When it all went National

2011 marks the 135th anniversary of the founding of the National League

April 21, 2011
Hall of Famer William Hulbert was instrumental in the founding of the National League. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The Baseball Hall of Fame preserves the game's history – a history that dates back more than 200 years.

But it was the organization of the game that turned baseball into the National Pastime. And 135 years ago this week, that organization took hold with the founding of the National League.

Older than the oldest living human being, basketball, cotton candy, popsicles and Velcro, the National League remains the bedrock on which the game was built. Change has proven to be baseball's friend over the past century-and-a-half, but the stability of the two-league system – which began with the birth of the Senior Circuit – has made that change possible.

It all began when America had just 37 states and a President named Ulysses S. Grant.

On April 22, 1876, Hall of Famer Harry Wright's Boston Red Caps squared off against the Philadelphia Athletics in front of 3,000 people at Jefferson Street Grounds in the first game in National League history. The Red Caps prevailed with a 6-5 win, scoring two runs in the ninth. Two days later, the Red Caps were on the wrong side of a 20-3 beating from the Athletics.

In 135 years, a lot has changed, including the addition of a second major league, multiple expansion changes and rule changes as basic as a standard schedule. The 1876 Athletics only carried five pitchers for their entire 59-game season. The Red Caps played a league-high 68, while the Mutals of New York played 56.

But one thing has remained the same. In 135 years, organized baseball has weathered the test of time. The NL's predecessor, the National Association, lasted just five years, meeting its demise with the beginning of the National League. Once the National League was up and running, two upstart leagues tried to steal some of its thunder, but both the Union Association and the Players' League folded after one season.

Hall of Famer William Hulbert, a lifelong Chicago resident and ardent supporter of his city, was instrumental in the founding of the National League. Many of the teams that played during the inaugural season, including Hulbert's White Stockings, jumped ship from the National Association.

The National Association's lack of definite structure and organization led to gambling and contract jumping. Players convicted of throwing games had little trouble finding new employment with another team in the league. And the governing body was weak in holding players to signed contracts. This created an environment where players jumped from team to team, waiting for the highest bidder and signing without regard to their prior commitments.

"It began to be apparent that the system for business management of the sport was defective," Hall of Famer Albert Spalding wrote in his 1911 book "America's National Game."

Future Hall of Famer Morgan Bulkeley was named the first President of the National League. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)Hulbert was a first-hand witness to that fact. At the conclusion of the 1874 season, he re-signed shortstop and noted contract jumper Davy Force for 1875. Force then signed with the Philadelphia Athletics in mid-winter. Eventually, a committee – led by a Philadelphia official – found Force's contract with Chicago invalid. Hulbert lost and Force played with the Athletics. That set in motion a chain of events which would end the National Association and result in the birth the National League.

The National Association in 1875 – its final year of play – had 13 clubs: two in St. Louis, two in New York City, three in Philadelphia and one in Boston, Chicago, Hartford, New Haven, Keokuk (which would play just 13 games before going under) and Washington (which had gone out of business during the 1872 and 1873 pennants races but was readmitted after each year because they paid the dues).

Hulbert, fearing that he'd never be able to compete with the huge eastern-market teams, felt he and the other western clubs were resigned to second-class citizenship. Without support from the league to create an equal playing field, he thought the only solution was to begin anew. In mid-season, he secretly met with Spalding and several other budding stars, including fellow Boston Red Stockings Ross Barnes, Deacon White, Cal McVey and future Hall of Famer Cap Anson of the Philadelphia Athletics.

Spalding was uneasy at first to sign, but after seeing Hulbert's passion for bringing a winner to Chicago and hearing of his plans for the new league, he was sold. "I would rather be a lamp post in Chicago than a millionaire in any other town," he wrote.

After inking Spalding and the other stars to play for Chicago in his new league, he began convincing other teams to join. Prior to the National Association's annual March meeting in 1876, Hulbert made stops in St. Louis and Louisville to propose his idea, gaining followers in both cities. Then he went to New York, and in a meeting room at the Grand Central Hotel on Feb. 2, brought in executives from the Athletics, Red Stockings (who would become the National League's Red Caps), Mutuals of New York and Hartford Dark Blues.

Spalding wrote of Hulbert at the meeting: "One after another came until all had arrived. Then this aggressive Base Ball manager from the west... went to the door of the room, locked it, put the key in his pocket (and addressed the astounded guests)."

Other accounts question Hulbert's locked door tactic. But no one disputes that when the businessmen emerged, the National League was a living entity. Its constitution outlined very specific rules for members teams, including punishment for rule-breaking from fines to expulsion. Future Hall of Famer Morgan Bulkeley of Hartford was named President of the National League and the season was to begin after March 15.

Hall of Famer Albert Spalding was one of the first players to sign with the new league. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)Hulbert had accomplished what he'd hoped, creating competitive league which could sustain itself and enforce order in the business of baseball. After one year, Hulbert assumed the office of president.

During the National League's first year, Anson and Spalding helped bring a pennant to Chicago as members of the White Stockings. Hall of Famers Jim O'Rourke and Harry and George Wright played for the Red Stockings, while Hall of Famer Candy Cummings pitched for Hartford.

With some success, there were several hardships to endure in the coming years and the league was tested immediately. The Athletics had been stable and successful in the National Association, but struggled in the new league. Behind in the standings, both they and the Mutuals of New York refused to make a western road trips. As penalty, both clubs were expelled and the National League contracted to six teams.

The Hartford Dark Blues and St. Louis Brown Stockings both folded after the 1877 season. Another team, the Louisville Grays, folded after the 1877 season when four players were banned for gambling. By 1880, only the White Stockings and Red Caps, today's Cubs and Braves, remained.

All eight participants from 1881 returned for 1882 – the first off-season without turnover in membership. This created a stable circuit, zig-zagging between the eight cities: Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Troy (near Albany, N.Y.), Worcester, Boston and Providence. In 1883, the New York Gothams (today's Giants) and Philadelphia Quakers (today's Phillies) joined the National League. In 1887 the Pittsburgh Alleghenys (today's Pirates) joined and in 1890 the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Bridegrooms (today's Dodgers) became NL members. The last of the pre-20th Century expansion teams to join was the Cardinals, who came over as the Browns from the American Association in 1893.

With expansion in 1962, 1969, 1993 and expansion and re-alignment in 1998, Hulbert's attempt at legitimizing professional baseball now boasts 16 member teams. Together with the American League, Major League Baseball drew an average attendance of 30,035 fans per game in 2010 – ten times the crowd for the National League's first game 135 years ago.

Spalding ended his narrative of the National League's origins in "America's National Game" by writing: "I ask all living professional Base Ball players to join me in raising our hats to the memory of William A. Hulbert, the man who saved the game!"

Trevor Hayes is the editorial production manager at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum