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The 19th century (1801-1900) was a period of enormous development and growth for baseball. While there are sporadic references to baseball before the 19th Century, and many more references to broadly similar games, baseball certainly did not exsist as a single game with a coherent set of rules at the beginning of the period. By the end of the century, baseball was solidly entrenched. It was considered the American national pastime, was represented by several professional leagues and many more amateur ones, and had been spread outside the United States (most notably to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and Japan).
Baseball is now generally believed to have developed from earlier bat-and-ball games, such as stool ball and rounders, and possibly from base games, such as tag. At the beginning of the 19th Century there were numerous games of the same general type, such as one-o-cat. Perhaps the most important was town ball. Town ball was broadly similar to modern baseball, but was unstandardized, without a defined field size or number of players on a team. Town ball also allowed runners to be retired by "soaking", or being hit by a thrown ball. Town ball remained popular in New England for longer than the rest of the country, and was sometimes known as the Boston game or Massachusetts game.
Modern baseball derives from the New York game. Starting in 1845, the New York Knickerbockers drew up a set of formal rules for their club games. The Knickerbockers were well organized, socially prestigious, and favored rules that made the game more formal and regular. Their organization and prestige led other New York area teams to adopt the Knickerbocker rules. When the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was founded in 1857, they adopted the Knickerbocker rules. Despite its lofty title, the early NABBP was really just a New York organization.
The NABBP quickly grew into its lofty title. Like much of societal change in the mid-19th Century, this was immensely accelerated by the Civil War. The war threw together troops from across the country, who were then forced to reconcile the differences in their regional customs. The widely-differing baseball rules accepted in different areas were no exception, and the well-organized NABBP rules proved to be a convenient solution to the need for standardization. Soldiers returning from the war - and the Civil War recruiting system meant that many soldiers returned long before the war was over - brought the New York rules home with them. Baseball even crossed the battle lines and established itself with Confederate troops. By the end of the War, the NABBP had grown from 16 to over 100 member clubs, and by 1867 it had swelled to more than 400, including teams from California and Louisiana.
The War was not the only thing pushing the growth of the game. In New York, baseball was popular enough that park owners began to charge admission to games. The Union Grounds and Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn were completely enclosed by fences, allowing their owners to keep out passers-by and charge fans for the privilege of watching games. The injection of profit into the game led almost inevitably to the growth of professionalism. Teams would split admission proceeds with the park owners, and some of the money was used to pay top players. The NABBP had an official policy against professionalism, but it was ineffective.
The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings
The tension between the NABBP's standard of amateurism and the growth of the professional game came to a head in 1869. That year, the organizers of the Cincinnati Red Stockings (including Harry Wright, with financial help from Aaron Champion) decided to renounce the pretense of amateurism and tour the country as an openly professional team. Their open professionalism was a challenge to the NABBP, which grudgingly adopted a new professional category.
The Red Stockings' tour was a public success. They finished the 1869 season undefeated, and their tour gave the game a tremendous popularity boost. The unbeaten streak continued into 1870 before ending at the hands of the also openly professional Brooklyn Atlantics. By the end of the season, the Red Stockings had lost several more times, but the idea of professional competition was established. The Red Stockings included George Wright, Cal McVey, Doug Allison, and Asa Brainard.
The National Association
The public success of the 1869-70 Red Stockings encouraged other professional teams to establish a national professional championship. The growing importance of the professional game exploded into a major conflict within the NABBP. The majority of NABBP teams were still amateur, and they disliked the professionals. After the 1870 season, the NABBP decided to eliminate the professional category. The pro teams responded by forming their own group the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA). Representatives of 10 clubs met on St. Patrick's Day 1871 at Collier's Rooms at the corner of Broadway and Thirteenth Street in New York. Perhaps tellingly, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were not members of the new association; they had failed to profit from their on-field success and reverted to amateur status after their 1870 tour.
Structurally, the NA more closely resembled the loose amateur organizations that preceeded it than a modern league. It was organized as a loose confederation of professional teams without any central leadership like a modern league office. Instead, central decisions were made at an annual meeting of the member teams, with membership open to any team willing to pay nominal dues. Teams were free to create their own schedules and play against any opponents they chose. NA membership required only that each team schedule a specified number of games against each other team.
The lack of strong central governance ensured that the Association had no power to police its members. The president elected for 1872 was third baseman Bob Ferguson. During his two seasons, meetings were held irregularly. The only penalty for failing to abide by the rules was forfeiture of dues, which were small enough ($10) that this wasn't an effective deterrent. Teams felt free to engage in all sorts of misbehavior, including raiding each others' rosters in mid-season, signing players banned for gambling, and refusing to go on expensive road trips.
The National League
William Hulbert recognized that the National Association's problems stemmed from its weak organization. Rather than attempt to reform the NA, he proposed that the strongest teams break away and form a new National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. He convinced six of the strongest NA teams (the Boston Red Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Brown Stockings, New York Mutuals, and his own Chicago White Stockings) to join the new league, together with the Louisville Grays and Cincinnati Reds, strong independent teams. Without its strongest teams, the NA was unable to continue as an organization.
The new National League differed from the Association in two critical respects. One was that it had the strong central organization that the Association had lacked. The NL had a central office that was funded by $100/team annual dues, tenfold higher than the Association dues had been and enough to employ a full-time staff. The league had the power to set and enforce regulations on member teams, with penalties for noncompliance up to and including expulsion from the league.
Equally important was a more businesslike attitude toward the game, symbolized by the replacement of Players with Clubs in the organization's name. The league decided on schedules, minimum admission prices, a standard division of gate proceeds, and a league-wide ban on Sunday games and alcohol sales. The league also cracked down on player-friendly but disruptive practices such as teams raiding each other's rosters in mid-season and hiring of players banned for rules violations. The league even saw fit to ban Sunday games and alcohol sales, seeing them as bad for the league's public image as morally upstanding.
The willingness of the NL to enforce its centralized authority was soon tested. The Mutuals and Athletics refused to go on their final western road trips in 1876, violating their commitment to complete their schedule. The teams' exact motivation for refusing travel is unclear; they might have believed that they would not be punished either because the NA had failed to punish such behavior or because they believed that the league wouldn't voluntarily abandon its two largest cities. No matter what their belief, the other teams voted to enforce the most stringent available punishment by expelling them. The NL continued as a six-team league for the 1877 season.
Problems continued to bedevil the league in 1877 in the form of the first serious gambling scandal. The Louisville Grays, who had been leading the pennant race, went on a sudden, unexpected losing streak. Team president Charles E. Chase received two telegrams that suggested that his players were throwing games at the behest of gamblers. Hulbert, now NL president, investigated the allegations, and found that center fielder George Hall, utility player Al Nichols, and star pitcher Jim Devlin had taken money in exchange for throwing the games. All three were banned for life, as well as team captain and shortstop Bill Craver, who was not directly implicated but had refused to cooperate with the investigation. Unlike earlier attempts to ban players, the NL succeeded in making the four players' bans stick.
- Jean-Pierre Caillault: The Complete New York Clipper Baseball Biographies: More Than 800 Sketches of Players, Managers, Owners, Umpires, Reporters and Others, 1859-1903, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2009.
- Charles F. Faber: Baseball Pioneers: Ratings of Nineteenth Century Players, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 1997.
- Bill Felber, ed.: Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2013. ISBN 978-1-93359-943-4
- Robert P. Gelzheiser: Labor and Capital in 19th Century Baseball, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2006.
- Christopher D. Green: "Baseball's First Power Surge: Home Runs in the Late 19th-Century Major Leagues", The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 40, Number 2 (Fall 2011), pp. 99-103.
- Tom Melville: Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2001.
- Peter Morris: But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, IL, 2008.
- Peter Morris et al.: Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870: The Clubs and Players who Spread the Sport Nationwide, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2012. ISBN 0786468432
- David Nemec: The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball (2nd Edition), University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 2006.
- David Nemec: Major League Baseball Profiles 1870-1900 Vol. 1: The Ballplayers who Built the Game, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2012.
- David Nemec: Major League Baseball Profiles 1870-1900 Vol. 2: The Hall of Famers and Memorable Personalities Who Shaped the Game, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2012.
- David Nemec: The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7864-6890-4
- Ronald T. Waldo: Characters from the Diamond: Wild Events, Crazy Antics, and Unique Tales from Early Baseball, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4422-5868-6
- Marshall D. Wright: Nineteenth Century Baseball: Year-By-Year Statistics for the Major League Teams, 1871 through 1900, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2004 (originally published in 1996).