What’s the Deal with the Cincinnati Red Stockings?

More about 19th-century baseball from Richard Hershberger.

Mike Schilling asks: Were the 1869 Reds really that big a deal? This is a terrific question, because it has just the sort of answer I love: Yes, but not for the reasons you think. The 1869 Cincinnati are traditionally credited as the first professional club. This is untrue. Recent writers often adopt a more cautious claim, naming them as the first “openly” professional club. This is very nearly as untrue.

The early history of baseball professionalism is obscure. The National Association of Base Ball Players, baseball’s governing body at the time, prohibited the practice. This didn’t mean clubs didn’t pay players, but it did mean they rarely talked about it openly. The issue is further confused by a gray area between pure amateurism and pure professionalism. Starting from pure amateurism, a club might waive the membership dues for a good player. It might reimburse expenses, which might include lost wages. An influential member might arrange a job for a good player, which might run from a real job with flexible hours to being a fake no-show job. Finally we come to outright salaries. These various limited forms occurred from the late 1850s on, and outright salaries from 1866 at the latest. So it is hard to paint a bright shiny line with amateurism on one side and professionalism on the other.

Professionalism was limited so long as there was not much money floating around baseball. The breakthrough came about in late 1866 when they started charging 25 cents admission. Spectators had been paying to see some games for years, but the usual rate had been 10 cents. This paid the proprietor of the playing ground, but that was about it. Clubs were enchanted to discover that the public would pay 25 cents, as this changed everything. They could split the gate receipts, resulting in a new revenue stream flowing into the top clubs, and from them to the top players. This was an open secret. Going into the 1869 season the Association threw in the towel and changed the rules to allow clubs to declare themselves professional. The Cincinnati Club was one of a dozen or so clubs that did this.

So was the Cincinnati Club the first professional club? What do we mean by professional? They certainly had paid players in 1868. It is possible that all their players were paid. The same is true of several other clubs. Some players were paid at least as early as 1866. The Cincinnatis certainly did not at that point. So if we mean the first club to pay any players, the Cincinnatis were not it. If we mean the first to pay all their players, you need to claim, unburdened by evidence, both that all the Cincinnati players were paid in 1869, but not all were paid on any other club. Feh. Were they the first openly professional club? Well, they were one of a cohort that came out as professional at about the same time. But this doesn’t have the zing of being the sole first, so “one of the first” isn’t the claim. The sad fact is that, with regard to the development of professionalism, the Cincinnati Club followed the same path as other clubs, on the same timetable.

Does this mean they were just another club, and are remembered due to some accident of history or marketing? Not at all. They were the most important and influential club of the era. Just not with regard to the development of professionalism. The outward manifestation of their importance was that they were really really good: literally unbeatable, winning 65 games with no losses in 1869, including games against the best opposition in the country. Not until June 14, 1870, were they finally defeated, in extra innings. Their final record for the seasons of 1869-1870 was 124-6-1.

To explain how they did this we need to go back a few years, and look at the Union Cricket Club of Cincinnati. American cricket was a genuine thing in that era. Indeed, some antebellum observers predicted that cricket would become the American pastime. The Union CC bet that this prediction was correct. They signed a long term lease on an expansive playing ground, took on debt to improve the ground, and hired a professional from New York: Harry Wright.

Cricket, unlike baseball, had no silly prejudice against professionalism. A prominent club typically had at least one on staff. He would play in matches, of course, but also served as a coach for the members, and might have grounds keeping duties as well. Wright came by this profession honestly. His father, Sam Wright, had emigrated from England when Harry was a boy, and was employed by the St. George CC of New York. Harry, when he came of age, stepped into the same position, with the same club. He also played baseball on the side, first of the Knickerbocker BBC and later the Gothams, but cricket was how he paid the bills. He was recruited to go to Cincinnati, probably in late 1863 or early 1864.

The Union Club lost their bet. Cricket was not destined to be the national pastime. It continued to grow for a few years, with the peak number of clubs probably around 1870, followed by a long, slow decline. In the meantime baseball saw explosive growth immediately upon the end of the war. The Union Club had overextended itself financially, but baseball provided a white knight: the Cincinnati Base Ball Club.

The Cincinnati Club was founded in 1866. It and the Union Club had close ties, with overlapping membership. The Cincinnatis bailed out the Unions, taking on their obligations: essentially taking over the Unions’ bet on cricket and converting into to a bet on baseball. They took over the Unions’ debt and grounds. Harry Wright was de facto part of the package.

The Cincinnatis now had two challenges: how to meet their new financial obligations, and how to beat the Buckeye Club. The Cincinnati Club did not spring up in splendid isolation. It was but one of many new clubs. While it was clearly in the top tier, by Cincinnati standards, so were the Buckeyes, and so a rivalry was born.

The two challenges had the same solution. The club continued the strategy of going large. Pinching pennies obviously wasn’t the answer. Paying off the debt required substantial income, and this would only come from gate receipts. Keeping salaries low would neither attract spectators nor would it produce a club to defeat the Buckeyes. So large they went, recruiting players from New York and paying what it took to induce them to move to Cincinnati. In 1868 about half the players were New Yorkers, and they soundly thrashed the Buckeyes. Rather than calling it a day, they expanded. In 1869 only one player was actually from Cincinnati. This was the team that went on a tear across the country.

A willingness to pay large salaries was necessary, but hardly sufficient. Baseball history is strewn with clubs that swore they would spend whatever it took to win, only to end up with very expensive mediocrities. The secret to the Cincinnatis’ success was Harry Wright. Harry was the right man in the right place at the right time. He knew all the best players in New York, and he knew who he wanted to recruit. But he had more than a good eye for talent. He was a reformer. He had ideas on how the game could be better played.

Partly this was simply a matter of practice, especially fielding. The top New York clubs were complacent, and to a surprising degree did not practice. The thing is, fielding is hard. We see a major league shortstop take a sharp ground ball and flip it to first and we call it routine. But in fact it is the product of endless hours of practice, and we are watching play at the top level. Work your way down the baseball ladder and that play looks progressively less routine and more like a disaster waiting to happen. Practicing basic ball handling skills gave Wright’s team an edge. But this was only a small part of the matter.

Next time you are at a game, watch the fielders who aren’t directly involved in the play. You have to be at the ballpark to do this. TV won’t show it. On the other hand, this need not be a major league game. Even a good high school team will do. Take that sharp ground ball to short. If things go well, only the shortstop and the first baseman actually touch the ball. But watch the third baseman running for the ball behind the shortstop, in case it gets past him, and the left fielder charging in, in case the ball gets past the infield. Meanwhile the catcher is running to back up the first baseman. So even the simplest of plays actually gives active roles to no fewer than five defenders. More complicated scenarios result in fielders scurrying about in any number of directions. This isn’t random. Fielders are endlessly drilled in where to go in any given situation.

All this stuff is not obvious. Just watch a bad high school team to see this. The natural tendency is for any fielder not immediately involved in the play to stand and watch it unfold. Someone had to work out where fielders need to go, and to persuade them to get with the program. This was Wright’s achievement.

This was only possible outside of New York (or Philadelphia, which at this time was functioning as a baseball annex to New York). Organized baseball arose in and around New York City in the mid 1850s and spread from there. This meant that by the post-war era there was an entrenched baseball establishment. This is the same establishment that I have written about previously, whose corruption killed off professional baseball in the metropolis. That would be about ten years later. In the 1860s the signs of corruption were there, but not yet critical. The problem in this era was that they thought they knew the right way to run a baseball team. And why not? They undeniably had by far the best clubs in the country. Until they didn’t. The officers of the Cincinnati Club, on the other hand, knew perfectly well that they didn’t know how to run a top-level team, so they let their expert run things his way. In modern terms, the Cincinnati Club was the tech startup, with Harry Wright as its CEO, or perhaps Chief Technology Officer, while the eastern clubs collectively were the slow-moving behemoth corporation, ready to be taken down by the upstart.

A more subtle innovation was the clarification of the relationship between labor and management (somewhat confused by Wright’s occupying both roles). The professional clubs had in the very recent past been social clubs, with dues-paying members electing officers and playing baseball together. The onset of professionalism implied a transition to an employer-employee relationship, but the transition was awkward. Everyone still thought of the players as club members rather than employees, making discipline difficult to enforce, or even imagine.

This dovetails with a second notable feature of the Cincinnatis. Take a collection of young men, place them together, removed from their home environments, put money in their pockets, and see what happens. The result of this experiment was pretty much what one would expect. The ideology of professional sports was tenuous at this time, and having teams traveling across the country acting like college students on spring break (going on a “spree,” in the vocabulary of the day) did not help. Enter the Cincinnatis. Harry Wright was about ten years older (34 in 1869) than most of the players, was not of a party animal temperament, and had the power and authority to discipline his players. The result was a model of probity that apologists of professionalism could point to in response to criticisms of the behavior of ball players.

The result of these various innovations was to overturn the old ways of doing things. This didn’t come easily to the eastern clubs. They had gotten wind of what Wright was doing in 1868, when the Athletics of Philadelphia made a western tour. Here is what the Philadelphia Sunday Mercury thought of it: “The Athletic felt ashamed to see Americans being bamboozled in their own game, and that by a Britisher. As Wright plays the game, it is English all over, or as far as he can make it so-even to the uniform. … All such nonsense as Wright indulges in about placing the men in position in the field, tends to make them ridiculous in the eyes of other clubs, particularly eastern associations, who know some little about usages, &c.” Notice the bit about the uniform. Wright had put his men in knickerbocker pants with knee-high stockings, which seemed ridiculous. Soon nearly everyone was dressing their players this way, and no one was laughing.

More was involved than a mere fashion statement. The Red Stockings (so nicknamed from their uniforms) made an eastern tour in June, beating the best that anyone could throw at them. The eastern clubs were shocked. They knew the Red Stocking players, and they hadn’t been all that impressed. On paper, the team looked good-but-not-great. The June tour made it clear that this was something new and different, and the eastern clubs had to scramble to up their game in response. This is the context of a declaration by the president of the Mutuals of New York, made that July,“that he will consider the nine as so many persons in his employ, and will hold them to accountability for absence and make proportionate reduction from salary.” They had to get down to work, and they knew it.

The history of baseball over the next ten or fifteen years can be seen as the rest of the baseball world catching up to Harry Wright. In 1869 he was literally unbeatable. Through the early 1870s Wright’s teams were dominant, winning the pennant from 1872 to 1875. In the late 1870s his teams were very good, winning the pennant in 1877 and 1878. In 1883 he was hired by a Philadelphia Club hoping to revive after a truly dismal inaugural season. He never won another pennant. He had not gotten worse. Everyone else had gotten better.
The final innovation was in corporate governance. I wrote earlier that the Cincinnati Club took on the Union Club’s obligations. This is how the story is usually told, but it isn’t quite correct. They hedged their bet by setting up a holding company. This was a joint stock company with a capitalization of $50,000. The club held half the stock, and the remaining $25,000 was sold at $25 a share. The holding company held the debt and operated the ball ground, with a theoretical goal of achieving profitability and paying dividends. This was the death knell of the old fraternal dues-paying membership model for baseball clubs. All serious professional clubs from that point to the present have been organized as pure joint stock companies.

The Red Stockings disbanded at the end of the 1870 season. The usual interpretation is that they were a financial failure, and got out. This is clearly untrue. Their two seasons of touring had paid off their substantial debt. They quit in part because the officers had their own lives to live. They were local businessmen, and their businesses needed attention. The baseball business model would soon evolve to include the full-time paid business manager, but this was as yet in the future. They also quit because however successful it had been, its sustainability was doubtful. They could not count on crowds staying as large. There is nothing like a streak to bring out the crowds, but the Red Stockings’ streak had been broken. At the same time, salaries were going to rise as other clubs competed for players. The concern was legitimate. Not until the 1880s would professional baseball consistently be as profitable as it had been in 1869 and 1870. They got out of the professional baseball business while at the top. That was the good news. The bad was that they intended to revert to the old style of fraternal amateurism. That moment had passed. The organization shut down for good, and in 1872 auctioned off their tangible property. A list of some of the trophy balls and their sale prices survives. It makes me glad I am not a collector, as I would read it and weep.

So to recap: Yes, the Red Stockings were a big deal, but not because of any simple “first.” They revolutionized how baseball was played and how baseball clubs were organized. Their influence can be seen even today, both in baseball fashion and in club names. Three modern major league team names show this: the Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox.

Thing brings us finally to Mike’s other question: can any club claim their legacy today? The modern Reds’ marketing department has a long history of making this claim. Don’t get me started. You’ve seen what happens when I get started… The Reds were founded in 1881, were charter members of the American Association in 1882, and jumped to the National League in 1890. This is an ancient and honorable history, but they are completely unrelated to the 1869 club.

What about the Boston Red Stockings? They hired Wright following the 1870 season, and he brought about half of the old Red Stocking players with him. (A sign of the changing times was that he also brought other western players east: the direction of flow of top players was no longer just east to west.) This club survives to this day, after two relocations, as the Atlanta Braves. So are the Braves the true legatees of the 1869 club? You tell me. The Bostons had entirely different ownership. Returning to the earlier metaphor, the tech startup had run its course, and a different startup hired the CEO, who brought some of his people with him. Does this new startup carry the legacy of the old one? In some sense, but not, I think, in the sense we mean when we say, for example, that the Los Angeles Dodgers carry the legacy of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But if you disagree, I won’t argue too hard.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with the Cincinnati Red Stockings?

  1. Another amazing piece.

    Did Harry Wright come up with these defensive improvements on his own, or were they cricket techniques? The latter would seem odd, because when I’ve read about cricket (mostly in English novels), bowling and batting are described in glowing, sometime almost heroic terms, but defense is hardly mentioned.

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    • This is hard to say, if only because it would require a detailed knowledge of cricket tactics in the 1860s. Someone might have that knowledge, but it isn’t me. My guess is that Wright borrowed from cricket in a general way, but not in the specifics. The tactical fielding situations in cricket and in baseball don’t correlate well. So while looking at baseball from a cricket perspective likely helped Wright see the possibilities, the actual applications of what fielder goes where in what situation likely had to be worked out from scratch.

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  2. Also, the description of practicing situational defense reminded me of two things:

    Whitey Herzog came up in the Yankees organization. He wrote about how he learned everything he knew about situational baseball from spring training with Casey Stengel.

    Remember the famous play where Jeter was an extra backup for an outfield throw and wound up throwing Jeremy Giambi out that the plate? The common wisdom is that the only player who would ever do that is D*E*R*E*K J*E*T*E*R. Actually, Jeter himself said that the Yankees practice having the shortstop back up that throw. Who knows, it might even go back to Stengel.

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