Defeats & Disappointment

The success of the White Stockings in 1876 was due not only to their stellar offense, but also pitcher Al Spalding, who led the fledgling National League with his 47 wins. When he was not on the field hurling baseballs, he and his brother, Walter, operated a sporting goods store at 118 Randolph Street in Chicago, which they had opened earlier in the year

As the sporting publication the New York Clipper announced, the two businessmen promised that “special attention is paid by this house to the getting-up of club uniforms, and that they are prepared to supply all the necessary outfit[s] for baseball and sporting associations.” (Advertisement is from the Chicago Daily Tribune.  Click on image to enlarge)

It was fortunate that Al Spalding had his business to fall back on, as he decided to curtail his pitching career. He would still pitch some games in the next season, but he would play most games at first base instead. He would also continue his role as team manager, club secretary, and colleague of White Stockings President William A. Hulbert.

As team officials, Hulbert and Spalding attended the National League’s first convention, held in Cleveland from December 7–8, 1876. The meeting delegates unanimously elected William Hulbert president of the National League for 1877, which would field teams in Boston, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, St. Louis—and, of course, Chicago.

Any feelings of optimism Hulbert and Spalding might have had would soon dashed, as the White Stockings did not live up to pre-season expectations. The team won its regular season opener but then lost four in a row. Furthermore, star hitter Ross Barnes was out for much of the season with a debilitating illness similar to malaria. As for the other White Stockings, they also seemed unable to play baseball as well as they had during the previous season. In early June the Chicago Daily Tribune attributed an embarrassing 9–2 defeat to “loose fielding and scandalously weak batting,” though the latter, it dryly added, had been so noticeable during the season that “it excited no special comment.” (Photograph of Ross Barnes taken in 1872.

The same could have been said about the White Stockings as a whole. They limped through September and October winning just six games out of 17 (6–10–1).  Infielder Adrian Anson dubbed 1877 “a year of disaster as far as Chicago was concerned,” for the team finished the season buried fifth among the National League’s six clubs, 15½ games behind first-place Boston. The New York Clipper faulted Captain Al Spalding, pointing out that as captain, assistant to William Hulbert, and store owner, he had “too many irons in the fire.”

Spalding knew that his and his brother’s thriving sporting goods store was occupying an increasing amount of their attention. The ball player also realized that his athletic skills were fading, and he retired from active play at the end of the season. He would, though, still retain administrative club duties under President William Hulbert.

In 1878 the White Stockings took the field in a new ballpark, built on the same location as the facility that had burned down in 1871, thanks to the Chicago Fire. Their gleaming new park, however, was about the only bright spot for the Chicago players during the 1878 baseball season, as their finished fourth place in the National League, 11 games behind Boston.

What led to the apparent collapse of the White Stockings?  The Chicago Daily Tribune sarcastically noted at the end of September that they were “outbatted and outfielded,” but sagging team morale might also have played a role. Hulbert had needed a new player-manager to replace Al Spalding, so he hired Bob Ferguson of the Hartfords of Brooklyn. Ferguson was indeed a good, solid player, but his hot temper was well known around the baseball world. On top of his poor managerial skills, Ferguson occasionally butted heads with William Hulbert, who failed to renew his contract at the end of the season.  (Left is Bob Ferguson, circa 1878).

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