National Association of Professional Base Ball Players
The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (also known simply as the National Association or NA) was the first professional league, and played from 1871 through 1875. The NA is considered to be the first professional baseball league, and was one of the first professional team sports leagues of any kind. For a long time, it was not officially recognized as a major league by MLB, though some writers treated it as one.
The NA had some critical and commercial success. The 1871 pennant race was close and exciting, though later seasons were dominated by Harry Wright's powerful Boston Red Stockings. Despite Boston's domination and the problems of weaker teams dropping out in mid season, the NA was successful enough that the Association schedule was expanded at the expense of non-Association games.
Structurally, the NA was a loose confederation of professional teams without any central leadership like a modern league office. Central decisions were made at an annual meeting of the member teams. Any professional team was allowed to join the Association by paying dues. Professional teams at that time created their own schedules and played against any opponents they chose. NA membership required only that each team schedule a specified number of games against each other team. The top team each season was entitled to style itself as the national champion.
The weak central structure meant that the Association had no power to police its members. The only penalty for failing to abide by the rules was forfeiture of dues, which were small enough that this wasn't an effective deterrent. Some teams raided each other's rosters in mid-season or signed players who had been banned for misbehavior. Other teams only joined the Association as a way of scheduling games against top clubs and then dropped out to avoid going on expensive road trips. The Association lacked any power to stop such misbehavior.
In 1876, the stronger teams revolted. William Hulbert of Chicago recognized the structural problems of the NA and decided that they couldn't be reformed within the Association structure. He proposed that the strongest teams in the NA break off and form their own National League that would avoid the Association's worst problems. NL membership would be by invitation only. Teams were required to pay substantial dues and were subject to League discipline including the possibility of expulsion for severe misbehavior. Six of the strongest NA teams (the Boston Red Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Chicago White Stockings, and New York Mutuals) joined the new league, together with the Louisville Grays and Cincinnati Reds. With the loss of its strongest teams, the NA was finished.
- Paul Batesel: Players and Teams of the National Association, 1871-1875, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7864-7012-9
- William J. Ryczek: Blackguards and Red Stockings: A History of Baseball's National Association, 1871-1875, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2016. ISBN 978-0-7864-9945-8 (originally published in 1992).