Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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Philly's First Baseball Champions

With Phillies mania at high tide, and hopes for a second World Series win since 2008 rampant, it might be an interesting time to look back on the 1871 Philadelphia Athletics, champions of America's first proifessional baseball league, the National Association.

Philly's First Baseball Champions

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By Frank Fitzpatrick , Inquirer Staff Writer

 Their playing field has long since vanished, the once pastoral site at 25th and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia now occupied by a school and rows of brick homes.

 No one seems to know where to find the pennant they won and boldly displayed in a saloon - much to the outrage of proper Philadelphians who already had assigned baseball players a position in the social order somewhere beneath vagrants.

 And there probably aren't many present-day Philadelphians who even know that the 1871 Philadelphia Athletics were the first champions of the professional baseball world, especially now that the team's linear descendants -- in name anyway -- the American League's Athletics, have been gone from the city for more than 50 years.

 But there they are, on Page 43 of the Baseball Encyclopedia, forever recognized as the first champions of America's first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

 *

 It was St. Patrick's Day 1871 , and in the streets of New York, thousands of Irish immigrants danced and paraded. Inside Collier's Cafe at 13th and Broadway, James N. Kerns of the Philadelphia Athletics and officials from nine other leading amateur clubs gathered in a back room and discussed the subject that had brought them together - formation of the nation's first professional baseball league.

 Baseball had been played at the amateur club level in America for about 25 years. But in the preceding decade, at the highest levels of a game that was widely viewed as an innocent pastime for rural children and urban gentlemen, the sport had deteriorated into chaos.

 Led by Al Reach, one of the era's top hitters and a future Philadelphia business tycoon, many of the best club players had begun offering themselves to the highest bidders. Rapidly growing cities, anxious to boost themselves in any way possible, were more than willing to stock their local teams with the best players money could buy.

 These first professional players had no loyalties, no reserve clause binding them to a single team, and they continually jumped from one club to another. Technically, teams in the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players were not permitted to employ any professionals, but by 1870 that was a rule almost everyone had learned to disregard - unless the professional player showed up on a team your club was opposing.

 There were other factors causing the decline of the amateur game: Gambling and cheating among players was widespread, and the era's only all-professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, could beat the knickers off all the amateur clubs that challenged them.

 A graphic example of the problems that confronted the amateur association came on July 5, 1869, when 15,000 fans - probably the largest ever assembled for a baseball game up to that time - crowded Brooklyn's Capitoline Grounds for a game between their city's Atlantics and the Athletics of Philadelphia.

 One of the Brooklyn players recognized Philadelphia infielder John Radcliff (who would go on to be the regular shortstop for the 1871 Athletics) and knew that he had once been paid to play for another Philadelphia team. At first, Brooklyn refused to play. But not wanting to disappoint the huge crowd, team officials decided that the game would be played but would not count in the amateur league's standings.

 Instead of placating the crowd, the decision infuriated fans who had paid 50 cents to see what now was a meaningless game. They not only left the field en masse, but boycotted the next two games between the teams that weekend.

 With events like that as a backdrop, and after witnessing the financial and on-field success of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, representatives of the leading amateur teams decided the time was ripe for the formation of a professional league.

 

 Kerns was elected president at the New York meeting, and although membership was open to any team willing to put up a $10 entrance fee, only 10 teams joined the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. They were the Athletics, Washington Olympics, Washington Nationals, New York Mutuals, the Troy (N.Y.) Haymakers, the Boston Red Stockings, the Rockford (Ill.) Forest Citys, the Cleveland Forest Citys, the Chicago White Stockings and the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Kekiongas.

 The men established uniform rules of play and decided that each team would play a five-game series with every other club between May 1 and Nov. 1. The team that won the most series would be declared winners of the United States Base Ball Professional Championship.

 *

 Philadelphia in 1871 was a city at the forefront of America's industrial revolution. Its population was swelling rapidly with European immigrants (between the censuses of 1870 and 1880, it increased from 674,000 to 847,000). Many of these new citizens worked in the factories that were sprouting up in the city's river wards. They toiled long hours for poor pay and, in the little leisure time afforded them, enjoyed outdoor activities, especially baseball.

 Many upper-class Philadelphians, meanwhile, enjoyed cricket at the Philadelphia and Germantown Cricket Clubs. They found baseball similar to their own game and intriguing, both to play and watch.

 But the rest of blue-blood Philadelphia turned up its collective nose at the sport. The Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, one of the few newspapers of the day that devoted much space to sporting events, characterized these powerful citizens who opposed the game as "dyspeptic opponents of physical improvement. "

 Dozens of amateur clubs representing Philadelphia neighborhoods, factories and churches had been competing since the 1840s. The Athletics were founded in 1860 (making them the oldest continuously operated team in existence). Almost right away they started to attract the city's elite players, and there were many of them.

 Of the more than 300 men who played in the professional association during its five-year history, approximately 15 percent were from Philadelphia. So fervent was Philadelphia's love for the game that by 1890 a national publication termed it "the best baseball city in the world. "

 As a result, the founding of a professional league that would crown a true United States champion was met with great excitement in the city. Once the season began, several thousand Philadelphians regularly trekked to the picturesque little field at 25th and Jefferson, where they paid 50 cents to attend the Athletics' 3 p.m. games. (The Athletics played 66 games in 1871 , but only 29 counted in the professional league standings, the rest coming against teams of amateurs. )

 Of the Athletics, all but rightfielder George Heubel and Reach, who already had founded in Kensington the sporting goods company that still bears his name, had been born in Philadelphia or Camden, and those two had long lived in the city.

 This strong local connection made the Athletics special in a league whose other teams tended to be rootless all-star aggregates drawn to their respective cities by offers of salaries of about $1,000 a year.

 Still, there was little doubt that the strongest of the National Association teams was the Boston Red Stockings.

 The Boston club was managed by Harry Wright, an English-born former cricket player whom many historians regard as the Father of Professional Baseball. It included several players from Wright's famed Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first all-professional team, which had gone an incredible 57-0 against amateur clubs in 1869.

 The Boston team had such a Cincinnati flavor that it even appropriated the nickname of Red Stockings. Although they finished a close second to Philadelphia in 1871 , the Red Stockings went on to win the next four National Association championships.

 *

 As fate would have it, the Athletics' first league game came against the Red Stockings. On May 1, 1871 , in Boston, the Red Stockings downed the Philadelphians, 11-8, before a crowd of 2,500 who paid 50 cents each for the privilege.

 Boston took the early lead in the standings, and when the Red Stockings made their first visit to Philadelphia on June 26, 5,000 fans were on hand to see the now-hot A's win, 20-8, in a game that took 2 hours and 30 minutes, a little longer than normal for the era.

 Home teams had a distinct advantage even then, especially since travel was a good deal more difficult. For example, one road trip saw the Athletics leave Philadelphia on July 11, play in Pittsburgh on July 12, in Chicago on July 14, in Rockford, Ill., on July 17, in Fort Wayne, Ind., on July 20 and in Cleveland on July 24.

 Since they previously had established a reputation as one of the nation's finest amateur teams (they were 298-40 from 1860-70), the Athletics tended to

 draw large crowds on the road - 8,000 attended a July 13 game at Lake Park in Chicago. The players that the fans came to see were Reach, one of the early game's great hitters who batted .348 that season (second to third baseman Levi Meyerle's .492), and pitcher Dick McBride, a 26-year-old who had 20 of the team's 22 victories that season.

 "McBride is the most experienced swift pitcher in the country," wrote sportswriter Henry Chadwick of the New York Clipper. "What Dick does not know in playing pitcher's points is not worth knowing. "

 Like McBride, most of the Athletics were players in their mid-20s (Reach was the oldest at 31). They also were small by today's standards: Four were listed as 5-feet-6 and only one was over 6-foot. They wore flannel uniforms with knickers - a recent innovation - bow ties and blue stockings.

 The game itself was similar to today's, with perhaps the biggest differences being the lack of gloves (primitive versions were introduced in 1875) and the fact that pitchers threw the ball to a location requested by the hitter.

 Teams had only 10 players - one substitute was permitted on the roster - but once the game began, substitutions could not be made, although a struggling pitcher could trade positions with another player.

 Perhaps because of the wearying travel and busy schedule, some early baseball players apparently were a bit boisterous once the games had concluded. The Clipper reported on the results of a road trip made by a team of Philadelphia amateurs to Washington, D.C., in 1870. The Philadelphians had taken six adjoining rooms in a Washington hotel, and when they left, the Clipper reported, management discovered:

 "Pitchers and wash basins were broken, the water left on the floor. Two panels of floorboard were kicked in, bed frames were broken, mosquito nets were cut to pieces. Feather beds and pillows were cut open, the feathers strewn over the floor a half-inch deep. The walls were marked and other depredations were committed which show that the perpetrators were activated only by a low malicious purpose. "

 Such behavior - and worse - apparently was not uncommon. One of the game's first great figures, Al Spalding, wrote in his book America's National Pastime, that "the occasional throwing of games was practiced by some and no punishment was meted out to the offenders. . . . Liquor selling, either on the grounds or in close proximity thereto, was so general as to make scenes of drunkenness and riots everyday occurrences, not only among the spectators but now and then in the ranks of the players themselves. Many games had fist fights and almost every team had its lushers. "

  Just how rowdy the Athletics were off the field is hard to determine 116 years later, but there were occasions when the legitimacy of their on-field efforts came into question.

 Having just beaten a few of the league's stronger clubs, the Athletics were thumped on a September day, 14-1, by a weak Cleveland team at 25th and Jefferson. The Clipper talked about the "suspicious conduct of one or two players," and even the Sunday Dispatch, normally an outspoken booster of the team, blamed the Athletics' "miserable display" on "complacent indifference as to the result. "

 If they did throw the game, they would not have been the first team to do so. Contemporary reports note that gamblers frequently set up booths at ballparks and that it was not unusual for as much as $20,000 to be bet on the outcome of a single game. With so much money being wagered, gamblers were constantly looking for players willing to help them in their attempts to affect the outcome.

 That result looked even more suspicious when a week later, in a rematch in Cleveland, the Athletics thumped the Forest Citys, 14-2.

 As the season entered its final weeks, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago were bunched close to the top. By then the championship rules had been changed since many teams had not played the required five games with each other club. League officials determined that the team with the fewest losses would be the champions.

 The Athletics only had to win their last game of the season against Chicago on Oct. 30 to clinch the championship. The game was played in Brooklyn, since Chicago's stadium and much of its home city had been destroyed in the great fire a few months earlier.

 The team's two best players, Reach and McBride, were injured and unable to play in the key game, and as the Sunday Dispatch chronicled, "Philadelphia's heart was in her mouth all day as the citizenry nervously awaited dispatches on the result. "

 But behind the defensive play of shortstop Radcliff and the hitting of leftfielder Edgar Cuthbert, the Athletics prevailed, 4-1. They finished with a league record of 22-7, while Chicago was 20-9 and Boston 22-10.

 Philadelphians rejoiced over news of the championship, and thousands of fans met the team at the Union Station upon their return the next day. But, an interesting example of sports' place in society - and journalism - at the time, was provided by the Dispatch. The newspaper displayed the news of the Athletics' title in the middle of Page 2, with a tiny one-column headline that read: "Eureka! The last grand game of the season. Philadelphia wins the whip pennant. " (The meaning of the term whip pennant is lost in history. )

 On Nov. 13, the Athletics were honored at a banquet in the Girard Club on North Broad Street by the owners - hundreds of Philadelphians who had paid $5 a share for a piece of the team (the price went up to $15 in 1872). At the banquet, credentials were not required and crowds of Philadelphians overflowed the club's facilities. Finally, the club had to be cleared, and only those who could prove they were invited guests, owners or players were re-admitted.

 Apparently, the excitement of the populace over the championship was not shared by the Athletics' ownership.

 The Sunday Dispatch had editorially called upon the owners to provide "a handsome testimonial in the shape of a medal . . . nothing tawdry or cheap" for the players. But at a business meeting that preceded the banquet, the owners voted down a proposal to spend $1,000 for some sort of testimonial.

 Actually, if the club's public statements were to be believed, they might not have been able to afford such extravagance. The Athletics reported receipts for the year of $22,602 and expenses of $22,457.

 Later that month, the players held their own celebration at the Billiard Saloon on the northwest corner of 8th and Vine Streets and decided to display their pennant there. (The fate of that pennant remains a mystery. Neither the Oakland Athletics nor the Baseball Hall of Fame has any idea what became of it.)

 The pennant-hanging prompted a great public outcry in Philadelphia society and elsewhere. Wright, who realized that the game's future rested in its ability to inspire public confidence, lambasted the Athletics' action in a Boston newspaper, saying the pennant should have been flown instead from the team's clubhouse.

 "To elevate the National Game we must earn the respect of all; and now that the Athletics are Champions - the first legal and recognized Champion of the United States - they will be looked up to as the exponents of what is right and wrong in base ball, and will have it in their power, in a great measure, to make the game a success. "

 It wasn't long before the Athletics' owners - beginning a dubious tradition that was to haunt the club well into the next century - started to get rid of players from the championship team.

 Within two months of their title, Reach, Radcliff, Heubel, centerfielder John "Count" Sensenderfer and substitute George Bechtel were released and subsequently joined other teams. (The owners did, however, display some baseball wisdom, since among the players they employed to replace them was Cap Anson, who would go on to become one of baseball's great hitters. )

 The dismantling of the Athletics was a big mistake, thought Chadwick of the Clipper:

 "Much of their success (was) not due to any marked superiority of playing skills, but to the homogeneous character the nine had attained by working together season after season. "

 He was right, in a sense. While the Athletics continued to be one of the league's strongest teams, finishing second to Boston in three of the following four seasons, they never could recapture the championship.

 *

 By 1875, gambling had grown worse and the league was either too weak or too unwilling to act against the guilty parties. As a result, much of the public had lost faith in the ballplayers as well as in the teams that were here one season and gone the next. In 1876, Spalding and Chicago sportswriter William Hulbert secretly lured the league's best players and formed their own National League.

 The National Association was history, but six of its teams - including the Athletics and Red Stockings - joined the new league.

 Hulbert knew the game needed reforms and he intended to be a strong president. In a speech at the meeting in which the National League was born, Hulbert sounded a warning for the game's future.

 "Gentlemen, baseball cannot endure under such conditions. It may last next season, maybe a few years after that, but if we do not take hold now, and clean up this game, it will surely die. "

 As did the National Association - and the memory of its first champions.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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