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19th c. League Quality: An Institutional Failure Not a Lack of Talent

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  • 19th c. League Quality: An Institutional Failure Not a Lack of Talent

    I had an extended conversation with a very knowledgeable friend about the quality of player involved in the early days of professional baseball. The assumed low quality of player is categorically attributed to the preponderance of poor teams due to the lack of a properly skilled talent pool to fill the roster spots. I say this is not true. By 1871 I believe that there was a large enough talent pool to stock a competitive major league top to bottom and that the reasons this did not happen are of an "institutional nature" rather than the result of not having enough talented men. Anyone familiar with the N.A. knows it's instability problems largely due player jumping problems (I hardly need to hash out the Davy Force case and the many other habitual club jumpers) and the influence of gambling and general rowdiness about the ball grounds. The problem quickly moved to syndicate baseball which is again not an issue of talent but distribution of it. The primitive nature of professional sports naturally lent itself to such institutional instability.

    Another factor is that baseball was not a respectable profession amongst a large segment of the American population. They were viewed on the level of the travelling circus - a view that softened over time. They travel town to town, play games, get drunk and rowdy, cavort with gamblers, prostitutes and then leave town with nothing but black eyes and basturd children to remember them by. This is why Christy Mathewson the "Christian Gentleman" was such a big deal and in 1919 the Black Sox scandal racked baseball (amazing the changes that don't happen in 50 years). People thought the rowdy era was over. All of these misgivings however do not mean that able bodies boys through school age of 14-16, which by this time often included university through the early 20s, weren't playing baseball. In fact amateur baseball was looked at as being a manly pursuit and style of exercise. It's precisely that attitude that drew adult men back to the game in the first place in the 1830s-40s. Here is a quote from early amateur Frank Pigeon regarding professional baseball "a man who does not pay his obligations (by means of real employment) and has it in his power to do so is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anywhere else." Amateurism, however was still considered respectable enough. Men in their 20s continued to play baseball. The talent pool was there and ready to be tapped. However the reputation of the sport hindered talent from joining it's ranks. When the players would join the league the clubs were generally in a state of anarchy outside the top few teams. There was hardly a way to build a cohesive unit or plan for the future when players could so easily jump to other league clubs or rival leagues. These are very, very much like the problems early professional football teams had getting college talent through the early 1950s.
    "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

  • #2
    You make excellent points about the problems of professional baseball in the 1900s, though I confess I've not heard claims that there wasn't sufficient baseball talent out there, much less that theory being a preponderance of demerits against the game. As you point out, the lack of the professional game being as well received by the general public (much less endorsed as a potential career) than it was even a few decades into the Twentieth Century is one very large factor. Where talent was concerned, however, it wasn't a lack of sufficiently talented/skilled athletes during those early decades rather than the lack of efficacious pipeline directing that talent to the Majors. Evidence of the talent pool's size is found in the number of regional leagues and independent teams that existed and competed at high levels (however briefly). Had the National League avoided the blue law issue, had the the two largest markets in the country not lost half a decade's representation, had they embraced (rather than fought) the American Association, and had rowdyism been stamped out and syndicate ball not got out of hand, professional baseball would have become even more popular sooner. That alone would have attracted more top talent to the highest level of the professional sport.
    "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
    "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
    "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
    "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Chadwick View Post
      You make excellent points about the problems of professional baseball in the 1900s, though I confess I've not heard claims that there wasn't sufficient baseball talent out there, much less that theory being a preponderance of demerits against the game. As you point out, the lack of the professional game being as well received by the general public (much less endorsed as a potential career) than it was even a few decades into the Twentieth Century is one very large factor. Where talent was concerned, however, it wasn't a lack of sufficiently talented/skilled athletes during those early decades rather than the lack of efficacious pipeline directing that talent to the Majors. Evidence of the talent pool's size is found in the number of regional leagues and independent teams that existed and competed at high levels (however briefly). Had the National League avoided the blue law issue, had the the two largest markets in the country not lost half a decade's representation, had they embraced (rather than fought) the American Association, and had rowdyism been stamped out and syndicate ball not got out of hand, professional baseball would have become even more popular sooner. That alone would have attracted more top talent to the highest level of the professional sport.
      As far back as the 1860s the major teams had “youth” (essentially minor league) clubs. Olympic brought Paul Hines up from one of their youth clubs. The team Creighton played for before Excelsior, the Star Club, was their youth team (I’m fairly certain of this). Through the Great War teams played exhibitions on many of their off days. Particularly in the 19th c. considering they only played 2-3 league games a week. So they had a first hand view of talent on the way to and around whatever city they were playing but particularly the area surrounding their hometowns. These exhibitions were against teams of all types from amateurs to Ivy League universities. As Bill James was fond of saying the minors weren’t totally “slaves to the majors” until Branch Rickey’s innovations in the 1930s. I don’t think the Tigers had much of a farm system until the 1950s and I know the Athletics, Senators and Browns had little to nothing going on in that department. I’m not so sure the minor leagues were much easier to exploit — until every team had a modern system — than they were in the 1880s.
      "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

      Comment


      • #4
        I'm not sure what you mean by the "assumed low quality of player." If you mean that if you put a middling modern MLB team in a Tardis and took them to 1871, they would thrash the best teams of the day, then sure. This is absolutely true, but unremarkable. Have that modern team stop at 1927 on their way back and see how they do against the Yankees. Spoiler: They would win easily. Why? Because the course of history is for athletes to get better: faster, stronger, etc. This is why world records in timed events like races or measured events like jumping are routinely broken. This is equally true of team sports, but obscured by the athlete-vs.-athlete format, with both sides constantly improving.

        If this is what you mean by the low quality of player, then this is true but trivial. I don't know what you mean otherwise. Since you discuss the NAPBBP of 1871-1875, yes, it had its problems, but not attracting the best players wasn't one of them. The arguments over players jumping (they called it "revolving") were strictly pre-season arguments over what team held the rights to a player. It had eliminated the problem of revolving during the season. In any case, whether Davy Force played for the Athletics or the White Stockings is immaterial to league level of play, as both teams were in the NAPBBP. The NAPBBP unquestionably had the best players in existence.

        As an aside, the bit about Christy Mathewson is true, but requires context. When he came up to the majors in 1900 it indeed was unusual for a college graduate to become a professional ballplayer. This reality was an artifact of the 1890s. In the 1880 college boys were not at all uncommon. John Montgomery Ward is the most famous example, but he was not even the only practicing attorney in the majors. As for conspicuously Christian players, Jim White and Billy Sunday are again only the most obvious examples. So what happened in the 1890s? The Players' League war, followed by the consolidation of the two major leagues, going from sixteen to twelve teams. Combine these and players had less leverage while competing for fewer jobs. The resulting fall in player salaries made the profession less attractive for collegians.

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        • #5
          Richard, you misunderstand me completely. If my explanations here still aren’t clear let me know and I’ll try to explain better.

          I’m not talking about time machining that’s mental masturbation and I loathe it. I’m referring to the idea that there weren’t enough experienced players in the nation to fill out major league rosters. That teams were fielding players lacking in the fundamental skills and mental understanding of how the game was played. Usually people say “there was a shallow talent pool.” or something along those lines. My point is that there was abundant talent playing organized baseball in their locality and playing frequently. It’s just that a lot of talent wasn’t getting to the major leagues due to the myriad reasons I specified. This tends to reflect poorly on the players that did decide to play in the Association as it assumes they grew up playing against inferior competition.

          Your second point about Force and league quality is correct but that wasn’t what I’m talking about in terms of LQ. Of course the N.A. was getting the best talent. Not to beat a dead horse but again… a lot of the talent wasn’t playing in the N.A. - or any pro leagues for that matter - for various reasons and combinations of problems both societal, religious, monetary, risk of serious injury, etc. Then when the players do get to the majors a couple of teams can buy all the best players from broke teams. For instance the team Anson played for in 1871. They had a core of 3-4 good young guys and the incomparable Bob Addy but no way to hold on to them and build around them. Not good for league parody (of course this still happens with teams like the Marlins but I digress). Laymen see the W% of some these clubs and assume the reason there were bad teams is that there simply weren’t enough major league caliber players in the country. They don’t take into account all the factors I mentioned earlier keeping some guys from pursuing a career in the majors. They also don’t take into account some of the structural problems of the burgeoning league.

          I bring this up because it seems to me that this is how most laymen think about 19th c. ball pretty much all the way to 1900. As a new sport without enough established and well trained talent available to the major leagues. I know 19th c. history enthusiasts are few and far between. I’m not planning on preaching this to anyone or anything. 99% of fans could care less about it. They would dismiss any talk of this out of hand just based on the topic. I simply wanted to bring up what I believe is a misconception about the state of the game at this time.
          Last edited by bluesky5; 07-31-2021, 08:23 AM.
          "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

          Comment


          • #6
            I agree with you that the talent improved every decade of the 19th Century. It was a complicated period loaded with changes both inside and outside of baseball. I am always surprised at learning how good some of the players were. But that's not too surprising since they led a physical lifestyle and thought nothing of playing baseball on an icy lake, in the snow, or inside an armory.

            I would add that there were Junior teams in many cities and towns, every town worth it's salt had a town team back in the late19th Century, and the talent generally rose to the top without losing a portion of them to other sports. I don't think town teams got to practice as much as semi pro teams and independent teams.

            We have one big advantage over our 19th Century ancestors. They never got to hit a 95 MPH fastball with today's toothpick bats nor catch with our modern gloves. We, on the other hand, can suit up for a vintage team and learn how to catch soft baseballs on one hop with just our hands, or swing heavy tree trunks trying to hit a ball that doesn't go very far by the 3rd inning.
            "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
            "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

            Comment


            • #7
              I assume you’re playing? How heavy are the bats 46 oz.?
              "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

              Comment


              • #8
                I went 0 for ... in two games. The bat was too long and too heavy. I see why they choked up. I smashed one slow pitch playing 1864 rules all the way to the second baseman as the ball looked like a flying egg. I fouled off a pitch behind me, and the catcher slid over and caught it on one bounce so I was out. I struck out on three straight fast balls right down the middle playing 1892 rules.
                "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
                "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by TonyK View Post
                  I went 0 for ... in two games. The bat was too long and too heavy. I see why they choked up. I smashed one slow pitch playing 1864 rules all the way to the second baseman as the ball looked like a flying egg. I fouled off a pitch behind me, and the catcher slid over and caught it on one bounce so I was out. I struck out on three straight fast balls right down the middle playing 1892 rules.
                  You probably have to weigh the ball down with tobacco spit!!
                  "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by bluesky5 View Post
                    Richard, you misunderstand me completely. If my explanations here still aren’t clear let me know and I’ll try to explain better.

                    I’m not talking about time machining that’s mental masturbation and I loathe it. I’m referring to the idea that there weren’t enough experienced players in the nation to fill out major league rosters. That teams were fielding players lacking in the fundamental skills and mental understanding of how the game was played. Usually people say “there was a shallow talent pool.” or something along those lines. My point is that there was abundant talent playing organized baseball in their locality and playing frequently. It’s just that a lot of talent wasn’t getting to the major leagues due to the myriad reasons I specified. This tends to reflect poorly on the players that did decide to play in the Association as it assumes they grew up playing against inferior competition.

                    Your second point about Force and league quality is correct but that wasn’t what I’m talking about in terms of LQ. Of course the N.A. was getting the best talent. Not to beat a dead horse but again… a lot of the talent wasn’t playing in the N.A. - or any pro leagues for that matter - for various reasons and combinations of problems both societal, religious, monetary, risk of serious injury, etc. Then when the players do get to the majors a couple of teams can buy all the best players from broke teams. For instance the team Anson played for in 1871. They had a core of 3-4 good young guys and the incomparable Bob Addy but no way to hold on to them and build around them. Not good for league parody (of course this still happens with teams like the Marlins but I digress). Laymen see the W% of some these clubs and assume the reason there were bad teams is that there simply weren’t enough major league caliber players in the country. They don’t take into account all the factors I mentioned earlier keeping some guys from pursuing a career in the majors. They also don’t take into account some of the structural problems of the burgeoning league.

                    I bring this up because it seems to me that this is how most laymen think about 19th c. ball pretty much all the way to 1900. As a new sport without enough established and well trained talent available to the major leagues. I know 19th c. history enthusiasts are few and far between. I’m not planning on preaching this to anyone or anything. 99% of fans could care less about it. They would dismiss any talk of this out of hand just based on the topic. I simply wanted to bring up what I believe is a misconception about the state of the game at this time.
                    You're spot on and thank you (if I didn't say it before) for starting a thread on this topic. It really is a misconception from the casual fan about the pre-1901 game. I suppose we could blame, at least in part, MLB's insistence for decades on separating 1901 and later baseball as the "modern era", effectively creating an arbitrary cutoff between the sport depending on what century. That legacy stretches all the way to today, effectively marginalizing the game that came before (including dismissing its talent pool). Even someone well versed in the sport's history, Bill James, has repeatedly drawn a line between 19th and early 20th Century baseball and, regarding the honoring of 19C stars in Cooperstown effectively asked "what's the point?"

                    Hopefully this thread will be a good jumping off point for educating people about the talent that really did exist in the 1800s.
                    "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
                    "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
                    "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
                    "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Chadwick View Post
                      You're spot on and thank you (if I didn't say it before) for starting a thread on this topic. It really is a misconception from the casual fan about the pre-1901 game. I suppose we could blame, at least in part, MLB's insistence for decades on separating 1901 and later baseball as the "modern era", effectively creating an arbitrary cutoff between the sport depending on what century. That legacy stretches all the way to today, effectively marginalizing the game that came before (including dismissing its talent pool). Even someone well versed in the sport's history, Bill James, has repeatedly drawn a line between 19th and early 20th Century baseball and, regarding the honoring of 19C stars in Cooperstown effectively asked "what's the point?"

                      Hopefully this thread will be a good jumping off point for educating people about the talent that really did exist in the 1800s.
                      I think the same could be said about the Negro Leagues. Who dealt with most of the same problems and some different ones but the outcomes on the field seem to be the same as in the 19th c. Lots of guys pitching and fielding, lots of averages over .400 and leagues coming and going, super teams and such.
                      "No matter how great you were once upon a time — the years go by, and men forget,” - W. A. Phelon in Baseball Magazine in 1915. “Ross Barnes, forty years ago, was as great as Cobb or Wagner ever dared to be. Had scores been kept then as now, he would have seemed incomparably marvelous.”

                      Comment

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