America's National Game/Chapter 15
FIRST GREAT BASE BALL LEAGUE AND LEADER—POWERFUL INFLUENCE OF THE PERSONALITY OF WILLIAM A. HULBERT UPON THE FORTUNES OF THE NATIONAL GAME.
AS IN the history of nations, so in that of all enterprises of magnitude, there arise from time to time men cast in heroic molds, the impress of whose acts upon the issues at hand is felt for many years. At the time of the organization of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs such a man was present in the person of William A. Hulbert.
He was not a professional ball player; had never been a player of the game. He was simply one among countless thousands of Americans who enjoyed the great national pastime, and was a frequent spectator at its exhibitions. His home was at Chicago. Being a loyal partisan of the city where he lived, he stood for the interests of the great Western metropolis, and incidentally for those of the whole Mississippi Valley. It was borne to him one day that the reason why Chicago—whose phenomenal achievements on other lines were attracting the wonder of all the world—could make no better showing on the diamond was because the East was in league against her; that certain Base Ball magnates in the Atlantic States were in control of the game; were manipulating things to the detriment of Chicago and all Western cities; that if the Chicago Club signed an exceptionally strong player he was sure to be stolen from her; that contracts had no force, because the fellows down East would and did offer players increased salaries and date new contracts back to suit their own ends.
To a man of William A. Hulbert's fibre this sort of thing was a firebrand to kindle all the heat of an ardent and combative nature.
It was something to be resented, to be fought, to be overcome. And so when, in 1875, he was urged to accept the Presidency of the Chicago Base Ball Club, he did not turn the matter down, as he might have done under different circumstances, but took it under advisement, and asked for time.
It was at this stage that I first met Mr. Hulbert. I had been playing on the Boston team as a professional for several years. Our nine had won the pennant three years in succession and had it cinched for the fourth. It was becoming monotonous. The effect of such an uninterrupted succession of all-season victories was to destroy interest in the game. "There's no use going." "Boston's sure to win." "She's hasn't lost a game on the home grounds this year." Such expressions were heard every day, and gate receipts were small. For myself, I felt that the time was ripe for a change. Moreover, I was heartily disgusted with what I saw going on all about us. I knew that gambling was practiced everywhere; that such players as had not stamina to resist the overtures made to them were being caused to swerve from the legitimate ends of the game, and to serve the illegitimate purposes of the gamesters. I do not claim for myself any degree of puritanical perfection; but I was sick and sore of existing conditions; ready to get away from them—the sooner the better. I had made up my mind fully to one thing; that unless a change soon took place in the management of the game, I was done with it at once and forever.
I was greatly impressed by the personality of Mr. Hulbert at our first meeting, in Chicago, early in 1875. He seemed strong, forceful, self-reliant. I admired his business-like way of considering things. I was sure that he was a man of tremendous energy—and courage. He told me of the interest of Chicago in Base Ball; how that thousands of lovers of the game at Chicago were wild for a winning team, but couldn't get one; how she had been repeatedly robbed of her players, and, under Eastern control of the Professional Association, had no recourse. It seemed to me that he was more deeply chagrined at the insult to Chicago than over that city's failure to make a creditable representation in the game. I told him that I was quite familiar with the entire situation; that it was the same all over the West—no city had any show under the present regime; that the spirit of gambling and graft held possession of the sport everywhere; that the public was disgusted and wouldn't patronize the pastime, and, finally, that unless there was a new deal throughout, with a cleaning out of the gamblers, both in and outside the Base Ball profession, I, for one, proposed to quit.We talked for quite a while upon the different phases of the situation, and then he said to me: "Spalding, you've no business playing in Boston; you're a Western boy, and you belong right here. If you'll come to Chicago, I'll accept the Presidency of this Club, and we'll give those fellows a fight for their lives."
I gave him to understand that I was not averse to such a movement, and said that, if I did come, I would bring a team of pennant winners. Later in the season, in June, 1875, he called upon me at Boston, as President of the Chicago Club. He there and then signed Barnes, McVey, White and myself, and I accompanied him to Philadelphia, where Anson and Sutton had already been secured through my efforts. This left three places on the team which could be readily filled from strong players on the Chicago nine, consisting of Hines, Glenn and Peters.
Every effort was made to keep this matter a secret until the close of the season, chiefly because there was a rule in force at that time to the effect that a player signing a contract with any club during the playing season, except with the one with which he was then engaged, would subject him to expulsion from the Association, which meant expulsion from professional Base Ball.
This secret lasted about two weeks, when an announcement appeared in a Chicago paper that the four Boston and two Philadelphia players above named had been signed for the Chicago Club for 1876. This announcement occasioned a great sensation in Boston and Philadelphia, and, in fact, everywhere throughout the country.
As I write this story, many amusing incidents are recalled of our experiences at Boston during the balance of that season. The Monday morning when the announcement appeared in the Boston papers it so happened that I, being out of the city, spending Sunday with some friends, did not read the papers, and I arrived at the grounds just in time to don my uniform and get onto the field in time to play in a game against the St. Louis team.
I was alone in the dressing room, when Ross Barnes came in and said:
"Well, you will get a chilly reception when you come on the field."
"What's the matter now?" I asked.
"Why, don't you know?" said Barnes. " Haven't you read the morning papers?"
I replied that I had not, whereupon he continued:
"The jig is up. The secret is out and H—'s to pay. McVey, White and I took to the woods early in the day and just arrived at the grounds a few minutes ago. Everybody seems to take it as a huge joke," added Barnes, "and we have treated it the same way, and have neither affirmed nor denied the rumor."
I knew that the Boston crowd would consider me the head devil in this secession movement, so I made a clean breast of the whole affair, and turned the joke into a reality by announcing that the statement was absolutely true. We had been dubbed the "Big Four," and for the balance of that season were caricatured, ridiculed, and even accused of treason. Boys would follow us on the streets, shouting "Oh, you seceders; your White Stockings will get soiled," and would hurl all kinds of facetious remarks at us.
The "Big Four" had certainly been popular in Boston up to the time of our so-called secession movement. We knew that we had been magnificently treated by the Boston public and the Boston Club officials, and our associations with the two Wright brothers and other members of the original Boston team had been exceedingly pleasant. If at that time we had felt free to follow our inclinations, we would most gladly have given up the whole business and remained in Boston. But we had gone too far. We had signed contracts with President Hulbert to go to Chicago the following year. Because of this he had accepted the Presidency of the Chicago Club and assumed financial obligations based upon our assurance that we would be with him in 1876. Our inclinations drew us back towards Boston, but our duty surely called us to Chicago. We therefore unanimously decided to go, regardless of what inducements might be offered to remain.
To the credit of Mr. N. T. Appolonio, then President of the Boston Club, who was criticised severely for permitting the "Big Four" to leave, I have to say that, while regretting our action, he did not put a stone in our path, nor did he urge us to break our contracts with Chicago, although he did intimate that, if it was simply a matter of salary, Boston would pay us higher salaries than Chicago had offered or would give.
The professionals of that period never looked kindly upon the rule expelling a player for signing a contract with another club during the playing season. The club officals gave it out that the reason for the rule was that players might lose interest and not do their best to win for their club if permitted to sign contracts to play elsewhere next season.
Now, it is just as natural for a ball player to play his best to win as it is for a duck to swim. They don't know any other way to play the game. The "Big Four" and their associates on the Boston team of 1875 were determined to show the fallacy of the idea that good players ever lose interest in Base Ball. We rather overdid the thing, for the Boston nine never lost a game during 1875 on the home grounds, and closed the season with a record of 71 games won and 8 lost, or a percentage of .899, which record has never been equalled in professional Base Ball.
After the close of the season of 1875 there were mutterings in the press to the effect that at the next annual meeting of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, which was to be held in March, 1876, the Boston "Big Four" and Anson and Sutton, of the Philadelphia Athletics, would be expelled for violation of the rule prohibiting players from signing contracts with other clubs during a pending season. I discussed this phase of the question with Mr. Hulbert while visiting at his home in Chicago in the fall of 1875: I probably exhibited some uneasiness on that subject, but Mr. Hulbert answered by assuring me that whatever happened Chicago would pay the salaries of her players in full. Chicago, he said, had been working for years to get a winning ball team, and now that she had finally secured one, he proposed that Chicago should have what was coming to her.
William A. Hulbert was a typical Chicago man. He never spoke of what he would do, or what his club would do, but it was always what Chicago would do. "I would rather be a lamp-post in Chicago than a millionaire in any other city," was one of his frequent and characteristic expressions.
In again referring, that same evening, to our possible expulsion, Mr. Hulbert said: "Why, they can't expel you. They would not dare do it, for in the eyes of the public you six players are stronger than the whole Association." For a few moments I noticed that he was engrossed in deep thought, when suddenly he rose from his chair and said:
"Spalding, I have a new scheme. Let us anticipate the Eastern cusses and organize a new association before the March meeting, and then see who will do the expelling." It was an inspiration. I shared his enthusiasm, and thus was a new association conceived, and out of it all came the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.
We had daily conferences concerning this new project. In trying to fix upon a name for the embryonic organization, I recall that Mr. Hulbert said: "Let us get away from the old, worn-out title, "National Association of Base Ball Players," and call it "The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs."
We spent considerable time in drafting a new Constitution for the League baby, and when it was finished we were quite proud of our work. That Constitution, with a few changes made from time to time to meet new conditions, has stood the test since 1876, and has resulted in making the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs the leading organization in the annals of the sport.
In response to my expressions of enthusiasm over this new League Constitution and what it meant for the future of professional Base Ball, I recall the following characteristic remark of Mr. Hulbert:
"Why, Spalding, the wit of man cannot devise a plan or frame a form of government that will control the game of Base Ball for over five years."
And yet the principles engrafted in that Constitution have controlled the game for thirty-five years!
The next move of this active man, who had just broken into the ranks of Base Ball magnates, was to secure a secret meeting, at Louisville, with managers from Cincinnati, St. Louis and Louisville Clubs. I was present at that meeting, and Mr. Hulbert laid before the company the program we had mapped out. He went over the current history of the game, showed conditions just as they were, declared that gambling in every form must be eradicated at once and forever, and closed with the announcement that it was proposed to organize a National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, under rules which should protect players and management and reduce the game to a business system such as had never heretofore obtained. There were present at this meeting Messrs. Charles A. Fowle, John J. Joyce, W. N. Haldeman, Thos. Shirley, Chas. E. Chase, Wm. A. Hulbert and A. G. Spalding. All the managers in attendance agreed to every proposition presented, and powers of attorney from Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville and Chicago were made out to Mr. Hulbert and Mr. Fowle, and they were clothed with full powers.
Armed with these credentials, Mr. Hulbert sent personal notices to accredited representatives of each of the Eastern professional clubs, viz.: President G. W. Thompson, of the Athletics, of Philadelphia; President N. T. Appolonio, of the Boston Club; President M. G. Bulkeley, of the Hartford Club; and President W. H. Cammeyer, of the Mutuals, of Brooklyn, that he would be pleased to meet them at his hotel—the Grand Central—in New York City, at a given hour—the time differing in each invitation—on the morning of February 2d, 1876. On the date appointed Mr. Hulbert was present at the place named to receive his company. One after another came until all had arrived. Then this aggressive Base Ball magnate from the West, who had never been present at a similar meeting in his life, went to the door of his room, locked it, put the key in his pocket, and, turning, addressed his astonished guests something after this manner:
"Gentlemen, you have no occasion for uneasiness. I have locked that door simply to prevent any intrusions from without, and incidentally to make it impossible for any of you to go out until I have finished what I have to say to you, which I promise shall not take an hour." He then laid before the assembled auditors the Base Ball situation in all its varied interests. He pointed out the evils of gambling that were threatening the very life of the game, reducing receipts, demoralizing players. He spoke of the abuse of "revolving," and paid his respects to the managers—some of whom were present—who were engaged in the reprehensible work of inducing players to violate their legal contracts. He showed that the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players had been either unable or unwilling to correct the abuses, in either of which events it was unfit for further control of the game. He closed his remarks by producing a constitution which we had prepared in advance for adoption by a new organization, to be then and there formed under the title of "The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs." Section II. of this constitution declared the objects of the new League in the following unmistakable language:
First—To encourage, foster and elevate the game of Base Ball.
Second—To enact and enforce proper rules for the exhibition and conduct of the game.
Third—To make Base Ball playing respectable and honorable.
When Mr. Hulbert had finished, if there had been any fight in his auditors when he locked the door it had entirely oozed away. A Quaker prayer meeting could not have been more decorous than the proceedings from that time until the adjournment which soon followed.Mr. Hulbert magnificently dominated the whole situation. The new man from the West had risen supreme and was absolute monarch in that assemblage. His "mailed fist" was strong enough to brush away any opposition that might manifest itself; but there was no opposition in sight. Mr. Hulbert nominated Mr. Morgan G. Bulkeley, of Hartford, as the first President of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, and when that gentleman would have waived the honor, on account of other conflicting engagements, Mr. Hulbert urged his acceptance as a tribute due to the East, where Base Ball had its origin and early development—and Mr. Bulkeley accepted. The selection of Mr. N. E. Young as Secretary of the League closed the eventful meeting, at which Mr. Hulbert demonstrated his skill and power as an organizer and ruler among men.
In closing this chapter, I wish to claim for William A. Hulbert that which is due to him as one who appeared in the history of Base Ball just at a time when such a man was needed, and as one who did more than any other among magnates to save and maintain the game in its integrity.
In December, 1876, before the National League had been a year in existence, William A. Hulbert was elected President, a position he held up to the time of his death. To him came the great struggle that attended the early years of the League. Upon his shoulders were loaded most of the heavy burdens of those days of formative and creative duty. Against him were directed the assaults of enemies of the League—and of the game. He was the recipient of the abuse of gamblers and of the innuendoes of their apologists.
The struggles he encountered cheerfully, for he was a born fighter; the duties he assumed willingly, for he was an industrious worker; the planning he undertook intelligently, for he was a master of business system, and the opposition of the rabble amused, while it injured him not at all.
William A. Hulbert was not a purist. He was never charged with religious bigotry or fanaticism of any kind other than that which manifests itself in a great love for our national game. His name was not enrolled among the list of moral reformers. He thought this world was good enough for him—for anybody, and he enjoyed it in his own way. And yet this man stood like a stone wall, protecting the game of Base Ball in its integrity and turning back the assaults of every foe who sought to introduce elements of dishonesty, discord or degeneration. He demanded always clean management, a clean game, and the best interests of manly sport.
There have been other forceful men at the head of our national organizations, men of high purpose, good judgment and fine executive ability. But in all the history of Base Ball no man has yet appeared who possessed in combination more of the essential attributes of a great leader and organizer of men than did William A. Hulbert.
Mr. Hulbert continued as President of the National League until his death, at his home in Chicago, April 10th, 1882.
A monument was erected at his grave in Graceland Cemetery, bearing the names of the eight clubs then members of the National League.
God bless his memory.
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!