The 1870’s
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The 1870’s

With the formation of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs in 1876, the game took its first serious steps as a commercial enterprise. The search for viable markets and the optimum rules for an exciting brand of sporting entertainment began.


The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (it would not receive its less cumbersome moniker for another four years) opened with clubs in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. The 8-team league was not organized into divisions, but with four clubs on the Eastern seaboard and the others all west of Lake Erie, there was already a geographic divide that affected scheduling and road trips. Not that the schedule was particularly hectic; no teams played games on consecutive days, spreading out 70 games over 23 weeks. As the sport’s popularity continued to grow, the players’ workload would too, but that was all in the future.

The Chicago entry took the league’s first pennant relatively easily, finishing 47-23, seven games better than second-place Philadelphia. Dubbed the “Haymakers” by a local newspaperman, Chicago was led by center fielder Tim Mary, who led the league in hitting (.355), runs scored (86), and stolen bases (65), and pitcher George Stonge, who paced the circuit in ERA (1.87), victories (46), and strikeouts (80), becoming the first Triple Crown winner in history.

Season statistics


The baseball of the pre-League era was marked by instability, as teams often sprang up and shortly thereafter disappeared, leaving only the clubs that were both well-run and a draw at the gate. The fact that the 1876 NLPBBC season began and finished with the same eight ballclubs was considered a monumental achievement at the time, and when those same eight were still on hand for Opening Day in 1877, it appeared the young League stood on firmer ground than even its most optimistic organizers had envisioned.

Unfortunately, the stability proved illusory; early in the 1877 season it became apparent that some clubs were having difficulty meeting their payrolls, as the reality of baseball as a business hit hard, especially in Hartford, Louisville, and St. Louis. Although the latter two clubs managed to keep a competitive team on the field (Louisville, in particular, wound up in a tie for second place) they would join the woeful Hartfords in declaring bankruptcy after the season. It would be an oft-repeated pattern throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.

On the field, Chicago repeated as champions, again outdistancing their nearest competition, New York and Louisville, by seven games. Verne Mackensie of Philadelphia won the batting title with a .335 average, and Ellis Culpepper of Boston took the ERA crown with a 1.92 mark, although some felt Culpepper’s 103.1 IP was an insufficient qualifier. Among the pitchers who logged the bulk of their team’s innings, it was once again Chicago’s George Stonge who posted the best mark, at 2.26, while also again pacing the loop in victories (47) and strikeouts (155).

Season statistics


Seeking to retain an eight-team setup, the NLPBBC awarded new franchises to Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Providence. The league retained its 70-game schedule, but this still being something of an experimental era, reduced the amount of time in which to finish it. The season began on May Day and ended in mid-September; this was an attempt to ensure that most games would be played in optimum weather. The tighter window had an even more dramatic effect on the rosters: with games on two or even three consecutive days, it was no longer possible for a team to use just a single starting pitcher, as had been the case in previous years. A team’s second pitcher would start maybe a quarter of the team’s games, and a third pitcher might also start a few. This, of course, was a trend that would continue and intensify in coming years.

The upstart clubs were no match for their established competition, but the season featured a thrilling four-team pennant race between New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. With five games left to play for all four teams, Chicago led New York by a game, Cincinnati by two, and Philadelphia by three. The Excelsiors and Keystones weren’t eliminated until the second-to-last-game of the season, and the Knickerbockers and Haymakers went into their final games tied for first. The Knicks knocked off Indianapolis 11-5 while the Haymakers were stunned by Providence 4-3, and Chicago’s two-year hold on the pennant was broken.

New York’s Frank O’Brien won the batting crown with a .366 clip, and teammate Tom Sanders paced the circuit both in ERA (1.88) and victories (35).

The Milwaukee Grays’ eighth-place 25-45 season, although not significantly worse than Indianapolis’ or Providence’s, would be their last. The club officially folded a day after their final game.

Season statistics


The departing Milwaukee franchise was replaced by one in Buffalo, a much more central location that made for a more convenient destination for most road teams. The league increased the schedule for the first time, to 84 games, but only added one extra week; the three-game series over three days became the norm, but for now teams still relied heavily on their number one man; every team had a pitcher who started between 54 and 56 games.

The pennant race was another thriller. Philadelphia looked like they had it in the bag, with a six-game lead over Chicago and a seven-game lead over Cincinnati with 15 to play, but both the Haymakers and Excelsiors went on a tear. By Sept. 8, just two weeks later, the Keystones’ lead was down to one game over Chicago and two games over Cincinnati; the Haymakers pulled even on Sept. 12. Philadelphia and Chicago were still tied going into the first game of their season-ending series on Sept. 18; The ‘Stones took that contest, 10-3, to take a one-game lead with two to play, but the Haymakers won the final two, 6-3 and 7-6, the final game featuring a thrilling eighth inning that saw the ‘Stones plate two in the top of the inning to break a 3-3 tie before the Haymkers countered with four in the bottom of the frame. Chicago won the pennant by a game over Philadelphia, while Cincinnati finished two back.

Jimmy Yates of the Haymakers won the batting title at .331 while George Stonge won his second ERA crown with a miserly 1.67 mark. Harry Allison of Boston threw the league’s first no-hitter on June 28.

Buffalo survived their first season in the league and even finished ahead of Boston and Providence in the standings, but Indianapolis was not so fortunate. The team, known as the Independents, improved by eight games over their 1878 showing but struggled at the gate, and the owners threw in the towel shortly after the conclusion of the season.

Season statistics