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"Most of the managers are lifetime .220 hitters. For years pitchers have been getting these managers out 75% of the time and that's why they don't like us."
--Bill 'Spaceman' Lee, Boston Red Sox pitcher

 

National Association

By Patrick Mondout

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.

At a glance...
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION
League Facts
Established March 1871
Disbanded early 1876
Presidents James W. Kerns 1871
Robert W. Ferguson 18721875
Clubs
Baltimore Canaries (18721874)
Baltimore Marylands (1873)
Boston Red Stockings (18711875)
Brooklyn Atlantics (18721875)
Brooklyn Eckfords (1872)
Chicago White Stockings (1871)
Chicago White Stockings (18741875)
Cleveland Forest Cities (18711872)
Elizabeth Resolutes (1873)
Fort Wayne Kekiongas (1871)
Hartford Dark Blues (18741875)
Keokuk Westerns (1875)
Middletown Mansfields (1872)
New Haven Elm Citys (1875)
New York Mutuals (18711875)
Philadelphia Athletics (18711875)
Philadelphia White Stockings (1873)/
  aka Pearls (1874)/
  aka Phillies (1875)
Philadelphia Centennials (1875)
Rockford Forest Citys (1871)
St. Louis Brown Stockings (1875)
St. Louis Red Stockings (1875)
Troy Haymakers (18711872)
Washington Olympics (18711872)
Washington Nationals (18721873; 1875)
Champions
1871  Philadelphia Athletics  21-7
1872  Boston Red Stockings  39-8
1873  Boston Red Stockings  43-16
1874  Boston Red Stockings  52-18
1875  Boston Red Stockings  71-8
Batting Champions
1871  Long Levi Meyerle  .492
1872  Cap Anson  .455
1873  Ross Barnes  .456
1874  Long Levi Meyerle  .401
1875  Deacon White  .367

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 another. 

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. 

See also: National Association Stadiums, Other Defunct Leagues.

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, was created.

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?) 

Championships

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.

Team Names

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).

Adding to the confusion (both at the time and now) is the Forest City team. I mean the Forest City Base Ball Club of Cleveland and not, of course, the Forest City Base Ball Club of Rockford. And the contemporary plural form was the Forest Citys, not the Forest Cities. You get the idea.

The Long and Winding Road

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:

National League (1876-)
American Association (1882-1891)
Union Association (1884)
Players League (1890)
American League (1901-)
Federal League (1914-1915) 

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 sign Cal McVey, Deacon White, Ross 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 was.

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.


National Association sources/bibliography:
Baseball: The Early Years by Harold Seymour.
Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search For The Roots Of The Game by David Block.
Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime during the Civil War by George B. Kirsch.
Blackguards and Red Stockings by William J. Ryczek
The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 by Marshall D. Wright.
Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball by Warren Goldstein.
When Johnny Came Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom, 1865-1870 by William J. Ryczek

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.

General Baseball History sources/bibliography:
Baseball: A History of America's Game
by Benjamin G. Rader.
Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns (PBS DVD)
The Formation, Sometimes Absorption and Mostly Inevitable Demise of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations, 1871 to Present by David Pietrusza.
The Great 19th Century Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, 2nd Edition by David Nemec.
Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908 by Dean A. Sullivan.
Middle Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1900-1948 by Dean A. Sullivan.
Late Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball 1945-1972 by Dean A. Sullivan
Past Time: Baseball as History by Jules Tygiel
America's National Game: Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning, Evolution, Development and Popularity of Baseball by Albert Spalding
Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia by John Thorn, et al.

 



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HULBERT

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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