First Championship

It was the inaugural season of the National League, and newspapers around the country predicted great things for the Chicago White Stockings in 1876. The New York Times concluded that “the Chicago Club is, individually, stronger than any of the strong nines they have yet put forth.” The well-known sporting publication, The New York Clipper, predicted that with some teams “do[ing] their best to polish off Chicago, . . . things will be hot and lively next year.”

NL_logoThat  “hot and lively” season of 1876 opened in April with eight charter members of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs in contention for the championship pennant: Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  (Teams were often referred to as the plural form of their home cities, such as the Hartfords or the Bostons.) Click on National League logo to enlarge.

With games scheduled for April, the Chicagos began assembling in early March for practice and training.  It turned out to be a cold,  wet spring in Chicago, and with their Twenty-third Street Grounds flooded for much of the month, the ballplayers had to seek out drier parks for practice.  By the time of their first game in the middle of the month, however, conditions had improved.  “The grounds were found in fair shape,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune, “and did very well to play on.” The White Stockings certainly had no problems; they easily defeated by the score of 37-6 a team comprised of mostly local, amateur ballplayers.  Two days later, the White Stockings were once more victorious. beating what was widely regarded as the strongest team of amateurs in the state.

white_stockings_1876The White Stockings proved to be strong as well, and they are pictured in the lithograph at right.  From the upper left-hand corner and proceeding clockwise, the ballplayers included: John Glenn, left fielder; Al Spalding, pitcher and captain; Roscoe “Ross” Barnes, second baseman; Oscar Bielaski, substitute; John Peters, short stop; Paul Hines, center fielder; Cal McVey, first basemen and relief pitcher; James “Deacon” White, catcher; Fred Andrus, player engaged on short-term trial; Bob Addy, right fielder; and Adrian Anson, third baseman. (Click on lithograph image to enlarge.)

Some of these men deserve particular mention.  When White Stockings President William Hulbert lured Al Spalding from the Boston Red Stockings in the summer of 1875, the baseball executive also signed teammates Cal McVey, Deacon White, and Ross Barnes, all commonly known as Boston’s “Big Four.” Hulbert also received a commitment from Adrian Anson of the Philadelphia Athletics.

By this time the Red Stockings, thanks to Al Spalding’s pitching, were well on their way to their fourth consecutive National Association pennant.  Needless, to say, the “defection” of the Big Four to  Chicago did not set well with eastern fans, who branded them as “seceders” (hardly a term of affection in this post-Civil War era).  As the Worcester Spy newspaper orated in flowery fashion: “Boston is in mourning. Like Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted because the famous base ball nine, the perennial champions, the city’s most cherished possession, has been captured by Chicago.”

And with the “Big Four,” Chicago was poised to capture baseball’s championship pennant.  In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune, Spalding certainly felt that his team’s chances were excellent, as he commented that Deacon White “is recognized as the best catcher in the country.”  Spalding added that Cal McVey “is considered the best batter in the profession” and that “it would be no vain boast to say that [Ross Barnes] has led the batting average of the world–in fact, McVey and Barnes are acknowledged the best batters in the world.  Anson is also a Western man, being a native of Iowa, and is a thorough representative of the sturdy Western breed. . . . We expect that Anson will show us some fine play at third base next season.”

baseball_in_old_chicago_trimmedAll of the White Stockings exhibited “fine play” during their first professional game in Louisville against the Louisville Grays on April 25.  In fact, Al Spalding pitched the National League’s first shut-out in the 4-0 victory.  The Chicagos followed this game two days later with another shutout, 10-0, and set off for Cincinnati.  Their two matches with the Red Stockings resulted in not only another two wins but also the National League’s first home run.  On May 2, second baseman Ross Barnes belted the “finest hit of the game,” the Tribune exclaimed, right down the left field side “for a clean home run.” (Left: A Chicago baseball history published in 1939 by the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Illinois.)

The success would not last, of course. In early May, with Cal McVey at home tending to a sick child and out of the batting lineup, Captain Spalding and his teammates found themselves in St. Louis and on the losing end of a Brown Stockings shutout, 1-0.  The White Stockings redeemed themselves a few days later, however, defeating the Browns by the score of 3-2.  The Tribune bragged that the Chicagos returned home from their road trip on May 9 “bringing with them five creditable victories and leaving one scalp in St. Louis—a record which is, so far, the best in the country.” The White Stockings took the field the next day for their first National League home stand, and between five and six thousand fans cheered Al Spalding and his men to a 6-0 shutout against the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

anson_book_trimmedAlthough the Chicagos’ record would not always be “the best in the country,” they continued to distinguish themselves on the playing field.  On May 21 they boarded a train to begin their eastern road trip. The first stop was Hartford, followed by Boston, Philadelphia, and then New York.  In his memoir, A Ball Player’s Career (1900), Adrian Anson recalled that even though the Hartfords were the White Stockings’ toughest opponents, “All through the season of 1876 the most intense rivalry existed between the Chicago and Boston Clubs.”  The two teams had not competed against each other since William Hulbert had lured Spalding, White, Barnes, and McVey to Chicago, and it seemed to Anson “as if all Boston had determined to be present” at the game.

Perhaps not all of Boston showed up, but the Chicago Daily Tribune figured that some 14,000 fans went through the gates while another thousand enjoyed free seats on rooftops.  The White Stockings defeated the Boston team, 5-1, and returned home a month after they  had left with a 20-4 record and a one-game lead over the Hartford Dark Blues.


Adrian Anson (see book cover above)

The Chicagos traveled east once more in September, where they won nearly all of their road games.  Only a few home matches remained on the team’s schedule, and on September 26 an exuberant Chicago Evening Journal reporter declared that “it is now a sure thing that the Whites will have the championship.  By winning one more game out of the five they have to play they cannot lose it.”  The reporter was correct.  Three days later the White Stockings defeated the Hartford Dark Blues, 7-6, to clinch the first National League pennant (finishing the season with a 52-14 record). Hartford ended six games back, while the St. Louis Brown Stockings and the Bostons were in third and fourth place, respectively.

In late September the White Stockings embarked on a road trip to play some exhibition games around the Midwest.  While writing up a brief news article about their return home, a Tribune reporter added a few comments about the 1876 season and listed the names of the men who had agreed to play for Chicago the following year.  The sportswriter admired the strength of the lineup and implied that another championship was in the works.

He should have simply basked in the reflected glory of the team’s hard-won success rather than anticipate future victories.  Come spring, it would soon be readily apparent that the new season would not end so triumphantly.

The July 19, 1877, issue of the juvenile magazine Our Boys honors the White Stockings of 1876, who clinched the National League’s first pennant with a 7-6 victory over the Hartford Dark Blues on September 26, 1876.  The “Chicago Champions,” clockwise from top, are Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, George Bradley, Charlie Waitt, Paul Hines, John Peters, Adrian Anson, and John Glenn.  Al Spalding is in the center.  According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the game was “close and exciting”  and was “hardly surpassed by any contest of the year.”  The Chicago team finished the season with a 52-14 record and dominated the league with its batting average of .337, trailed far behind by Hartford at .267 and Boston at .266.

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