Academic journal article Base Ball

The Borderlands of Professionalism: Cooperative Clubs and the Formation of the National League

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Borderlands of Professionalism: Cooperative Clubs and the Formation of the National League

Article excerpt

Baseball in the 1860s presents modern historians with a pyramid of clubs. A handful of clubs clearly occupied the top: the Atlantics of Brooklyn, the Mutuals of New York, and the Athletics of Philadelphia were the standouts. Below the top tier was a larger number of lesser clubs, including the Stars of Brooklyn, the Keystones of Philadelphia, and the Olympics of Washington. The pyramid's base comprised a large number of clubs largely forgotten today: the Harmonics of Brooklyn, the Brandywines of West Chester, Pennsylvania, the Fairmounts of Marlboro, Massachusetts, and many more. There are no clear divisions. Competition was not segregated into tiers based on level of play or geography the way organized baseball is today. While the Mutuals are clearly of more interest than the Brandywines, the slope from one to the other is gradual, and there is no systematic way to draw a line between clubs of interest and clubs not of interest.

This status changes with the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA) in 1871.1 The formation of the NA draws a clear line between the professional clubs (numbering from eight to thirteen over its five seasons) and the uncounted amateur clubs constituting everyone else. The history of baseball from 1871 forward becomes almost exclusively the history of the NA and its heirs.

But this streamlining is illusory. Large numbers of clubs did not disappear in 1871. That they seem to do so is more a product of modern taxonomy than historical circumstance. The division of clubs into NA and non-NA is neither arbitrary nor anachronistic, but neither is it the sole useful division. Treating it as if it were distorts the organization of baseball at that time, as well as the transition of organized baseball with the formation of the National League (NL) in 1876.

This article presents a twofold thesis. First, there were in the NA era nominally amateur clubs, with the best being similar to the weaker members of the NA. Second, taking the broader organization of baseball into account sheds light on the reasons for the formation of the National League-the primary reason being to exclude from membership the weaker class of clubs.

The article has three sections: 1) an overview of the organization of baseball in the early professional era; 2) an examination of two clubs-a weak professional club and a strong, nominally amateur club, showing their similar histories, organizations, and competitive strengths; and 3) an examination of the formation of the National League in light of its larger contemporary context.

Professional and Amateur; Salary and Co-op

There arose in the 1860s an informal and ad hoc championship system. It was a challenge system, much like that of (and likely modeled after) boxing. A club would issue a challenge to the champion club, with the matter settled in a best-of-three series. This system worked reasonably well as long as the serious competitors were within the New York metropolitan region. By mid-decade the system was starting to fray. In 1869 it was obvious that the Red Stockings of Cincinnati were the best team in the country, and yet they never competed for the championship. The system was clearly broken.

The 1869 season also brought the end of the de jure amateur era. Clubs were given the option of declaring themselves professional, with 12 clubs doing this.2 In 1871, 10 clubs took the next step and formed the professional NA. The NA featured a radically innovative championship scheme: Each club would play a series of championship games against every other club, with the pennant going to the club with the best overall performance. This system was without precedent in team sports, and is essentially the system used in all team sports today.3

In the old challenge system, championship games were special occasions. They were relatively rare, by definition included at least one top team, and every game mattered. The fans responded. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.