On March 15, 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the baseball’s first professional team when the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) agreed to allow compensated players to participate. Harry Wright assembled a ten-man team, all of whom were given a salary through November. The Red Stockings finished the season with a 57–0 record, marking the only perfect season in professional baseball history.
The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs formed on February 2, 1876 with eight charter teams located in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. After playing the 1876 season in Hartford, Connecticut, the Hartford Dark Blues played the 1877 season in Brooklyn as the Brooklyn Hartfords before disbanding at the end of the season.
The National League’s formation meant the end of the old National Association, which lasted only five seasons. The remaining clubs in the NA shut down or reverted to amateur or minor league status.
Nicknamed “The Freshest Man On Earth,” Walter Arlington Latham was born March 15, 1860 in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. Latham’s father served as a bugler for the Union Army in the American Civil War, and at the conclusion of the war, young Arlie became interested in baseball when soldiers returning from the battlefield brought the game home with them.
By the time he was fourteen, Latham had become good enough to play with the General Worth nine, a local team in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where the family had moved. Latham started out as a catcher, but later took up playing third base to avoid getting beat up behind the plate. In 1877, Latham played with the Pittsfield, Massachusetts club as their third baseman, and then in 1879, he made his professional debut in minor league baseball with Springfield in the National Association.
Twenty-year-old Latham made his Major League debut on July 5, 1880 with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League, becoming the first man from New Hampshire to play in the majors. He then played for the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association in 1881, then the Philadelphia Phillies of the League Alliance in 1882.
Latham then joined the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 1883. He stayed in St. Louis through the 1889 season, during which time the Browns won four consecutive pennants (1885-1888) in the American Association. Latham led the AA in runs scored with 152 during the 1886 season. He also batted .316 and stole 142 bases, then tacked on another 12 stolen bases in the playoffs. Adding to a reputation as an excellent base stealer, in 1887, Latham stole 129 bases, and he also led the league in stolen bases with 109 during the 1888 season.
In 1890, Latham jumped to the Chicago Pirates of the Players’ League. Later that year, in July, he returned to the NL with the Cincinnati Reds, where he served as a utility player and coach. Latham played for Cincinnati through 1895, then was traded to the Browns after the 1895 season. The Browns then released Latham after the 1896 season. Latham bounced around the minors for a few years before winding up with the Washington Senators in 1899. He later made four appearances for the New York Giants in 1909 at age 49.
Personality-wise, Arlie Latham was considered one of the funniest players in baseball. I’m not sure exactly how he earned the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth,” but Latham was well-known for playing practical jokes. According to one account, the existence of the third base coach’s box is thanks to Latham. He would taunt opposing players third base coach, taking advantage of the lack of a coach’s box by running up and down the third base line yelling insults at the pitcher while he was in the middle of his windup.
His tendency to shout and gesticulate, not only as a coach, but also as a player, earned Latham the unofficial title of “the father of ‘chatter’.” The implication, of course, being that the practice of infield chatter that exists to this day had begun with Arlie Latham.
Latham finished his playing career with 742 stolen bases in seventeen professional seasons with a .269 batting average, .334 OBP, and .341 slugging. Latham died on November 29, 1952 at the age of 92 in Garden City, New York. He is buried in Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale, New York.
Adrian Constantine “Cap” Anson was born on April 17, 1852 in a log cabin in Marshalltown, Iowa. He was the youngest son of Henry and Jeannette Rice Anson. Henry and Jeannette Anson had moved westward to the area from New York state with their oldest son, Sturgis, in a covered wagon, and young Adrian was the first pioneer child born in Marshalltown. Jeannette Anson died when Adrian was merely seven years old.
Henry Anson enrolled his sons in a preparatory course at the College of Notre Dame, and then later again at the state college in Iowa City (now the University of Iowa), but Adrian Anson was more interested in baseball and skating than in his studies. As a teenager, Adrian earned a place on the town baseball team, the Marshalltown Stars. With Henry Anson playing third base, Adrian’s brother Sturgis in centerfield, and Adrian at second base, the Stars went on to win the Iowa state championship in 1868.
In 1870, the Rockford Forest City baseball club and its star pitcher, Al Spalding, came to Marshalltown for a pair of games. The Forest City team won both games, but the Anson men played so well that Rockford management sent contract offers to all three of the Ansons. Henry and Sturgis turned the offer down, but Adrian accepted and joined the Forest City team in the spring of 1871.
Adrian Anson batted .325 for Rockford while playing third base, but the team disbanded at the end of the season. He was then signed by the Philadelphia Athletics, where he batted .415 in 1872, third best in the National Association. In 1874, Cincinnati Red Stockings manager Harry Wright and pitcher Al Spalding organized a three-week trip to England. Both the Athletics and the Red Stockings sailed across the Atlantic to play both baseball and cricket in front of British crowds. Anson led both teams in hitting throughout the tour, and he and Spalding developed a friendship during this trip, as well.
Anson’s numbers declined slightly in 1874 and 1875, but he still captured the attention Chicago White Stockings president William Hulbert. Anson signed with Chicago, and he went on to be named captain-manager of the club in 1879, moving across the diamond to play first base. His new role as captain-manager led to his nickname, “Cap,” short for “Captain Anson.” Under Anson’s leadership, the White Stockings won five pennants between 1880 and 1886. Anson introduced new tactics to the game, including the use of a third-base coach, having fielders back up one another, signaling batters, and the pitching rotation.
Anson played twenty-two seasons for Chicago, hitting at least .300 in twenty of those years. He led the league in RBIs eight times between 1880 and 1891, winning batting titles in 1881 and 1888. He retired after the 1897 season at the age of forty-five, having collected big league records for games, hits, at-bats, doubles and runs. He also finished with 3,081 hits, making him the first player ever to cross the 3,000-hit line.
After leaving Chicago, Anson managed the New York Giants for 22 games in 1898 before his big league career came to an end. He died on April 14, 1922 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious. ~Walt Whitman
Thus begins the first disc of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns. This is a series that I’ve checked out from the library and started watching multiple times, yet never managed to finish. In an effort to change this, I’ve decided to commit myself to writing about each “Inning” of the series here. This way, I have a form of accountability to encourage me to get through the whole thing.
Approximately the first twenty minutes of the first disc serve as kind of a nostalgic, feel-good introduction to the series and the game. Images of Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and several others flash across the screen to a background of melodic music and various speakers ruminating about what an incredible game baseball is.
The First Inning then begins with the myth of baseball’s founding by Abner Doubleday. Burns describes the story behind Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game, then immediately refutes it, asserting that Doubleday likely never even saw a professional game. Baseball, rather, is most likely a direct descendant of two British sports: rounders and cricket. The game went through multiple variations until the founding of the New York Knickerbockers and the codification of rules by Alexander Cartwright. Henry Chadwick soon appears on the scene and becomes instantly enamored with baseball. Chadwick went on to invent the box score, using statistics to track players’ performances. The National Association of Base Ball Players was then formed to help maintain control over the sport and further codify the rules.
The outbreak of the American Civil War presented a disruption to organized baseball. On the other hand, it also served to help spread the game’s popularity as soldiers returning home at the end of the war took knowledge of the sport with them. In spite of the end of slavery, black teams found themselves banned from organized leagues. Women and girls, also, struggled for the right to play ball, as it was deemed too violent and dangerous for the fairer sex.
Burns chronicles the evolution of baseball from its status as an amateur pastime to a professional sport — a business. It is evident from his focus on the establishment of the reserve clause that Burns intends to delve into the subject further. It only makes sense to do so, of course, given the impact that this clause would have on the occurrence of so many events throughout the game’s history. Burns also puts some attention on gambling, which, as we know, would also impact baseball’s timeline of events.
The First Inning covers the development of the NL, the AA, the Players’ League, and the rise of Albert Spalding. A number of players are introduced, including Cy Young, Cap Anson, King Kelly, and John McGraw. We also meet Moses Fleetwood Walker and the bigotry he faced in the big leagues as a black player. This, followed closely by a discussion of Branch Rickey’s early life, present a foreshadowing recognizable by anyone familiar with the game’s history.
Most histories I have seen covering this period in baseball seem to treat the game with a kind of veneration. Personally, this is perhaps my favorite period in the game’s history to learn about, possibly in part due to this sense of awe that it brings out about baseball. So much of what happens next has already been established, yet there is still something pure and clean about baseball during the 19th century.
The first game of the Professional Baseball League of Cuba was played in Havana on December 29, 1878. Led by player-manager Esteban Bellán, Habana defeated Almendares, 21-20. Bellán had also been the first Latin-born player to play in the American major leagues, spending three years in the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) from 1868 to 1870, and three years in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP) from 1871 to 1873.
The first home run in the history of the National League was hit on May 2, 1876 by Ross Barnes of the Chicago White Stockings — an inside-the-park home run against the Cincinnati Redlegs. Barnes had been a superstar in the National Association, signing with the Chicago team just before the NA disbanded. On top of having the honor of hitting the new league’s first homer, Barnes had a single, a triple, two stolen bases, and four runs scored.
The birth of baseball?
According to legend, Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York (hence the reason Cooperstown serves as home to the Baseball Hall of Fame). A Union general during the Civil War, Doubleday is known for having fired the first shot in defense against the South at Fort Sumter, thus starting the American Civil War. It makes sense, when you think about it. Of course America’s game would be invented in America, by one of America’s own war heroes, right?
Eh… not quite.
Contrary to legend, baseball did not spring up out of nowhere, brought to America by a patriotic stork gifting us with our national pastime. More than likely, Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with baseball at all. Upon his death in 1893, Doubleday left behind a number of documents and letters, none of which mentioned baseball. Furthermore, references to games resembling the sport existed long before Doubleday was even born. For example, one soldier in George Washington’s army, George Ewing, wrote about his experience playing a game called “base” in April 1778 in Valley Forge.
In truth, baseball most likely evolved from the British games of rounders and cricket. Over time, different versions of bat-and-ball games evolved in America, going by names like “townball” and “roundball.” Different areas of the country also developed their own versions of the sport, including “the Massachusetts game” and “the New York game.” Not surprisingly, each state believed its own version to be better. By the time of the Civil War, the New York version of the game had become the most popular. The establishment of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1858 marked the creation of baseball’s first centralized governing body, which helped ensure the spread of uniformity in the game’s play and rules.
So why the bogus myth about Abner Doubleday? In the wake of the Civil War, America experienced a surge of nationalism, not an uncommon occurrence following times of great calamity (think: 9/11, Iraq War, etc.). Business and political leaders alike sought out a means through which to help heal the division between North and South. The growing sport of Base Ball, which was becoming popular throughout all socioeconomic classes, seemed an obvious solution for this need. As part of his efforts to build up and promote the idea of baseball as “America’s game,” A. G. Spalding and the Spalding commission asserted in 1907 that baseball was a purely American game with no roots in British sports, and that Abner Doubleday was its inventor. In the years that followed, other baseball historians, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuated this nationalistic myth.
In spite of the research that has since revealed the Abner Doubleday myth, the Baseball Hall of Fame continues to hold fast to the magic that it created, as demonstrated on their website. And who can blame them? Part of the wonder and glory of Cooperstown is the idea that it was the birthplace of America’s National Pastime. Nevertheless, it is important to also keep in mind the facts as revealed by history. Legends can be fun and revealing on their own, but true history gives us a more accurate sense of who we are.
Barra, Allen. “The Birth of Baseball: A history of the game dispels many myths — including that Abner Doubleday was its inventor.” StarTribune. 19 March 2011. Web. Accessed 7 March 2013. http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/118242609.html?refer=y
Kirsch, George B. Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Rossi, John P. The National Game: Baseball and American Culture. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.
Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Spalding, Albert G. America’s National Game: Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning
Evolution, Development and Popularity of Base Ball with Personal Reminiscences of its Vicissitudes, its Victories and its Votaries. Revised and re-edited by Samm Coombs and Bob West. San Francisco: Halo Books, 1991.