As I cherished the Cubs World Series Championship last offseason the idea came to me to create a series of articles touching on the long history of the franchise and its devoted fanbase. Prior to ending the drought, history had weighed on all who rooted for this club. Past failures were always present and anyone who wasn't a Cubs fan was always quick to remind us of it. For some, it was downright torture. Many simply resented it. Others tried to ignore it but I don't believe ever really succeeded in their attempts.
After the win, I was energized by the prospect of looking back and felt others would embrace the opportunity as well. Unfortunately it never came together in a manner I was pleased with last year, and frankly the scope of the project intimidated me, so I set it aside. But when the 2017 campaign closed out, I began making plans for articles that would work during this offseason I found myself drawn to the idea once again.
This time I was wise enough to realize I was about to bite off more than I could chew, especially in light of taking over the Minor League coverage this offseason, so I reached out to my colleague Sean Holland who graciously agreed to tackle this project alongside me. He was as excited by the idea as I was, and so in the coming weeks Sean and I will trade off writing duties as we tackle each decade of Cubs history beginning at 1900.
Of course, the history of the Cubs franchise reaches back well into the 1800s. Formed in 1870, the organization predates the the National League. The Cubs stand alongside the Braves as the only surviving franchises among the eight founding members and the club's owner acted as the driving force for the creation of the senior circuit. When going so far back in time it is also worth spending some time discussing the creation of the game itself and the path that led to creation of professional baseball. Portions of this time period are covered below, and I will post another article in the near future focused on the history of the team from 1870-1900, but we won't go into as great of detail as we will once the World Series era kicks off.
Origins of the American Pastime
Various bat and ball games were played throughout Europe for hundreds of years prior to the development of the game we know as baseball in the middle of the 19th Century. References to the game lapta exist in Russia as far back as the 14th century. Cricket dates back to the 16th century England if not earlier. Rounders, the game most often cited as the precursor to baseball, was mentioned (and actually referred to as "base-ball") in the very first children's book published in 1744, but like cricket the game is known to existed long before the first written accounts.
European settlers brought these, along with many other stick-and-ball games originating from other countries with them to the New World. As enticing as the idea of Abner Doubleday conjuring the game of baseball from thin air while residing in Cooperstown may be, the notion does not hold water. In fact, Canada was also experimenting with these same games, and the first historically accepted recorded match resembling baseball occurred in Ontario during 1838 (though the account was not published until 1886). The primary reason the Doubleday myth became accepted truth for so long is due in large part to one of the first stars of Chicago baseball and a primary organizer of the National League. We'll get to that story later though.
What is certain of the game's origins is that a number of versions sprung up around the U.S. in the early decades of the 19th century with the ”Massachusetts game,” “Town ball” from Pennsylvania, and “New York game” varieties gaining the most notoriety. On September 23, 1845 the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club officially formed and published their first set of rules which would become the template for the game we know today. They also began to practice and play that same year at the Elysian Fields across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Over the next decade the competing clubs in the area met regularly for matches while continuing to tinker with and standardize rules. In 1857, the first governing body was formed, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). The NABBP would grow to include clubs as far away as California, but it should be noted that NABBP member teams represented only a small portion of the baseball clubs popping up all over the nation. Other varients of the game were still prevalent.
Even the Civil War could not slow the ascension of America's new pastime. On the day news reached New York City that over 3,000 American soldiers lost their lives during the Battle of Antietam an estimated 15,000 residents watched a game played between two of the city's top baseball clubs. Construction of the first enclosed baseball field at Union Grounds in Brooklyn completed during the war years. Charging spectators became the norm during this time and soon the players looked to take their share of the profits.
While popular lore has it the game spread across the south due to Union soldiers, just as in the north forms of baseball were already popular in many southern towns. What the war did was expose more people to the New York version, which helped homogenize the rules throughout the land in future years. By 1867, tens of thousands of players participated with NABBP affiliated clubs throughout the country.
The NABBP was in trouble however. Created in an effort to embrace amateurism, it was being threatened by the money flowing into the game. While professionals comprised a very small percentage, the top teams and players raked in good money for the era. Companies began sponsoring teams and ringers became commonplace. Among them was a star pitcher out of Illinois, Albert Spalding. The Cincinnati Red Stockings (Reds) became the first fully professional ball club in 1869. The team recruited nationally and barnstormed across the land.
The tide of professionalism could not be stemmed. And the inevitable setbacks from match fixing and players jumping from team to team mounted. Within a few years the NABBP, the closest thing to a governing body the game had, died. Thanks to the success of the Red Stockings and other pro teams though, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP or NA) was founded in 1871 in its place.
Founding the National League
Spalding joined the Boston Red Stockings (Braves) of the NA in 1871 and over the next five years became known as the best professional pitcher in the game as well as a great batter. By 1875, William Hulbert, the owner of the Chicago White Stockings (Cubs), became disillusioned with the weak nature of the NA's oversight and authority. Scheduling was a mess. Gamblers still asserted far too much influence over games. Boston, led by Spalding and other greats of the era, dominated. Something had to change.
Hulbert approached several team owners, as well as Spalding, to gain support for the formation of a new league with stricter guidelines and composed of only the strongest teams, each who would have exclusive rights over their geographic areas. Spalding agreed to a contract to return home and play for Chicago the next season, then recruited several Boston teammates and Philadephia Athletics standouts Bob Addy and Cap Anson to sign with the White Stockings as well. With the support of three other "Western" clubs, as well as star players like Spalding, Hulbert met in secret with four main East Coast clubs in New York on February 2, 1876. A constitution was agreed upon and the National League was formed. Comprised of eight charter members (only the Cubs and Braves remain in operation today), the league kicked off its schedule that spring.
To get an idea of what else was happening in the U.S. during 1876 (besides the Centennial), Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone two weeks after the founding of the National League, and would make his first successful phone call on the new device the following month. Anheuser-Busch marketed Budweiser nationally for the first time. Another future ballpark staple, Heinz Ketchup was developed the same year. On June 24th of the inaugural season, Chicago would win a game 14-2 over New York, the same day as the Battle of Little Big Horn. After the season completed, Colorado became the 38th state and Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the wider world, new laws barred samurai in Japan from carrying swords.
In light of recent concerns over pace of play and length of games, it is ironic to note that one of the reasons baseball overcame cricket as the preferred stick-and-ball game in America was because a baseball game could be completed within a few of hours, whereas cricket matches could last for days. America was becoming time conscious. The development of the chronometer led to more accurate clocks. Railroads were stitching the country together from coast-to-coast and the need to synchronize rail schedules would lead to the adoption of time zones seven years later.
As the 19th century drew to a close America, swept by a wave of patriotism in the wake of the Centennial, would not accept the idea that its pastime was not a wholly American invention. Debates raged as to the game's origin. Spalding had taken over as the main influence of National League affairs and his impact was felt once again. Not only did his post-baseball career as a sporting goods manufacturer have a profound impact on the game, not to mention his key role in the founding of the National League, but he was also instrumental in the formation of the myth of surrounding Doubleday as the inventor of baseball.
In 1903 Henry Chadwick, a prominent writer at the time and inventor of the boxscore, published an article which traced the game’s roots back to rounders. It was widely read and in response Spalding organized a commission to settle the debate and decide once and for all how the game was created. Spalding appointed his friend and former N.L. president Abraham Mills to lead the group. Mills had been a close friend of Doubleday, who had passed away in 1893, as well. After years of information gathering, the Mills Commission published a report in December of 1907 which settled on the Doubleday theory despite no written evidence to back up the claim. Doubleday was enrolled at West Point in 1839 and no record of any leave time exists. Chadwick wrote a dissenting opinion in the report but to no avail.
In the next installment we'll begin to narrow our focus onto the Chicago baseball club, its players, and their impact on the game. We'll backtrack a bit to cover the founding of the franchise in 1870 and then pick up at the narrative with the team's early years in the National League up until the turn of the century.
Cubs history is too extensive for two people to tackle and do it justice, especially in the time and space available here. But Cubs Den has always extended beyond the writers and I anticipate the community here contributing to this project. Please point out any events, players and anecdotes Sean and I may overlook. Any interesting links, book suggestions or other resources would also be appreciated. Once we reach the mid-20th century the living memories of the commenters will come into play as well and I look forward to the stories you can share.
There are always more stories to tell.