Friday, February 02, 2007

The Evolution of Baseball's National League

On this day in 1876, the National League was formed and consisted of teams in Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and New York.

The National League grew out of the first professional league, the National Association. Depending on which source (or which motive) one chooses to believe, William Hulbert, the owner of the Chicago franchise in the Association, founded the new league because the disorganized, undisciplined NA was a hotbed of rowdyism, drunkenness, and gambling, or because he had just stolen the four best players of the championship Boston club for his own use the following season and wanted to preempt any move to expel him from the NA. What matters is that the league Hulbert founded, whether from high-mindedness or necessity, has lasted to the present day and is largely responsible for baseball's having retained its integrity and popularity through its early troubled history.

Hulbert did have the diplomacy to make Morgan Bulkeley, the owner of the Hartford team in the Association, the president. The new league consisted of four western teams (Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville) and four eastern teams (Hartford, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia). The inaugural year featured such innovations as a set number of franchises limited to cities big enough to fiscally support a team (populations not less than 75,000), regular schedules arranged in advance (70 games, 10 against each team), teams that actually played all the games on those schedules, and enforceable contracts; the first pennant was won by Hulbert's Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), who were led by Hulbert's confidant and co-conspirator Al Spalding, one of the league's best pitchers (and one of players taken from Boston). The league met over the winter and elected Hulbert president (Bulkeley didn't come to the meeting). He proceeded to expel the New York Mutuals and the Philadelphia Athletics for not having honored their entire schedules when doing so would have been financially difficult; the NL played with six teams in 1877 (and a 60-game schedule). A gambling scandal involving second-place Louisville, which had looked like a pennant-bound team until it began losing in unlikely ways in the second half of the season, led to the banning for life of four players, showing the new league was serious about its integrity. The most powerful teams were Boston, Providence (which joined in 1877), and Chicago (soon managed by Cap Anson, as Spalding went into the business end of the game and started his famous sporting goods company).

Hulbert continued as a strong president until his death in 1882. The league had remained unprofitable for most of that time, and various austerity measures were adopted by the teams, most notably lower salaries and greater use of the reserve clause (first thought of by Boston owner Arthur Soden in 1879). But the nation experienced an economic boom centered in urban areas, and the effects boosted pro ball's popularity and profitability, allowing the annual schedule to be lengthened over the course of the century. The advent of a second major league in 1883, the American Association, provided a popular two-league format. Beginning in 1884, that format included loosely-organized postseason series between the two league winners, the precursor of the World Series. The NL and the AA between them crushed the fledgling Union Association, which lasted for just one year, 1884. Following that season, the short reign of A.G. Mills as NL president ended and the strong-willed Nick Young took over through 1902. As business picked up, Chicago remained a league power under Anson, and the New York Giants joined them at the top of the standings.

The NL and the AA continued to work together until the fateful 1890 season, when the Players' League revolt turned the baseball world upside down. In the 1884 "war" with the UA, relations between the NL and the AA had been strained by such NL actions as persuading the AA to expand to counter the new league (a move which was a financial disaster for the AA) and the purchase of the champion New York Mets of the AA by the NL New York Giants, who annexed much of the Mets' roster in the following year. But the NL reached new heights of ruthlessness in the Players' Revolt by persuading the AA's two best franchises, Brooklyn and Cincinnati, to move to the NL. Of the three leagues operating in 1890, the AA suffered the most, and collapsed after the 1891 season. The NL took in four AA franchises and spent the rest of the century with an unwieldy 12-team format in which most teams spent the majority of the season out of contention and post-season play was meaningless (and unprofitable).

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