Organizational genius of baseball’s pioneer days

Photo from Forest Citys Baseball. 
This weekend Major League Baseball will finally begin its coronavirus-delayed 2020 season. After cancelling more than half the season and the All-Star Game, baseball also lost its 2020 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which would have occurred this weekend in Cooperstown, New York. Instead, the ceremony will be postponed until the same weekend next year, when Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller, Ted Simmons and Larry Walker will be inducted into the Hall.

They will join Illinois stars like Ernie Banks and Frank Thomas in the baseball shrine in the rolling hills of upstate New York. The Hall is located in this small, out-of-the-way community thanks to the efforts of two men who died long before its creation: Abner Doubleday, who is credited with inventing the game of baseball on a field near Cooperstown, and the Illinoisan Albert Goodwill Spalding who credited him with doing so.

A.G. Spalding fell in love with the game of baseball as a small child in Byron, Illinois. He likely spent more time on the baseball field than in the classroom as he grew up in the years surrounding the Civil War. Moving to Rockford as a teenager, Spalding found a spot on the local amateur team. Here he introduced the first of many innovations in the game: to avoid hand injuries, he became one of the first players to wear a glove while playing. Early players thought the wearing of a glove was a sign of weakness, but once they observed Spalding’s skill on the diamond, many reconsidered and the trend caught on.

Spalding pitched for the Rockford Pioneers in the 1860s. He was then hired as a “clerk” for the Chicago Excelsiors amateur baseball club, with the option to play a little ball on the side because the rules of the era forbid professional players. With the formation of a professional league in the early 1870s, Spalding soon signed with the Boston Red Stockings, where he was a dominant pitcher. Over an eight-season career, Spalding ran up a record of 252 wins against 65 losses with a 2.14 earned run average. He was also a superb hitter, holding a career batting average of .313 for Boston and later for the Chicago White Stockings. He spent the last three seasons of his career as the White Stockings’ player-manager.

His pro career in Illinois started off in fantastic fashion: pitching a 4-0 shutout against Louisville in the 1876 season opener and going on to put together a 47-13 record. Around that same time, he helped to draft the charter of a new organization, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, which we know today by its shortened title, the National League.

But his playing days were numbered, as pitchers discovered a new phenomenon: the curveball. Spalding was never able to develop a reliable curve, and found himself off the field at the end of the 1878 season.

Unwilling to give up on the game he loved, Spalding went into the business side of baseball. With the help of his brother, he opened a sporting goods store in Chicago, and the name “A.G. Spalding & Bros.” began appearing on sports equipment. He quickly became the official supplier of sporting goods to the league he helped found – a relationship which would last for a century. Soon the business had diversified into publishing: rule books, baseball history guides and publications about other sports as well.

As a former player, manager and now a successful businessman, Spalding was chosen to become president of the Chicago franchise, and in that role he introduced another innovation which remains with us today: spring training. During the cold weeks before the start of the season, he took his squad to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to get ready for the season. Today, Hot Springs still considers itself the “birthplace of spring training.” As with the glove, other players and teams soon copied Spalding’s example.

Barnstorming baseball teams were as common in the late 1800s as they would be in the decades to come, and Spalding eagerly seized this opportunity. Having played on the Boston club as it toured Canada and England in 1872-73 (thought to be the first professional baseball games ever played in the British Isles, but not the last), he set his sights on an even grander tour.

“In order to further promote the interests of Base Ball, a few gentlemen from Chicago undertook to establish the National Game of America upon foreign soil,” wrote ballplayer Jimmy Ryan on October 20, 1888, in his journal of “the Spalding Australian Base Ball Tour”.

In 1888 Spalding picked the 20 best big leaguers and launched a round-the-world tour of eight countries, including Australia, France, Sri Lanka and a game in the shadow of the great pyramids in Egypt. Some of the players chosen for this historic tour included future Hall of Famers like Chicago’s Cap Anson and John Clarkson, and Philadelphia’s Ned Hanlon and John Montgomery Ward.

Spalding’s dream of spreading baseball around the globe would have to wait a few more decades as most of the overseas audiences seemed unenthusiastic about the new American sport.

“The Prince of Wales has witnessed the game of Base Ball with great interest,” wrote the future King Edward VII, “and though he considers it an excellent game, he considers Cricket as superior.”

But the world tour proved to be a big hit back at home.

“The welcome given our party on the return home by devotees of the game at New York was one of the great events of the remarkable tour,” Spalding wrote in his 1911 autobiography. For two weeks after their arrival in New York in the spring of 1889 the players were celebrated at banquets and barnstorming games throughout the northeastern United States, before completing the circuit in Chicago – six months and 30,000 miles later.

Photo from Forest Citys Baseball
In the early 20th century, just as today, the origins of the American pastime were in dispute. Popular legend had it that the game was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday, then a cadet at West Point, in a farm pasture near Cooperstown. Doubleday was an attractive choice for the inventor of the all-American game: a veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War and a hero of the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, Doubleday presented the kind of image Spalding sought to promote for his beloved game.

But other voices offered different ideas. Historian Henry Chadwick published an article in 1903 which credited not Doubleday, but instead posited that the game had gradually evolved from similar British games like rounders and King Edward’s preferred game of cricket.

Determined to remove what he considered the stain of foreign influence on the great American game, Spalding challenged Chadwick’s version and the two agreed to create a commission to investigate and firmly nail down the origins of baseball, chaired by a Chicagoan and former National League President Abraham Mills. The commission put out a widely-publicized, nationwide appeal for evidence about the founding, and soon received a letter from a man in Colorado crediting Doubleday with inventing the game. The story went that Doubleday had observed a game of “town ball” (which Abraham Lincoln was also known to play back in Illinois) and modified it on a field near Cooperstown, thus inventing the game of baseball.

The Mills Commission found the account to be credible, and it satisfied Spalding’s desire that the origin of the all-American game be all American. The commission issued its report assigning sole credit for the creation of the game to Doubleday, and there the matter rested for decades. Doubleday never made the claim himself, and died fifteen years before the Mills Commission finished its work. Subsequent historians have brought much of the report into doubt, but the legend endures.

One of Spalding’s successors as a visionary baseball executive, Branch Rickey, once quipped that Doubleday’s posting as the Union Army’s artillery officer at Fort Sumter in 1861 likely meant that, “the only thing Abner Doubleday ever started was the Civil War.”

Photo from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 
Over the years, Spalding’s influence on the game grew, and much of it endures today, beyond just baseball gloves and spring training. He published the first ever book of standardized rules of the game (one which did not endure was a rule that only Spalding equipment could be used). President William McKinley appointed him as the United States commissioner to the second Olympics of the modern era, and in 1915 he was one of the organizers of the Panama-California Exposition in San Francisco. Before the series was cancelled due to the pandemic, the Cardinals and Cubs were scheduled to play a short series in London this summer, following in the footsteps of A.G. Spalding’s 1888 world baseball tour.

A.G. Spalding, one of baseball’s earliest enthusiasts, star players, executives and innovators, died in 1915. When the Baseball Hall of Fame was opened (in Cooperstown) in 1939, he was among the inaugural class of inductees, his plaque saluting him as the “organizational genius of baseball’s pioneer days.”