The 1880’s
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The 1880’s

The newly re-christened National Base Ball League experienced growing pains, as a few teams thrived but many more sprang up and shortly thereafter vanished. A challenger, the American Base Ball Association, emerged. By the end of the decade the two leagues had forged an uneasy alliance. The game’s popularity continued to grow.


The League, now calling itself the National Base Ball League (“baseball” wouldn’t be standardized as one word until later), awarded Cleveland a franchise, which became known as the Blues.

Another great pennant race thrilled the fans of Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, and Philadelphia; the ’Cels and ’Stones stayed in contention until the final week, and for the second year in a row, the Haymakers found themselves tied with a team from the East on the eve of the first game of their final three-game series. This time the Knicks, who won 12 of their last 14 games, quelled the suspense by taking the first two games of the series to clinch the flag with a game to spare.

The Knicks’ Marty Paine won the batting title, hitting .340, while teammate Tom Sanders led the loop in ERA (1.53) and victories (36). The second no-hitter—and first perfect game—in league history was thrown by Cincinnati’s John Smith on August 8 vs. Buffalo.

It was an exciting season, and attendance was generally good, but it was not to be a smooth transition into 1881. Among League President Hubert Williams’ strictest edicts was the prohibition of alcohol sales at league games; when the Excelsiors were revealed to have allowed beer to be sold at Seven Hills Park, Williams removed them from the league, a maneuver that would have consequences far beyond the city of Cincinnati.

Season statistics


A Detroit franchise, at first known as the Maroons, was approved as a replacement for Cincinnati.

This year there was little drama in the pennant chase, as Chicago rebounded from their heartbreaking second place finish the previous season to take the title by a comfortable six games. The most interesting development was the sudden emergence of Buffalo as a contender; in just their third season in the league, the Colts finished 20 games above .500 and in second place.

Chicago’s Jim Newton hit .336 to edge Detroit’s John Wyatt for the batting championship; Wyatt hit .335. Eli Taylor of Buffalo topped the leagues’ hurlers in ERA with a 1.73 mark, while the Haymakers’ George Stonge notched 36 victories to best Taylor by a single win; as Taylor also led the league in strikeouts with 236, Stonge’s last win of the year—which came on the final day of the season—denied Taylor the Triple Crown.

League President Williams, having affirmed his authority the previous season by ousting Cincinnati, drummed both Philadelphia and Cleveland from the loop after the conclusion of the 1881 campaign. The Keystones were accused of throwing games, although no individual players were singled out, and the Blues were deemed guilty of the infraction that doomed their Ohio brethren: selling alcohol at games. The loss of two of its larger cities put the league in a poor position to face the challenge that would arrive in 1882.

Season statistics


Hubert Williams had exercised his absolute authority as NBBL President to expel three franchises in two years. Neither the owners of these clubs nor the cities their teams had represented were content to go quietly, and during the off-season a new league was quickly formed, with every intention to compete with the National on equal terms, or as equal as the upstarts could muster. The American Base Ball Association, with franchises in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, set May 1, 1882 as Opening Day, and its fledgling clubs quickly began to sign whatever talent they could. For the most part they filled their rosters with minor league players, amateurs, and NBBL castoffs, but all six teams were indeed stocked and ready to play on May Day. They would play an 80-game schedule in contrast to the NBBL’s 84, with far fewer restrictions: alcohol sales were permitted, as well as games on Sundays, at least in the cities where they were not prohibited by law. Not all ABBA clubs took advantage of the lax rules immediately, but Louisville and St. Louis scheduled Sunday games from the beginning.

If Williams would have been appalled by the rival circuit’s boldness, he didn’t live long enough to witness it in action, dying unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 49 just a few weeks prior to both leagues’ 1882 openers. Prior to that he had authorized NBBL franchises for Syracuse and Worcester to maintain the 8-team setup his league had used since its inception.

Neither league had a particularly exciting pennant race. In the NBBL, Chicago stayed within five games of New York for most of the summer but the Knicks never lost the lead, winning the flag by three games with a 58-26 record; Cincinnati dominated the ABBA, going 57-23 and besting Baltimore by eight games and St. Louis by nine. The divide between the haves and the have-nots was significant; the NBBL’s new entries, Worcester and Syracuse, finished 35 and 36 games out of first place, respectively, while the bottom two teams in the ABBA, Louisville and Pittsburgh, also finished 30 or more games out.

Batting averages were way down in the NBBL, as evidenced by Chicago’s Hugh Woods, whose .309 clip was good enough to earn him the batting championship. Eli Taylor of Buffalo won the ERA crown with a 1.57 mark, while New York’s Tom Sanders earned the most victories with 35. In the ABBA, Cincinnati’s Frank Fry hit .338 to win the batting title as teammate Hiram Ballard won the pitching Triple Crown with a 1.31 ERA, 41 wins, and 209 strikeouts.

Syracuse’s .262 winning percentage was the worst in either league, and the Nationals, as they were known for their brief existence, called it a day after their inaugural season.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


The NBBL awarded a franchise to Troy to replace the departed Syracuse, while the ABBA expanded to eight teams by adding New York and Columbus. Both leagues increased their schedules to 98 games; with teams playing four or five games a week, every team in the league used at least three starting pitchers. Although differences of opinion arose as whether it was better to spread the work around or to load it mostly on the shoulders of the top man or top two men, all agreed that a third starter was now a necessity.

The owners of the ABBA’s New York Gothams spared no expense and put together a team capable of dominating the young league; only defending champions Cincinnati were able to stay with them, ultimately losing the chase by five games. In the Senior Circuit, a thrilling three-team race raged through the summer, with Buffalo, Chicago, and New York trading the top spot on a game-by-game basis at times. The Knicks faded just enough for Chicago to be in a position to dispatch them by winning the first game of their season-ending four-game set, but New York avenged their elimination by beating the Haymakers twice over the next three games, forcing them into a tie with Buffalo at the conclusion of the 98th game. The first playoff game in NBBL history pitted two of the best pitchers of the 19th Century, Buffalo’s Eli Taylor against Chicago’s George Stonge. Taylor had the better of it, taking a 5-2 lead into the late innings, but the Haymakers rallied for two in the eighth and one in the ninth to tie. In the bottom of the tenth Colts’ catcher Bob Weaver hit a two-run homer off Chicago’s Jeff Calvert to give Buffalo their first league title.

Boston’s Frank Stevens won the NBBL batting title with a .330 average, while Philadelphia’s Tom Guthrie hit .342 to take the ABBA crown. Providence’s Andy Morrow posted a 1.78 ERA, the best in the NBBL, while Harry Jones of Philadelphia outdistanced all ABBA hurlers with a 1.74 mark. George Stonge of Chicago’s 29 victories were tops in the NBBL, while Cincinnati’s Hiram Ballard won 27 to lead the Junior Circuit. Verne Mackensie of St. Louis became the first player to hit for the cycle on May 15. The Gothams’ Uriah Schmitt became the first player to steal over a hundred bases in a season, pilfering 102.

For the first time since 1877, every franchise survived the off-season, but one changed their address; after battling the Knickerbockers for fans in Manhattan for a year, the ABBA champion Gothams headed across the East River for Brooklyn.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


Both leagues adopted a 112-game schedule. In general teams still played five games a week, but now the season stretched into early October. The practice of scheduling doubleheaders on Memorial Day and Independence Day was well-established by now; aside from those, doubleheaders were only played to make up rainouts. Sunday ball was still forbidden in the NBBL but half the ABBA clubs scheduled home games on Sundays.

For the second straight year the NBBL flag came down to a playoff, this time between perennial rivals New York and Chicago. This year’s game was a rout, with the Knicks triumphing 12-2 to win their fourth league pennant. The ABBA chase was also a nail-biter, with Cincinnati edging Brooklyn by a game and not clinching until the final game of the regular season. In spite of the exciting finishes, there was some concern over the relatively small percentage of teams that had actually been in contention for any length of time. In the NBBL, only Buffalo, who finished 5½ games out, stayed competitive into September; the rest of the league finished under .500 and at least 18½ games off the pace. In the ABBA, third-place St. Louis finished 13 games behind Cincinnati.

Although his Worcester Rubies finished in last place, some 40½ games behind New York, second baseman Alphonse Graff won the NBBL batting title with a .325 mark. In the ABBA Pittsburgh’s John Grace hit .353 to earn the crown. Chicago’s Abe Lowe was credited with the Senior Circuit’s ERA title, although he only worked 116.2 innings in posting his 1.77 mark, while New York’s Bill Bates, who finished at 1.80, threw 410. No one bested Bates in victories, but he did have to share the league lead with Buffalo’s Eli Taylor, who also won 32. Cincinnati’s Hiram Ballard was the top winner in the ABBA with 34 triumphs, while Brooklyn’s Erwin Morse paced that circuit in ERA at 1.65.

The upstart ABBA has taken root in some of the country’s larger cities, while the elder NBBL still had teams in smaller towns such as Troy and Worcester. When the owners of the ABBA’s Philadelphia franchise, which had failed to emerge as a powerhouse and had suffered diminishing attendance as a result, threw in the towel, the Senior Circuit pounced. The Worcester franchise was disbanded and the quickly replaced by a new NBBL Philadelphia entry, known initially as the Franklins. The ABBA would also see its Columbus franchise fold. Replacements would spring up in Toledo and Indianapolis.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


It was another thrilling pennant chase in the NBBL, with Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia all battling down to the final days of the season. The first-year wonders in Philadelphia spent several days in the top spot, but ultimately finished in fourth, albeit just four games out. Detroit emerged as the winner, besting the Haymakers by two games and the Colts by three.

There was little drama in the ABBA, as Cincinnati rolled to an 83-28 record and their third pennant in four years. Second-place Brooklyn finished forty games over .500 and still wound up 7½ games back.

Chicago’s Hugh Woods hit .327 to capture the NBBL batting title, while Henry Humphrey’s .319 mark topped the ABBA. Buffalo’s Hugh West fashioned a 1.52 (in just 118.2 innings) to take the ERA crown in the NBBL, while Baltimore’s Graham Thomas posted the best mark in the Junior Circuit, at 1.69. Detroit’s Al Williams won 34 games to top the NBBL in victories; Cincinnati’s Hiram Ballard won 35 to pace the ABBA.

It would be another off-season rife with activity. The ABBA's Indianapolis Governors called it quits after one last-place season and the league awarded a new franchise to Kansas City, the farthest-west expansion any major league would attempt for the next sixty years. The last of the NBBL’s “small-town” teams, Providence and Troy, both met the reaper soon after the season, and replacements set up shop in the nation’s capitol and the recently-vacated Indianapolis. Finally, the Toledo club headed east for the greener pastures of the Forest City. They would soon be known as the Cleveland Cats but before long the more familiar "Bobcats" would take hold.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


The schedule in both leagues was increased again, now running to 126 games. The season started a few days before May Day and was extended through mid-October.

Both leagues had fairly tight races until the eventual winners pulled away late in the season. Buffalo took the NBBL flag by five games over Chicago and six games over Detroit, and Cincinnati won in the ABBA, besting Brooklyn by seven games and Baltimore by nine.

The NBBL batting champion was New York’s Mike O’Sullivan, whose .357 mark was the highest in either league to date; Cincinnati’s Frank Fry captured the ABBA title by hitting .325. Buffalo’s Hugh West posted the best ERA in the Senior Circuit, a 2.08 mark, while his teammate Eli Taylor opaced the loop in victories with 31. Royal Ricketts of Cincinnati led the Junior Circuit both in ERA (1.83) and wins (32).

For the first time, the two league champions faced off in a postseason series. Billed as the “World’s Championship”, it was a two-game affair on neutral fields (Cleveland and Erie, Pennsylvania, respectively). The teams split the two games. As the clubs did not carry full rosters (Buffalo ace Eli Taylor was not present) and apparently treated the game more as an exhibition than an actual championship bout, it is not considered the first “official” World Series, but it certainly put the taste for postseason baseball in the public's mouth, if it wasn't already there.

The off-season was uneventful, as all 16 teams stayed afloat. It would be the last such off-season for the next five years.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


Brooklyn broke Cincinnati’s hold on the ABBA flag, outdistancing the Excellents (and also Baltimore and St. Louis, as three teams tied for second) by six games. In the NBBL New York beat Chicago by four games and Buffalo by six.

Baltimore’s Tom Guthrie was the first batting Triple Crown winner, leading the ABBA in hitting (.333), home runs (14), and RBI (105), also becoming the first player to drive in at least 100 runs in a season. Riley Gamble of Indianapolis hit .354 to top all NBBL hitters.

Dick Mundy of Chicago topped the NBBL in ERA at 2.31, while Brooklyn’s Leander Mcnaughton posted a 1.91 mark to lead ABBA hurlers. Buffalo’s Hugh West was the top winner in the Senior Circuit with 33 victories while Leon Gurley of St. Louis topped the Junior with 25.

The second "unofficial” World Series took place. Like last year's exhibition, the games were not officially sanctioned by either league, were played on neutral fields (in Jersey City and Newark), and the series did not produce an actual winner (with each team taking two of the four contests).

Shortly after the season the ABBA's Kansas City franchise declared bankruptcy. The league decided to "stay west" by awarding a team to Milwaukee, which hadn't been represented since the then-NLPBBC abandoned the city after the 1878 season.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


The schedules for both leagues now ran for 26 weeks and included 140 games, each team playing each of its opponents 20 times, but the real game-changer was the event that was scheduled to take place after the season. Postseason exhibitions between the two league champions having proven popular in recent years, the two leagues agreed to stage an official “World’s Championship Series” at the conclusion of each season, using a best-of-nine format.

The races were exciting, with Buffalo beating out New York by a mere two games in the NBBL and Cincinnati chasing Baltimore for most of the summer before catching the Crabbers and defeating them in a one-game playoff to capture the ABBA crown.

It was a pitchers’ year, with Pierre Ellsworth of New York being the only player in the NBBL to hit over .300. He hit .327. Bill Stone of Cincinnati was one of three .300+ ABBA hitters, but his .310 was the top mark. Buffalo’s ageless Eli Taylor topped the NBBL both in ERA (1.77) and victories (34), while Rube Flood of Brooklyn posted the best ABBA ERA (1.71) and Cincinnati’s Hiram Ballard earned the most wins (34) in the loop.

Buffalo defeated Cincinnati 5 games to 2 in the first official World Series, giving the Senior Circuit bragging rights for a year. Taylor and Ballard faced each other four times, with Taylor winning all four games.

The leagues seemingly having made peace, the accord was soon tested. In November, the ABBA's Pittsburgh franchise, a NBBL-style "no beer, no Sunday ball" organization, made inquiries about joining the Senior Circuit. Seeing an opportunity to rid itself of a weak franchise and replace it with a stronger one, the NBBL disbanded its Indianapolis entry to make way for the defectors. Finding no legal way to block the move, the ABBA had no choice but to replace the departing Weavers. Backers were found in Rochester, and the ABBA would field eight teams next summer, but the younger league was starting to feel the strain of competing with a revitalized NBBL.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics


Both leagues produced thrilling three team races. After 14 frustrating years, the Boston Beaneaters finally put it all together and won their first NBBL pennant, defeating New York by two games and Detroit by three; equally surprising were the Cleveland Cats, who captured their first ABBA flag in just the fifth year of their existence, finishing a game ahead of Baltimore and two ahead of Brooklyn. On the other side of success, Pittsburgh stumbled to a 44-96 last place finish in their first NBBL season, while in the ABBA, Rochester lost their first 26 games in a row en route to a brutal 38-102 record.

Monroe Jamison of Detroit won the NBBL batting title with a .354 average; Baltimore’s Tom Guthrie hit .371 to lead the ABBA and set a new single-season record in the process. The best ERA in the Senior Circuit belonged to Chicago’s Duster Mundy, who fashioned a 2.33 mark, while in the ABBA Brooklyn’s Leander Mcnaughton posted his league’s best mark at 2.53. New York’s Richmond Pratt led the NBBL in victories with 32; Andy Morrow of Cleveland won 33 to lead Junior Circuit hurlers.

The leagues voted to shorten the World’s Championship Series to best-of-seven in order to wrap things up before the weather became too much of a factor. Boston hurler Wilber Joy proved too much of a factor for Cleveland, winning all three of his starts as the Beaneaters took the title in six games.

One team met the axe during the off-season. The Rochester Royals folded after their lone ABBA campaign, and the league looked to nearby Syracuse to fill the vacancy.

NBBL Season statistics

ABBA Season statistics