This article was written by William J. Ryczek
This article was published in the
When the delegates to the annual convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players gathered at New York’s Grand Central Hotel in December 1870, they didn’t know they were attending the final meeting of the old organization, or that by the following spring the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players would be the dominant governing body in the baseball firmament. Likewise, the delegates who trooped through the snow to the rooms of the Athletic Club at Eleventh and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia on March 1, 1875, had no idea that the meeting would be the final convention of the NA, and that within a year it would be supplanted by the National League.
There were many warning signs, for the NA had some serious problems. There had been persistent rumors of thrown games; players had a penchant for ignoring their contractual obligations; and without an administrator at its head, the NA had been reluctant to interfere with the prerogatives of either players or clubs. Self-interest was the watchword, and it was the practice of virtually every club to advocate for its own advantage, rather than in the interest of the entire league, that would lead to the NA’s demise.
In the baseball world of the 1870s, more was considered better than less, and the appearance in Philadelphia of delegates from 13 clubs was heralded as a sign of the league’s growth and baseball’s increasing popularity. Emphasizing quantity over quality made sense when baseball was an amateur exercise, but in a professional league that ostensibly consisted of the top clubs in the United States, it was problematic.
The delegates who attended the Philadelphia convention were as follows:
Athletic (Philadelphia) Charles Spering
Atlantic (Brooklyn) Benjamin Van Delft
Red Stockings (Boston) Harry Wright
White Stockings (Chicago) William Hulbert
Centennial (Philadelphia) Hicks Hayhurst
Hartford Morgan Bulkeley
Mutual (New York) Alex Davidson
Elm City (New Haven) William Arnold
White Stockings (Philadelphia) George Concannon
Red Stockings (St. Louis) Joseph Blong
Brown Stockings (St. Louis) C.O. Bishop
Washington A.F. Childs
Westerns (Keokuk) W. Trimble
The Centennials, Elm Citys, St. Louis Red Stockings and Brown Stockings, Washington, and Keokuk clubs were new to the NA, and the concentration of three teams in Philadelphia, two in Brooklyn, and two in St. Louis was potentially problematic. Yet there were no qualifications for new entrants other than payment of the $10 entry fee and the presentation of delegates. Not once during the NA’s five-year existence was any club denied entry, even though several were clearly not of major-league caliber.
The delegates did a number of things in Philadelphia, one of which would have lasting repercussions. But perhaps equally important was what they didn’t do, which was address any of the major problems that plagued the Association. The week before the meeting, the New York Clipper stated that the convention would be “the most important and influential held by the National Association since its organization,”1 and hoped that harmony would prevail. The meeting was not harmonious, even though the delegates neatly sidestepped most areas of potential controversy.
Their omissions were numerous. They didn’t deny the application of any team, despite the fact that the 1872 season had demonstrated the folly of allowing the participation of clubs that didn’t have the financial strength to last the season or the potential to draw crowds large enough to make it worth the while of teams like Boston and the Philadelphia clubs to invest travel expenses to visit them. Iowa was a long way from Boston, and after witnessing the meager crowd at the Red Stockings’ first 1875 game in Keokuk, Boston manager Harry Wright canceled the next two games and embarked to Chicago, which promised greater financial rewards. Apparently, no one gave a thought to screening prospective league members, or requiring a cash bond to ensure that the team would complete the season.
The delegates also failed to consider the possibility of determining the schedule in advance, relying instead upon the custom of allowing club managers to arrange games on an ad-hoc basis. As noted later, the increase in teams required more games to be played than ever before, and the absence of a fixed schedule almost assured that a number of quotas would remain unfinished at the end of the season. Once the sorry state of the Atlantics became evident, they simply refused to leave home — not that anyone wanted them to visit — and avoided travel expenses.
The august group also did its best to ignore any instances of dishonest play. During the 1874 season, there had been a number of incidents in which players were suspected of playing to lose for the benefit of gamblers. During a game in Chicago, the Mutuals removed star pitcher Bobby Mathews after one inning with an alleged groin injury. Since the pregame odds were suspiciously tilted toward the White Stockings, many thought that Mathews had been removed in order to give the game to Chicago. A doctor later certified that Mathews was indeed injured, but the Mutuals’ shady reputation was enough to keep the rumors alive.
A second incident was even more troubling. Billy McLean, an ex-boxer who was probably the best NA umpire, stated that he had been approached before a July 15 game by the Philadelphia White Stockings’ Johnny Radcliff, who told him he had wagered $350 on the opposing Chicago nine. McLean said Radcliff offered to split his winnings with him if the umpire would make a few calls in Chicago’s favor and said that four of his teammates were in on the fix.
On September 8 the Philadelphia club met to examine the charges. The meeting was heated, with sharp differences of opinion regarding Radcliff’s culpability. After a long debate over conflicting recommendations, the stockholders voted 26 to 15 to expel Radcliff. That meant, however, that Radcliff was prohibited only from playing with Philadelphia. If the NA did not take action, he could play with any of the other 12 teams. In any league other than the NA, a player dismissed from a club for betting against his team and attempting to bribe an umpire would, in the absence of compelling exculpatory evidence, be expelled by the league. Under the governance of the NA, that was far from a certainty, and when the Association’s Judiciary Committee considered his case, hard evidence was the least of its concerns.
The Judiciary Committee met at 11:00 A.M. before the start of the full convention. The committee consisted of the members appointed at the 1874 convention (since the 1875 meeting had yet to convene), which presented at least one problem. Charles Hadel of Baltimore, whose club had ceased operations, was a member of the committee, even though he had no team to represent. Perhaps that was a blessing, for Hadel was the only attendee whose actions were not motivated by self-interest.
There were a number of issues facing the Judiciary Committee regarding ineligible players and broken or disputed contracts. Players had a tendency to sign with more than one club, and it was the duty of the committee to determine which club held the legitimate contract.
The first case under consideration was that of Radcliff, who had a long history of trespassing on the rules of the NA. He’d been in trouble even before the advent of the league, dating back to 1868, when he attempted to jump the Athletics to join the Mutuals. The next season, he signed with both the Athletics and the Red Stockings of Cincinnati. Throughout his NA career, Radcliff was dogged by rumors of dishonesty, yet he always managed to find a job.
For the Judiciary Committee to consider a case, there had to be a formal, written complaint. In the case of Radcliff, no complaint had been filed. He was therefore reinstated and played for the Centennials in 1875.
Two other players, pitcher Bill Stearns and infielder Bill Boyd, were also reinstated. Stearns had left the Hartford club in 1874 without permission, leaving multiple unpaid creditors, including his landlord, in his wake. The committee reasoned that Stearns’ loss of salary for the remainder of the season was sufficient punishment and cleared him to play in 1875. Boyd had also left Hartford while under contract, in order to join the Brooklyn Fire Department. Boyd’s expulsion was initially upheld, but the committee relented when the Atlantics, who had signed him for the 1875 season, protested.
The players were three-for-three in reinstatements, as two contract breakers and one game-thrower were allowed to continue their spotted careers. That did little to uphold the sanctity of the contract, or to convince players that acting dishonorably would cause them any inconvenience.
Henry Chadwick, always a forceful advocate for honest play, was appalled by the reinstatement of Stearns and Boyd. “A player who will break an engagement,” he wrote in the Clipper, “even a verbal one — is not reliable, and he who signs two agreements, taking money from two parties, should be expelled from the Association.”2
The next cases involved players who had signed multiple contracts. John McMullin had agreed to terms with both the Athletic and Philadelphia clubs, but the Athletics renounced their claim, leaving McMullin free to play with the White Stockings. Jack Burdock was awarded to Hartford rather than Chicago, and was admonished for signing two contracts.
The next case was that of Tom Miller. Miller caught for the Easton club in 1874, and he and his batterymate, George Bradley, made the Easton nine possibly the best team in America that was not in the National Association. On October 14, 1874, he and Bradley signed, each for a $1,200 salary, with the St. Louis Brown Stockings club that planned to join the NA for the 1875 season. It appeared that the contracts had not been properly witnessed, and though neither player claimed his signature was not genuine, the legality of the contracts was questioned.
A contract that is not properly witnessed can be corrected by means of a new pact that is legally acknowledged and witnessed. There was a complication in the case of Miller, for he had subsequently signed to play with Hartford in 1875. The Hartford contract met all legal requirements, and Hartford president Gershom Hubbell appeared to hold legal title to Miller’s services.
Nothing was ever simple in the NA, and after signing with Hartford, Miller executed a second contract with St. Louis, one that was properly witnessed. It was blemished, however, by the fact that it was antedated before the date of the Hartford contract. St. Louis’s claim therefore rested upon a technically defective document and a document that was legal but altered, while Hartford had a complete document that was signed prior to the second St. Louis pact.
The Judiciary Committee ruled that the Hartford contract, being in conformance with all legal requirements and executed, according to testimony, prior to the second St. Louis contract, took precedence and that Hartford was entitled to Miller’s services. The catcher, however, had indicated that he wanted to play for St. Louis. After the Judiciary Committee reported its decision to the full convention, Hartford, satisfied that it had made its point, relinquished its claim and left Miller free to catch for Bradley in St. Louis. Hubbell’s action was grounded in the spirit of generosity and the fact that in the meantime he had signed veteran catcher Douglas Allison.
While Miller’s case was resolved amicably, the dispute over the contract of Davy Force was not. Force was a diminutive 25-year-old shortstop who stood just 5-feet-4 and weighed only 130 pounds. He’d been a member of the renowned 1867 Washington Nationals, and had been playing with National Association teams since the league was formed in 1871. Force was a good fielder, and during his days in the NA, he was an excellent hitter, batting .418 in 1872, .365 in 1873, and .313 with the Chicago White Stockings in 1874.3
While under contract to the White Stockings, Force signed an 1875 contract with them that was dated September 18, 1874. While it was illegal for a player to sign with a new team before the end of a playing season, it was perfectly legal to re-sign with the same club without waiting for the season to end. Then, on December 5, Force signed a contract with the Athletics, and made it clear that he preferred to play in Philadelphia.
Force’s 1874 contract did not expire until March 15, 1875;4 therefore he technically could not sign with another club until after that date. The rule against signing while under contract was routinely ignored and signings were reported well before seasons ended. The majority of the 1873 Philadelphia White Stockings signed with Chicago in August of 1873. Although everyone connected with the NA knew that the contracts were technically illegal, the players had always been allowed to play with their new teams.
On February 10, 1875, William Hulbert, secretary of the White Stockings, wrote a letter to the Clipper challenging the paper’s reports that Force would play with the Athletics in 1875. He cited the contract that expired in March 1875 and the new one that expired in March 1876. “Under no circumstances,” Hulbert wrote, “will Mr. Force be released from these contracts. There are no circumstances connected with these contracts that would in the least degree justify Mr. Force attempting to break them.”5
A technical point in regard to the Force case was the one that had decided the Radcliff case, the requirement that all issues of dispute be brought to the attention of the Judiciary Committee prior to November 15. Since Force had not signed with the Athletics until December 5, the White Stockings had not brought their complaint to the committee by the deadline.
The White Stockings’ hands were not completely clean, for it turned out that while the contract Force signed with them was actually executed on November 2, it had been antedated to September 18. Perhaps Chicago had a hint that Force was playing the field. November 2 was still earlier than December 5, but did the alteration of the contract render it void?
The Judiciary Committee ruled that, despite its irregularities, the Chicago contract had been executed first, and that if Force wanted to play in the National Association in 1875, it would be as a member of the White Stockings. Chadwick disagreed with the committee’s decision, based upon the antedating of the contract and the disingenuous claim that the committee had no jurisdiction since the complaint was not brought to its attention by November 15. How could Chicago have filed a complaint at a time when it had yet to be wronged?
When the committee reported its decisions to the full convention that evening, it did so in a jumbled manner. The cases were confusing, there had been no previous meetings, and in the midst of their presentation, the committee members had to retire from the meeting to craft a more coherent communication. While they huddled, Harry Wright introduced some minor amendments to the rules.
The committee re-emerged and rendered a clear decision in the Miller case, which was easily resolved when Hartford renounced its claim. The response to the decision in the Force matter was not as receptive. Charles Spering, president of the Athletics and the newly elected president of the NA, refused to accept the ruling, and persuaded the delegates to table the issue until the following morning.
The one-day delay was significant, for a new Judiciary Committee had been appointed during the convention; the committee that met earlier that day had been the committee appointed at the 1874 convention. If the matter was tabled, it would be considered by the new committee, which consisted of Hicks Hayhurst of the Athletics, Morgan Bulkeley of Hartford, George Concannon of the Philadelphia White Stockings, Benjamin Van Delft of the Atlantics, and W. Trimble of the new Western Club of Keokuk.
Shortly after his appointment, Trimble informed the convention that his business interests would prevent him from serving. To fill the opening created by his withdrawal, Spering appointed himself. The committee now consisted of three Philadelphians, Hayhurst, Concannon, and Spering.
Given the partisan nature of the new committee, it is not surprising that the earlier decision was reversed. The news was communicated to Spering, as president of the Athletics, in a letter signed by the other four members of the committee. (Apparently C.O. Bishop of St. Louis had replaced Bulkeley.)
After setting forth the decision of the 1874 committee, the new resolution read:
Resolved. That in view of the fact that the report of the judiciary committee of 1874, declaring the Chicago contract the only legal one, was laid upon the table by the Association, thereby expressing their dissent from the action of the committee, it is the sense of the present committee that the question has been decided finally by the Association in favor of the Athletic Club, and that the committee should not entertain [Chicago’s] charge.
E.H. Hayhurst George Concannon
C.O. Bishop Benjamin Van Delft
The antedating of the Chicago contract created a technical deficiency, but it was clear that the club had signed Force before he contracted with the Athletics.6 The reversal appeared to be based on the fact that Force wanted to play with Philadelphia, the Athletics wanted him, Spering was president of the NA, and there were three Philadelphians on the new Judiciary Committee.
Spering got what he wanted, but the decision created festering wounds and lingering animosity that would contribute to the eventual demise of the National Association. William Hulbert was outraged and believed he was the victim of the Eastern establishment. Perhaps more importantly, Harry Wright was angry. “How long will the Association exist,” he wrote to Chadwick, “if the clubs violate its laws with impunity when they conflict with their special interests? What is the use of an Association if the clubs refuse to abide by or be governed by their own constitution, bylaws and code of rules?”7
Chadwick, surprisingly, took the side of the Athletics. He viewed the antedating of the contract as damning, and said that the 1875 Judiciary Committee had jurisdiction in the matter since it was not the subject of a complaint prior to November 15. Chadwick was usually appalled by self-interest and committee manipulation, and it is somewhat shocking to find him on the side of those who appeared to be attempting to skirt the rules. Apparently, William Hulbert took note of Chadwick’s opposition, for when he formed the National League a year later, he left Chadwick on the outside looking in, a slight Chadwick refused to forgive for several years.
Wright wrote to Hulbert on March 15 that he felt it was the Boston club’s responsibility, as one of the leaders of the Association, to take a stand. He urged the other clubs to insist on the formation of a new Judiciary Committee with broader representation and less Philadelphia influence. Wright wrote that before the meeting he had heard Spering and Hulbert agree to abide by the decision of the 1874 Judiciary Committee. In the weeks after the convention, Wright and Spering engaged in a battle of correspondence that left both unmoved and frustrated. “What do you think of the new President of the Association?” Wright wrote to New York Mutual manager William Cammeyer. “Is he not doing business nobly — for the Athletics?”8 He spoke of “the array of home talent [Spering] has the honor of having secured for the Judiciary Committee of 1875.”9 Perhaps, Wright mused, Philadelphia could annex the United States in 1876.
Boston’s Wright indicated that he would refuse to play any games with the Athletics if Force was in their lineup, and urged other teams to do the same. Hartford protested the first game it played with the Athletics and, since there was no fixed schedule, Wright was able to raise logistical concerns to avoid making dates to play the Philadelphia club. Finally, realizing he did not have the backing of the other teams, he conceded and the Red Stockings and Athletics played their games without incident.
Although the season proceeded without incident, the divisions that arose over the Force case had split the NA into factions. Hulbert was alienated, Wright was on his side, and Hartford and Cammeyer’s Mutuals were aligned with Wright. When Hulbert determined to form a new league for the 1876 season, he not only had allies in the West, he had powerful friends in the East. The administration of the NA had always been haphazard, and the league’s continued existence was in part due to the fact that there were no challengers. In early 1876, when Hulbert determined to drive a stake through its heart, the league had few defenders.
After disposing of the Force case, the delegates established the quota of games each club was required to play. Each team was to play 10 games with every other team, with a minimum of six to constitute a legal series. As the New York Clipper pointed out, a 13-team league would mean that 780 games would need to be played if each team was to complete its series. In 1874 only 232 games had been played, and the Boston Red Stockings were the only team to play a full schedule. “This is an impossibility,” the Clipper said of the requirement, “and it is very questionable if the quota of six will be reached by half the clubs in the arena.”10
With the business of the convention completed, a greatly satisfied Spering made a motion for adjournment, which was seconded and approved. The delegates made their way to the Centennial Hotel, where they ate, drank, proposed toasts, made speeches, and appeared to all the world to be America’s most agreeable group of colleagues. Perhaps drink softened the mood, but the actions taken in the Athletic clubrooms had propelled the tottering Association closer to its death. Although the delegates had selected New Haven as the site of the 1876 convention, very few of the clubs that were represented in Philadelphia would appear in New Haven. By the time the meeting took place, William Hulbert had formed a new league, and the NA quietly passed from existence.11
1 New York Clipper, February 27, 1875.
2 New York Clipper, March 13, 1875.
3 When pitching rules changed to allow side-arm, overhand, and curveball pitching, Force’s batting skills faded. After he batted.335 in the NA, his average plummeted to .211 during his National League days. In 1880, playing for Buffalo, he batted .169 with an OPS of .400.
4 Although the contract may have had an expiration date of March 15, 1875, teams typically didn’t pay their players during the winter months, and it was unreasonable to expect Force to wait until the middle of March to sign for the following season.
5 Hulbert letter to New York Clipper, published February 20, 1875.
6 The Athletics later claimed that the contract was not properly witnessed, since the witness (Hulbert) was in Chicago, while Force signed the contract in Hartford. Therefore Hulbert could not legally have borne witness to the signature.
7 New York Clipper, March 20, 1875. Wright apparently did not believe that all NA rules should be followed to the letter, for he had negotiated with Force in September 1874, when it would have been illegal for him to sign the Chicago shortstop.
8 Wright to William Cammeyer, March 12, 1875 (Wright Correspondence).
9 New York Clipper, April 3, 1875.
10 New York Clipper, March 13, 1875.
11 The best account of the 1875 convention can be found in the New York Clipper, March 13, 1875.