Academic journal article Base Ball

The Dismantling of the National League's First Dynasty: Phase 1

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Dismantling of the National League's First Dynasty: Phase 1

Article excerpt

In a book begun before his untimely death in 2011, 19th century baseball historian David Ball set out to track the painstaking evolution of the present-day rules and practices regarding player movement from one team to another. David's legacy did not contain an introduction to his book or notes explaining its proposed scope, but we believe David planned to carry his work only to the conclusion of the 19th century. Among his more fully developed sections is the two-part story of the dismantling of the 1880-1886 Chicago White Stockings-not only the National League's most successful team at that time but also baseball's most cohesive one. In Phase I, two of the four players Spalding dispensed to other teams had been valued members of his club since 1879 and a third, Mike "King" Kelly, had joined Chicago in 1880.

Sometime around the end of January 1887, Billy Sullivan, baseball editor of the Boston Globe and local correspondent for Sporting Life under the pseudonym "Mugwump," dropped in at the office of the local National League club's president, Arthur Soden.1 Soden was a frugal and reserved New Englander, wealthy from a roofing business and mining investments, who carried "that expression in his face, so peculiar to Bostonese, that suggests ice-water and snowballs."2 When discussing baseball business matters, he was generally plainspoken, sometimes downright caustic. Eventually the conversation turned to the question of where the League's eighth franchise would be located for the upcoming season. "Give me anything other than St. Louis," Soden told Sullivan. This was a reference to Henry Lucas's once mighty St. Louis Maroons, which had been embraced by the National League prior to the 1885 season as an added inducement to push Lucas to shut down his rebel Union Association operation, but had since fallen into financial disrepair, forcing him to cede control of his club). As for the Maroons' captain and best player, Jack Glasscock, Soden did not know whether Boston would get the coveted shortstop; he was certain only that, wherever Glasscock played, it would not be St. Louis.

While the two men were talking, John Billings walked in. Billings was the Boston club's treasurer and-more important-along with Soden and William H. Conant he was one of the so-called Triumvirate who jointly controlled a majority of the Boston stock and ran the club's affairs. If Sullivan had his pick of any player in the National League, asked Billings, who would he take? Mike Kelly of Chicago, Sullivan replied without a moment's hesitation, and Soden as well as Billings agreed with his choice. And thereby hangs a tale.

Through the 1886 season, the National League's dominant team of the 1880s had unquestionably been Chicago. The White Stockings began the decade by racking up a remarkable .798 winning percentage in 1880, finishing 15 games ahead of secondplace Providence in a season just 84 games long, a remarkable performance even for a day when NL pennant-winners often put up exceptionally high winning percentages due largely to the loop's imbalance. After winning the NL championship again the following two seasons, Chicago paused in 1883-1884 to rebuild a worn-out pitching staff and then took two more titles in 1885 and 1886. Fred Pfeffer, Ned Williamson, Tom Burns, and the White Stockings' player/manager Cap Anson were renowned as the Stonewall infield; the brilliant and versatile Mike Kelly was joined in the outfield by George Gore and Abner Dalrymple, talented table-setters who hit in front of Kelly and Anson at the top of Chicago's lineup, and Silver Flint was a tough and capable catcher.

The most successful team to date in the oldest and most prestigious league in the game was enhanced considerably by the stability of its roster, which would have been remarkable in any era but was all the more so inasmuch as most of the players had remained in place at a time when the prevailing rules allowed only five players to be reserved for the coming season. …

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