Chicago's Role in Early Professional Baseball
Most Cubs fans with historical interest know that the Chicago club was once a powerhouse. If any 1880s franchise could have been called an “evil empire” it would have been Chicago. Less widely known is the club’s earlier role in creating and preserving the enterprise of professional baseball as we know it.
Chicago’s first professional baseball club was founded following the 1869 season. Prior to that season, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) had changed its rules from mandating exclusively amateur play to allowing clubs to declare themselves professional. A dozen or so organizations took advantage of this. The Cincinnati Base Ball Club (widely called the “Red Stockings”) had the most spectacular run. Their manager, Harry Wright, collected a dominant team of mostly eastern ballplayers and took them on an undefeated tour from coast to coast. Such a sporting enterprise had never been seen.
Civic pride demanded that Chicago answer, and a group of businessmen gathered to create a team to match Cincinnati’s. Chicago made its first contribution to professional baseball with this very act. The club was organized along lines new to baseball: the jointstock company.
Earlier clubs were founded on a fundamentally different model. They began existence as social organizations in which like-minded young men gathered to take their exercise together by playing baseball. The modern use of “baseball club” survives from these days. (Compare this with professional football, which arose decades later under different circumstances; no one would call an NFL team a “football club.”) Most early play was within the club, with the members dividing up into sides for the day.
Most clubs, however, naturally wanted to test their mettle against others in “match games.” As match games became more frequent and more important, clubs started surreptitiously hiring ringers to strengthen their nine. By 1869 this process was complete, with professionals exclusively holding the jobs on the top clubs and the membership taking the role of sponsoring these professionals.1
The Chicago businessmen eliminated the dues-paying club membership, instead raising capital through the sale of stock. The joint-stock company was a familiar business model in the booming Chicago economy. This was the organizational model of the future. By 1876 all top professional clubs followed the pattern, which continues to this day.
While the new organization was well funded for its 1870 debut, more than money was required to put together a winning team. The Cincinnati club had Harry Wright, imported from New York, with his detailed knowledge of eastern ballplayers. Chicago had no Harry Wright. Management dithered while top players found employment elsewhere:
Instead of proceeding at once to attend to the matter by the selection and formal engagement of a nine, these bunglers allowed the days, and weeks, and months to slip by, doing many things which they ought not to have done, and leaving undone many things which they ought to have done.2
The results were disappointing. Chicago’s final record for the 1870 season was a respectable 22–7 against other professional clubs, but it still failed to live up to the pre-season hype. Most embarrassing was a game played on July 23. The Mutual club of New York shut out the Chicagos 9–0.
Shutouts were virtually unheard of in those days. Changes to the pitching rules, a smaller and less lively ball, and improved fielding technique would change this, but in 1870 a shutout was a wonder. After intemperate boasting by the organizers of the new club, it was also a delight to the onlooking baseball community. For years afterwards, to be held scoreless was to be “Chicagoed”.3
This first Chicago professional club fell prey to the great Chicago fire of October 1871, which destroyed all the team’s assets (the baseball season routinely ran into November in those days). The Chicagos finished the season as a road team dependent on charity—even for its uniforms.
A new club was founded the following year, but would not field a team until 1874. (This is the organization now known as the Cubs.)4
One shareholder in the new club was William Hulbert, a local coal dealer. In early 1875 he traveled to Philadelphia as the club’s delegate to the annual convention of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (conventionally abbreviated as NA), successor to the NABBP.
The NA gets a bad rap. It was the first professional league in any sport, and had to invent new ways to organize competition. It did several things very well. It created a championship system which in its essence survives today and solved the old problem of players “revolving,” i.e. moving from club to club during the season.
But it did other things poorly, for example the handling of disputes between clubs over off-season player signings. A steady trickle of cases flowed in which a player signed with two clubs. The NA had a standing judiciary committee to resolve these disputes.
The Chicago club was embroiled in one such fight, having signed star shortstop Davy Force for the upcoming season. But Force also signed with the Athletic Club of Philadelphia. The judiciary committee, meeting before the annual convention, ruled in favor of the Chicagos. But the league convention subsequently elected, as president, Charles Sperling of the Athletic club. One of the jobs of the president was to appoint the standing committees, so Sperling persuaded the convention as a whole to reject the ruling of the old judiciary committee and to refer the matter to the new one. In due course, the new committee ruled—to Hulbert’s outrage—in favor of the Athletics.
The following year Hulbert (now president of the Chicago club) took the lead in the creation of a new organization: the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, known now as the National League (NL). While some modern writers see this move as his revenge for the Force case, such a thing is implausible. The NA completed the 1875 season with eight clubs. Six of these (including the Athletics, with Sperling as president) formed the new NL, joined by two new clubs. The NA had no day-to-day institutional existence. Its members alone were its existence. The NL was not created to compete with the NA, but rather to replace it. Despite some talk of reforming the NA from the rump, it was a dead letter the day the NL formed.
The NL is better interpreted as the reorganization of the NA’s stronger clubs and the institution of rules on how to interact with one another and with outside clubs. This reorganization was necessary to solve several problems. The largest was that the NA was open to any club which chose to declare itself professional and pay the nominal entry fee. This resulted in weak clubs joining and failing mid-season, often unable to meet their travel obligations. Some joined out of unrealistic optimism, while others simply wanted to get in lucrative games with famous clubs, and never intended to keep their end up. The NL solved this problem by becoming a closed organization in which new member clubs could only join with the assent of the existing membership.5
While the Force case was not the primary motivation for the creation of the new league, it certainly was a consideration. To prevent such problems in the future, NL clubs chose to make the office of league secretary a paid position. Clubs were required to notify the secretary of player signings, and he would publish these signings to the member clubs. This protocol removed potential confusion about who was signed, or when, and would become a fundamental part of future sports leagues.
Chicago captured its first pennant in 1876, the new NL’s initial season. Hulbert had staged a signing coup, luring four stars, most notably pitcher Albert Spalding and infielder Adrian Anson, away from Boston and Philadelphia respectively. The canny move set the stage for Chicago’s glory years, with “Cap” Anson leading on the field and Spalding heading the front office.
Despite the excitement surrounding the NL, professional baseball was not yet secure. The national economy was in a depression following the Panic of 1873. The depression hit the baseball economy, which would not truly recover until the early 1880s. As a result of this tumult, the NL experienced rapid turnover in its first five years; several clubs were unable to finish their schedules, while others stumbled through the end of a season and dropped out of the league.
Throughout this era, Chicago was the exception. At a time when a crowd of 1,000 was considered good, Chicago consistently drew several times that. Holiday games could draw overflow crowds. Visiting teams at that time took somewhere between 30 and 33% of the gate receipts (and half on holidays). The effect of this was that Chicago essentially subsidized the rest of the league.
Hulbert became president of the NL in 1877 and held the office till his death in 1882. Under his leadership, and bolstered by the size of the Chicago market, the league persevered through the dark early years. He held onto the vision of national competition, resisting the impulse to cut expenses by withdrawing into local and regional play. The model of a closed circuit comprising the highest level of competition on a national scale has become the standard for top-tier American professional sports leagues.
It is unlikely that the enterprise of professional baseball would have disappeared in the depression, but the National League could very easily have collapsed. If it had, professional baseball could well have been reorganized along different lines. Other models are possible. One need only look at Britain’s Football Association, with its multiple tiers of divisions and clubs promoted or relegated between them, or at college football, with its regional conferences and limited inter-conference play.
All American professional sports leagues are ultimately modeled after the National League. The Chicago club was at the center of the League in its early formative years, and the ideas which formed the club became standard practice. Hulbert’s ideas would influence how leagues are organized to this day, and the club, by its mere existence, sustained these ideas during the National League’s early days. The club soon entered its golden age on the diamond, but before that ever happened it helped set the course for modern organized professional sports.
RICHARD HERSHBERGER has published numerous articles in "Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game", with his primary interests being pre-modern baseball and the institutional development of early organized baseball. He is a paralegal in Maryland.
- 1. This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that amateur ball playing was dying out. Only a dozen or so clubs were fully professional.
- 2. Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 20 January 1870, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune.
- 3. Dickson, Paul, Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), 181–182.
- 4. Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, 31 July 1876. This issue of the paper has a history of the founding of the organization, but the entire affair becomes a trivia question with an ambiguous answer: what is the oldest baseball club currently in existence? If the club of 1870 is taken to be the same as that of 1874, then the Cubs are the oldest. If not, then the modern Braves, founded in Boston in 1871, can claim this status. Baseball-Reference.com lists Chicago as a single organization, but is not always reliable on such connections within early organizations. It fails to recognize, for example, that the 1884 Union Association Washington club and the 1886 National League Washington club were one and the same. The modern Cincinnati Reds claim descent from the Red Stockings of 1869, but this claim is baseless; the current organization first played in 1891. If we remove the requirement that the organization still play baseball today, the oldest seems to be the Wamsutta Club of New Bedford, Massachusetts, founded in 1866 as a baseball club. It evolved into a purely social club.
- 5. The 1876 NL constitution is available at http://bizofbaseball.com.