The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players,
better known as the National Association (NA), was founded in on
March 4, 1871 and lasted through the 1875 season, after which its stronger
teams created the National
League. It is regarded as baseball's first professional league and by
most historians to be the first major league.
The roots of the NA stretch back to at least the 1857 formation of the National
Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). That association was the
baseball association in its time and was witness to an explosion of
interest in the game. But it was an amateur organization. By the end of
the Civil War, the rules were increasing bent as civic pride caused
organizations to offer either employment at jobs in which the player did
not actually have to show up, a portion of the gate receipts, or even
under-the-table payments to induce players to perform for one team or
The NABBP finally addressed the question of professionalism at its
annual meeting in December of 1868, creating a professional class within
its ranks. This was a great first step towards what we now call
"major league" baseball, but only a first step.
As the tensions within what had been an amateur organization grew, some
of the organizers of professional teams eventually decided they needed a
league of their own.
On March 3, 1871, a meeting was held a the new association, the be
called the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players,
Teams that wished to play for the NA's championship needed only to pay
the modest $10 fee and agree to play other such teams five times each.
This explains how Keokuk, Iowa and Middleton,
Connecticut once had major league teams. There was also no restriction
on how many teams from a particular city could enter (there were three
teams in Philadelphia in 1875). Since teams shared gate receipts, the lack
of territorial control and willingness to allow very small towns join were
really bad ideas. (If you are the Brooklyn Atlantics, how much do you look
forward to a 35 hour train ride to Keokuk to play a team which will share
gate receipts amounting perhaps to less than your hotel bills?)
A "whip pennant" was awarded to the team with the most
victories at the end of the season.1 The
awarding of the championship pennant was fairly straightforward each year
except 1871, when the Bostons and Athletic each finished with 21
victories. As the Red Stockings had three additional losses, the Athletic
were awarded the pennant. The Harry Wright's Red Stockings got their
revenge by easily winning the next four pennants. So easily, in fact, that
it proved the league's undoing.
We all have our pet peeves. I hate to see a man with an Ivy League
education purposefully using a non-word like "dudn't" in order
to sound like "one of the people." Others hate to see me refer
to the Athletic as the Philadelphia
Athletics or even the Athletics of Philadelphia.
Without given this subject more attention than it deserves, let me just
point out that team names at this time in our history were unusual by
present day standards. First of all most of the nicknames of the 19th
Century (and well into the 20th) were largely an invention of fans and
(mostly) sportswriters. The St. Louis Brown
Stockings club was not officially called the Brown Stockings
(they were actually the St. Louis Club of St. Louis - a lousy name but
certainly more accurate and less sleazy than the "Los
Angeles Angels of Anaheim"), but sportswriters and fans called
them the Brown Stockings due to the color of part of their uniforms.2
Where a National Association team actually had an obvious nickname, it
was taken in the singular. For example, the team from Fort Wayne, Indiana
was known officially as the Kekionga Base Ball Club
of Fort Wayne. You might see them in the standings listed as
"Fort Wayne" or perhaps Kekionga. It is natural for us moderns
to want to call them the Fort Wayne Kekiongas (assuming we can even
pronounce the latter) and you can in fact find many examples in the 19th
Century of such pluralisms.
Though it may annoy some to no end, I have decided to use both the
contemporary and modern version of team names throughout. I will use the
modern version most of the time and generally will only use the longwinded
or archaic version when it seems appropriate to do so (such as on a team's
page in the At A Glace box).
Take a look at that list of teams on the top-right of this page. Can
you guess which two teams still exist today? I would suspect that most
would guess the Boston Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings while
others might guess the Philadelphia Athletics. The Athletics were dropped
from the National League in 1876 (see below), so its not them. But for
those of you who correctly guessed the Red and White Stockings, did you
assume these were now the Atlanta Braves
and Chicago Cubs respectively?
The White Stockings are not the same "franchise" that had to
disband after the Great Chicago Fire, but have been around since 1874
while the Braves have been going strong since 1871.
Major League or Not?
When the folks at MacMillan were contemplating their historic Baseball
Encyclopedia in the late sixties, Major League Baseball decided to form a
special committee to make some "official" decisions regarding
some of the sloppy record keeping of the past 100 years of professional
baseball. Among the many conclusions that they reached was which leagues
of the past would be regarded as officially being "major"
leagues. Here are those leagues:
You'll notice that they did not consider the National Association
(1871-1875) to be a major league. The decision was reached over three
decades ago, and much work in uncovering the the forgotten first century
of baseball has been undertaken since then. It is quite possible that a
committee formed by MLB today would come to a different conclusion.
Ultimately it is not up to MLB to make such decisions, but rather those
of us who write about baseball history. The leagues may arbitrarily make
such decisions and call them official (and we'll dutifully record them),
but the rest of us are free to come to our own conclusions (at least those
of us who do not pay a fee to MLB in order to call our work
"official" are free to do so). I have indeed come to a different
conclusion than MLB on status of the National Association. In my view the
NA was clearly the first major league and we do include as much
information here on it as is possible.3
Death of the National Association
The National Association was filled with revolvers (not the type that
have been used to kill millions, but rather players who jump from one team
to the next - whoever will pay the most), gambling, poor management, a
lack of competition for the championship, and a lack of centralized
authority that could, among other things, enforce a schedule. The National
League was formed to replace the NA by well-intentioned men who simply
wanted to make the game of baseball better for all of us.
Or so some would have you believe. There is some truth in all of this.
The NA was an association formed by the players and, as such, was lax with
regard to team's rights versus player's rights in contracts. The NA
demanded little more than a $10 entry fee and your agreement that you
would play travel to each of the other teams and play them at least five
times. And while only one team seems to have had trouble with the entry
fee, a number failed to finish their schedules and were not punished. The
Boston team of Harry Wright won as many games as the Athletic in 1871 and
won the championship every other year culminating with a ridiculous 71-8
record (undefeated at home) driving down attendance since everyone knew
which team was going to with the championship.
What the formation of the National League was really about was
organizers getting control of the game from the players. When William
Hulbert, the well-healed owner of the Chicago White Stockings attempted to
Barnes, and Al
Spalding off the Boston Red Stockings, the National Association
threatened action. No matter. Hulbert started his own league (the
National) and correctly deduced that other team organizers would follow
suit and that players would go where they always had - wherever the money
The league restricted its membership, set up territorial rights, made
player contracts less pliable, doubled the ticket price to 50¢ and set up
regular schedules at the beginning of each season.4
With all the best teams and players in the newly-formed National League,
the National Association's days as the preeminent professional baseball
league in the land were over.
NOTES: 1. Whip-pennant is what they called the flag that
was awarded by the Association and flown (or simply displayed) by the
winner. This was shortened to "pennant" in later years.
2. It also became common to shorten "stockings" to sox. The
St. Louis Red Stockings of 1875 were referred to as the Red Sox by at
least one newspaper. 3. For the record, I agree with the other
conclusions on this matter, notably that the Union Association qualifies
and that the International Association/National Association (1877-1880)
and the American League of 1900 (toughest call) do not qualify. 4. A pair of new NL franchises seemed to think the old NA rules
still applied. Both the Athletics and Mutuals decided to cut their losses
at the end of the 1876 season and not make their final trips out west. It
was expensive for teams to travel across the country and the only fair way
to handle a schedule is to demand that team A visits team B and that team
B visits team A, even if it is not financially sound decision for team B
to make that last trip (otherwise team A gets cheated). For their actions
(or rather lack of action), they were kicked out of the National League.
David Nemec, the tireless 19th Century Baseball
researcher, has also written a novel called Early
Dreams, which takes place during this era and features real-life characters
such as Cap Anson, George Wright, and Henry Lucas.
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The 1888 Spalding Guide credits William Hulbert as the 'father of the National League' for his role in 1876 in ending the NA and establishing the NL. He may be the father of the NL, but he destroyed the NA.
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