederate soldiers. Amateur teams were formed in towns and villages across the country and townspeople turned out in droves to watch the games.

As They Saw The Game:

Sam Crawford, born in 1880, played 19 years as an outfielder with Cincinnati and Detroit starting in 1898. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957. (Excerpt from an interview in 1966, (Glory of Our Times)

“Every town had its own town team in those days. I remember as a teenager when I made my first team baseball trip. A bunch of us made a trip overland in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. We started out and went from town to town playing their teams.

One of the boys was a cornet player and when we’d come into a town he’d whip out that cornet and sound off. We’d announce that we were the Wahoo team and were ready for a ball game. We didn’t have any uniforms or anything, just baseball shoes, maybe, but we had a manager. It wasn’t easy to win those games because every town had its own umpire. We were gone three or four weeks. Lived on bread and beefsteak. We’d take up a collection at the games — pass the hat you know — and that paid our expenses. We’d sleep anywhere. Sometimes in a tent, lots of time on the ground out in the open.”

It should come as no surprise that entrepreneurs would come up with a business plan to make money out of this popular pastime. There were at least two attempts by player groups to form a professional baseball league in the early 1870s but they failed due to a lack of resources and discipline. But in 1876 a group of investors formed the eight team National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The new league was able to recruit the two most well known players of its time, “Cap” Anson and Al Spaulding and somehow held together. It was reasonably well organized, properly financed and most importantly it controlled the players by creation of the reserve clause which bound the players to a particular team or owner for their entire career unless traded to another owner. The eight team league consisted of Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Boston, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia and Cincinnati.  The Cincinnati Red Stockings, now the Cincinnati Reds, are recognized as the oldest professional baseball franchise in America.

As industrialization spread across the country so did labor unrest and baseball was not immune. Labor unions, in particular the Knights of Labor, which later became the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was formed and grew in strength and numbers. Strikes, along with violence, resonated throughout the country due to poor working conditions and low wages. In baseball, players began questioning their contracts and the reserve clause which in some ways was a paid form of slavery. The first attempt at forming a players union to oppose the reserve clause was in 1885 but it lacked the financial resources to create a serious attack. Some players bolted from their teams and tried to start a Players Association League but it quickly dissolved into bankruptcy and the players were forced to return to the National League and accept the reserve clause if they wished to continue their careers.

America and baseball also struggled simultaneously struggled with racial issues. The need for labor in the initial stages of the industrial revolution broke down many racial barriers but as demand evened out and machinery started to take the place of workers, racial barriers began to reappear. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 granting civil rights to Negroes was a failure and was replaced by Jim Crowe laws in the South which mandated segregation of public places. The name Jim Crowe originated from a 1830’s dance caricature known as “Jump Jim Crowe” and became a slang synonym for Negro.

Similarly In the early days of professional baseball black ballplayers played alongside of whites. However beginning in 1887 and lasting until 1946, black ballplayers were excluded from both major and minor league professional baseball and were forced to form separate leagues. The National Colored Baseball League was formed under the leadership of businessman and entrepreneur Walter Brown. The league was composed of eight teams representing New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Baltimore and Washington. In addition to these teams there was already a previously established barnstorming team of popular Negro stars called the Cuban Giants. Baseball mania spread quickly through the black population as it had the white. Names such as Bud Fowler, Grant “Homerun” Johnson, and Billy Holland became well known. For information regarding Negro League baseball, read A Game For All Ages,  by Henry Metcalf – available at the Morgan County Library.

In the National League the two biggest stars were Adrian “Cap” Anson and Michael “King” Kelly both of the Chicago White Stockings. “Cap” had a lifetime batting average of .329 and twice batted over .400. He was a feisty little second baseman who played and managed for 22 years. He was considered a model citizen who neither smoked nor drank which was very much a rarity among the rough farm and factory workers who became major league ball players of this early era. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1939.

King Kelly was the first flamboyant star of the game. King was a catcher who could run, hit and slide. He is considered the father of the Chicago Slide, known today as the hook slide. Fans were known to chant “Slide Kelly Slide” whenever he reached base. He played for 16 years with a lifetime batting average of .308. It was big news when in 1889 King was sold to the Boston club for an unheard of sum of $10,000. In Boston he was called their “$10,000 Beauty.” King is considered baseball’s first media darling and became well known as this was also the birth of modern advertising. He was also the highest paid ballplayer of his time making approximately $5,000 per year. The average player’s salary at the time was about $2,000. King was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1941.              

It is difficult to compare these early statistics with the modern era of baseball primarily due to the change in equipment and rules. The early day players played with, or sometimes without, pancake flat gloves, soft and dirty baseballs and lighter weight thinner bats. Homeruns were rare and in the very beginning pitchers threw underhand. The uniforms were baggy, dirty and hot. They looked more like the poor immigrants of the times. Than the sleekly tailored look of the modern ballplayer. In 1876 Chicago won the pennant with a record of 52 wins and 14 losses, Cap Anson batted .356, the leading homerun hitter hit seven homeruns, and the leading runs batted in leader had 60 RBIs. Pitcher Al Spaulding won 47 of his team’s 52 victories. Although we cannot compare players like Spaulding and Anson to today’s stars such as pitcher Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers or outfielder Bryce Harper of the Nationals,

we do know they were two of the best of their era and deservedly have been included in  the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It would be more than 30 years later before baseball fully standardized its rule and the number of games in a season.

Next week Part II:

The Gay Nineties and the Progressive era.

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