On Friday, we celebrated Canada Day with a round of similes. Given that our countries’ special days are so very close together, I thought it only fair to provide a companion celebration of the good old US of A on the eve of her birthday. In lieu of actual presents, feel free to send a few trillion dollars (Canadian dollars, of course, since yours is worth more than ours, according to the Bank of Canada). Today, we’ll delve into the early days of baseball, as it struggled to establish itself as a profitable enterprise in the 19th century. Wherever you’re from, or however you celebrated, I hope you have a great holiday weekend.
The Articles of Confederation is like the National Association
Following the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress proposed and existed under the Articles of Confederation. It was designed to increase cooperation between the original 13 states as they fought the British. It was pretty much a fiasco. Under the Articles, Congress had almost no power. It couldn’t authorize expenditure or tax anyone, couldn’t enforce its decisions, couldn’t regulate interstate commerce, and couldn’t even create a national army. Virtually every founding father, including Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Jay, and Madison advocated for a stronger Federal government (though just how strong was a point of contention).
The Articles lasted ten years, until 1787, when a Constitutional Convention met in secret in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution, where they built a stronger, more flexible document, that allocated responsibilities and powers to three branches of Federal government, and reserved other powers to the states. It was ratified and the new government took control in 1789. It is the oldest constitution still in operation in the world, unless you count the Magna Carta (which is not really a constitution, so I don’t).
Similarly, Major League Baseball had a forerunner, the National Association that existed from just 1871-1875. It began with nine teams, who banded together to play roughly 30 games each. Some teams played all 30. Others played 28. The Rockford club played 25 games and won just 4 of them. The Fort Wayne Kekiongas folded after 19 games. Only three teams finished the team above .500.
It only got worse from there. The league expanded to 10 teams the following year. After starting 0-11, the Washington Nationals disbanded. They would quickly be replaced by a new club, the Washington Olympics, who went 2-7. Everyone played a different number of games, and if teams didn’t want to show up, they didn’t. Four clubs won more than 30 games, but only one of the other seven franchises played more than even 30 games.
No one honored their contracts. Teams folded in the middle of the night. Owners didn’t cut paychecks. Players absconded at the promise of getting more money. It was truly the Wild West played out on the ballfield. There was truly no order.
It took William Hulbert, a shrewd Midwestern businessman. Hulbert craved order and reliability, and to get it he indulged in the very chaos he could not stand. In the middle of 1875, he signed Al Spalding, Cap Anson, Cal McVey, and Deacon White to contracts for the 1876 seasons, and quit the National Association immediately after the season. Hulbert brought seven other clubs around with him, forming the original National League on the idea of stability and fairness. Anyone who violated these principles would, in theory, be out. The league secured power for itself to enforce its rules, and was thus respect. It was a bit draconian, but it worked. Hulbert’s National League survived two more long-standing Major Leagues, two outright player revolts, various work stoppages, and designated hitter, and still is humming along today.
The Whiskey Rebellion is like the Players’ Revolt
Most Americans don’t really understand that the Founding Fathers of the United States, and its Constitution were not universally accepted and loved. In fact, on the Western frontiers of America, independent minded settlers found the reach of the Federal Government to be overbearing.
Whiskey, for instance, was not only the central drink of the Western Frontier, but also a currency. It kept almost indefinitely and was extremely potent. In a part of the countries where supplies were limited, it settlers found that having spirits that got them drunk faster cut down on the number of gallons they drank/needed to store. So when George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and his Congress passed a tax on whiskey in 1791 to pay down the national debt (which was incurred under the Articles, which didn’t give the government the power to tax), it was interpreted as a direct assault on a the ways of lives of the Western farmer and settlers.
As you can imagine, these Westerners were not pleased. They took to attacking tax collectors, tarring and feathering them. Eventually, the insurrection settled around Pittsburgh and began terrorizing the city. Sensing that this was a test of the new Constitution and of the Federal government, Hamilton persuaded Washington to put a force in the field to quell the resistance. Washington actually led 12,000 troops west and crushed the rebellion. Only two men were killed when the Westerners quickly disbanded. 24 men were indicted for treason and 10 tried. Only two were convicted and sentenced to hang, but Washington pardoned them both.
Like Washington, Hulbert was not generally well liked, though he was respected and his leadership proved essential to keeping the new league in line. He kicked New York and Philadelphia out of the young league when they wouldn’t stick to the required schedule. He made sure umpires were hired and employed by the league. He banned booze and Sunday baseball. And he expelled Cincinnati in 1881 when they tried to play ball on Sundays. This led to the formation of the American Association, a rival Major League, which raided NL rosters until peace was achieved in 1884. The early National League also faced players’ revolts in 1884, with the formation of the Union League, and in 1890, with the Players League, suggesting that not everyone in baseball was pleased with how owners were raking in profits while shortchanging the talent they put on the field.
John Locke is like Henry Chadwick
As much as the Founding Fathers of the United States are revered these days, as legal scholars debate how they intended to handle DSL and nipple slips during the Super Bowl, it’s worth remembering that they did not come up with their ideas in a vacuum. For instance, British philosopher John Locke proved to be a major influence on the development of the young United States, with his concept of universal natural rights and human equality. Locke argued that every man was entitled to “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions, which Thomas Jefferson adapted to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence. And it was on these ideals that the Founders crafted the Bill of Rights that enumerated specific freedoms that Americans had (excepting, of course, that women and slaves were not given those rights). In many ways, then, John Locke’s philosophy is what defined and supported the US in its early days.
Similarly, an Englishman did more than any league executive to help baseball grow. Henry Chadwick wrote down the first rules of the game in 1861, recounted games in New York periodicals, introduced quasi-modern scorekeeping and boxscores, so that fans could understand a game at a quick glance. He also created batting average (don’t hold it against him, there were almost no walks in the early game) and earned run average. He proselytized the game and spread it like Johnny Appleseed all over America, including Hawaii. While Albert Spalding tried to credit the invention of the game to Abner Doubleday, and William Hulbert carved the first professional league out of granite, it is truly Chadwick who we should honor as the game’s father.