A.G. Spalding: A Flamboyant Entrepreneur, Empire Builder

This article was written by Peter Levine

This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal


Speaking before a banquet of baseball aficionados in Philadelphia at the turn of the century, editor Francis Richter of Sporting Life extolled the “steady progress” baseball had made as business and sport since the inception of the National League. “Every patron of the sport,” he began, “knows that baseball is a fixed and stable-business which has been maintained continuously for two generations.” More than “mere recreation,” Richter vigorously proclaimed baseball as “a great sport, representative and typical of the people who practice it . . . one that stimulates all the faculties of the mind. . .keenness, invention, perception, agility, celerity of thought and action, adaptability to circumstances – in short all the qualities that go to make the American man the most highly-organized, civilized being on earth.”

Anyone listening to Richter’s remarks and knowledgeable about baseball’s “steady progress” since 1876 could not help but think of Albert Goodwill Spalding in connection with the development of the game as a stable, well-organized business. Nor would they have been wrong to identify his voice as one of many of his generation that promoted baseball and sport in general as a means of guaranteeing American progress while alleviating the tensions and fears that seemed part and parcel of a modernizing American society.

Late nineteenth-century middle-class Americans, whose dominant value structure celebrated self-reliance and aggressive individualism, all buttressed by a social Darwinist framework that emphasized the survival of the fittest and civilization’s inexorable forward march, looked back with pride on their ancestors’ ability to carve a nation out of a seemingly boundless frontier. At the same time, the basic facts of American development, including those that had marked their own contributions to progress – the close of the frontier experience, internal migration and the growth of large cities, European immigration, the growth of industry and clashes between labor and capital – also raised doubts about America’s future. What would take the place of the violent testing ground of the frontier to shape American character? What forces would counteract the tendency of sedentary, urban, middle-class life from softening the basic tissue of America’s dominant class? What could be done to prevent the appearance of East European immigrants from diluting the purity of the American stock and from challenging the very foundations of liberal capitalist society?

Responses to these fears, as we know, were wide-ranging. They involved an increasingly aggressive foreign policy, a variety of efforts, some tinged with violence, to control and acculturate new immigrants, and a search, as one historian has put it, for “intense” experience to mold character and to counter the banality and pace of middle-class urban culture. Most importantly, in terms of A.G. Spalding, they also included the promise of sport as such experience and as commercial venture.

Particularly for urban, middle-class Americans, the last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a virtual explosion of popular interest in sport. Whether measured by the bicycling craze of the 1890s, the growth of professional baseball or the astounding success and expansion of the sporting-goods industry – activities all close to Spalding’s heart – acceptance of sport as legitimate leisure-time pursuit and economic enterprise marked these years. A major factor in that success was the promotion of sport as an activity that served significant social purpose.

In an atmosphere where sport was referred to as “artificial adventure, artificial colonizing, artificial war,” it is not surprising to find it encouraged as an activity that might produce “a more stalwart and better-formed race” or to find one writer extolling the growth of country clubs as a “safety-valve of an overworked nation.”

While Spalding was hardly original in articulating the connections between sport, ideology and social purpose, no one expressed them with more style and flair than he did.

Baseball in particular, as he waxed alphabetically, was “the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American. Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.”

Just as important, Spalding recognized baseball’s ability to incorporate values and character traits associated with America’s frontier experience to the demands of an urbanized society without causing chaos or destruction. After all, as he put it, baseball was a game that taught “the man of tomorrow the absolute necessity of self-control” and the need to play by the rules as a member of a larger team, be it as baseball nine or society. The game’s “basic principle,” he emphasized, was “subordination to the rule.”

While Spalding sincerely believed in the social promise of sport, he was not a professional reformer, recreationist or moralist. Although he shared many of the sentiments and goals of such people, he was above all a flamboyant entrepreneur out to enhance his personal fortune by encouraging popular interest in sport. No effort better demonstrates all these tendencies than his world tour of professional baseball players engineered between October 1888 and April 1889 – an achievement that Henry Chadwick called “the greatest event in the modern history of athletic sports.”

Viewing himself and his ballplayers as missionaries -“representatives of the great Western Republic” – A. G., as his friends called him, hoped to spread American manliness and virtue by introducing baseball to the world in dramatic style. Baseball was also his business and Spalding intended to mix idealism with practical calculation. As he bluntly told one reporter, his reason for going to Australia was “for the purpose of extending my sporting-goods business to that quarter of the globe and to create a market for goods there.”

Spalding’s original itinerary included Australia as the only major international stop on the tour to be preceded by a brief visit to Hawaii and by a series of exhibitions in the United States both to cover expenses and, as he noted, “to make enough noise in this country so that . . . Australian people . . . will have no difficulty in hearing us long before we reach their shores.” Leaving detailed arrangements in the hands of a professional theatrical manager, he devoted his attention to assembling his entourage and publicizing his mission.

As president of the Chicago White Stockings, Spalding had little trouble securing the services of his regulars. Although he had fervently hoped that his boys would win the pennant in 1888 so that he could advertise his expedition as including the champions of America, he had to be content with a team that finished second to New York. Still it did include Cap Anson and Jimmy Ryan, who together held just about every National League batting title for the season.

Opposing the Chicago nine were the “All-Americas,” drawn predominately from other National League clubs. Although the team fielded John Ward and Eddie Crane from the first-place Giants, The Sporting News charged that Spalding had signed fourth-rate players because he was too cheap to offer the kind of money that would attract the best. Charlie Comiskey, then playing for the St. Louis Browns, noted that if he had been extended “anything like a fair inducement” he might have gone. As it was, the “figures were not even enough for cigar money,” according to Comiskey. A. G. scoffed at such criticism, noting that the paper attacked him because he had withdrawn his business advertisements from it. Besides, as Spalding remembered, the chief criteria in picking Chicago’s opposition had to do with their character and deportment. “It was absolutely essential,” he claimed, that all who . . . go should be men of clean habits and attractive personality, men who would reflect credit upon the country and the game.”

Having assembled his players, Spalding obtained a brief farewell meeting for himself and the White Stockings with President Grover Cleveland at the White House. Although disappointed in not receiving formal presidential endorsement for his venture, he did come away with an ink drawing of the event from which he had 5,000 copies made, as he put it, “for use upon the trip.” Always the businessman, Spalding also hired a hot air balloonist, one “Professor” Bartholomew, to accompany the tour just in case baseball itself was not enough to bring out the crowds.

No such problems arose during the baseball missionaries’ month-long swing through the United States. Enjoying, as the Chicago Tribune noted, the “novelty of traveling in nabob style,” the “Chicagos,” bedecked in light grey shirts, knee britches and black stockings, and the “All-Americas,” dazzling in white flannel with a silk American flag draped over their shoulders, brought out the crowds from Omaha to San Francisco in such numbers as to more than cover Spalding’s projected expenses for the entire Australian venture. And on November 17 after a San Francisco banquet that included such delicacies as petits pate a la Spalding and mashed potatoes a la softball, A.G. and his boys set off for Hawaii, on course for the land Down Under.

Spalding’s careful plans for the American “visitation” to Australia were not in vain. Enthusiastic receptions complete with greetings from local dignitaries, parades and bands playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” preceded baseball games and cricket exhibitions from Sydney to Melbourne during the tourists’ three-week stay there. Although one Australian suggested that Professor Bartholomew’s balloon ascents provoked more interest than the exploits on the diamond, most observers were more appreciative. One correspondent for the Melbourne Punch, after noting that the “life and dash” of baseball would make it popular with his local countrymen, added that the game’s introduction in Australia would be but the “first link of a mutual friendship between the two continents.”

Comparing his country and the United States as nations of “go,” he hoped that Australia’s acceptance of baseball would guarantee that America “will always be on our side helping us on the onward path.”

American commentators offered similar appraisals. Newton MacMillan, for instance, in his Christmas day story for the Chicago Tribune, praised A.G. for achieving “a distinct coup for himself, his game and his country. The red, white and blue are the fashionable colors here just now,” he continued, “the baseball bat is mightier than the cricket paddle, and Americans are the princes of jolly good fellows.”

Nor did Spalding ignore such sentiments when he attempted to market his wares. In a special Australian version of his baseball guide, A.G. dedicated the book to the “sportsmen of Australia” and reminded them that “all those essentials of manliness, courage, nerve, pluck and endurance characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race” were embedded in baseball. Hopeful that Australians busy in developing a large country would find baseball a quick game conducive to encouraging such traits, Spalding filled the guide with detailed playing instructions, advertisements for his baseball goods, and the location of stores in Sydney and Melbourne authorized to distribute Spalding athletic goods.

The remaining portion of A.G. `s around-the-world gambit proved cause for less ambitious plans. In the works since November but not announced publicly until December 29, 1888, Spalding proposed to introduce America’s National Game to the “crowned heads, nobles and peasantry in the Old World” by galavanting through Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France and the British Isles. At best, however, the post-Australian excursion offered mixed results.

After leaving Melbourne early in January the tourists suffered a three-week journey across the Indian Ocean to Colombo, Ceylon, that beset them with boredom and rough seas. Hot weather, according to one reporter, left them “panting in the sun like so many lizards.” Their arrival in Ceylon went virtually unnoticed although a five-inning exhibition brought out some native spectators who “looked at us as though we were so many escaped inmates.”

From Colombo it was on to Cairo for a game at the Pyramids before “long-sheeted Bedouins” and “white-robed sons of the Desert.” After the game, according to

Spalding, the players climbed onto the Sphinx for photographs, much “to the horror of the native worshippers of Cheops and the dead Pharoahs.” No less disconcerting must have been unsuccessful efforts of several ballplayers to throw baseballs over the sacred Egyptian tombs.

Spalding’s desire to publicize his venture by playing baseball at historic sites met frustration in Italy. Astonished archeologists and Roman officials resisted his resourceful efforts to book a game in the Coliseum. Even offers of $5 ,000 along with the donation of gate receipts to local charity were to no. avail. An attempt to obtain an audience with the Pope also failed. The best A.G. could hustle was an exhibition played before the Italian King and other state officials on the stately grounds of the Villa Borghese in Rome.

Games followed in Florence and Paris, but Spalding’s thoughts were fixed on England. Rekindled were memories of 1874, when, as an advance man and young pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings, he had participated in an abortive attempt to convince the British that baseball was a better game than cricket.

His second effort produced similar results. Altogether, the “Chicagos” and the “All-Americas” played 11 games during their two-week stay in England, Ireland and Scotland. Throughout their visit the ballplayers received warm receptions, first-class accommodations, special acknowledgement in the House of Commons and even a meeting with the Prince of Wales. Less well-received, however, was the game itself. Typical were the remarks of one British observer who pronounced baseball unquestionably inferior to cricket and as much out of place in England “as a nursery frolic in the House of Commons.”

However unsuccessful Spalding’s efforts were at convincing the British of baseball’s virtues, America’s response to the tour’s homecoming softened the blow. Although

National League and American Association clubs were well into their spring exhibitions when the travel-weary band of baseballers arrived in New York after a six-month trek involving 42 games played before an estimated 200,000 people, Spalding’s contracts with the players mandated their participation in a two-week swing through nine eastern and midwestern cities before they could return to their regular jobs.

A.G., who delighted in public adulation, enjoyed every parade, banquet and testimonial from New York to Chicago. Arriving in New York to a harbor reception reported as unequaled in the city’s history, Spalding joked about how happy he was to be “back in the land where I can eat pie.”

More seriously, he told one reporter of the “Keen delight. . . which swelled through my breast this morning when I stepped ashore. I am proud to be called an American . . .”

An exhibition baseball game and a night at the opera followed, but for a man who cultivated the company of society’s finest and who strongly believed in the role of sport as an incubator of American character, Spalding must have been particularly pleased with the “notable gathering of American manhood and brain” that celebrated the tour’s return at a banquet at exclusive Delmonico’s in Manhattan.

Walls decorated with large photos of the ballplayers in Rome and Egypt reverberated with the applause of 300 guests, including Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, local politicians, baseball officials, Yale undergraduates and “popular members of the New York Stock Exchange” as they paid homage to Spalding’s “feat of pluck.”

Perhaps overwhelmed by a dinner “served in nine innings,” A. G. did no more than reiterate his pleasure in being home. A host of toastmasters, however, praised his exploits in ways consistent with its intended purposes of promoting sport’s social value and of extending an American presence in the world. Proclaimed as “representatives of American manhood and citizenship” and as “gladiators . . . covered with their American manhood,” the players received praise as devotees of “manly sports” and as men ” a country that holds liberty dear must have . . . men of athletic spirit” that make “a race fit for peace and war.” More amusingly, Mark

Twain commented on the incongruity of bringing baseball, “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century . . . to places of profound repose and soft indolence.” He also thanked the baseballers for unshrouding the mystery surrounding the imaginary line around the world known as the equator. The “boys,” as he put it, had made it visible by “stealing bases on their bellies” around the world, “leaving a nice deep trench along the way.”

While speakers at other stops on the homecoming were not able to match Twain’s wit or eloquence, their remarks remained consistently praiseworthy of Spalding’s efforts, his game and of the social promise of sport. Typical were those of A.K. McClure of the Philadelphia Times. Speaking at a banquet in his city, McClure applauded the character and morality displayed by the Chicagos and “All-Americas” and baseball itself for nurturing such traits. “I bid you Godspeed,” he told the ballplayers, “for an institution that teaches a boy that nothing but honesty and manliness can succeed must be doing missionary work every day of its existence. It will not only make a high standard of baseball men, but the world better for its presence.”

Chicago provided the last stop on the homecoming and the city turned out en masse to cheer the returning heroes when they arrived at Union Station on the evening of April 19. Illuminated by a display of fireworks, a huge escort of representatives from more than 130 businesses and athletic organizations – among them cricketeers, lacrosse players, 1,000 bicyclists “mounted on their metal steeds,” and a special honor guard composed of employees of A.G. Spalding & Brothers – accompanied the world tourists as their carriages wove along a parade route crowded by an estimated 150,000 people on the way to the Palmer House for one final round of speech-making and revelry. As the Chicago Tribune described it, “the streets were thronged” with people from “all classes. Businessmen were in it, toughs and sports . . . also a great many ladies. And they went fairly crazy.”

Once again Spalding left it to others to draw the proper lessons from his missionary venture in ways that reinforced notions about the social purpose of sport that he believed in and that promoted his interests. More than equal to the task was Henry L. Turner, a major in Chicago’s National Guard, who praised the ballplayers for doing “grand work in attracting men away from offices and desks (and) out into the light to breathe heaven’s pure air.” Invoking baseball’s role in making “men we are proud of,” Turner proclaimed America as a “country mighty in people in courage” and urged his audience to “help . . . God in building up a country of men all powerful in protecting a country such as this. Long life to baseball and athletics,” he concluded.

Although Spalding lost $5,000 on the tour, sentiments such as Turner’s only reinforced his never-ebbed confidence in himself and his accomplishments. Never once did he doubt that the tour had laid the groundwork for the future international success of baseball, the spread of American values and the expansion of his business. Indeed, with characteristic immodesty, his 1889 Baseball Guide praised his leadership for undertaking “a bold and plucky” venture that “did in six short months what so many years under ordinary circumstances would have failed to accomplish.”

Whether orchestrating the invention of baseball as America’s immaculate conception, making speeches before P.S.A.L.’s on behalf of his friends in the organized play movement or promoting his autobiographical account of the history of baseball, America’s National Game, published in 1911, Spalding remained consistent in his efforts to offer middle-class Americans encouragement and justification for baseball and other sport as acceptable leisure-time pursuits that provided positive social purpose. Even his unsuccessful bid to capture a U.S. Senate seat in California in 1910 hinged on a campaign that credited his baseball career as making him fit to hold office. In an age of true believers about American exceptionalism and superiority there is no question that Spalding honestly saw the game he helped organize as an expression of such sentiments and as a vehicle for its promotion.

Five years after his Senate defeat, on September 10, 1915, as one newspaper reporter put it, Spalding “was called out”- dead from apoplexy at the age of 65. Baseball fans from coast to coast,” the obituary continued, “and tens of thousands of small boys, who remind each other on the vacant lots to ‘hold the bat with the Spalding up,’ will feel a personal loss in the death of the ‘father of baseball.’”

A.G. would have liked that touch. Nor would he have minded the inscription on his plaque at Cooperstown – “the organizational genius of baseball’s pioneer days” and the organizer of base ball’s first round the world tour.”

Spalding was an empire builder, and his imperial vision like many of his time – stretched to the corners of the globe.

Baseball surely was not American in origin, but its persistence as our national pastime and the establishment of sport as a significant social and commercial institution of American life, for better or for worse, owes much to Albert Goodwill Spalding, who had a nose for business and a knack for promoting himself and his game.

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