The Chicago National League Champions of 1876

This article was written by Art Ahrens

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

In 1876, the United States was a century old and had 38 states. Grant was president, and Custer met his end at Little Big Horn. Alexander Graham Bell was demonstrating his telephone, but Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb was still three years away.

In Chicago, horse drawn streetcars rattled along cobblestone streets in front of wooden sidewalks and gas street lights. Nearly half of the city’s 400,000 residents were foreign born, including many Irish, Germans, Jews, Czechs, Poles and Swedes. Other ethnic groups had not yet arrived in significant numbers. And in their first year of existence, the Chicago Cubs — then called the White Stockings — won the National League’s first pennant.

Technically, the team’s ancestry can be traced back a few years earlier. Following the example set by the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Chicago formed its first professional baseball club in 1870. Since the team’s uniforms included white hose, they were called the White Stockings. When the National Association of Professional Baseball Players was formed in 1871, the Chicago team entered and was in close running for the championship until the Chicago Fire destroyed its ball park, situated at Michigan and Randolph Streets. Forced to play their last three games on the road, the White Stockings lost the pennant.

As Chicago recovered from the blaze, the White Stockings lapsed into semi-professional status for the next two years, then re-entered the Association in 1874. During 1874 and `75, the team was strictly of second division status, and the National Association — professional in name only — also became a joke as betting scandals turned the public mood into one of disgust. On February 2, 1876, the National Association was disbanded in favor of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, largely through the efforts of Chicago club president William Hulbert, who had purchased the team the previous June. The Chicago club was totally re-organized also; hence the Chicago National League Ball Club, as such, dates from 1876. Since the nickname White Stockings was retained, the Cubs of that era were actually Chicago’s first “White Sox” team. (The nickname Cubs was not coined until 1902 and it took several years before it was universally accepted.)

In that far away and long forgotten age, the White Stockings used only eleven players for the entire season: Albert G. Spalding, pitcher and manager; James “Deacon” White, catcher; Cal McVey, first base; Ross Barnes, second base; John Peters, shortstop; Adrian Anson, third base; John Glenn, leftfield; Paul Hines, centerfield; Bob Addy and Oscar Bielaski, rightfield, and Fred Andrus, substitute. None of them were native Chicagoans and only Spalding, who hailed from Byron, was a native of Illinois.

McVey doubled as pitcher during Spalding’s “rest” days at first base or in the outfield. Spalding, soon to organize the sporting goods firm which still bears his name, later became the club’s owner and president. Anson, known to history as “Cap”, became the team’s first baseman and manager in 1879 (he reigned for 19 years, still the Chicago record) and, like Spalding, was eventually elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Addy is often credited with having invented the base slide a decade earlier. Bielaski was the first professional player of Polish descent.

The game these men played bore little resemblance to that of today. Contests were performed exclusively in the daytime, and never on Sundays, which was forbidden by league rules. Games generally began at 3:30 in the afternoon and rarely lasted over two hours, if that long. Double-decked steel grandstands were unheard of, much less domed enclosures or artificial turf.

The pitching distance was a scant 45 feet, which enabled a strong-armed hurler to go 500 or more innings a year and win 40 or more games. Working within the confines of a 4′ by 6′ “box” rather than atop a mound, the pitcher could do whatever he desired with the ball, although trick pitches such as the spit ball, the shine ball, and the emery ball were actually not invented until the turn of the century. Generally, one baseball would remain in use for the entire game, growing dirtier and more raggedy by the inning. Another factor to the pitcher’s advantage was the absence of a balk rule — he could motion to any base without having to follow through.

His pitching, however, was restricted to underhand deliveries, while the batter had the option of calling for a high or low ball. The official National League rules of 1876 stated that “the ball must be delivered to the bat with the arm swinging nearly perpendicular at the side of the body, and the hand in swinging forward must pass below the hip.” An overhand pitch was considered “an unfair delivery”. Foul balls were not counted as strikes, but a foul caught on the first bounce was an out. Nine balls constituted a walk to first base, which was then counted as a time at bat. A fly ball which bounced over the outfield fence was allowed to be a home run, although this seldom occurred. Foul lines were marked only from first and third base into rightfield and leftfield, respectively, rather than from home plate, which then had four sides rather than five, as it does today. Substitutions in the lineup were allowed only until the fourth inning.

Uniforms and equipment were different also. The baseball, containing a solid rubber center, was a “dead” one, making home runs a scarce sight. Bats were heavy, usually weighing 45 to 50 ounces. When a team took the field, the only man wearing a glove was the catcher, whose “glove” was often little more than a fingerless padding strapped across the palm of his pitching hand. Other than that, the catcher’s only protection was his mask, chest protectors and shin guards having not yet been invented. Small wonder the receiver caught the ball on the bounce 10 or 12 feet behind the plate rather than in the batter’s box.

The typical uniform of 1876 (and for over a quarter-century thereafter) consisted of long-sleeved, wide-collared jerseys which were laced up the center, heavy woolen socks, and knickers which extended just below the kneecap. Flat-topped caps, wide belts, and high-topped shoes extending an inch or more above the ankles rounded out the field attire, and it was not uncommon for players to wear neckties with their uniforms as well. Batting helmets were non-existent. Most players also wore handle-bar mustaches, so perhaps times have not changed that greatly after all.

With only one umpire officiating the game, he could not keep his eye on every move. This made it easy for a baserunner to “cut” second base on his way to third if the arbitrator had his back turned. When such an incident occurred, it was one team’s word against the other’s. Unless he had seen the runner “cutting” the base himself, the umpire usually gave the verdict to the home team, fearing intimidation by the local mob. Physical abuse from players and fans was part of the umpire’s life in those times. In order to survive, he had to be a pugilist as well as a decision maker. Shouting bouts, shoving matches, and fist fights between opposing teams were just as frequent. This rowdiness, which grew worse after 1890, reigned supreme well into the 20th century.

It was in this youthful, undisciplined atmosphere that the Chicago White Stockings and the National League began operations over a century ago. Other clubs in the league included the New York Mutuals, the Cincinnati Red Stockings (sometimes abbreviated to Reds), the Athletics of Philadelphia (listed as Athletics in the standings), the Hartford Blues, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, the Boston Red Stockings, and Louisville — simply called the Louisvilles. The Boston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia clubs were no relation to the latter day Red Sox, Browns, and Athletics of the American League (founded 1901), their similarity in nicknames not withstanding.

The 1876 schedule called for 70 games, with each team meeting its seven opponents ten times apiece. The White Stockings played their season opener at Louisville, April 25, with Albert Spalding scattering seven hits to blank the southerners, 4-0. It was the first shutout game pitched in the new league, with the result that shutouts were known as “Chicago games” for the next 30 years. When a team was shut out, it was “Chicagoed.”

Another “Chicago first” came on May 2, when Ross Barnes, in the Chicago Tribune‘s words, “made the finest hit of the game, straight down the left field to the carriages, for a clean home run.” The first round trip blast in the National League history, it was one of 39 hit in the circuit that year.

After winning their first four contests, the White Stockings were cooled off in St. Louis May 5, when the Brown Stockings edged them, 1-0, behind George “Grin” Bradley, who went on to win 45 games for the season, 16 of them shutouts. Since Chicago had been shut out, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat gloated that “A Chicago chicken comes home to roost.”

With their record standing at six wins and one loss, the White Stockings played their first home game May 10, as Spalding white-washed the Cincinnati Reds, 6-0. A crowd estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 witnessed the contest, performed in a single-decked, tiny wooden structure bounded by State Street on the east, Dearborn on the west, 23rd Street on the north, and 24th on the south. A portion of the outfield fence had been blown down in a terrific storm a few days earlier, and was only partially repaired for the opener. But the team was victorious and the Chicago Tribune boasted the following morning that “It looks as if the Chicago club management has done at last — had selected a club to fitly represent this city, and therefore to excel all other clubs in the West, if not in the country.” Third baseman Adrian Anson, then 24 years old, was called “the sure-handed Iowa infant.” Twenty years later, the press would affectionately refer to him as “Pop.”

With their record standing at 10-2, the Chicago upstarts began their first Eastern tour May 23. At Boston May 30, a crowd of 14,000 attended the first Chicago-Boston contest of the year. It was a “blood match” in every sense of the word. Four Chicago players — Spalding, Barnes, McVey and White — had played for Boston in 1875 and had been the deciding factor in that club’s winning its fourth straight championship. When word had leaked out to the press in July 1875 that the four had signed with Chicago for the following year, they were promptly labeled “seceders” still an insulting epithet barely a decade after the Civil War. As Anson recalled years later in his autobiography, A Ballplayer’s Career:

. . . long before the hour set for calling the game had arrived, the people were wending their way in steady streams toward the scene of action. Every kind of conveyance that could be used was pressed into service, from the lumbering stage coach that had been retired from active to the coach-and-four of the millionaire. Streetcars were jammed to suffocation and even seats in an express wagon were sold at a premium.

. . . it seemed to me as if all Boston had determined to be present on that occasion . . . . finally it was found necessary to close the games in order to keep room enough on the grounds to play the game on. With the gates closed, the crowd began to swarm over the fences and the special policemen employed there had their hands more than full of trouble.

The “Big Four” were given a great ovation . . . and of course the whole team shared in the honors. . . The game that followed was played under difficulties, but thanks to the excellent pitching of Spalding and the fine support given to him by the entire team we won by a score of 5 to 1, and the Hubbites were sorer than ever over the Big four’s defection.

Chicago went on to take nine out of ten from Boston in `76, much to the chagrin of Eastern sportswriters.

By July 1, Chicago had won 25 and lost 5, holding first place by a 1½ game lead over Hartford. The White Stockings’ fury reached its peak between July 20 and 27, when they scored 88 runs in four games, a record which has withstood the passage of a century. The Scores were: July 20, Chicago 18, Louisville 0; July 22, Chicago 30, Louisville 7; July 25, Chicago 23, Cincinnati 3; July 27, Chicago 17, Cincinnati 3.

Imposing as these figures were, they appear less impressive when viewed against the reality that of the 88 runs scored only 37 were earned. In the July 22 contest alone, Louisville was charged with 37 “errors,” the main reason being that the fielders wore no gloves. Also, the scorekeepers of that era did not consider any ball to be “too hot to handle.” But whether the scoring record was dubious or not, Chicago had won, which was all that mattered in the standings.

As the season progressed, the White Stockings continued their winning pace — with Hartford and St. Louis snapping at their heels all the way. On August 2, the Tribune remarked that “the cover was knocked off the ball.” These words have since become a cliche, but at that time they had a literal meaning, since “a new one was substituted.”

By August 22, the Tribune felt it safe to say that the White Stockings were “the strongest nine ever gathered,” in spite of their having forfeited a game to St. Louis the day before. The sting of the forfeit was erased five days later when Chicago crushed the Missouri team, 23-2.

On September 26 the White Stockings clinched the pennant by edging Hartford, 7-6, at Chicago, surviving Hartford’s four-run uprising in the ninth inning. The Tribune proudly — if not a bit self-righteously — announced that “they won everything if they won, and lost nothing to speak of if they lost. But they won and now, despite every combination, every abuse, every unfairness, they have played themselves fairly to the front, and so cleanly that nothing can throw off the grip they have on the flag.” Such was Chicago’s way of thumbing its nose at the East and its previous dominance of baseball. The pennant had been a signal victory for the prestige of teams in Chicago and the Midwest.

Not surprisingly in that Victorian era, the papers made no mention of any “victory celebration.” But ballplayers were human even then, so there was probably plenty of liquor in the Chicago clubhouse that night.

After beating Hartford again the next day, the White Stockings finished the season with 52 wins and 14 losses for a won and lost percentage of .788. Since the flag had already been clinched, four previously postponed games were not made up. The only team to hold the season’s edge on them were the St. Louis Brown Stockings, who beat Chicago six times out of ten.

Individual performances were equally as impressive. Albert Spalding won 47 and lost 13 to lead the league with a .783 percentage. His win total also led the league, while his 529 innings pitched ranked third.

Ross Barnes, whose .403 batting average topped the league, also led in hits (138), doubles (21), triples (14), and runs scored (126). His stock in trade was the “fair-foul” hit, which was a legal safety only for that season. Any ball which bounced in fair territory when first hit, even though it might roll foul going down the baseline, was ruled a “fair-foul” single if the batter made it safely to first base. Even the partisan Chicago press regarded some of Barnes’ hits to be “questionable”, and that type of hit was reduced to an ordinary foul the following year. Deprived of his livelihood, Barnes dropped to .272 in 1877, and never again crossed the .300 mark.

Other .300 hitters in the lineup were Peters (.348), McVey (.345), Anson (.343), White (.335), and Hines (.330). (In 1976 — and for that year only base on balls was counted as a time at bat without a hit. Under today’s rules, the averages would have been Barnes .429, Anson .356, Peters .351, McVey .347, White .343, and Hines .331.) The Tribune was especially lavish in its praise of Anson, speaking highly of “the nervy, hard, hang-on, stubborn grit of that rugged, skillful, and intense player, Anson, who has won more games this year than any other man in the business.”

The laudatory words were not wasted. Anson went on to collect 3,041 hits with a lifetime batting average of .333. Appointed manager in 1879, he led the White Stockings to five pennants during the 1880’s. By 1905, he was elected City Clerk of Chicago. He died there at age 70 in 1922.

In the time that has passed since the White Stockings took the National League’s first pennant, several generations of players have come and gone. Catcher Jim White, the last survivor of the 1876 Chicago champions, died in 1939 at age 91, and everyone who saw them perform is also long dead. Today’s Cub fans need not be reminded that their favorites have not finished on top since 1945. But in 1876, at least, Chicago was baseball’s “First City.”