The National League’s First Batting Champ

This article was written by John Duxbury

This article was published in the 1976 Baseball Research Journal


The National League in its initial season of 1876 was dominated by three players. George Washington Bradley pitched all of St. Louis’ games, winning 45 and losing 19. He hurled 16 shutouts and had the best ERA. His chief hurling rival was the famous Al Spalding of Chicago, who had a record of 46 and 12. He pitched for a better club and Chicago won the pennant.

One reason Chicago was a better club was because of the batting and all-around play of Roscoe Conkling (Ross) Barnes. He topped the league with a lofty mark of .429, according to the Macmillan Encyclopedia. He finished more than 60 points ahead of his nearest rival, and also led in runs, hits, doubles, and triples. He also hit the new league’s first home run, connecting in the fifth inning off William “Cherokee” Fisher at Cincinnati on May 2, 1876.

Although Barnes was considered one of the game’s early greats by many authorities, he isn’t a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Barnes probably would have been elected to the Hall of Fame, but a technicality makes him ineligible. Hall of Fame rules stipulate that a player must have played in the majors for ten seasons to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. He was not a manager or an executive like Spalding Who could qualify on other grounds.

Barnes’ record included only nine seasons recognized by the Hall of Fame as major league seasons – five in the National Association (1871-1875) and four in the National League (1876, 1877, 1879 and 1881).

Barnes, a second baseman and a shortstop, started his baseball career in Rockford, Ill., on a youth team, the Pioneers, which also included Al Spalding.

In 1866, Barnes and Spalding were invited to join the Forest Citys of Rockford, a team which went on to become one of the nation’s best. An indication of the baseball skills displayed by Barnes as a youth is his age when he was asked to join the Forest City club. He was born May 8, 1850, which means he was only 16 through most of his first season with an adult team.

In 1871, Barnes joined Boston of the National Association. In five seasons with Boston, he compiled a .379 batting average, won league batting titles in 1873 (.402) and 1875 (.372) and led the league in both hits and runs in 1871, 1873 and 1875. (Some sources also credit Barnes with winning the National Association batting title in 1872.) Boston won the National Association title in each of his last four years with the Red Stockings (1872, 1873, 1874 and 1875).

In 1876, Barnes, Spalding, Cal McVey and Deacon White, called “The Big Four,” jumped to Chicago for the first National League sea son. The four were largely responsible for Chicago winning the first NL pennant, the fifth consecutive pennant-winner on which Barnes was a regular.

The 1877 season marked the start of the decline of Barnes’ baseball career. A rules change prior to the 1877 season helped reduce his batting mark to .272. Prior to 1877, any ball that hit fair and then rolled foul was considered a fair ball.

In The National League Story, the late baseball historian, Lee Allen, wrote: “Barnes made a specialty of fair-foul hits, many of them bunts; after the rule was changed, he operated at a disadvantage.”

Barnes was also bothered by illness in the 1877 season, and he played in only 22 of Chicago’s 59 games. In his final two NL seasons, he hit .266 for Cincinnati in 1879 and .271 for Boston in 1881.

The record books which show that Barnes won three (or four) batting titles and played on five pennant winners in nine major league seasons indicate he was a quality player. However the testimony of his contemporaries is even more impressive.

Al Spalding, a long-time teammate of Barnes, in his book, America’s National Game, published in 1911, called Barnes “in my opinion one of the best all around players the game has produced.”

Another former Barnes teammate and opponent, Adrian (Cap) Anson, wrote in his autobiography, A Ball Player’s Career, published in 1900:

 

“Ross Barnes was one of the best ball players that ever wore a shoe,

and I would like to have nine men just like him right now under my

management. He was an all-around man, and I do not know of a single

man on the diamond at the present time that I regard as his superior.”

 

Baseball writer Sam Crane, who saw Barnes play, wrote a series on the “Fifty Greatest Ball Players in History.” In the story on Barnes in the series, in the New York Journal of December 26, 1911, he wrote:

“Ross Barnes, in the opinion of the players who played on the same clubs with him, and also those who were his opponents, was the best second baseman the game has produced, and there are, too, many old-time players and fans who have kept in touch with baseball for forty years or so, who still think that Baines has never been excelled as a guardian of the keystone sack, even by the many stars in the position who have been before the public since.”

Crane’s lengthy article on Barnes went on to praise the former second baseman with quotes from former players. It also had a reference to his speed on the bases:

“Harry Wright put Barnes to lead off in the batting order, both for his ability with the `wagon tongue’ and his speed on the bases. Probably Barnes could get to first base oftener than any other player on the Boston team, not excepting the great George Wright.”

In making note of Barnes’ death in 1915, the 1916 edition of Spalding’s Official Baseball Record said Barnes was “by many considered the best second baseman in the history of Base Ball.”

In the two-page obituary of Barnes in the 1916 Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide, Barnes was called “one of the greatest ball players who ever lived.” The obituary also said:

“Old Base Ball players and old managers, who were expert in their judgment, considered Ross Barnes to be the most expert second baseman who had ever played the position.

“Barnes was not only a good fielder of wide range, but he was a sure fielder. He played the hardest hits with so much ease that they looked easy. Almost every second baseman, who, at some time, commands so much attention that he is esteemed to be a leader, excels in some one characteristic or another. Either he is a great thrower or fields a ball better on his right side than on his left. Such was not the case with Barnes. He was almost Base Ball perfect in everything and as expert with one arm as with the other. If a one-hand stop was to be made it seemed as if he could grasp a ball as easily with his left hand as with his right.”

The History of Baseball by Allison Danzig and Joe Reichler quotes former Boston Globe sports editor Walter Barnes in 1936 as saying that George Wright, Ross Barnes, Cal McVey and Adrian Anson were most frequently mentioned as the best players of the pre-1900 era.

Walter Barnes was a fan in the National Association days, became a sports writer in the 1880’s and was named to a committee to select the five greatest pre-1900 players for inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Another item in The History of Baseball:

 W.B. Hanna of the New York Tribune, in naming an all-time team in 1926, picked Eddie Collins at second base, but, he added, “Lajoie and Ross Barnes can be considered.”

The case for Ross Barnes as one of baseball’s early greats seems very solid. Perhaps as a gesture in honor of the 100th birthday of the National League the Baseball Hall of Fame could waive its ten-year rule and induct Barnes. It seems only fair that the rule shouldn’t be applied to players who started their careers before 1871.

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