He legitimately could be called the Father of Professional Baseball, yet few modern fans are familiar with the name of Aaron Burt Champion. As president of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club, Champion conceived the idea of fielding an all-professional team in 1869, the first openly professional club in the history of baseball. With the help of Harry Wright, he assembled the famous Red Stockings, a dominant team that toured the country, sweeping the opposition, and enhancing the popularity of baseball. Other clubs adopted the practice of paying all of their players, and professional baseball was well on its way. Today the plaque of Harry Wright is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and rightfully so, but Champion is largely forgotten.
Aaron Burt Champion was born on February 9, 1842, in Columbus, Ohio, one of four children of Sarah Ann Chadbourne and John Newton Champion, a descendant of Dr. Reuben Champion, a Revolutionary War veteran. Born near Springfield, Massachusetts, John Champion had entered a mercantile business with his brother in Savannah, Georgia. After his marriage he moved to Ohio and opened a large dry-goods store in Columbus. His store was prosperous, enabling him to make investments in real estate that earned him considerable wealth. He also became a power in local Whig politics.
Growing up in an affluent family, young Burt Champion did not need to work for a living, but perhaps inheriting an entrepreneurial spirit from his father, the lad learned telegraphy and at the age of 13 had an office at Benwood on the Ohio River in Monroe County in southeastern Ohio. After getting telegraphy out of his system, Burt attended Antioch College from 1856 to 1860. After graduating from Antioch, he studied law under the direction of Francis Collins in Columbus. He was admitted to the bar on February 16, 1863. As a lawyer Champion no longer went by the name Burt, but was referred to as Aaron or A.B. He opened a law office in Cincinnati in February 1864 and became active in Queen City politics. Given his background, it is perhaps surprising that Champion cast his lot with the Democrats.
In 1865 Champion became one of the organizers of the Union Cricket Club in Cincinnati. Shortly thereafter, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club was organized in his offices, and he was elected president of the club. The baseball club played its games on grounds adjacent to the cricket field. Harry Wright, who had starred in both sports in the East, had moved to Cincinnati after the Civil War to pursue his career as a cricketer. After watching a game on the baseball field, Wright decided to revert to baseball, and after a conversation with Champion, Wright led a mass exodus of cricketers to the baseball club. This enhanced club played its first game as a team on September 26, 1866. Admission to games ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents for men; women were admitted free of charge. The Cincinnati club quickly became the dominant team in the Midwest. In 1867 the team won 17 of 18 contests. Before the 1868 season began, Wright hired seamstress Bertha Betram to create new uniforms. She made white flannel jerseys, soft-collared and flared at the neck, with a bright red Gothic C stitched on the front. She added white knickers with a clasp below the knee. The knickers were an innovation. Previously players had worn long trousers, but it was believed that they could run faster in knickers than in longer, restricting trousers. For the final touch Betram added long, bright red stockings. The hose inspired a nickname for the team—the Red Stockings. In 1868 they won 36 games while losing seven. Many of the games were so lopsided that spectators lost interest and gate receipts declined. Champion, Wright, and others wanted to expand operations by creating a traveling team that would tour the East, taking on all comers. In order to do this successfully, the club would have to become openly professional and pay all of its players, the first ever to do that.
Champion remained president of the club, responsible for paying the salaries. As captain of the team, Wright took on tasks that today would be considered responsibilities of the general manager, field manager, traveling secretary, and scout. Champion also took an active role in scouting and signing players. At this time Champion was a successful lawyer in the firm of Wilson and Champion, with offices in downtown Cincinnati on West 3rd Street. He was also involved in business enterprises and charitable works, as well as politics. That he found time to engage in all these myriad activities simultaneously must have been due to his amazingly energetic makeup.
The team assembled by Champion and Wright consisted of some of the most talented amateur players in the country, many of whom had probably maintained their amateur status by accepting jobs with supporters of the clubs—jobs that often paid well and duties that allowed them ample time for practicing and playing baseball (or cricket.) Several of them had been recruited in 1868 or earlier, before the club became avowedly professional. For example, Asa Brainard was recruited in 1868. According to Champion,
“His engagement with the Reds came about in this way. In the spring of 1868, I went east to get Fred Waterman, who was then with the Excelsiors of Brooklyn, to play third base for us. … A young man named Brainard … was being talked about as the coming second baseman, and I determined to get him too. … I dickered with him several days before I got him … and he headed to Cincinnati in May.”i The club obtained employment for Brainard in the offices of a law firm. How much work he did for the lawyers is not known.
Although the 1869 club paid ten players, the team was known as the First Nine. Most of them played multiple positions, but they are identified by a single position in the following list.
|Asa Brainard||pitcher||28||Washington Nationals|
|Doug Allison||catcher||22||Geary of Philadelphia|
|Charlie Gould||first base||21||Cincinnati Buckeyes|
|Charlie Sweasy||second base||21||Irvington, New Jersey|
|Fred Waterman||third base||23||New York Mutuals|
|George Wright||shortstop||22||Washington Nationals|
|Andy Leonard||left field||22||Irvington, New Jersey|
|Harry Wright||center field||34||New York Gothams|
|Cal McVey||right field||18||Indianapolis Westerns|
|Dick Hurley||substitute||22||Cincinnati Buckeyes|
The median salary of the 1869 team was $800, ranging from $600 for Dick Hurley to $1,400 for George Wright. Doug Allison is noted as being the first player to wear a glove during a game (June 28, 1870.) Gould was the only native Cincinnatian on the club and at 6 feet was the tallest player. The acrobatic McVey was the youngest player and the first professional baseball player born west of the Mississippi River (near Montrose, Iowa). The Wright brothers were both born in England, and Leonard was a native of Ireland. Both Wrights are now members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
On April 17, 1869, the Red Stockings took the field for their first game as the first all-professional club in the history of baseball. In April and May they played severely overmatched Midwestern amateur teams. From May 31 to July 1 they toured the East. In 21 games in 30 days they defeated the best teams in America. On June 26, the day after they had defeated the Washington Nationals 24-8, they were greeted at the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant. Upon completing the Eastern tour undefeated, the Red Stockings returned to the Queen City and were treated to a parade. They were presented with perhaps the largest trophy of all time, a giant 27-foot wooden bat, weighing 1,600 pounds. (The bat is now stored at the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. Because of its huge size it is brought into the exhibit area only on special occasions.) An ecstatic Champion declared that he would rather be president of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club than president of the United States.
Having defeated the best teams in the Midwest and the East, there was one area left to conquer—the West Coast. The team left Cincinnati on September 14. After stopping in St. Louis to win two games, 70-9, and 31-9, the team boarded a stagecoach for the trip into Omaha. Gould sat on the very top with the baggage. McVey and George Wright took seats next to the driver, and the rest climbed inside with the other passengers. At Omaha they boarded a train, becoming the first baseball team to travel on the new transcontinental railroad. In San Francisco the Red Stockings won their games against three California teams by a combined score of 289-22. On the return trip they stopped in Omaha and defeated the local team by a 64-point margin in front of Vice President Schuyler Colfax. In November they defeated their most respected rivals, the New York Mutuals, thus completing a perfect season of 57 wins and no losses.
The winning streak continued well into the 1870 season, but came to an end on June 14 in New York when the Brooklyn Atlantics, defeated them, 8-7, in 11 innings. Champion telegraphed home: “The finest game ever played. … Though beaten, not disgraced.”ii The club had won 81 games in a row.
In 1871 dissension struck the club. Two major cliques emerged, divided over opinions about drinking and discipline. (The Wright brothers, Gould, and McVey opposed what they considered rowdy behavior; the others had a different opinion, particularly about off-field conduct.) During the controversy, Champion resigned as club president. The stockholders voted to return to amateur status. Harry Wright, his brother George, Gould, and McVey moved to Boston and joined the new Boston Red Stockings. Baseball’s first avowedly all-professional club was no more, but the concepts advanced by Champion and Wright lived on. Authors Greg Rhodes and John Erardi wrote: “To Aaron Champion and Harry Wright go the credit for casting the mold for the professional sports team. … They established that the all-salaried club, the scouting and training of junior-level players, regular training procedures, systematically conducted practices, and carefully devised strategies and teamwork could produce results far superior to any system that had been tried.”iii
On January 25, 1870, Champion married Elizabeth Scobey “Lizzie” Taylor, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, in her hometown of New Carlisle, Ohio. The couple had five children, Florence (born in 1871), Walter (1873), Paul (1874), Mabel (1880), and Burt, Jr. (1881). Paul died in infancy and Walter died at the age of 7.
From 1865 and for at least the next 20 years Champion was a partner in the Wilson and Champion law firm, with offices on West Third Street in downtown Cincinnati. Champion was the Democratic candidate for prosecuting attorney in the 1870 election. In the heavily Republican area, he lost the election but led his ticket by more than 5,000 votes. In 1872 Champion was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, which nominated Horace Greeley for president. His legal practice flourished, even while he was involved with cricket and baseball. He always seemed able to be active in several areas at the same time. By 1880 he and Lizzie had two live-in servants in their Baymiller Street home. In 1887 Champion went to Europe to get ideas for the Centennial of Cincinnati, which was celebrated in 1888. Later he returned to Europe numerous times, traveling extensively to pursue his interests in history and art. He served as director of the Industrial Exposition in Cincinnati, 1885-88. In 1892 Champion took charge of the street railway system in Charleston, West Virginia, which he thoroughly reorganized and modernized. In 1895 he became a partner in a new law firm, Champion and Muir, with offices at Walnut and Vine in the Cincinnati business district.
For many years Champion contributed generously to charitable enterprises, both in time and money. For seven years he was president of the board for the House of Refuge, an institution to which boys and girls from 6 to 19 years of age could be committed by parents, guardians, or the courts for such offenses as vagrancy, petty larceny, truancy, running away, or incorrigibility. Some were sent there for being homeless. For six years Champion served on the board of the Home of the Friendless, established so destitute women could have a place to live. He was a director of the Ohio Mechanics Institute for ten years. Dating back to before Cincinnati had a public-school system, the Institute at first offered instruction in vocational studies, but later expanded to include art, music, and a full range of educational offerings in after-school and museum settings. Champion also served on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Antioch College.
Aaron Burt Champion died in London, England, on September 1, 1895, shortly after he had arrived there on the advice of his doctor. He was recovering from typhoid fever, but never regained his full health. The cause of death was listed as bronchial asthma. Despite the wishes of his family that he be returned to the United States for burial, he was interred in London. He was survived by his wife, Lizzie, and three of their five children. Upon learning of his death, the Louisville Courier-Journal printed a long tribute, including these words: “There were few men in Cincinnati engaged in the profession of law who bore a more reputable name and enjoyed a more lucrative practice than the Hon. A.B. Champion. He was a lawyer by birth, education, and practice and a courteous, clever gentleman by nature. Comparatively young in years, vigorous in mind and attentive to his business, his future promised to be even more brilliant than his past life as a lawyer, and no man deserved more fame and fortune than have been honorably attained by this excellent and clean gentleman.”iv
Cincinnati, The Queen City, 1788-1912, vol. 3 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912).
Harry Ellard, Baseball in Cincinnati (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004).
Stephen D. Guschov, The Red Stockings of Cincinnati (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1998).
Frederick Ivor-Campbell et al, eds. Baseball’s First Stars (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996).
Iowa Heritage, (Spring 2006).
Greg Rhodes and John Erardi, The First Boys of Summer (Cincinnati: Road West Publishing Co., 1994).
Dean A. Sullivan, Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker, eds. Nineteenth Century Stars (Kansas City: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989).
ii Cited by John Liepa, “The Cincinnati Red Stockings and Cal McVey, Iowa’s First Professional Baseball Player,” Iowa Heritage, Spring 2006, 15.
iii Greg Rhodes and John Erardi, The First Boys of Summer. (Cincinnati: Road West Publishing Co., 1994), cited by Liepa, 16.
iv Cited in Cincinnati, the Queen City, 1788-1912, vol. 3. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912), 374.