Al Spalding

This article was written by Bill McMahon.

A SABR poll taken in 1998-99 ranked Albert Spalding second among nineteenth century contributors to the game (behind Henry Chadwick, tied with Harry Wright) and tied for 23rd among nineteenth century players. A larger-than-life figure, Spalding began as a star pitcher in the early 1870s, became manager and then owner of the Chicago White Stockings, and developed the sporting goods dynasty that still bears his name.

The first of three children, Spalding was born on September 2, 1850, in Byron, Illinois, near Rockford, to James and Harriet Spalding. The family was fairly affluent, owning land and horses. However, James Spalding died when Albert was eight years old, and the family subsequently moved to Rockford. Albert preceded them, living with an aunt, and it is said that he began playing baseball as a defense against loneliness. He became good enough at it to be asked to join the leading amateur team, the Forest Citys.

In 1867 the Chicago Excelsiors sponsored a tournament that featured the Washington Nationals, regarded as the best team in the country. The Nationals routed the Excelsiors, 49-4, but Spalding pitched the Forest Citys to a 29-23 victory over them. He was hired away to the Excelsiors, but soon returned to Rockford, where he worked at various jobs while continuing to pitch. While on tour with Rockford in 1870, Spalding defeated the famous Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Harry Wright, who had managed the Red Stockings, moved to Boston and worked to organize the first professional league, the National Association. He signed players for his own team, including Spalding, Ross Barnes, and Fred Cone from Rockford. Wright was an important formative influence on Spalding, imparting organizational skills to the young man. In 1874 he sent Spalding to England to organize the first foreign tour by American baseball players. The participants were players from the Boston and Athletic clubs. They departed July 16, arriving at Liverpool on the 27th. In addition to Liverpool they played games at Manchester, London, Sheffield, and Dublin. There were 14 baseball exhibitions, in which Boston won eight, but also seven cricket matches against top British teams. The Americans astonished the locals by winning six and losing none, the other being drawn because of rain. The victors sailed from England August 27, returning home September 9.

Spalding was the Association's top pitcher, leading in victories every year. He won a total of 204 games in five years, topped by a 54-5 record in 1875. After finishing second the first year, the Red Stockings won the next four pennants. Spalding's performance is described thus by Robert Tiemann (McMahon 1996:154):

"In the pitcher's box, Spalding was in complete control, using a fine fastball and change of pace. He was a master at keeping hitters off balance, either by quick-pitching or by holding the ball while the batter fidgeted. In addition, he was a good batsman, adept at opposite field hitting, and a savvy fielder who helped perfect the dropped-popup double play."

Spalding disapproved of drinking and gambling, and was thus sympathetic to William Hulbert's proposal to organize a new league with stricter discipline. Hulbert lured Spalding and other stars to his Chicago White Stockings. To prevent the eastern clubs from retaliating, Hulbert formed the new National League; for Spalding the new league meant a "promotion" to captain/manager. In the inaugural year of 1876 Spalding led in wins again with 47, but George Bradley of St. Louis, who had a 5-4 record against Spalding, was probably a shade better. The following year Spalding abandoned the mound for first base. Bradley was hired to replace him, but the team dropped from first to fifth place. Spalding gave up the captaincy and played in only one game in 1878; he was through as a ballplayer at age 27.

After retiring as a player, Spalding became secretary of the White Stockings, becoming president when Hulbert died in 1882. Spalding believed in strict separation between players and management, with the latter handling financial matters. He built a team that dominated the early 1880s, as the White Stockings won pennants in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886. He was determined to have a clean game that drew respectable citizens to the ballpark. He was innovative, starting the practice of spring training when the team went to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1886, and he sponsored a world tour of players in 1888-89.

Anson chronicled this trip (1900:140-285) as follows: Spalding organized a round-the-world tour with exhibition games between the Chicagos and a picked team, called the All-Americas, from the rest of the league. Among the All-America players were John M. Ward, Ned Hanlon, Fred Carroll, and Egyptian Healy. They left Chicago via the Burlington Railroad on October 20, 1888. For about a month they toured the west, playing in such places as Minneapolis/St. Paul, Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. On November 18 they sailed for Hawaii, arriving a week later. In addition to Honolulu they held games in Auckland and a few Australian cities. In January they sailed to Ceylon, where they also played, but they avoided India for health reasons.

On February 7 they arrived in Egypt, where they had a game in the shadow of the pyramids. From there they proceeded to Naples, Rome (playing before the king of Italy), Florence, and Paris. In the latter city, on May 8, Ned Williamson tore his kneecap in a game, virtually ending his career. They crossed the Channel that evening, playing in London (before Edward, Prince of Wales) and other British cities, as well as Glasgow, Belfast, and Dublin. In all there were 28 games abroad, the All-Americas winning 14, the Chicagos 11, with three ties. The weary travelers sailed from Queenstown March 25, arriving in New York April 6. Two days later there was a game in Brooklyn followed by a banquet at Delmonico's, at which Chauncey Depew was the speaker, with Mark Twain also in attendance. After further exhibitions at Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis they arrived back in Chicago on April 19 for a banquet at the Palmer House. The final game was played on the 20th at West Side Park, six months after they had started out.

Meanwhile, Spalding was undergoing a career change from player to team owner and sporting goods magnate. In February 1876 he opened a sporting goods store, in partnership with his brother Walter, at 118 Randolph Street. Within a few years they had a four-story building in Chicago, a five-story store in New York, and outlets across the country from Oregon to Rhode Island. Spalding was able to use his influence to supply balls, bats, uniforms, and other equipment to the league. He published semi-official guides and instruction manuals, carrying this practice over to other sports to promote his merchandise.

Spalding became the National League's most influential owner, promoting the reserve clause and its system of "indentured serfdom," i.e., keeping salaries down and controlling where men could play. He assumed a moral authority over the players, railing against drinking in the pages of his Guide (e.g., 1886:14-16). He set up the first "World Series" against the Association's St. Louis Browns, but Chicago only achieved a tie in 1885 and then lost four of six the following year. This induced Spalding to break up his team. First to go were the drinkers. Mike Kelly was sold to Boston for $10,000, and Jim McCormick and George Gore were axed. The following year star pitcher John Clarkson brought another $10,000 from Boston. Thus ended the Chicago dynasty.

By 1890 the players had a union, the Brotherhood, and rebelled, forming a rival league. Spalding led the effort to undermine the Players Association and ultimately turned organized baseball into a monopolistic trust. But he began to tire of baseball and turned over the presidency of the Chicago team to James Hart in 1892. According to Francis Richter (1915:3, 7), who regarded Spalding as "the greatest man the National game has produced," Spalding put the game above selfish interests. This caused him to come out of retirement to oppose the syndicate scheme of Andrew Freedman and John T. Brush. He ran for the league presidency against old friend Nicholas Young and actually won, but after several months of litigation he resigned in April 1902. He then sold out completely and retired to Point Loma, California. He devoted himself to proving baseball a uniquely American game, promoting the myth of its invention by Abner Doubleday.

From a baseball standpoint his most significant relationship was that with Adrian Anson. They had started out with Rockford, came to Chicago in 1876, and worked to build up the White Stockings. Anson shared Spalding's views and enforced his values on the field. However, Anson and Hart had differences dating back to the world tour, and when Hart took over the team the friction escalated until Anson was dismissed after the 1897 season. On the one hand, it was time for a change. On the other, Anson felt stabbed in the back by his old friend. Spalding tried to placate Anson with a testimonial said to be worth $50,000 (over $1 million today), but Anson was too proud to accept. In Anson's autobiography (1900: 306-314) the envy is clear: they started out together; Spalding prospered, while all of Anson's investments turned sour.

Spalding was married twice, first to Josie Keith in 1875; they had a son Keith. Josie died in 1899, and in 1901 Spalding married the widow Elizabeth Mayer Churchill. They had been clandestine lovers for some time and had a son (Spalding Brown Spalding, later changed to Albert Goodwill Jr.) out of wedlock. After marrying Elizabeth, Spalding acknowledged the paternity and also adopted her other son, Durand Churchill. He also took an interest in the career of his nephew Albert Spalding (1889-1953), a world-class violinist. Elizabeth was devoted to theosophy, and the Spaldings moved to Point Loma to be part of the community founded by Katherine Tingley. Spalding had been in the second echelon of Chicago society, but in the San Diego area he was a civic leader. This led to his campaign for the Senate in 1910. Although he was the popular choice, the insiders in the state legislature chose his opponent, John D. Works. He died of a stroke on September 9, 1915, leaving an estate of $600,000 to his wife and three sons. Twenty-five years later he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.


Anson, Adrian C. A Ball Player's Career, Being the Personal Experiences and Reminiscenses of Adrian Anson. Chicago: Era Pub. Co., 1900.

Chicago Tribune. (Sept. 10, 1915), 1; (Sept. 15,1915), 13.

Gold, Eddie, and Art Ahrens. The Golden Era Cubs, 1876-1940. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1985.

Golenbock, Peter. Wrigleyville, a Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Levine, Peter. A.G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball, the Promise of American Sport. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

McMahon, William E. "Albert Goodwill Spalding." Baseball's First Stars. Ed. Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996.

Nemec, David. The Great Encyclopedia of 19th-Century Major League Baseball. New York: Donald Fine Books, 1997.

Nineteenth Century Notes. Newsletter of the Nineteenth Century Committee, Society for American Baseball Research. No. 99 (1999): 2,2.

Richter, Francis C. "Heroic Figure Passes from the Stage." Sporting Life (Sept. 18, 1915), 3, 7.

Smith, Duane A. "Spalding, Albert Goodwill 'Al.' " Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. Revised and expanded edition. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2000.

Spalding, Albert G. America's National Game. New York: American Sports, 1911.

Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide. Various editions. Chicago and New York: A.G. Spalding & Bros.

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