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First Professional Baseball Team:  Flashback  

With the 2005 baseball season upon us along with steroids, a new team in Washington, the Red Sox and Yankees sure to go against each through the long season - it is always interesting to look back at the roots of the game.

The first truly professional team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, established in 1869. It was not that they were the first team of paid players; it was just that they were the first team that publicly announced that players were paid.  Financing for the Red Stockings came from a group of Ohio investors.

Organized in 1867 by twenty-six-year-old attorney aptly named Aaron B.Champion, the Cincinnati team was entrusted to the hands of English-born Harry Wright, a former jeweler and cricket player, a veteran of a decade of top-drawer baseball competition. Wright had come to the United States when his father, a famous cricket player, was hired by the fashionable St. George Cricket Club in New York. The Wright brothers,
Harry, George and Sam took up the game of baseball to the chagrin of their cricket loving dad.             

Champion looked upon the Red Stockings as a way to promote the city of Cincinnati, its products and services. And Champion looked upon Harry Wright as scout, recruiter, player, and manager-as a man to get a job done. 

The total payroll for the 1869 season for the Red Stockings was $9,300. Salaries covered the period from March to November and ranged from $800 to a high of $1,400 for brother George Wright. The lone sub picked up $600. The Red Stockings became the first team to travel across the United States with its players signed and bound to the club for the entire season.

Only one member of the team actually came from Cincinnati despite the home town hype. Most players were young New Yorkers from varying professions including hat making, insurance sales, bookkeeping and piano making, who had made their reputations playing on successful amateur teams.

The Red Stockings were referred to as a "picked nine," which might have been an exaggeration-but it was a nine picked by Harry Wright. The only native of Cincinnati on the team was first baseman Charlie Gould, nicknamed the "bushel basket" because of his ability to snare baseballs. Others included Wright, his brother George, star shortstop, obtained from the Morrisania Unions of New York; third baseman Fred Waterman; outfielders Asa Brainard, Dave Birdsall, and Andy Leonard; pitcher Cal McVey; second baseman Cal Sweasy; catcher Doug Allison. Harry Wright doubled as a relief pitcher, and Dick Hurley, appropriated from the Buckeyes of Cincinnati, functioned as a utility player.

1867 Cinicinnati Base Ball Club Roster

Player    Position
John McLean    Catcher
J Wayne Neff    First Base
Bellemy Storer    Second Base
Dave Schwartz    Third Base
John C. How    Shortstop
Moses Grant    Left Field
J. Williams Johnson    Center Field
Gerald Ellard    Right Field
Harry Wright    Pitcher
William Worthington    Scorer


In 1868, the Cincinnati Red Stockings introduced knee-length knickerbocker pants. Although the shortened pants spurred jeers from players and fans, the garment caught on, and today's baseball pants in length are modeled after those early pants. The Red Stockings used cricket flannel and, to keep costs down, uniforms were ordered in just three basic sizes, so that a player could substitute for a worn-out uniform part quickly and economically.

A shrewd promoter, Harry Wright insisted on his team wearing bright red stockings to set off their white flannel shirts and pants and dark Oxford shoes. The garb was a bit outlandish for the time, but the outfit attracted attention. That, of course, was what Wright and Chapman were after.

Harry Wright, a stern taskmaster, went about drilling the team, mandating work habits, insisting players be businesslike on the field, admonishing them on diet, drink, tobacco and clean living.

Wright's team was prepared to take on all comers-the price was right-the Queen City team pocketed a hefty share of the gate receipts. Winners of their first seventeen games, the team from the West confronted the Mutuals on June 14, 1869, before 8,000 fans at the Union Grounds in Brooklyn. The Red Stockings prevailed 4-2 over the tough eastern team. That victory was a pivotal moment in the fortunes of the Red Stockings, for from that triumph on opponents realized the Cincinnati team was not a side show but a main event.

More high moments existed for the Red Stockings but there were some down times. There were some big paydays in New York City and Philadelphia, but there were washouts figuratively and literally in other places. Sawdust and brooms applied to the wet places on the field in Rochester sopped up rainy day problems there. But in Syracuse, Wright's baseballers had to contend with a ball park ready for the wrecker's ball: twelve-inch-high grass, and a live-pigeon shoot being staged on the field. Syracuse was a non payday.

That season the Cincinnati Red Stockings played baseball throughout the Northeast and West, traveled 11,000 miles. The team won 57 games and recorded one disputed tie against the Troy Haymakers. Over 23,000 spectators witnessed their six-game series in New York City and almost 15,000 assembled for a game in Philadelphia. On June 26 ,the team had a private audience in Washington with President Ulysses S. Grant, who complimented the western "Cinderella" club for its skills and winning ways.
In September, they journeyed across the country on the newly completed transcontinental railroad and played a series of games in California. During the trip, nearly 200,000 fans attended the games.

Photographs of the "picked nine," serious-looking young men with beards and sideburns, were everywhere. The stock photographs captured the facade but not the tone of the team. Despite Wright's best efforts, excessive alcohol consumption, a penchant for skipping practices and missing trains, and an eccentric and individualistic attitude characterized the merry band of players, who swept the country, along with their theme song:

We are a band of baseball players From Cincinnati city.
We come to toss the ball around And sing to you our ditty
And if you listen to the song We are about to sing,
We'll tell you all about baseball And make the welkin ring.
The ladies want to know
Who are those gallant men in
Stockings red, they'd like to know.

At season's end, feted and praised in a lavish homecoming, the Red Stockings were presented with a twenty-seven-foot bat by the Cincinnati Lumber Company-a symbol of their on-the-field accomplishments.

"I'd rather be president of the Cincinnati Baseball Club," bragged Champion, "than president of the United States."

"Glory," one proud Cincinnati booster said, "I don't know anything about baseball or town ball, nowadays, but it does me good to see those fellows. They've done something to add to the glory of our city. They advertised the city, advertised us, sir, and helped our business."

The Red Stockings had a winning first season - 65 wins and no losses - but made a profit of only $1.39.  Nevertheless, in the final balance sheet of baseball doings for 1869, the Red Stockings of Cincinnati managed to have a tremendous impact on the state of baseball in America. "They met with such remarkable success in that year," noted famed baseball journalist Harry Chadwick, "that their exploits are noteworthy in the history of the game."

Harry Wright was now an icon. The Cincinnati Enquirer said reported: he "eats base-ball, breathes base-ball, thinks base-ball, dreams base-ball, and incorporates base-ball in his prayers."

Part of the impact of the Red Stockings was on other cities that wanted a baseball champion to represent them. Cincinnati's success made it sunset time for the amateur in baseball and dawn for professionalism.

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune, miffed because it was constantly reporting on the one-sided losses of the local team, reflected the mood of the time. It called for "a representative club; an organization as great as her [Chicago's] enterprise and wealth, one that will not allow the second-rate clubs  of every village in the Northwest to carry away the honors in baseball."

The Red Stockings, the best team in all of baseball, kept on rolling over the opposition in 1870.  In early June their winning streak had reached 92 straight triumphs -27 in a row that season.

Then on June 14th, they came up against the Brooklyn Atlantics at the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn. It was hailed as the greatest game of the year. It was the most historic game of 19th century baseball. 

The heavily favored Cincy aggregation on that steamy day sported knickers, vivid red wool stockings, and shirts emblazoned with an old English "C."    The Atlantics wore caps of light buff linen, long blue trousers, and shirts with "A" stitched on the chest.
  The Cincinnati Red Stockings' winning streak stood at 84 straight.  An excited and noisy Brooklyn crowd that numbered more from in estimates that ranged all the way to 20,000 showed up to watch the action. 

George "the Charmer" Zettlein, the top fastball pitcher of the time, and Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson formed the battery for the Atlantics. Stationed at second base was Lipman Pike, the first top notch Jewish ball player. In 1858, a week after his bar mitzvah, he appeared in a box score. That was the least of his accomplishments. Pike also raced 100 yards against a Standardbred horse for $200 - - and won.

The Reds led 3-0 after three innings.  At the end of nine innings, the score was tied 5-5. Back then draws were declared if the score was tied at the end of the regulation nine innings. The Brooklyn Atlantics would have settled for that, but  Harry Wright checked with As the story goes Henry Chadwick, in attendance at the game. The well known baseball author said the game should go to extra innings.  The Atlantics were changing clothes in their locker room. Fans were milling about on the playing field. Aaron Champion told Harry Wright to have the Red stocking play on. Order was restored and the teams played on.

Cincy scored twice in the top of the eleventh inning. It seemed over but the Atlantics were not done. In the bottom of the eleventh, with ace Asa Brainard on the mound for Cincinnati, the Atlantics  tied the game with a single, a wild pitch, then two more hits. There was only one out for the Atlantics. They had a runner Bob Ferguson on first base.  The next batter George Zettlein tapped a grounder to first base. Charlie Gould, the Red Stockings' first baseman, allowed the ball to play him - it bounced between his legs. Ferguson sped home.

FACTOID  "From 12,000 to 15,200 people passed into the inclosure {sic} to witness the sport and we are sorry to say that the crowd was boisterous and noisy and greatly marred the pleasure of the game for those  who wanted to look on quietly. The Red Stockings were not treated with the courtesy they had hitherto received, and for the first time, and we trust, the last, partisan feeling was allowed to display itself." - - Harper's Weekly

The 8-7 come-from-behind victory for the Atlantics triggered wild celebration. The partian crowd went wild, some said, beserk. Running a gauntlet of catcalls, jeers and projectiles, the defeated and dejected Red Stockings were fortunate to escape the playing field and the borough of Brooklyn with their lives.

"Within an hour," one newspaper reported, "the result had been telegraphed to every city, town in the United States. Maybe even to Los Angeles."

When Champion finally made it to the safety of his hotle room, he collapsed in tears. He sent off a telegram to the Commercial  "Atlantics 8 Cincinnati. The finest game ver played. Our boys did nobly but fortune was against us. Though beaten, not disgraced."
Incredibly, the defeat did disgrace the greatest team in the land and destroyed some of the mystique of the Red Stockings. Jaded fans did not flock to games as they previously had.  Investors began to withdraw from the scene. The Cincinnati Gazette joined in the bashing spree: "the baseball mania has run its course. It has no future as a professional endeavor."4

Then the Red Stockings experienced another defeat- this time to Chicago. Champion was forced out of the presidency by a revolt of Cincinnati stockholders. Penny pinching became the order of the day as a buffer against declining attendance.

With money tight, with Champion still on the scene but lacking the old power, that 1870 season was the last hurrah for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Before the year was over, they had the club broke up. The Wright brothers, Harry and George, moved on with some of the best Cincinnati players and set up shop in Boston in the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. It was there they would inaugurate another baseball dynasty-the Boston Red Stockings.

 

#   #   #

You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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