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THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION 1871-1875

If most people give any thought to Professional Baseball before 1900 they probably think of the start of Major League Baseball as occurring in 1876 when the National League was founded. But this view misses a fascinating era in the development of the game. The first openly professional team was the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, although some players had been paid to play before then. By 1870 a number of teams were paying their players. In 1871 the professional teams broke away from the National Association of Base Ball Players and formed a professional organization - The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

The players held the upper hand in the Association. Some teams were even "mutual" teams, that is, owned by the players themselves.

Any team willing to pay a $10 franchise fee could join the Association and play for the pennant. Teams were expected to play a best three of five series with each of the other teams in the league. In the inaugural season the core of the 1869 Red Stockings, led by Harry Wright, moved to Boston, where they became the Boston Red Stockings. They were a strong team, but finished second to the Philadelphia Athletics, led by Levi Meyerle and Dick McBride. But the Red Stockings finished first in each of the next four seasons, a dominance which ultimately played a part in the demise of the Association.

In the National Association there were no playoffs. The regular season winner won the pennant. But there was some confusion about what a team needed to do to win the pennant. Did winning the most series do it? Or winning the most games? And if a team won the first three games of a series (thus winning the series) should the results of games four and five even count in the standings? Eventually the number of games won became the accepted yardstick, but since the number of games played was so disparate between teams only a few teams really had a chance to win the pennant, or "streamer" as it was called then.

The National Association allowed any team willing to pay the $10 entry fee to join the league. Unfortunately, teams that were weak both financially and on the field were a constant part of the Association. Teams with little hope of winning the pennant often declined to make costly road trips. Many teams failed to complete the expected number of games and franchises failed at an alarming rate. After the end of the 1875 season the stronger teams left the National Association and formed their own league, the National League of Professional Base Ball Players. The weaker teams could not survive on their own and the National Association passed into the pages of history.

A number of problems plagued the National Association. Poor attendance was one. A frequent lack of true competition, as the gap between the good teams and the bad teams was large, and the gap between the Red Stockings and the other good teams was sizable also. Gambling on the games led to hippodroming, or throwing games in modern terminology, which undermined public confidence in the integrity of the Association. Revolving, that is, players jumping from one team to another without regard to contracts was also a problem, as was the instability of many franchises. The National Association attempted to deal with all of these problems but more often than not ineffectively. It should be remembered, however, that before 1871 there was no such thing as a "league" in any sport. The National Association was truly breaking new ground.

In the 1870's there were no gloves, no catchers equipment, no batting helmets. There were errors. Lots of them. (Note that I have used only three error numbers per card in the accompanying season disks so that the players will be compatible with other 19th century teams imported from the encyclopedia.)

Pitching was underhand, from 50 feet from home base. Home base was a square marble or stone slab. Sliding home must have been an adventure. Batters could call for a high pitch (above the waist) or a low pitch (below the waist). (Batters should perhaps all be SA-0 because of this, but I did not do so to maintain compatibility with encyclopedia imports.) In 1872 the pitching rule was amended to allow the pitcher to snap his wrist or bend his elbow while pitching. This opened the door for the curveball.

Fair or foul was determined by where a ball first touched the ground. Some players excelled at making the ball bounce fair in front of the plate and then spin off into foul ground. First and third basemen played positioned themselves near the foul line or sometimes in foul territory.

In 1871 three balls constituted a walk, but the pitcher was first warned when throwing a ball and that did not count as one of the three balls, so effectively four bad pitches gave a batter a walk. In 1874 a distinction was made between "balls" and "wide balls". A ball was a pitch that was over the plate but not in the batter's chosen zone (high or low). A wide ball was a ball that was not over the plate. And each was counted separately, with a separate warning for each. So a batter could see 3 balls and a warning and 8 wide balls and a warning, for a possible thirteen bad pitches before walking. In 1875 the Association went back to just one category of balls, that is, any pitch that was not over the plate in the batter's chosen zone. Nine balls gave the batter a walk.

If a batter was hit by a pitch it counted only as a ball (or perhaps only a warning). The batter was not awarded first base. (All pitchers in the accompanying season disks are HB0 for this reason.)

One umpire called the game. Substitutions were allowed for injury at the consent of the other team. An injured player could have what we would call a "courtesy runner" today. The injured player would still bat and play the field, but another would run for him, starting with the trip from home base to first base.

The National Association boasted a number of outstanding players. Hall of Famers Cap Anson, Orator Jim O'Rourke, Al Spalding, George and Harry Wright, Candy Cummings and Pud Galvin all got their start in the National Association. Cal McVey, Tommy Bond, Ezra Sutton, Deacon White and Ross Barnes were other Hall of Fame caliber players who went on the illustrious careers in the National League. Barnes is one of three players (along with Fred Dunlap and Bid McPhee) generally regarded as the best second basemen of the 19th century.

The National Association also boasted some outstanding players who are not so well known, as they were in the twilight of their careers by the time they entered the National League, players such as Lip Pike, Levi Meyerle, Davey Force, Dickey Pearce, whose career began in 1858, Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson (my personnal favorite for all-time great nickname), and Tim Murnane, who was reputed to have the same disposition as Ty Cobb and was about as well liked.

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