This article was written by Richard Hershberger
This article was published in the The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
Baseball was booming in the years immediately following the Civil War. New clubs were forming in cities and towns across the country as established clubs created more excitement than ever. Major matches attracted unprecedented crowds. Competitive rivalries grew more heated.
This environment led inevitably to controversies. One of the greatest was the claim that the New York clubs colluded in 1867 to steal the championship from the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, to keep the pennant in New York. This charge was made in Pennsylvania, and some writers accept it to this day. But is it true? This article will assess the claim in the context of how baseball was organized at the time.
The story of this dispute centers on two institutions of the amateur era: the judiciary committee and the championship.
Organized baseball and the judiciary committee
The National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was the governing body of baseball in the 1860s. In 1857 a group of clubs in and around New York City held a convention for the purpose of promoting the game, primarily through the adoption of revised set of rules for inter-club play. The convention reconvened the following year and established itself as a permanent organization, the NABBP.
From the start, the rules included an administrative element in addition to playing rules. The 1857 rules required that “Any player holding membership in more than one club, at the same time, shall not be permitted to play in the matches of either club.” The previous September, the Knickerbocker Club had arrived at their grounds in Hoboken for a match game against the Gotham Club. They found one Mr. Pinckney among the Gotham players, much to their surprise, as they knew perfectly well he was a member of the Union Club. Their protest was forestalled by the Gothams, who informed them that he had joined the club the previous Tuesday, though without resigning from the Unions. “The presumption prevailed that he entered the Gothams for the purpose of this match” but the game went on. The Unions held a special meeting to condemn this, and Pinckney resigned from the Gothams the Tuesday following the match, “expressing his conviction of the impropriety of a person belonging to or playing matches in more than one club.”[fn]Porter’s Spirit of the Times, September 13, 1856; September 20, 1856.[/fn] The practice had the double disadvantage of threatening the social structure of clubs and leading to the best players monopolizing match play. Thus, it was abolished.
There was obvious potential for a crafty player to get around this by resigning from his old club and rejoining it after the match. The following year this loophole was closed with the requirement that all players “must have been regular members of the club which they represent, and of no other club, for thirty days prior to the match.” This would remain the standard throughout the amateur era.
There remained potential for disputes. Suppose a club showed up on the appointed day for a match and found the opposing club fielding an ineligible player. Its only recourse, should the opposing club refuse to withdraw the player, was to refuse to play or to play under protest. In fact, this happened on July 20, 1862, when the Mutual Club fielded two such players in a match with the Empire Club. The Empires played, losing 24–12, and protested to the NABBP convention the following December. A committee was formed to investigate the matter, and a year later reported in favor of the Empires, nullifying the match. Justice delayed is justice denied, and a year and a half was obviously too long for a satisfactory result. At its December 1863 meeting the NABBP also created a standing judiciary committee to investigate and report on any future disputes in a timelier manner.[fn]New York Sunday Mercury, December 14, 1862; December 13, 1863.[/fn]
This judiciary committee was to be the body that ruled in that Athletics’ dispute in 1867. It could not, however, overtly rule on the championship question.
The amateur championship
The defining characteristic of the baseball championship in the amateur era was that officially there was no such thing. The NABBP declined to sponsor one, in the entirely reasonable fear that “matches, except with the club holding the champion ball, would sink into insignificance, and the popularity of the game would therefore decline.”[fn]New York Sunday Mercury, September 25, 1859.[/fn] However, an unofficial, but widely recognized, championship system arose.
This unofficial system copied the existing model of boxing championships, grafting it onto baseball. As with boxing, aspirants would challenge the champion for the prize, with the initial champion determined through a combination of self-promotion and popular acclaim. This was combined with the existing custom of a best-of-three series. Usually the first game would be played on the challenger’s home ground (with the challenge likened to a social invitation), the second on the recipient’s home ground, with the third game, if necessary, played on a neutral ground.
This system was rife with potential confusion. The championships were conventionally stated in terms of the pennant for the season, but series were sometimes played over the course of two seasons, it not being entirely clear whether a championship could be won based on a series partly played the previous season. Also, a club might win the championship while it had partially completed other series. However, there was no clarity whether these would then transform into a championship series. There also was a widely held opinion that a club was ineligible for the championship if it had lost a series against some other club: “…it is one of the customary rules governing the championship matches that the loss of a match–best two out of three–throws a club out of the ring for the season, as a champion club, in order to have the right to “fly the whip,” must win every series of match games they play. They may lose a single game without invalidating their title, but two defeats out of three games with a club places them hors de combat for the season.”[fn]Ball Players Chronicle, July 11, 1867.[/fn]
Only through good luck did most of these problems fail to arise. There were numerous games which, had victory gone the other way, could have put the whole system in confusion. The requirement that the challenging club itself lose no series did, as we shall see, arise in 1867. But as every contender for the championship had lost a series, all parties conveniently forgot the requirement. Indeed, it likely was an attempt at artificially generating interest in matches involving potential challengers for the championship.
The championship system itself coexisted uncomfortably with the ideology of amateur baseball. The archetypal baseball club was a social organization formed as a vehicle for young men of sedentary occupations to take their exercise together in a congenial setting. The vast majority of ball games were intramural affairs. Match games, in which two clubs tested their mettle against one another, were comparatively rare and were as much social affairs as they were competitive. Rivalry was not the goal. Clubs often played each other year after year if they were socially compatible, even if they were completely mismatched competitively. On the other hand, clubs might also refuse to play if they found the experience disagreeable, even if they were well matched on the field.
Championship matches were the logical outgrowth of match games, but they still operated within the assumptions of social norms. This began to change in the postwar baseball boom. Spectators, it was learned, were willing to pay for the privilege of watching ball clubs compete. Clubs needed the revenue as they sought to attract top players by paying them (surreptitiously, as the practice was prohibited by the NABBP). Arrangements for matches grew less like social engagements and more like business contracts with penalty clauses for default. These gradual changes lead to confusion and dissension as they were sorted out.
The Atlantics and the Athletics
There were perhaps a half dozen serious championship contenders, but only two concern us here: the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn and the Athletic Club of Philadelphia.
The Atlantics were the powerhouse organization of the amateur era. They had held the championship every year since but two its inception. They were also notorious for pushing the limits of gentlemanly competition. As a modest example, the first known use of the hidden ball trick was by an Atlantic player.[fn]New York Sunday Mercury, October 23, 1859.[/fn] More serious was the history of Atlantics supporters verbally abusing their opponents and, in an era when the spectators were not physically separated from the players, interfering with the course of play. While the Atlantic players could claim innocence on the grounds that they could not control their supporters, this did not stop them from accepting the advantage.[fn]The most famous example was a game in 1860 with the Excelsiors, which led to the Excelsiors refusing to ever again play the Atlantics. A less known, but vividly egregious example occurred two years earlier. As reported in the New York Evening Express of October 26, 1858, in a game with the Gotham Club: “The Atlantics won the game, the last two innings of the game being played under considerable difficulty on the part of the Gothams, who protested repeatedly—and justly, but without redress—at the unfair arrangements of the members of the Atlantic Club for keeping the field clear; while it was cleared most effectually to allow the fielders to follow the balls which were struck by the Gothams, and the openings in the fence in the left field were particularly left free and respected by the crowd of outsiders, yet no sooner was the Gotham side in the field and the Atlantics at the bat, than the crowd was allowed to close in on the openings in the fence, and become an impassable barrier. This was so barefaced in one instance, that the Gothams’ fielder, finding the crowd not disposed to give way, sat down in front of them until the the batsman had run home.” The Gothams did not play the Atlantics again until 1864.[/fn]
Their reputation improved in the postwar years. Their continued success stifled criticism, while general standards within the fraternity lowered. In fairness, the Atlantics’ behavior also improved, as did crowd control in a fully enclosed ball ground. In any case, they were the team to beat for clubs striving for the championship.
The Athletics of Philadelphia were the only serious contender for this outside of the New York region. The baseball craze came to Philadelphia in 1860. The Athletics were one of the first baseball clubs there. In the early years they were merely one of several pretty good clubs in Philadelphia, none of whom stood a chance against the best New York clubs. They pulled ahead of the pack in 1865 through aggressive recruiting, collecting the best Philadelphia players, making the club essentially a regional all-star team. They supplemented this with out-of-town talent in the person of Al Reach, formerly of the Eckford Club of Brooklyn. Professionalism was outlawed by the NABBP, so was exercised secretly. Reach holds the distinction of being the first undoubted professional, though almost certainly not the first actual one. He semi-openly marketed his services, with the Athletics placing the winning bid. He opened a cigar shop in Philadelphia and went on to become a baseball equipment manufacturer. The Athletics built on this, and by 1867 were said to have four professionals.[fn]There is every reason to believe that other top clubs, including the Atlantics, were doing the same thing. The Athletics differed only in that they also had a running feud with one Thomas Fitzgerald, the former president of the club, and Fitzgerald owned a newspaper, the City Item, which he used freely to air their dirty laundry.[/fn]
That Atlantics and the Athletics already had a contentious history going into the 1867 season. They first competed in 1863, with relations amicable through 1864. They soured in 1865. The two clubs had scheduled a series, the first game for October 30 in Philadelphia and the second for November 6 in Brooklyn.[fn]This late in the season was typical of the era, when serious play didn’t get started until late May and ran through November. The major championship matches usually were played late in the season.[/fn] Then Matty O’Brien, a long-time member of the Atlantic Club, unexpectedly died. The Atlantics published a resolution of condolence, including a cancellation of all further play by the club for the season, in his memory. The Athletics followed with their own resolution of condolence.[fn]New York Leader, October 28, 1865; Fitzgerald’s City Item, October 28, 1865.[/fn] A rumor then spread that the Athletics were planning on appearing at their grounds on the day appointed for the match and declare the Atlantics forfeit. The Atlantics responded to this by sending a telegram the afternoon of the 29th stating their intention to play the next day. This forced the Athletics to scramble to prepare for the match, which they had understood to have been cancelled. Both sides felt aggrieved. There is no knowing if there was anything behind the rumor, but it seems likely that this was a breakdown in communication.[fn]New York Clipper, November 4, 1865; Fitzgerald’s City Item, November 4, 1865.[/fn] The Atlantics went on to win both games, keeping their championship secure from Philadelphia’s first serious challenge.
The interest—and potential income from gate receipts—was too high for them to not meet again the following year. But where 1865 saw miscommunication and hard feelings, 1866 saw farce. The first game was scheduled for October 1 in Philadelphia. A contemporary account vividly describes the excitement:
In the meantime, as the hour approaches for the contest to commence, the steady tide begins to flow Columbia avenueward, until towards 1 p.m., when the mob of people, the crowd of vehicles, and extraordinary numbers of men, women and boys en route for the scene of action, is only equaled by the exodus from London on the great Derby day. The ground reached, what a sight is presented! No such scene of the kind was ever before presented to the public eye in this country, and probably will not again for some time, certainly not this season. Within a radius of a quarter of a mile from the centre of the circle were collected nearly 40,000 people, it is thought. Every window of every house within sight of the field was crowded. The house tops were peopled to an extent endangering the roofs. Trees were loaded with human fruit, and vehicles of every description surrounded the field, filled with all who could get a foothold on them. Inside the enclosure, the pressure was immense, and by the hour appointed for commencing play standing room within fifty feet of the base lines was at a premium, and, as a consequence, there was no space for the players for field operations, at least to an extent admitting of an equal contest. At last, out of patience with the delay, an effort was made to begin …[fn]New York Clipper, October 13, 1866.[/fn]
The pressure of bodies was too much. They pressed onto the field, and play had to be halted after one inning. As the crowd spilled onto the field “the whole affair broke up in a row and a number of heads had been smashed by the police, amidst the cries and screams of the ladies and children, the breaking down of fences, the throwing of stones…”[fn]Fitzgerald’s City Item, October 6, 1866.[/fn] This left only the pointing of fingers. The Athletics claimed that ruffian Atlantics supporters had started the trouble, pushing their way to the front of the crowd. The Athletics in turn were charged with allowing too many people within the enclosure in the quest for maximum gate receipts. The bottom line, though, was that the Athletics had failed their obligation as hosts to provide a clear field. They had allowed too many people into the enclosure and not hired enough police to control the crowd.[fn]The event was widely reported. In addition to those cited above, see the Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, October 7, 1866.[/fn]
The economics still called for the series to be salvaged, so the two clubs quickly negotiated a solution. The game scheduled for October 15 in Brooklyn went on, with extra precautions for crowd control including the presence of 100 policemen.[fn]Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, October 14, 1866.[/fn] The Philadelphia game was rescheduled for October 22. This gave the Athletics time to repair the ground, constructing a new, stronger fence. Ordinarily the home club retained all the gate receipts, but agreement was reached to compensate the Atlantics for the failed game by splitting the October 22 gate with them equally, after expenses.
The games went off beautifully. The Brooklyn game saw a huge crowd: “the estimate of a veteran of the Potomac army, well versed in numbering large bodies of men, was that there was not less that from twelve to fifteen thousand people within the enclosure” with the Atlantics winning 27–17.[fn]New York Sunday Mercury, October 21, 1866. This game is also notable
by including the earliest known called third strike to end an inning. The account in the Philadelphia Sunday Mercury of October 21, 1866 also includes a description of something very like the modern wave: “Directly in front of the Philadelphia delegation a number of planks had been arranged as seats, the same being packed full of interested spectators. Said seats being too low for comfort, several of their occupants arose and indulged themselves in a good stretch, accompanying the action with the yawning sound peculiar under such circumstances. The cue was taken by the opposite side of the field, and soon the entire assemblage became infected, producing a scene ludicrous in the extreme. The satisfaction produced by this little by-play was heartily and good-humoredly manifested by the crowd on the left side of the field waving their handkerchiefs, which was promptly returned by their friends opposite, and soon thousands of pieces of white drapery were floating in the air, creating a sight probably never before witnessed on a similar occasion.”[/fn] The Philadelphia game was thinly attended within the enclosure, as the Athletics experimented with a one dollar admission: a great leap from the usual twenty-five cents. They still attracted about two thousand paying spectators, as well as a large crowd gathered outside the fence. Best of all, the Athletics finally beat the Atlantics, 31–12.[fn]Philadelphia City Item, October 27, 1866; Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, October 28, 1866.[/fn]
This would ordinarily have led to a third, and lucrative, game. But again some combination of miscommunication and bad faith intervened. The Atlantics understood their share from the Philadelphia game to be minus ordinary expenses, while the Athletics understood it to be minus all expenses, including the cost of the new fence, which ran to over half the gate receipts. The Atlantics refused their reduced share, regarding it as a swindle, while the Athletics saw the Atlantics reneging on a straightforward agreement. No third game was played in 1866.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The Campaign of 1867
Once again financial demands overcame all obstacles. The two clubs in 1867 agreed to complete the previous season’s series, followed by a new best-of-three series. Ordinarily the clubs would split three ways the receipts from the third game of a series, with the proprietor of the neutral ground taking a share. The Athletics agreed to compensate the Atlantics with their share from the belated final game. This game was played in Brooklyn on September 16, with the Atlantics winning 28–16. The critics of the Athletics were only too happy to point to the large crowd, and that the Atlantics came out ahead from where they would have, had they been paid in the first place.[fn]Philadelphia City Item, September 14, 1867; New York Sunday Mercury, September 22, 1867.[/fn] The Atlantic victory also had the fortunate effect of avoiding any immediate claim by the Athletics to the championship pennant.
The first game of the new series came off successfully on September 23 in Philadelphia, the Athletics winning soundly by 28–8. The second game was scheduled for the following Monday, September 30, in Brooklyn. The Friday before, they requested the game be postponed, on the grounds that four of their first nine were injured. The Athletics refused to accept the postponement, and showed up in Brooklyn at the appointed time. A fiasco ensued. The Atlantics refused to play their first nine. After much discussion, they instead presented a “muffin” nine: the most inept amateurs on their club. There was a tradition of “muffin matches” which were considered the source of great hilarity. To play a muffin nine in a championship match was a mockery. There are two interpretations of this action. The more usual is that the Atlantics were shaming the Athletics to keep them from playing. There is also a claim that the muffin nine would play so incompetently that they would be incapable of getting the Athletics out (keeping in mind the requirement that the catcher hold a third strike for an out), and therefore of playing five innings before the game would be called on account of darkness. This claim is entirely plausible. Games in theory started at two o’clock, but this one obviously would start much later, and this being late September the sun would set around half past five. There also was ample precedent for clubs stalling, usually to force the score to revert to the last completed inning. So there was a reasonable argument that the Atlantics were not merely shaming the Athletics, but using an underhanded stratagem to avoid a complete game. In the end, the Athletics refused to play, claimed a forfeit, and thereby claimed the championship.[fn]Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, October 6, 1867; New York Sunday Mercury, October 6, 1867.[/fn] (There also was a later assertion that the Atlantics had offered a ball, i.e. a forfeit, which the Athletics refused. This is not credible, as it only arose later, and no one seemed to take it seriously.)
Claiming the championship was one thing, but getting the rest of the baseball fraternity to acknowledge it was quite another. The Athletics filed a complaint with the judiciary committee, demanding a ruling that they had won forfeit. The committee considered the question on October 30 and ruled that the Atlantics had indeed failed in their obligation, and ordered the game to be played within 15 days. The committee admitted that there was no rule granting them such authority, but foreshadowed the much later powers of the Commissioner of Baseball with the argument that “their powers should be liberally construed when a palpable injury may result to the interests of the game.”[fn]New York Sunday Mercury, November 3, 1867; Ball Players Chronicle,
December 19, 1867.[/fn]
This solution might seem as Solomonic. It was actually a repudiation of the Athletics, for the situation had changed. A forfeit as of September 30 would have given the championship to the Athletics. A victory by the Athletics in November would not. To everyone’s surprise the Unions of Morrisania defeated the Atlantics for the second time on October 10, making them the champions. Morrisania was then a village in what is now the Bronx. The Unions played not far from the modern site of Yankee Stadium. The Unions were an old established club that had for years hovered just below the top level. Their winning the championship was not quite scandalous, but it was widely regarded as something of a lucky fluke. It also rendered any future game between the Atlantics and the Athletics irrelevant, so far as the championship went.
The New York clubs, it is claimed, colluded to steal the championship from Philadelphia. The judiciary committee was dominated by New Yorkers. The ruling was apparently equitable, but not made in a vacuum. The championship had no official standing with the NABBP, but the ruling was made with the full understanding of the championship implications. If the Athletics’ complaint to the committee was justified, they should have been awarded the forfeit. If not, then there was no need to order the game be played. The ruling was crafted, it is charged, to ensure that the championship pennant stayed within the metropolis.
The record of the judiciary committee
The charge of collusion is plausible on its face because the ruling of the judiciary committee seems implausible. This presupposes, however, that the committee would have acted differently had it been a New York club making the charge. Quite the contrary, this would have been very much out of character.
The committee had an inglorious history from its inception, marked mostly by inactivity. In 1867 it had a sizeable docket of eleven cases, both large and small. Most were charges of a club using an ineligible player, usually on the grounds of a violation of the 30-day rule.[fn]Ball Players Chronicle, December 19, 1867.[/fn] Its decisions show an unmistakable pattern. If the defending club was an unimportant one, the ruling might or might not go against it. If the defending club was an important one, some grounds would be found to acquit it, even if the accusing club was also important. So, for example, the minor Chestnut Street Theater Club played a match using two members of the Alert Club, and this game was declared null and void. On the other hand, the charge against the important Excelsior Club of using four players claimed to belong to the Star Club was overturned, with the individuals declared “regular members of the Excelsior Club, within the meaning of the Rules.” It is possible that the evidence in each case supported the conclusion, but it is remarkable how well the conclusions correlate to the status of the defending club. Several cases with important defendants were also dismissed on technicalities, while those with minor defendants were uniformly free from such procedural defects.
The sole exception is a particularly illuminating case. The Unions of Morrisania charged the Mutual Club of New York—one of the top clubs—with playing one Tom Devyr. In 1865 Devyr had been expelled after confessing to accepting a bribe to throw a game with the Eckford Club. In 1867 he was reinstated with the Mutuals, contrary to the NABBP constitution. The committee ducked the issue once on procedural grounds, but when forced to make a decision, ruled against the Mutuals. Both the facts and the law were beyond question. Even at this early date the baseball community recognized the existential threat to the game of corruption by gamblers. This was a situation where the committee had to stand up to a powerful club.
What followed shows the realities of how the NABBP worked. For all that the committee acted like a judicial body, it was in fact a committee tasked to make a report to the convention. The convention as a whole would then accept or reject the report, in whole or in part. The Mutuals undertook a brazen lobbying campaign and used the convention to retry the case. The convention overturned the judiciary committee’s decision by a vote of 451–143, and then promptly passed a motion to reinstate Devyr “in the position he occupied previous to the playing of the Eckford and Mutual match in 1865.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
This repudiation clearly shows the limits of the judiciary committee’s power, and explains its reluctance to take a stand on any less vital issue. It also shows the NABBP devolving into a banana republic, with different de facto rules for powerful clubs than for weak ones.
In light of this reality, it is clear that the judiciary committee could not possibly have awarded a forfeit to the Athletics, and with it the championship. This would have outraged both the Atlantics and the Unions. It would also have offended the wider baseball fraternity by moving the championship contest from the playing field to the meeting room. None of this has anything to do with civic rivalry. It would have been the same had the dispute been between two New York clubs.
It is also clear that the committee believed that the Athletics had the law on their side, if not political realities. They had ample room to rule in the Atlantics’ favor, in that the Atlantics had in fact presented nine players. The order that the game be played shows that the committee agreed that presenting a muffin nine did not fulfill the club’s obligation. This order was the best outcome that the Athletics could realistically hope for. If they were cheated, it was by circumstances rather than any sort of conspiracy.
And the Athletics finally win the championship
The transformation of baseball from an amateur social exercise to a business took a decade to sort out. The story of the 1867 championship takes place early in the process. The business of baseball needed new rules for how clubs would interact. These new rules were not yet worked out, and no one really knew what the rules were.
The final game of 1867 was never played. Both clubs ignored the committee’s order. The championship campaign of 1868 was even more convoluted. (An article could well be written titled “Did New York Steal the Championship of 1868 from Philadelphia?”) The championship system was coming apart. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were clearly the best club in the country in 1869, but did not bother with the notional championship. That year the NABBP bowed to the inevitable and allowed open professionalism. The professional clubs in 1871 split from the NABBP to form the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players which established the first official national championship and the modern scheme of member clubs playing each other a fixed number of matches.[fn]This is still reflected in the official rules, which somewhat confusingly refer to “championship games” and the “championship series” in what is otherwise universally called the “regular season.”[/fn]
This was the final era for the old clubs. New clubs, founded as joint stock corporations, were taking over. The old social-turned-professional clubs tried to adapt, but had too much institutional inertia to keep up. None survived the 1870s. The Atlantics faded fast, and stumbled through the 1875 season before disappearing.
The Athletics won their championship in 1871, making them the first official national champions of baseball. This was the high water mark for the club. They held out long enough to become a charter member when the National League formed in 1876, but they were on their last legs. They could not complete the season, and were expelled from the league. A derivative Athletics organization wheezed on a bit longer, but did not see the end of the decade.
RICHARD HERSHBERGER researches and writes about early baseball up to 1885. He has published in “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game,” as well as SABR publications, and has both presented and served as a panelist at the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Base Ball Conference. His particular interests are the organizational development of baseball, and early baseball in Philadelphia.