1871 Winter Meetings: The Winter of Three National Associations

This article was written by Richard Hershberger

This article was published in the Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The National Association of Base Ball Players held its 14th annual meeting on November 30, 1870. It undertook business as normal. Reports were read. Officers were elected. Proposals of the rules committee were adopted, with the most important innovation being to allow the batter to overrun first base. The meeting appeared to be much like those that had come before it.1

This seeming normalcy was illusory. The Association was in fact in the process of breaking apart along the fault line between professional and amateur clubs. Henry Chadwick, the longtime chairman of the rules committee and the great evangelist of baseball, resigned from the organization and immediately put out a call for a new, purely amateur association. The inaugural meeting of the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players would be held the following March 16.2

The professional clubs, in the meantime, also went a separate way. Nicholas Young, the secretary of the professional Olympics of Washington, put out a call to the secretaries of the various professional clubs to meet to coordinate scheduling. The Chicago Club secretary in turn proposed that it be a more general meeting, empowered to discuss generally matters of interest to the professionals. This expanded to a full convention, with the idea of forming a new, professional association floated by no less than Harry Wright. On March 17, 1871, in New York the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was born.3

Baseball underwent a permanent schism when the two new associations formed on consecutive days. Never again would professional and amateur baseball be governed by the same organization. Why did this happen? Such a division is not inevitable. Britain’s Football Association, founded in 1863, came to accept both professional and amateur clubs, and does so to this day. It clearly is possible for both to exist in one organization. Why were professional and amateur baseball clubs unable to manage amicable coexistence?

The Latter National Association of Base Ball Players

To answer this question, we must turn to the last few years of the old NABBP. Early on, the NABBP had outlawed the paying of players, thus ensuring that the early history of professionalism would be hidden behind a veil of discretion. Some players were certainly remunerated in one form or another by the end of the Civil War. This grew into an open secret, and the NABBP soon voted to accept the inevitable. Beginning with the 1869 season, clubs could declare themselves professional.

The decision to allow professional clubs was controversial. A faction of amateurs opposed professionalism on ideological grounds, and they were not shy about expressing this. They proposed this motion in the December 1870 meeting:

Resolved, that this Association regard the custom of publicly hiring men to play the game of base ball as reprehensible and injurious to the best interests of the game.

The convention discussed this at length, finally rejecting it by a vote of 17 to 9. No one thought that this settled the issue.

The struggle of professional status in baseball paralleled that of many other sports. The Football Association had the same debate, as did Britain’s Rugby Union. The Olympic Games have only come to accept professional athletes within living memory. The Football Association and the Olympics had the organizational stability to survive until the factions reconciled. The Rugby Union did not, with the Rugby League splitting away from it. The ideology of amateurism put stress on the NABBP, while more immediate factors broke it apart before it could achieve reconciliation.

The amateurs complained that the professionals had taken control of the NABBP, and rightly so. Note this control in the slate of officers elected for 1871:

  • President, John Wildey, Mutual Club of New York
  • First vice president, Gershom B. Hubbell, Charter Oak Club of Hartford
  • Second vice president, C.H. Oberbach, Atlantic Club of St. Louis
  • Recording secretary, J.H. Haynie, Faber Club of Chicago
  • Corresponding secretary, W.Y Johnson, Olympic Club of Trenton
  • Treasurer, Fred Thompson, Indianapolis Club of Indianapolis

On its surface this appears to be an eclectic slate of officers, with wide geographic distribution and clubs of both greater and lesser prominence represented. In reality the presidency was the only office that counted, with the president running the convention and appointing committees. The lesser offices were spread around in best political-machine patronage fashion, but the presidency was kept by John Wildey, a Tammany Hall politician and the ultimate insider for the professional clubs.

How did the handful of professional clubs — a mere dozen or so — dominate the far more numerous amateur clubs? They were able to exploit the postwar structure of the NABBP to leverage their influence. Member clubs in the early years of the NABBP had sent delegates directly, usually two per club, to the annual convention. Baseball enjoyed huge growth in popularity in the years immediately after the Civil War. The NABBP quickly outgrew the old system and replaced it with a system of state associations. They held their own conventions at which, along with state-level business, they appointed delegates to the national convention, being allotted one delegate for every 10 clubs (or fraction thereof).

Here is an illustration of how the professionals were able to control the New York state convention as early as 1868:

“… The business of the Convention was greatly facilitated by the arrangement made for the reception of the credentials of delegates before the meeting of the Convention; and as the caucus of delegates at the Delavan House, before the Convention, had laid out a slate for the election of officers of the Association, of course but little time was consumed in the election itself in Convention.

“The delegates from New York and vicinity, too, who went up on the boat on November 10, amended the Constitution and Bylaws in caucus; and when the subject came up for action in the Convention, a Committee on Constitution and Bylaws were given power to report an amended Code of Laws, and this still further shortened the time of the session; thereby leaving ample opportunity to fully discuss the principal question of the session. …”4

They also manipulated the rules to ensure the maximum number of delegates to the national convention:

“In the State Convention of New York, held last month, there were found to be fourteen or more clubs on the roll book that had failed to pay their annual dues for 1868-9, and who should thereby have ceased to become members of the State Association; but by a resolution passed they were allowed sixty days in which to pay up or be dropped from the rolls. This action gave New York a representation of eighty-one clubs, or nine delegates, as within the sixty days grace the National Association would hold its annual meeting.”5

Finally, membership in the state association and actually sending a delegate to its convention were two different things. The professional clubs, however, could be relied upon to show up, as in this instance of the 1870 New York state convention:

“… [O]nly fifteen clubs were represented. But as the association has a sufficient number of clubs recorded on its books to warrant the election of nine delegates of course the voice of the State with Captain Wildey as the controller will again be heard in the convention, as of late years, and of course in the interests of the professionals.”6

The professionals similarly controlled the Pennsylvania convention. Between New York and Pennsylvania, they sent a voting bloc to the national convention far larger than the amateur voting bloc, and were able to dominate the proceedings.

What did they do with this power? We have already seen that they were able to check any actions against professionalism. The Mutual Club, leading the New York delegation, was able to advance its immediate interests by orchestrating the reinstatement of three players, Devyr, Duffy, and Wansley, who had been expelled for throwing a game in 1865. The club later decided it wanted them back. It began in 1867 with Devyr, the most sympathetic of the three, with a plausible claim of youthful naїveté. It reinstated Duffy the following year, and in December 1870 the convention reinstated Wansley, the original ringleader. This was considered outrageous even by many who had no objection to professionalism per se. The reinstatement of Wansley is as good a candidate as any for being the final straw for Chadwick, leading to his resignation and subsequent promotion of the new amateur association.

The Championship Question

The final, and perhaps greatest, break between professional and amateur interests was the question of the championship. The NABBP very conspicuously declined to sponsor any such thing. The question had arisen even before the war and the proposal rejected:

“…[I]t was doubted whether the [championship] plan proposed would add anything of interest to base ball. Matches, except with the club holding the champion ball, would sink into insignificance, and the popularity of the game would therefore decline.”7

The concern was justified. The NABBP was, in principle, egalitarian. Every member club was on equal standing with every other club, and every match game with every other match game. In reality, of course, some clubs were prominent and many more were obscure, and matches between strong clubs attracted more attention than matches between weak clubs. But even then, there was no clear line dividing the prominent from the obscure, or the strong clubs from the weak. (Compare this with modern usage, where the word “baseball” often refers in fact to major-league baseball, with an inviolate line dividing the weakest major-league team from the strongest minor-league club.) An official championship would inevitably divide the Association between the clubs that counted and those that did not.

The vacuum was filled by an unofficial championship, using a challenge-and-defense model copied from boxing. The existing champion would receive challenges, defending its title against a contending club in a best-of-three series. This system stimulated interest and could attract immense crowds. By the end of the decade, however, the system was getting threadbare. It was not very robust, having many potential failure points. (What if, for example, the champions found excuses to refuse to play again after losing a game to a challenger?) Worse, it was very publicly rendered irrelevant by the Cincinnati Club, the famous Red Stockings. They went on their spectacular unbeaten run in 1869, extending into June of 1870. Yet they declined to play for the nominal championship. This indifference by what was obviously the best club in the country brought the entire system into question.

Setting up a formal, better-designed championship system was very much in the interest of the professional clubs. The amateurs, however, had the same reasons as always to reject it. The professionals controlled the national convention for many purposes, but resistance to a formal championship was too great to overcome.

Here we have the explanation for why the professional clubs split off from the old NABBP. This would seem senseless. They functionally controlled it, and their control would be stronger after the most contentious of the amateurs left it. So why abandon the old association and form a new one? Because what they really needed was a championship system. This would always be contrary to the amateurs’ interests.

The solution to this conflict was to create a new, professional association to sponsor a championship race. The delegates met in New York on March 17, 1871, and organized this new association, electing the following officers:

  • President, James Kerns, Athletic Club of Philadelphia
  • Vice president, J.S. Evans, Forest City Club of Cleveland
  • Secretary, N.E. Young, Olympic Club of Washington
  • Treasurer, J.W. Schofield, Union Club of Troy

This time the presidency went to the president of the Athletics of Philadelphia, one of the most prominent professional clubs, and which would go on to win the first pennant. The other offices were spread around. The secretary, Nicholas Young, would go on five years later to be the first secretary of the National League, and would be its president from 1885 to 1902.8

The delegates meeting in New York on March 17, 1871, were trying to invent a championship system that would re-create and expand upon the excitement and crowds of the championship matches of the late 1860s. Instead, they invented the regular season:

“… [E]ach club desiring to contest for the championship shall communicate previous to the 1st of May of each year, and with such communication shall transmit $10 to be used in the purchase of a whip to be flown by the champion club. The championship series shall consist of five games, three out of which must be gained by the winning club.”9

Here they took the old best-of-three series and expanded it to five games. Then they took the challenge-defense model and replaced it with a round-robin format. Clubs would enter the championship competition at the beginning of the season, and every club entered would play a series against every other over the course of the season. They didn’t completely work out the system. There remained an open question of whether the champion was determined by who won the most games or who won the most series, and they closed each series once one side had won three games rather than playing it out. The system had to be clarified and refined later. But the underlying insight of the round-robin format was sound.

The Fate of the Three National Associations

The old NABBP simply disappeared. It was never formally disbanded, as no one thought to show up to do that administrative task.

The new amateur National Association stumbled on for some years. There were a small number of pure amateur clubs and a larger number of nominally amateur but actually semiprofessional clubs. The amateur association was unclear in its founding how much purity it demanded, building into it the same flaw as had split the old association apart. This is reflected in the slate of officers elected in 1871:

  • President, Archibald McClure Bush, Harvard University
  • First vice president, H. Jewell, Excelsior Club of Brooklyn
  • Second vice president, G.H. Albro, Fleetwood Club of Tremont
  • Secretary, J.M. Uhthoff, Pastime Club of Baltimore
  • Treasurer, A. Thatcher, Olympic Club of Philadelphia10

Bush, a captain in the Union Army before becoming a star player for Harvard, was at 24 years of age older than the typical undergraduate. This background made him more suitable than most undergraduates for office in the new association, while electing a Harvard man suggests an emphasis on social prestige. As for the lesser offices, the Excelsiors had once been a top club, but that was a decade earlier. Harvard and the Excelsiors were true amateurs, but the Olympics of Philadelphia at this time were sponsoring a de-facto professional team, as probably were the Pastimes of Baltimore. This mix of true and nominal amateurs would not prove a happy marriage.

Worse, the amateur association never established its relevance. The old NABBP had originally been founded to establish a set of rules and modify them as needed. It had executed this duty well, and even to its end its legitimacy as rule-maker had never been challenged. Both new National Associations claimed the authority to write their own rules. In practice, most amateur clubs looked to the professionals for guidance here, stripping the amateur association of most of its purpose. It similarly never achieved the moral weight to be accepted as an authority to resolve disputes. Riven by internal division and serving little purpose, it finally disbanded in 1878.11

The new professional National Association lasted only five years before being replaced by the National League. The National Association of 1871-1875 garners little respect today. There are some good reasons for this. It was put together hurriedly; the next few years would see gradual fixes, but they proved inadequate. Its championship system, however, survived, and forms the basis of today’s regular season. The modern rules retain a vestige of this when they speak of a “championship” game where everyone else says “regular season.”

Indeed, the championship system the new professional National Association invented was brilliant. Like many acts of creative genius, it seems obvious in retrospect, and therefore the National Association rarely gets credited for it. The regular season survives as the legacy of the winter of 1871.

 

Notes

1 The convention was, as usual, widely reported in the sporting press. The most detailed account is in the New York Clipper, December 10, 1870. This account should be read while keeping in mind that it is by Henry Chadwick and reflects his biases.

2 Chadwick discussed the proposed amateur association frequently over the winter. See especially New York Sunday Mercury, December 4, 1870, December 11, 1870, and February 19, 1871; and New York Clipper, December 10, 1870. For a contrary opinion see Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, February 19, 1871.

3 New York Sunday Mercury, February 12, 1871, and March 5, 1871; New York Clipper, March 11, 1871.

4 New York Sunday Mercury, November 15, 1868.

5 National Chronicle Journal of American Sports and Amusements, January 8, 1870.

6 New York Sunday Mercury, November 13, 1870.

7 New York Sunday Mercury, September 25, 1859.

8 New York Clipper, March 25, 1871.

9 New York Sunday Mercury, March 19, 1871.

10 Ibid.

11 New York Clipper, March 30, 1878.

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