Northside Nostalgia: The Beginning

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

A woodcut from "A Little Pretty Pocketbook" (1774) with the first known depiction of rounders

A woodcut from "A Little Pretty Pocketbook" (1774) with the first known depiction of rounders

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.

timelineofbaseballrulesEven 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.

Albert Spalding (1871)

Albert Spalding (1871)

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.

Coming Up

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.


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  • This is fantastic, Michael!

  • In reply to WrigleyRay:

    Thank you, everyone

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Finally, someone fills the winter void with some fantastic reading!
    Thanks, Michael, look forward to the rest of it.

  • Michael, great idea for a series of columns. Can’t wait to read them throughout the season.

  • Wow...outstanding

  • My understanding is that part of the original Elysian fields still exists as part of a city park (presumably in Hoboken).

  • I want to give a shout out to Sean for the title. I was having a super hard time coming up with one and he fell on a simple solution that fits the spirit I am going for.

  • One of my favorite bits of early Cub trivia is that the expression "that came out of left field" is supposedly due to the fact that the left field boundary of the early 1900's West Side Park was the Psychiatric Ward of Cook County Hospital.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about. Thanks for sharing.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    I heard that story too. It was 2016 when my son and I took the Wrigley field tour when one of the tour guides provided that story. I would recommend that tour. It was very interesting and I enjoyed sitting in the dugout. :-)

  • In reply to wthomson:

    I'm fascinated by uncovering the origins of phrases we all use without knowing why. Getting "stumped", "cake-walk", etc. I have never heard that about a crazy idea "coming out of left field". That's the type of knowledge and fun we can have with a series such as this.

    Baseball has had such a huge impact on our society and history as Americans. I love baseball, I love teaching, and I love learning. This is a cool concept.

    By the way, today is International Thank-You Day, where people worldwide express their gratitude for things they appreciate. How appropriate.

  • Me Like! What an excellent idea.

  • This is great, Michael. Thank you!

  • Love it!

  • I learn so much this site. Yet another great read.

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    Again, thank you Michael! I love history, and of course love the Cubs, and for you to marry the two is great reading. Anymore more of these would be greatly appreciated. I also think that most of us are generally aware of Doubleday and the Chicago White Stockings etc but maybe not the true details of history.
    Thank you!

  • Wonderful idea for a series to carry us through the cold winter months, Michael. It's refreshing to read such informative, thought-provoking work in a culture that has seemingly reduced it's appetite for information into tweet-sized bites. I'm looking forward to the coming pieces and am anticipating some interesting feedback from our fellow Denizens. Heck, it may even motivate readers to do some further research into the game we all love to contribute comments. Thank you!

  • I echo all of the compliments here. This was an awesome read. I look forward to the next installments.

  • Michael, this is a fantastic idea and I can’t laud you and Sean enough for teaming up to work on a great topic!

    Plus, .....the timing. Everyone is freezing their tails off, it’s winter, it sucks.....we all miss baseball and you come up with this....


  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    I appreciate the kind words everyone.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Michael.........very enjoyable. I love how you wrote your article. A little information from the West Point Baseball team is below.

    Abner Doubleday, an 1842 West Point graduate, is said to have devised the game of baseball while on leave from the U.S. Military Academy in 1839, drawing out the diamond and the rules of the game. He called the game "Base Ball," but it was patterned after a game called rounders which was played by boys and girls in England.

    While the origin of baseball has been disputed, Doubleday, nonetheless, is still given credit and the baseball field at the U.S. Military Academy was dedicated in his honor in May 1939, the centennial year of baseball.

    Despite the controversy, Doubleday distinguished himself throughout his military career, earning the rank of major general. He served in the Mexican and Civil wars. As a captain, he fired the first gun for the Union side in the Civil War at Fort Sumter. On Nov. 29, 1862, he was made a major general of the volunteers. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1873 and died Jan. 26, 1893 in New Jersey at the age of 74.

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    Not everyone is "freezing their tails off".

    Bill in Arizona (;-).

  • In reply to wthomson:

    (I’m in Florida lol)

  • Great idea and loved the "opening act." Thanks!

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    Cannot wait for Merkle's Boner and the Joe (Ironman )Mcginnity story since he is a distant relative.

  • Great concept, great research and great writing. Very interesting first article and I'm looking forward to more in the future!

  • Great idea and an excellent read. Take your time and keep them coming. Can't tell you how much I'm enjoying this.

  • Phenomenal idea for a series and look forward to reading the next one! Like the chart with the years each different rule was instituted. People generally forget HR’s didn’t have to clear on a fly until 1931

  • In reply to Teddy KGB:

    It also allows me to point out the misnomer of the "ground rule" double. It is not a ground rule as it is an official rule that must be adhered to in all ballparks. Balls stuck in the ivy are a grounds rule double. A ball bouncing over the fence is not.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Is it really a misnomer? If a ball hits the "ground" and bounces over the fence, it is a double, not a HR. The ball hit the "ground", it is a double. The play is interpreted by the "ground rule".

    This is as opposed to a "grounds" (or field) rule, like the ivy. Most everybody now mispronounces the ivy rule as a "ground rule double", when it should be a "grounds rule double".

    Love the concept, looking forward to the next installment.

  • Absolutely love it! Great idea! And a really well-written article as well. Thank you!

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    Fun Fact: Frederick Benteen, the famous/infamous depending on who you ask subordinate for GA Custer at his last battle, was an avid baseball fan in the 1870's. He even organized a successful team among his cavalry troops and played a good deal himself.

  • What a fun read. Thank you. Also, can anyone recommend a book about why the Cubs were so futile for so long? I always blame P.K. Wrigley, but that's just conjecture.

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    In reply to AJinLA:

    I read a book called “Tangled in Ivy” that deals with this subject. It was written during the Andy McPhail era.

  • In reply to AJinLA:

    Ownership is important for sure. There is a reason the Cubs didn't win a championship for so many years until the Ricketts came along.

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    In reply to AJinLA:

    Try reading "Wrigley Field--The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines" by Stuart Shea. Good chronical of the main characters that made the franchise successful (but never a WS winner) in the late 1920's through the 1940's and what happened after that.

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    Great post Michael. Just happen to be sitting here watching the opening night of the cubs convention and now they're introducing all the former cubs.. Love it!! Ray Burris...haven't heard that name in a long time.. Kerry Wood looks like he should still be pitching. Carlos Zambrano...whoa good to see him get a nice reaction from the crowd. Rich Reuschel....very underrated pitcher. I still liked it better when they had the convention at the Hilton instead of where they have it now....seems to small a venue for the size of the crowds the convention draws every year. I'd like to see them hold it at the McCormick place.

  • Great stuff. As a blogger and writer who has looked into Cub history often, this is really fun to read. Looking forward to the rest of the installments.

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