Part of what makes baseball great, part of what makes it so captivating, is the historical sweep of the game. Despite tweaks to rules and changes to equipment, the game played by our forefathers while the Civil War faded into the background was essentially the same as that played today, though it was played out in the context of a very different world.
The ‘Major Leagues’ are generally recognized to have commenced with the inaugural season of the National Association back in 1871. The NA was a league of nine teams, based mostly in the big industrial cities of the east (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington) and Midwest (Cleveland and Chicago). However, there were some small cities that would never strike us as Major League today, including Troy, NY, and Fort Wayne and Rockford in Indiana. Teams generally played 25-33 league contests that year, the first of the four years the NA was a going concern.
In 1871, the end of the Civil War was only five years in the past. The automobile and electricity were not yet introduced into peoples’ daily lives. A train trip from Boston to the backwater of Fort Wayne (population 17,718 in 1870) was surely not a quick journey. While the slaves had been freed, women were still a long way from getting the vote. There were only 37 states in the freshly preserved union, Nebraska having been admitted just four years earlier. This was a world very different from the one we live in today.
The Rockford team in the NA was perhaps its weakest entrant – certainly they had the worst record at 4-21. They played their first league contest on May 6th, facing the Cleveland team. Both squads were called the "Forest City’s", proving that the creativity of the news media has not been in such a fierce decline as some have feared.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer carried news of the contest two days later, on May 8th, reporting a Cleveland victory of 12-4.
"The present Rockford nine is confessedly weaker than last year, yet is enrolled on the list of contestants for the championship, as are all of the professional nines. The victory of the Cleveland nine was most assuredly a decisive one, yet the real test of their strength will be applied this afternoon when they meet the Chicago heavy batters. If our boys win that game, playing in Chicago, their prospect of flying the championship pennant will be bright."
Even 140 years ago, people were eager to make bold statements based on small sample sizes. (Interestingly, they also clearly recognized the value of home field advantage.)
Despite the woeful performance of the Rockford Nine that day, and that whole year, they did have at least one good thing going for them. Their catcher that day was a strapping young man (at 6’ 0" he towered over his teammates, only one of whom was taller than 5’ 9") destined for election to the Hall of Fame. Born in 1852, Cap Anson had just turned 19, but he led the league in doubles that year while putting up a line of .325/.336/.467 (good for a 130 OPS+) while playing mostly first base.
Anson is remembered today in part for his prowess on the field, and in part for his racist attitudes and unpleasant demeanor. Though this by no means excuses his personal conduct, he was living a very different world. As an example, consider a typical newspaper of the day. In this case, the day is June 2, 1871. The previous day, Anson and the Rockford Forest Citys had played their first game in New York City, against the Mutuals. The New York Times has this to say about the game:
"A fine pleasant day, and the prospect of witnessing a grand game, attracted about 2,000 people to the Union Ball Grounds yesterday, to see the first game played by the new nine of the Forest City Club, of Rockford, in this vicinity…
The Mutual nine played well up to the standard expected of them, and offset their errors of the Haymaker match with an excellent display of fielding. The Forest Citys also handled the ball creditably, but few errors marking their play in the field, but they found WOLTERS one of the most difficult pitchers to punish they had yet encountered"
The box score lists Anson as playing second base, batting seventh, and accumulating one hit, three put-outs, and two assists, though scoring no runs. The Mutuals won by a score of 7-3, in part because they only made 10 errors to the Forest Citys’ 11 – fielding is hard without proper gloves. Aside from that detail, the game report is not terribly different from what we might read today. The same can’t be said for some of the other stories in the paper.
For instance, a report on page one gives details of the Democratic convention being held back in Ohio, to nominate that party’s candidate for governor. This group put together a series of resolutions, a sort of party platform. The first resolution read,
"1. Resolved ‘That, denouncing the extraordinary means by which they were brought about, we recognize as accomplished facts the three amendments to the Constitution recently declared, adopted, and consider the same as no longer political issues before the country’"
Those amendments were 13, 14, and 15 – abolishing slavery, defining citizenship, and extending the right of suffrage regardless of race or color respectively. The party platform called for a somewhat mean-spirited, grudging acceptance of these amendments as an established fact.
That reluctant acceptance was going too far for some, as an amended version of the platform was suggested by some members of the committee, removing the first point and replacing it with,
"That the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, having been made parts of the Constitution by violence and fraud, are revolutionary and void."
This proposed modification was rejected by a vote of 296-169.
Elsewhere in the paper, there is concern over the health of the public being endangered by the filth of the city’s tenements ("Slops and garbage are thrown into the streets, and the atmosphere reeks with the gases of decaying matter. The habits of the people themselves become exceedingly slovenly and careless"), an accounting of deaths in Brooklyn over the past week ("17 died of small-pox, 21 of consumption, 24 of disease of the brain, 19 of pneumonia, and only 1 of old age"), and the following gem on the idea of women voting:
"The arguments of the advocates of woman suffrage were sound enough, in the abstract, but in this busy age, when so many real wrongs are waiting for redress, it seemed a waste of time to listen to declamatory speeches about grievances which none but the speakers – who were not always the best examples of their sex – seemed to feel.
If the time should ever come when the great body of the women of America, or even a respectable proportion of them, manifest a desire for the right of suffrage, we venture to say they will find little difficulty in obtaining it. But, until that time arrives, it is simply preposterous for a few speakers to be continually denouncing Legislatures for not giving a legal sanction to their claims
Let the champions of ‘woman suffrage’ then, go back to the beginning, where they should have started in the first place, and educate the ‘home bodies’ up to a right appreciation of their hobby. If they succeed in making converts of them, which we very much doubt, well and good; they will get all they ask for. If not, then they will be compelled, in fairness, to give up the hobby, and we shall have a little peace."
But enough of that, back to our man, Cap Anson. Anson is the first link in a chain. This man, who played in the first professional league of consequence, is part of a series of confrontations, hitter versus pitcher, that cover the entire duration of baseball history all the way up to today in a surprisingly short series of steps. Anson marked the beginning and ending of the first generation of major leaguers. It is a relay race of sorts, and Anson ran the first leg. He handed off to the next man, and so forth, through the history of major league baseball in an unbroken strand. Somewhere out there, playing today, is a man who is the first of the ninth generation. In between are the eight showdowns that cover the breadth of baseball history.
The first of these confrontations took place on June 29, 1896 when the then 44-year old Anson stood in the batter’s box and squared off against a 29-year old flamethrower named Denton True Young, better known as Cy. (Actually, Anson and Young faced each other many times between 1890 and 1897, but this particular meeting was probably the one Young found most memorable).
In 1896, Anson was finally nearing the end of his astonishingly long career, playing first and managing the Chicago club in the National League. By this time he was the career leader in hits, at-bats, games played, runs, doubles, and RBI. He had been the manager for the Colts (formerly the White Stockings, becoming the Orphans when Anson left them, then finally settling on Cubs) since early in the 1879 season, though without much success for the last decade.
His opponent, Cy Young, was in his eighth year, all with the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. He had twice led the league in wins, and once in ERA, amassing a career record of 167-88, 3.07 (141 ERA+) through the end of 1895. Despite what you might think based on the nickname, Young didn’t strike out a ton of hitters. He only led the league in strikeouts twice in his 22 year career. His most exceptional attribute (if it wasn’t his durability) was his control – he had the fewest walks per nine innings fourteen of his 22 years.
The Cleveland Leader has this to say about the game in its June 30th edition of 1896:
"A bunching of hits, combined with a circus display of errors by the Colts, gave Cleveland the first game of the series to-day.
Throughout the battle was hard fought, and both teams played clean, consistent ball, with little wrangling, save from Anson, who entered protest every few minutes against Young’s alleged foul delivery. Keefe’s miserable umpiring was the marring feature of the game."
Like the newspapers, the umpires seem to have not so much fallen as never really risen above the muck.
"Tebeau was hissed repeatedly by the large crowd which came out, but refrained from noticing the demonstration. The stands were dotted over by the special detail of officers sent out with the expectation of trouble, and to make civil arrests in case of profanity or rowdyism, but the Clevelands made many friends by their gentlemanly behavior and their brilliant playing."
Young was the victor on the day, pitching a complete game and allowing only two earned runs, one walk, and striking out three in the 9-6 Cleveland victory. However, it was a come-from-behind victory. Anson’s Colts struck first, jumping to a 2-0 lead on Anson’s first inning home run. It’s worth going back to 1896 to read the home run call.
"Everett led off with a corking single past third, and Dahlen and Lange went out. Anson was next. The ‘chestnut colt’ whipped his big bat around and smashed the sphere far out. The aged one hesitated a moment, and then began his sprint and passed over the four turns of the pike with a messenger-boy-on-a-hurry-call gait, and scored a home run."
Anson would hit only four more home runs in the final year and a half of his playing career.
Elsewhere in the paper we learn that fine straw hats of an elegant style can be purchased for only $1.98, that the players for the Fort Wayne ball club were to be arrested for playing a game on a Sunday, and that a medical expert has determined that early rising is a cause of insanity.
On a more familiar note, the stories of scrap metal theft, the low sort of scum seeking political office ("Jerry Simpson has been heard from again. He says the country will go to the dogs unless he is sent back to Congress. Well, even dogs are preferable to some things that might be named if space permitted") and Chinese folk medicine ("Pulverized tiger bones are used as medicine in China. It is believed that they impart to the invalid the strength of a tiger") would all fit right into today’s papers.
Meanwhile, the New York Times edition of that same day reports of an ongoing small-pox epidemic in Cuba and McKinley’s acceptance of his nomination as presidential candidate of the Republican Party. In a precursor to today’s efforts to convert unused rail lines for use by cyclists, the North End Wheelmen sought permission to rehabilitate a section of the tow path along the Erie Canal to make it suitable for travel by bicycle. Indeed, there was a surprising amount of coverage of cycling. In another section of the paper, a brief article revealed the prevalence of this pastime, and the fact that peoples’ senses of humor have not changed much in a century,
"Bicycle riders had a hard time of it yesterday in getting over a portion of Bedford Avenue, near De Kalb Avenue, Brooklyn. About one out of a hundred riders succeeded in getting over this place, but the other ninety-nine fell from their wheels.
Fully 500 persons on the sidewalk enjoyed seeing the riders tumble off their wheels, and laughed heartily at every cyclist as he or she tried to cross the little portion of asphalt pavement and went down.
The cause of the trouble was caterpillars. The rain washed the caterpillars from the trees, and, as they were crushed by passing vehicles and bicycles, they formed a slippery substance, on which rubber tires slipped."
It was true then, it is true now, it will be true in 100 years – it’s funny to see people fall down.
Thirteen years later, Cy Young was still pitching effectively in the major leagues, despite his advanced age of 42. The previous year he had been 21-11 with a 1.26 ERA for the Boston Red Sox, but in 1909 Young was back in Cleveland, this time with the American League club, the Naps. He entered the year with 478 of his eventual 511 pitching wins.
On April 20th, Young pitched in his second game of the season, facing off against the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers had a young centerfielder with a great bat, a man by the name of Ty Cobb. Cobb had led the league in hits and batting average each of the two previous years. He was just 22 years old, but was already one of the great talents of the game.
Cleveland won the game, 12-2, on the strength of Young’s grand performance. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, in their April 21st edition, was effusive in their praise.
"’Cy’ Young Makes Star Play
Detroit, Mich., April 20 –
‘Cy’ Young made one of the grandest plays ever seen on a baseball field in the eighth inning. Incidentally, he tossed out McIntyre, one of the fastest men in the league. McIntyre rolled a grounder along the first base line about four or five feet on the grass. There was no chance for Stovall to get him so he ran back to the bag. Young charged in on the ball at top speed. It did not look as though he had one opportunity out of a hundred to land his man. When he reached the ball McIntyre was almost to the base. Young swooped down, grasped the ball with his bare hand and while seeing the catcher tossed back handed to Stovall. The ball went straight as a string into the first baseman’s hands and beat the runner by a stride. Young was given a great ovation for his wonderful piece of work."
Another Cleveland paper, the Leader, shared this enthusiasm for Young. They published an editorial extolling the virtues of the pitcher in their edition that day.
"About the most conspicuous confounder of Oslerism in the world of athletics is "Old Cy" Young – Cleveland’s "Cy", in the beginning, long ago, and again this auspicious year. He isn’t old, as things go in the professions, for example, or in public life. Roosevelt is eight years older. So is the Kaiser. Bryan was nearly as big as "Billy" Whitla is now when "Cy" was born. But baseball is another story. In that stronghold of youth Young is a wonder of undiminished prowess. In that whirlwind sport a champion at forty-two is a marvel."
They go on to praise Young for his temperance and sobriety, his level-headedness, and his "gift of wise moderation".
Elsewhere in the newspapers, we see that wealthy men were marrying much younger women ("Aged Millionaire Weds. Former head of great car works marries girl thirty-nine years his junior"), homemakers were eager for recipes for pork pie and marshmallow pudding, and plans were being hatched to communicate with Mars via a system of mirrors.
That last one deserves a little more attention. It was mentioned only in passing in the Cleveland Leader, in a column of short items like "State University boy sells his uniform and a cornet to elope with a girl. We reserve judgment on the trade till we’ve seen the girl" and "Youngstown ‘Vindicator’ says that Toledo has the most local pride. Lightweights have to be proud, to get away with their bluff". However, the New York Times gives the piece front-page consideration. On page one, in column two, the story follows the headline "Talk of Signals to Mars".
"Prof. William Henry Pickering’s idea of communicating with Mars with signals flashed by a $10,000,000 set of mirrors is treated with amused skepticism by the general body of astronomers now in Paris attending the International Congress to Map the Heavens. The Harvard observer believes that such signals are possible when the planet shall approach within 35,000,000 miles of the earth, or 5,000,000 miles nearer than ever before.
M. Ballaud, Director of the Paris Observatory, doubts the seriousness of the proposal.
M. Camille Flammarion, however, says that the establishment of communication with Mars is entirely within the bounds of possibility.
‘Every condition points to the probability that Mars is inhabited by animal life," he said to-day, "but the time probably has not yet come for us successfully to signal them. It may be that they long have been signaling us. All cosmological studies go to show that Mars is older and has attained a greater development than the earth. The Martians are probably infinitely superior intellectually to us, who have not yet learned to conduct the simplest affairs, and spend three-quarters of our resources in maintaining engines of destruction."
Ty Cobb versus Mel Harder, May 16th, 1928
Mel Harder versus Yogi Berra, August 1st, 1947
Yogi Berra versus Mickey Lolich, June 16, 1963