Baltimore's first major league team

Monday Book Review

September 21, 1992|By James H. Bready

BLACKGUARDS AND RED STOCKINGS. A History of Baseball's National Association, 1871-1875. By William J. Ryczek. 272 pages. McFarland & Co., Box 611, Jefferson, N.C. $37 postpaid.

EVER higher, ever more daunting is the pile of baseball's detail. The names and nicknames of the individual big league players; the years of triumph in World Series, pennant, division; and always the individual and team hitting, pitching, fielding records -- what human mind can hold onto them all?

Eli Jacobs, Johnny Oates, the Oriole bird: Invite any of them to list just the major leagues in which Baltimore has had a franchise, and the answer is likely to be a polite assertion that tomorrow's game matters more than yesterday's.

The first of this city's affiliations, in a total now at half a dozen, was the National Association. Across most of the present century, baseball people have been shoving the NA under a rug. Firstness, they would have it, belongs to the National League, founded as a breakaway in 1876.

But the NA came first. From 1871 through 1875, its teams stood alone, the best in the land. Thanks to William J. Ryczek, a Connecticut banker and his diligent research and flavorsome writing, there is at last a reliable, comprehensive history of that original professional league -- the first intercity league in any sport.

It may never again be possible for the baseball encyclopedias and the media guides to scant those pioneers, the Boston Red Stockings, Troy Haymakers, Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Atlantics, Philadelphia Pearls, New York Mutuals, Chicago White Stockings, Washington Olympics and, our very own heroes, the Lord Baltimores.

It's a long way to 1871-1875 and, yes, the game has evolved since then. NA teams started the pennant season in April, went at it through June, knocked off in July and August (the heat of daytime-only games oppressed the fans, too) and then battled it out through October. Where were the Lords (also known as the Yellow Stockings) on Dominion Day (July 1), 1872? Barnstorming through Ontario; that day, they played Guelph, which had a good team.

Another significant difference was the financing. Some teams were financed by selling shares of stock; others were cooperatives, meaning that players were paid only a share of the gate receipts -- the semi-pro system. After two solid, third-place NA seasons, the Lord Baltimores nosedived in 1874 and dropped out. The reason, "Blackguards and Red Stockings" establishes, was that the team had changed from stock club to co-op and could no longer afford good players.

In those innovative years, American males quite possibly cared more about baseball than they do today. And Mr. Ryczek is quite equal to the challenge of making it all real again. The players: George and Harry Wright, Joe Start and Davy Force, John Clapp and Deacon White, Al Reach and Al Spalding, Lip Pike and Long Levi Meyerle and Baltimore's home-grown star right-hander, Bobby Mathews. The atmosphere: doubtful umpiring (it still is), raucous grandstands, ubiquitous betting and drinking.

Many factors lay behind the NA's breakup; in particular, workmen (the players) were free between seasons to solicit offers from rival teams -- universal free agency, so to speak. In the newborn National League, management (the owners) ran the show, soon imposing the reserve clause.

Baseball coverage, too, had far to go. A weekly sports paper, the New York Clipper, is the one extensive source for NA doings, though some box scores didn't appear even there. (The modern Society for American Baseball Research has reconstructed just about all NA games.)

Mr. Ryczek's reading did not include Baltimore's press. It wouldn't have had much to tell him, though when he mocks the new (1872) team's uniforms, calling us the "Canaries," he is just echoing the envy of other, more drab franchises. The Lord Baltimores, visible in a surviving photo, looked very natty indeed.

James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, is historian of Baltimore baseball.

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