Northside Nostalgia Part 1: The Beginning
Today marks the anniversary of the founding of the National League on February 2nd, 1876, making it a fortuitous time to continue our look back at the early history of the Cubs franchise given the vital role the team and its owner played in the league's creation. It is a journey filled with triumphs, but also failures, including decisions that left scars on the game still visible to this day.
This also brings us to the grand figure of Chicago baseball during the 19th century, Adrian "Cap" Anson. Please excuse the exclusion of his faults as a human being in this installment. I have prepared instead a companion piece dedicated solely to his role in the erection of the color barrier in baseball that will be published in the very near future. Below, I deal only with his on field exploits.
The White Stockings during the National Association of Base Ball Players
After seeing the success of the fully professional Red Stockings baseball tour in 1869, and the attention it brought to their home city Cincinnati, businessmen led by William Hulbert determined a professional ball club of similar stature was of paramount importance for their rapidly expanding city of Chicago. The group purchased shares in the independent White Stockings baseball club that had been formed in 1870, invested in new players and facilities, and in 1871 the club gained admission to the newly formed National Assocation of Baseball Players (NABBP) or National Association (NA) for short.
Playing at the newly constructed Union Baseball Grounds at Lake Park, a ball field capable of seating 6,500 spectators on the corner of Randolph and Michigan Ave (now part of Millennium Park), the inaugural 1871 season began with a hot start for the White Stockings. The club won its first 19 ball games, including 7 in NA league play (teams played many profitable exhibition games during this era). Their first loss in June began a run of roughly .500 ball in NA play for the next three months, but on September 11th Chicago still hung on to first place in the standings with a 17-8 record, just a 0.5 game in front of the Athletics and 1.5 ahead of Boston. A Boston surge in September put them in control of their own destiny for the first professional championship heading down the stretch, but Chicago defeated them in a key game on September 29th to swing the all-important season series between the two clubs in their favor.
It seemed Chicago could actually pull off a championship season. But disaster struck in October. Literal disaster, that is. Some readers may understand the historical significance of October 1871 in regards to our great city, others may not. I'll give you a few big hints: Mrs. O'Leary and her cow... a lantern...
That's right, on the night of October 8th, 1871 a fire started in a barn behind 137 DeKoven Street would grow into a conflagration that would rage for nearly two days, kill hundreds, and leave roughly 100,000 residents homeless. In all, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed over three square miles of property, including the White Stockings brand new ball field, their uniforms, and all of their equipment.
Desperate and broke, the club quickly set up any exhibition games they could arrange and were forced to complete their NA scheduled games in facilities out East, while using a hodge podge of borrowed uniforms and gear. Bad luck piled on bad luck however, as poor weather plagued the team for the rest of the season, causing numerous cancellations and rescheduled matches.
Credit must go to the players for not collapsing under such dire circumstances. They endured, and played well enough to stay in the race, culminating in a deciding game with the Athletics at the end of October. Rain caused the match to be pushed back several days, until it was finally played on October 30th. A win would put Chicago into a disputed tie situation with Philadelphia (and Boston), while a loss would eliminate Chicago. It was do-or-die.
The scene, and the game, could not have been more chaotic. Cold, damp, and windy, just 600 fans showed up to witness the affair at Union Grounds in Brooklyn (10,000 spectators attended a game against Chicago in June that same season). Chicago took the field in their mismatched attire of whatever various pro and amateur uniforms the players could muster. Some played without hats.
The situation was hardly ideal for the Athletics either. Injuries had ravaged the club that fall, and they actually began the game with just 8 players, choosing to start the game without a right fielder, before a 40-year-old former Athletics player Nate Berkenstock was discovered in the stands and quickly drafted into service. Berkenstock had not played since 1867, and his participation in this game made him the oldest rookie in professional baseball until Satchel Paige made his MLB debut (although I find this bit of trivia insulting to the Negro Leagues). The time away from the game apparently did not affect Berkenstock's fielding ability, as he would be credited with three putouts without a single error (difficult in an era before gloves), including a running catch that saved a run.
The game proved to be a pitcher's duel, with Chicago ace George Zettlein and his famous fastball battling Philadelphia's Dick McBride. Zettlein held the Athletics to just 4 runs (2 earned), but McBride kept the White Stockings off the board heading into the final inning. Just as they had scratched and clawed to not just field a team, but stay in the race in the wake of the fire, the White Stockings managed to plate a run to avoid a shutout.
Interestingly, shutouts were termed a "Chicago" in some circles at the time in honor of a shutout by New York Mutuals of the White Stockings in 1870, and also in part due to a celebrated 9-0 win Zettlein and the White Stockings had posted the season prior. Low scoring games were rare given the nature of the restrictions on pitchers (underhand tosses only) and the high rate of errors at a time when the ball was rock hard and fielders barehanded. Newspapers would produce lists of "model" games in which the combined score of the two teams was under ten runs.
Following the loss, the club's circumstances remained grim. They were forced to play two exhibition games in bad weather and in front of paltry crowds just to afford the train tickets home. As the city of Chicago rebuilt, the White Stockings ball club was unable to field a team the next two years. They returned to competition in 1874 and managed to finish in the middle of the standings during the final two seasons of the National Association while playing in a new facility at 23rd Street Grounds.
Meanwhile, the footing of the National Association was just as unstable as that of the Chicago franchise. The influence of gambling was having a devastating effect on the league and the integrity of the games being played. In fact, two of the players the White Stockings fielded at the time would be banned from baseball in future years for throwing games. On field drunkenness was also a growing concern. On top of that, clubs were ignoring scheduled league games once they dropped out of the race and instead sought greater revenues from whatever exhibition matches they could arrange. Boston had dominated play four years running. Players and teams did not honor contracts.
The Founding of the NL, William Hulbert, and the Reserve Clause
Enter, William Ambrose Hulbert. By 1874 Hulbert has risen to become the leader of the White Stockings franchise and began asserting his influence. He believed the loose association of the player driven and focused NABBP was too weak to battle the influence of gamblers. He also felt Chicago, and the rest of the Western ball clubs, were slighted by the dominant teams back East, evidenced by the continual losses of talented players signed in the West that would then break contracts and jump ship during midseason once Eastern clubs offered more.
Hulbert knew baseball needed to change if it hoped to thrive as a legitimate venture with the public trust behind it. Hulbert also needed help, recruiting not just star player Albert Spalding, but baseball icon Harry Wright, and the Chicago Tribune's Lewis Meacham. Beginning his machinations as the 1875 NA campaign came to a close, Hulbert used Meacham to lay the groundwork for his ideas in the public mind. In the richest deal a player would see for the next three decades, Hulbert signed Spalding away from Boston to be the club president, manager and star pitcher. Wright's influence over teams back East helped bridge the divide and granted legitimacy to Hulbert's venture. His work at quickly and quietly assembling the National League would draw the ire of prominent Eastern baseball writer Henry Chadwick, who deemed it a Coup d'Etat. The reaction by Chadwick was most likely in response to the fact that he had been left out of the proceedings and decision making.
Baseball would morph from its amateur and player-centric roots to the club and business-centric model that lives on to this day. Hulbert's model is now the foundation for modern day pro sports. The endeavor was not without its challenges along the way. It's revolutionary nature ran into numerous roadblocks: teams folded, some were kicked out, gambling scandals continued resulting in players banned for life, commitments were not always met, rival leagues emerged. But the National League survived its early travails and soon thrived.
One of the biggest challenges faced, especially as new leagues took shape and looked to poach talent from NL clubs, was that of constant player movement and the skyrocketing cost of player salaries that ensued. In response, the league hatched the Reserve Clause beginning with the 1880 season. Whether the idea was initially Hulbert's or not has never been determined, but as the biggest influence in the NL at the time, it certainly could not have taken hold without his approval and it has become attached to him as one of his defining legacies within the game.
For those unfamiliar with the nature of the Reserve Clause it essentially allowed clubs to designate a certain number of players on their team that they could retain unchallenged on a yearly basis. Those players were unable to sign a contract with another club. Agreements were made between the Majors and Minor League teams as well to respect each others reserve lists.
It was officially abolished in 1975 by agreement with the MLBPA, but in reality the system was only altered. Teams still retain control over players for up to 12 years (6 in Minors, 6 more in Majors) before free agency is granted, so a version of the clause remains in effect to this day. Plus, owners of MLB teams were found to be guilty of collusion at various times after the 1975 ruling which effectively kept the clause in place beyond that date, limiting player movement and salary escalation for years.
Labor relations are still tarnished by its implementation. Nearly 140 years later team control over contracts and player movement is still an issue of great contention between MLB and the MLBPA.
The first champions of the National League
In the first installment of this series we detailed the formation of a powerhouse squad built around star pitcher Albert Spalding and three of his former Boston teammates, as well as budding superstar Cap Anson, who was poached along with a Philadelphia teammate on the recommendation of Spalding. The club was comprised mostly of Western players, Spalding hailed from Illinois, Anson from Iowa, and the city embraced the team and its immediate success.
The 1876 NL championship squad also featured offensive powerhouses Deacon White, Paul Hines, Cal McVey and Ross Barnes. The club scored nearly three more runs per game then the next best offense in the circuit. Behind strong seasons from Spalding and McVey, who both pitched and played 1B, the team also finished with one of the lowest ERAs in the league. The results were that the White Stockings dominated the inaugural season of the National League, breaking the Boston stranglehold as the top pro team, just as Hulbert and Spalding had intended.
The on field success of the club was short lived, as the veteran club saw their offensive production drop off the following season and Spalding began his transition to a front office role. The team finished no higher than 4th in the standings the next three seasons. Beginning in 1880, the on field product would recover and a new leader emerge. The club became Anson's.
Returning to the grounds of their previous home in 1871, the club constructed Lake Shore Park in 1878. With a short porch in RF less than 200 feet from home plate, balls hit over the fence were considered ground rule doubles until the club's final season at the site in 1884 when they changed the rule, spiking their home run total over 100 from the previous year. The team would win three straight National League Championships from 1880-1882 behind a powerful offense led by Anson, now the team's manager and entrenched at 1B, along with catcher King Kelly and OFs Abner Dalrymple and George Gore. Fred Goldsmith and Larry Corcoran pitched all but 49 innings over the three year stretch, with the team never placing lower than 3rd in ERA.
Hulbert died after the 1881 championship, leaving Spalding, who had retired in order to start his own sporting goods company, to step in as the majority owner.
In 1885 the team began the season on the road for the first five weeks while they awaited construction on the West Side Park (1885-1891/now 1340 West Harrison). The White Stockings would overcome the hardships brought on by the wandering and capture the National League title in the inaugural season at the stadium, then follow it up with another the next year. After both seasons concluded, the team squared off in an exhibition series against the St. Louis Browns (now Cardinals), champions of the rival American Association (AA). Though unofficial, the matches were a precursor to the World Series between the National League and the still unformed American League beginning in the 20th century. It also marked the first meetings between the Cubs and Cardinals organizations. The two teams would battle to a tie in their 1885 series before the Browns would emerge victorious in 1886.
With Anson leading the charge to six championships over the first 11 years of the National League's existence, the White Stockings had emerged as the first MLB dynasty. When a massive player revolt to the reserve clause took place in 1890, resulting in the formation of the Player's Association, Anson was one of handful of Chicago players to stay in the NL. With the roster filled by young players around the veteran Anson, the team became known as the Chicago Colts, or Anson's Colts.
At 6'2" and weighing over 200 pounds, Anson was among the biggest and strongest players in the game during the 19th century. His success as a player and manager of the finest team of the era catapulted him to celebrity status as the first national icon of the sport. Among his innovations as a manager was the invention of the hit-and-run play.
The Colts would move to South Side Park (future site of Comiskey Park) for the 1892 campaign and then began the 1893 season there as well, but wanting to take advantage of the huge crowds in town for the World's Columbian Exposition on the lakefront the club began hosting Sunday games back at the new West Side Park (a couple of blocks SW of the first incarnation), before abandoning South Side Park completely and finishing the schedule at West Side. The field would remain their home until the collapse of the rival Federal League in 1915, when a controlling interest in the team was purchased by Charles Weeghman, who moved them into Weeghman Park (now Wrigley Field), beginning in the 1916 season.
Spalding retained controlling interest in the club, but stepped down as team president in 1891, appointing his longtime friend and business partner Jim Hart to replace him. Hart had originally been Spalding's manager during his time as a player in Boston. It is a position that Anson may have expected for himself, and as the decade wore on, Anson became increasingly immobile in the field and less effective at the plate. In the middle of a ten year contract as a player-manager and with a 13% share in ownership of the team, there was little anyone could do to prevent Anson from writing himself into the lineup every game at 1B. His relationship with Hart, never strong to begin with, deteriorated further.
Finally, following a disastrous 1897 campaign, at the age of 45 and with his contract up, Cap Anson was not offered a new deal by Hart and Spalding. He would retire with 27 professional seasons under his belt and as baseball's all-time leader in games, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, RBI, as well as wins for a manager.
His shadow remained after his 22-year stint with the club, with the local newspapers dubbing the team the "Orphans" in response to his absence. The team's fortunes remained low through the turn of the century, with their record never crawling above .500 until 1903.