1875 Winter Meetings: The Origin of the National League

This article was written by Michael Haupert

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


We the undersigned, Professional Base Ball Clubs of the United States, by our representatives in convention assembled, in the city of New York this 2d day of February A.D. 1876, lamenting the abuses which have insidiously crept into the exposition of our National Game, and regretting the unpleasant differences which have arisen among ourselves growing out of an imperfect and unsystematized code, with a view of relieving ourselves from the incubus of such abuses of promoting harmony and good fellowship among ourselves, of elevating and fostering our national sport and of protecting the interests of our players, hereby pledge each other that we will withdraw at once from the “National Association of Professional Base Ball Players” and we hereby announce that we have this day organized ourselves into a “National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.1

 

Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900With that statement, the National League was born. The concept had been percolating quite a bit longer. It had bubbled up in editorials published by Lewis Meacham in the Chicago Tribune. 2 It had been rumored among a select few players, and it had been carefully planned (plotted, some would say) by William Ambrose Hulbert, for several months before it became a reality.

Lewis Meacham previewed what the platform for the new National League would look like in an October 24, 1875, article in the Chicago Tribune. Meacham was not prescient, but rather he was well connected. In fact, he was all but ghostwriting for Hulbert. While Hulbert’s name was never mentioned, the article read almost verbatim what he would propose for the new league two months later. Meacham laid out the shortcomings of the NA (hippodroming, revolving, drunkenness, gambling, rowdyism, competitive imbalance, teams not finishing schedules), and then outlined a framework to remedy those ills:

  • First: No club should be allowed to enter for the championship unless it be backed by a responsible association, financially capable of finishing a season when begun.
  • Second: No club should be admitted from a city of less size than 100,000 inhabitants, excepting only Hartford.
  • Third: No two clubs should be admitted from the same city.
  • Fourth: The faith of the management of a club should be shown by the deposit of $1,000, or perhaps $1,500, in the hands of the association before the season begins. This sum not to be played for, but returned to each club which carries out its agreements and plays its return games. If it refuses to play all the games that it agrees to, let the sum be forfeited.3

The first meeting

The group that met at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City on February 2, 1876, did not include the entirety of what would become the National League. Representatives of all four Eastern clubs were present: George W. Thompson (Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia), Nicholas T. Apollonio (Boston), Morgan G. Bulkeley (Hartford), and William H. Cammeyer (Mutual Base Ball Club of Brooklyn). They were joined by William A. Hulbert (Chicago) and Charles A. Fowle (St. Louis), who also held the proxies for the other two Western clubs, Cincinnati and Louisville.

The Western clubs were not all present because they had met two months earlier. At that earlier meeting they approved a constitution,4 wrote the proposal to invite the Eastern clubs, and then voted to send Hulbert and Fowle, along with their proxies, to New York to close the deal. The formal beginnings of the National League can be found in that meeting of December 16 and 17 in Louisville’s elegant Galt House. It was there that Hulbert called together representatives of four Western clubs of the National Association. Charles A. Fowle and Nathaniel Hazard (St. Louis), John P. Joyce (Cincinnati), and Charles E. Chase (Louisville) joined Hulbert and Albert G. Spalding, representing Chicago, for two days of secret meetings that produced a proposal to form the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The delegates then resolved to appoint Hulbert and Fowle “to visit the Boston, Hartford, Athletic and Mutual Base Ball Clubs and present the record of this meeting, looking towards the reform of the abuses of rules and regulations of the present National Association, and the said committee empowered to act for the said clubs above named, and the said clubs here represented agree to abide by the action of the said committee.”5

As a businessman and club owner, Hulbert was never comfortable with the National Association (NA). He was not the only person to recognize its shortcomings. Henry Chadwick had been publicly railing against gambling and rowdiness since before the NA even began. In the official league publication of 1873 he said that “when the system of professional ball playing as practiced in 1872 shall be among the things that were, on its tombstone — if it have any — will be found the inscription, ‘Died of Pool-Selling.”6 And as early as 1867 he wrote that the model ballplayer was one who was “a gentleman on all occasions, but especially on match days, and in doing so, he abstains from profanity [italics in original] and its twin and evil brother obscenity.”7 Hulbert did not immediately proclaim the NA a lost cause. While he may have been harboring such thoughts, he did not begin to act on them until after he became secretary of the White Stockings in the fall of 1874.

As the secretary, he was appointed to represent the team at the league’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. The Chicago Tribune, in announcing that Hulbert would represent the team, foreshadowed events when it commented that he held “some very pronounced ideas on the punishment which should be meted out to ‘revolvers.’”8 While there he “saw that a radical reform should be effected, and an entirely new departure made, to place the national game on an enduring footing. The idea of a National League originated then and there … and before he left Philadelphia he had thought out the general plan.”9 And once the plan was formed, Hulbert was on a mission to save baseball from “its slough of corruption and disgrace.”10

The four Eastern clubs were invited to send representatives to a meeting according to a letter to each dated January 23, 1876:

The undersigned have been appointed by the Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis Clubs a committee to confer with you on matters of interest to the game at large, with special reference to the reformation of existing abuses, and the formation of a new association [emphasis added], and we are clothed with full authority in writing from the above named clubs to bind them to any arrangement we may make with you. We therefore invite your club to send a representative, clothed with like authority, to meet us at the Grand Central Hotel, in the city of New York, on Wednesday, the 2d day of February next, at 12 n. After careful consideration of the needs of the professional clubs, the organizations we represent are of the firm belief that existing circumstances demand prompt and vigorous action by those who are the natural sponsors of the game. It is the earnest recommendation of our constituents that all past troubles and differences be ignored and forgotten, and that the conference we propose shall be a calm, friendly and deliberate discussion, looking solely to the general good of the clubs who are calculated to give character and permanency to the game. We are confident that the propositions we have to submit will meet with your approval and support, and we shall be pleased to meet you at the time and place above mentioned.

Yours respectfully, W.A. Hulbert. Chas. A. Fowle.11

This meeting of the National Association’s Grand Council is considered the founding meeting of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Besides the team representatives, Harry Wright,12 who was allegedly there to present the proposed changes to the playing rules, Lewis Meacham of the Chicago Tribune, the only member of the press invited, and Nicholas Young, secretary of the NA, and soon to be secretary of the new NL, were present.13 Harry Wright was an important ally for Hulbert. He had a sterling reputation, agreed with Hulbert’s ideas for reform, and supported the abolition of Sunday ball on religious grounds. As previously noted, Meacham was an influential member of the press and ardent believer in Hulbert’s cause.

A key to Hulbert’s success was his misdirection. In order to keep the unwanted teams from showing up at the New York meeting, his public statements about it were purposefully vague and misleading. They suggested it was nothing more than a gathering to discuss the process for drawing up proposals for reforming the NA, and perhaps a few minor changes to the playing rules. The owners met in secret because they were fairly certain their real motives would not be warmly welcomed.14

Hulbert conferred with each of the Easterners privately for about half an hour before he met with the group.15 When they were all assembled, he locked the door of the meeting room, saying, “Gentlemen, you have no occasion for uneasiness. I have locked that door simply to prevent any intrusions from without, and incidentally to make it impossible for any of you to go out until I have finished what I have to say to you, which I promise shall not take an hour.”16

A business proposition

Hulbert appealed to the owners, businessmen all, by using some simple economic logic. If the businessmen ran the teams and the players concentrated on playing ball, each party could concentrate on doing what they did best and everyone would be better off. The geographic exclusivity he promised to each club appealed to the owners as well. Exclusivity meant monopoly, and monopoly meant profit. Establishing the NL as the premier professional league, with entry strictly controlled by the monopolists themselves, also appealed to their sense of profits. If the new league was recognized as the premier assemblage of baseball talent, then it would be able to attract a greater percentage of the better players, and with no equals to bid them away, it would lower the payroll burden, leaving a larger percentage of the revenues for the owners. Another reason to concentrate the quality of talent at the top was to reduce the number of poor-drawing games played against low-quality competition in small towns.

Hulbert made a deliberate distinction between the terms “club” and “team.” The new National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs would replace the National Association of Base Ball Players [emphasis added]. The name change spoke volumes. Prior to his efforts, leagues were associations of clubs, made up of players. The new league was composed of teams, professionally run by businessmen, and employing players to produce a product for sale at a profit. The new league dispensed with players as owners, executives, and any form of club control.

Going forward, the baseball clubs would exist for the purpose of managing the business of baseball teams. “Clubs would form leagues, secure grounds, erect grandstands, lease and own property, make schedules, fix dates, pay salaries, assess fines, discipline players, make contracts, control the sport in all its relations to the public, and thus, relieving the players of all care and responsibility for the legitimate functions of management, require of them the very best performance of which they were capable, in the entertainment of the public, for which service they were to receive commensurate pay.”17 Quite simply, players were the hired hands.

Such specialization of skills and division of labor was “increasingly characteristic of American life, and especially of American industry, [and] was becoming ever more noticeable in the baseball business. The managing end of the game was to be separate and distinct from the playing end, thus allowing the players to concentrate on performance and leave business affairs and promotion to the owners.”18

The prevailing attitude was that players, with their decidedly blue-collar background, were unfit for management and financial positions. “No further evidence of the inability of ball players, whether amateurs or professionals, to manage both ends of the Base Ball enterprise at the same time was needed than was presented in conditions apparent to everybody — and especially in the overdrawn bank accounts of those who had undertaken to finance the sport.”19

Hulbert impressed upon those assembled that reforms were needed to prevent the demand for baseball from decreasing. His global reforms included an end to revolving, a ban on alcohol at the ballpark, and no more Sunday ball. The latter item was the toughest sell because Sunday games were usually the best attended. Hulbert, with the support of Wright, convinced his brethren that while a great deal of money could be realized in the short run by playing on Sunday, honoring the Sabbath would carry with it valuable moral cachet, leading to even greener pastures in the future.

The constitution

After convincing the gathered moguls of the wisdom of striking out on this new venture, the first formal action of the new league was the election of a board and a president.20 Board members were chosen by lot, in accordance with Article IV, section 1 of the league constitution, which had been approved before the directors were chosen. In order, the five names drawn were Bulkeley (Hartford), Apollonio (Boston), Cammeyer (New York), Fowle (St. Louis), and Chase (Louisville). “On motion it was resolved that the first name drawn, in electing the Board, Mr. M.G. Bulkeley, of the Hartford Club, be declared President of the League for 1876.” Cammeyer then moved, and approval was granted, that Nicholas Young be elected secretary at a salary of $400 and that he be required to be bonded at $1,000. The league also approved a set of playing rules.21

League membership was restricted to one team per city — specifically, the constitution excluded any other team from locating within five miles of the city. It also mandated a minimum population of 75,000 (unless unanimously voted otherwise by the league — this is how Hartford gained admission). League teams were prohibited from hiring expelled players and under no circumstances could they play a game in another league city against anyone but the league team headquartered in that city. This was another means of reducing competition through geographic exclusivity.22

Gambling was not tolerated by players or fans, nor was it allowed on the premises or any facilities owned by the member clubs. Teams were required to pay $100 annual dues — 10 times what was required by the NA — and complete their season schedule. These two rules were the bedrock of the league and were to be enforced by the threat of expulsion.23

The new league set a stiff penalty in an effort to discourage any player from doubting the resolve of the new attitude toward professional baseball. Article XI, section 4 specified that “no player who has been dismissed or expelled from a League club shall, at any time thereafter, be allowed to play with any League club” unless upon appeal to the board he is reinstated.24 Article VIII, section 3 made the board the “sole tribunal for the hearing of an appeal made by any player who shall have been dismissed, expelled, or otherwise disciplined by his club.”25 So, from the very beginning the owners were prosecution, judge, and jury.

Article XIII forbade teams to allow “open betting or pool selling upon its grounds, nor in any building owned or occupied by it.”26 In an effort to deter gamblers from consorting with players, on-field access to them was curtailed. Nobody was allowed on the field during the game except players, umpires, managers, scorers, the “necessary servants” of the two clubs, and police officers. In fact, all clubs were required to furnish police in numbers sufficient to maintain order.

Despite Hulbert’s public lamentations about the ills of revolving, the constitution did little to address it. Article XI, section 1, covering contracts, specified that “No club shall be prevented from contracting with a player for the reason that he is already under contract with another club: Provided, the services to be rendered under the second contract (are) not to begin until the expiration of the first contract.”

Thus, the practice of revolving was not really curbed, but almost encouraged. Further, the constitution directed that “no formal words of contract shall be required.” As long as the contract was in writing, dated, the time of service specified, and signed by the player, a club representative and one witness, it was to be binding. The issue of competing contract claims was addressed in section 2. “It shall be the duty of a club as soon as it shall have entered into a contract with a player, to file a notification of the same … with the Secretary of the League, who shall … notify every other League club of such contract.” A player released by his club “without imputation” was free to sign with another league club 20 days after said release.27

At the same time that the league was being created, provisions were made for its dissolution. The constitution laid out the circumstances for expulsion of clubs, which could be accomplished by a two-thirds vote of the league membership under the following circumstances:

“1st By disbanding, or by failing or refusing to keep its engagements in regard to games with other clubs. 2nd By failing or refusing to comply with any lawful requirement or order of the Board. 3rd By failing to keep its contracts with its players either as to engagement or salary, where the player is not in fault. 4th By willfully violating any provision of this Constitution, or the Playing Rules adopted hereunder. And no [club] which has forfeited its membership shall be readmitted except by unanimous vote of the League.”28

The league established a fixed admission fee of 50 cents, with 15 cents per ticket going to the visiting team. Hulbert argued that the percentage gate system better supported weak visiting clubs than did a flat-fee system. He supported 50-cent admissions because he felt lower prices “cheapened baseball.”29 Besides, higher admission fees allowed the teams to pay higher wages to players, making them less likely to succumb to the entreaties of gamblers.30 

The season was defined as running from March 1 to November 15, specifically excluding Sunday games. Ten games (five home) were to be played against each other team within these dates. Once a team visited another team, the home team was required to play at the opponent’s home field the same number of games within two months’ time “under penalty of forfeiture.”31 This issue would lead to a watershed moment for the National League at the conclusion of its first season.

The winner of the league championship was to receive a pennant costing not less than $100. “The pennant will say ‘Champion Base Ball Club of the United States’ and the club name and year will be on the pennant. The champion will be entitled to fly the pennant until the close of the ensuing season.”32

The constitution was unanimously approved, and concluded with a lamentation about the sad state of baseball and the necessity of a new league to curb the abuses and save “our national sport” and protect the interest of “our players.” But in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Hulbert and Fowle admitted that it was the presence of so many weak semipro teams that were allowed to join that led to the problems of the NA, and that self-preservation required the “seceding clubs to better their financial condition by banding together and shutting out the weak sisters. Their new regime would have the added advantage of making it possible to eliminate dishonest players.”33

The meeting concluded with the resignation of the invited teams from the NA and their formal inclusion in the new NL. As noted in the article’s opening quotation, the clubs did so formally and forcefully, stating that “the abuses which have insidiously crept into the exposition of our National Game, and … the unpleasant differences which have arisen among ourselves growing out of an imperfect and unsystematized code”34 led to this action. The break was simple and clean, no need to vote anyone out of a league. Just resign from the old league and form a brand-new one.

The aftermath

The new NL magnates realized the struggle ahead in efforts to rid the sport of the influence of gambling, but they were willing to take on the challenge. “The only hope for the future of the pastime was to separate it at once and forever from its evil consort. That of itself would mean a struggle; but the new sponsors welcomed the conflict, because it was a fight for the very life of the sport they loved, and they were willing to sacrifice for it.”35

The Chicago Tribune credited Hulbert with having “planned, engineered, and carried the most important reform in the history of the game.”36 This in the face of much criticism about the secrecy of the meetings and the bold monopoly setup of the league.

Several newspapers spoke out against the league, so many that Meacham and Spalding needed an ally in their fight to give legitimacy to the NL, so they created one: Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, which appeared for the first time in 1877.37 Henry Chadwick was the most prominent, if not vocal, critic. His issue was not so much with the formation of the new league, but the way in which it was carried out. He blasted the process in a Clipper editorial:

Now, what was there to prevent this work from being entered upon boldly, manfully, consistently and openly, at the general convention of the National Association? The object in view was one naturally commanding professional baseball-playing. The opposition to be expected to such a commendable movement was unimportant, and entirely inadequate to any successful resistance to the carrying out of the needed reformation. Why, therefore, this secret meeting, with closed doors and a star-chamber method of attaining the ostensible objects in view? …

The fact is, there was but one fair, manly way of entering upon this business of reform, and that was to have publicly issued a circular, addressed to all professional clubs, expressing in plain language the existence of the abuses to be remedied, pointing out the necessity for reform, and inviting the cooperation of all clubs favoring the movement. If, at a convention held under regular auspices, it was found, that under the rules of the National Association, and at its convention, the reform desired could not be attained, it would then be time to have done what was done at the Grand Central Hotel. We are in hearty accord with the objects put forth in the Western Club Committee’s circular. Indeed, it is by carrying out the programme time and again suggested in the columns of The Clipper — that is, the necessity for a reformation. But we do decidedly object to the secret and sudden coup d’etat of the Western club managers.

… and though we hope to see the movement in favor of reform successful, we are afraid that the right method to insure success has not been adopted by the League.38

History has clearly identified the winner. The National Association is but a distant memory. The new league may not have been the knight in shining armor to baseball’s maiden in distress that the folklore paints it, but it did do three important things that have made baseball the financial juggernaut that it is today. First, they separated production (on-field play) from management (front office). This not only took advantage of the different skills of two distinct groups of workers, but also concentrated the control and the profits in the hands of a small number of businessmen.

Albert Spalding, who had a long and distinguished career as player, executive, and businessman, believed in this separation, arguing that “no man can do his best at ball playing unless his whole soul is in the effort. The man whose whole soul is absorbed in the business of playing ball has no soul left for the other business — just as important in its way — of conducting the details of managing men, administering discipline, arranging schedules and finding the ways and means of financing a team.”39

Second, using the puritanical arguments about observing the Sabbath and taking the moral high ground, the league cleansed the bleachers of the rough and rowdy crowd that gambled, drank, swore, and fought in the stands. Those same folks were less likely to attend games on other days because they were at work. Raising the ticket price to 50 cents from a quarter priced this lesser element out of the market. Covered grandstands, ladies in attendance, padded seats, and season tickets all operated as a form of conspicuous consumption that helped attract the coveted higher-income classes into the ballpark.

Finally, the idea of geographic exclusivity, which is now the bedrock of any professional league. It was the innovation of Hulbert for the National League and it served two purposes. First, to carve out monopoly territories for the owners, boosting their profit potential. Geographic exclusivity created the monopoly conditions that allowed the league to raise ticket prices to 50 cents. Second, once established, it helped the league keep interlopers out and profits up.

Writing these things into the constitution and issuing press releases to brag about them was one thing. As the experience of the National Association demonstrated, enforcing them was quite another. The NL would be tested several times over the course of the first decade of its existence.

The founders of the new league laid out their overall objectives during that first meeting. “1st To encourage, foster, and elevate the game of base ball. 2nd To enact and enforce proper rules for the exhibition and conduct of the game. 3rd To make base ball playing respectable and honorable. 4th To protect and promote the mutual interests of Professional base ball clubs and professional base ball players; and 5th To establish and regulate the base ball championship of the United States.”40 Regardless of the flowery prose, the NL was not an altruistic endeavor created by honorable men for the purpose of saving baseball. It was a power grab intended to maximize profits, and it has succeed utterly and completely in doing so.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Haupert, Michael. “William Hulbert,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d1d420b3.

Haupert, Michael. “William Hulbert and the Birth of the National League,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, 44 no. 1, Spring 2015: 83-92.

MacDonald, Neil W. The League That Lasted: 1876 and the Founding of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. Inc., 2004).

Nemec, David. The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Baseball (New York: Donald I. Fine Books (Penguin), 1997).

 

Notes

1 National League Meetings, Minutes, Conferences & Financial Ledgers, BA MSS 55, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York (hereafter NL minutes).

2 Meacham was a close ally of Hulbert’s.  He was the only member of the press invited to the New York meeting that formed the new league.

3 Albert G. Spalding, [revised and re-edited by Samm Coombs and Bob West], Base Ball (San Francisco: Halo Books, 1991, 118) (hereafter Spalding).

4 During the month of December 1875 Spalding was a guest in Hulbert’s house as the two worked on the constitution for the new league. See Lee Allen, The National League Story, revised edition (New York: Hill & Wang, 1965), 7. Hulbert then had the constitution drawn up by lawyers in St. Louis on January 9, 1876 (Robert Knight Barney and Frank Dallier, “William A. Hulbert, Civic Pride, and the Birth of the National League,” NINE 2, no. 1, Fall 1993: 44).

5 NL Minutes.

6 Spalding, 116.

7 Dean A. Sullivan, ed., Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 66-67.

8 “Sporting Matters,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1874: 2.

9 Spalding Official Base Ball Guide (Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bros., 1883, 6).

10 Robert F. Burk, Never Just a Game (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 54.

11 Spalding Official Base Ball Guide (Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bros., 1886), 8-9.

12 In February of 1875 Harry Wright had written to Hulbert with some of his own ideas for the NA’s ridding itself of some of its weaker clubs. He may have known about the real purpose of Hulbert’s Louisville meeting. See Tom Melville, Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2001), 79.

13 NL Minutes, 17.

14 Glenn Moore, “Ideology on the Sportspage: Newspapers, Baseball, and Ideological Conflict in the Gilded Age,” Journal of Sport History 23, no. 3, Fall 1996: 231.

15 Harvey Frommer, Primitive Baseball: The First Quarter-Century of the National Pastime (New York: Atheneum, 1988), 21.

16 Spalding, 130.

17 Spalding, 119.

18 Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 80.

19 Spalding, 118.

20 Article IV, section 1 reads: “The name of each club shall be plainly written upon a card — in full view of the delegates present — by the Secretary; the cards to be of the same size, shape, color, and material. The cards shall then be placed in some suitable receptacle and well shaken together; therefrom five of these cards shall be drawn successively and at random and the delegates from the five clubs whose names are so drawn shall compose the Board.” Section 2 then outlines how the president will be chosen: “The Board shall elect from their number a President, who shall be the President of the League. He shall preside at all meetings of the Board and of the League and discharge the usual duties of such an officer. In the event of his absence the Board shall elect a President Pro Tem.” Section 3 sets out the criteria for a secretary-treasurer as a “gentleman of intelligence, honesty, and good repute who is versed in base ball matters, but who is not in any manner connected with the press, and who is not a member of any professional base ball club either in or out of the League.” (NL Minutes, 5).

21 NL Minutes, 5.

22 Minutes, 7-8.

23 Minutes, 8.

24 Minutes, 12.

25 Minutes, 9.

26 Minutes, 15.

27 Minutes 1-12.

28 Minutes, 8.

29 Harold Seymour, 297.

30 This was an interesting argument, given that he also argued that monopolizing the best teams and talent at the top would help to eliminate competition for the best players, hence decreasing salaries.

31 NL Minutes, 13.

32 Minutes, 14.

33 Harold Seymour, 84.

34 NL Minutes, 15-16.

35 Spalding, 135.

36 Seymour, 86.

37 Moore, 232.

38 From Chadwick’s editorial of February 12, 1876. Reprinted in Dean A. Sullivan, ed., Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 96-97.

39 Spalding, 118.

40 NL Minutes, 3-4.

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