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Was the NA (1871-75) a "Major" League?

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  • Was the NA (1871-75) a "Major" League?

    So we all know how much academic weight MLB's decisions carry on such things, but regardless of the "official" position, should the first professional baseball league, the National Association of 1871-1875, be considered a "major" league.

    The following are considered major leagues, according to MLB:
    American Association (1882-1891)
    American League (1901-present)
    Federal League (1914-1915)
    National League (1876-present)
    Players League (1890)
    Union Association (1884)

    Let's hear your best arguments, pro or con.
    "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

  • #2
    1. More than 100 NL players came from the NA.
    2. The NA consisted of most of the best players in the nation.
    3. Contemporaries and researchers consider it a major league based on definitions of a major league.

    MLB also tends to ignore the records and achievements of 19th Century players but that doesn't make it right.
    "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
    "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

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    • #3
      To the victor go the spoils. Not sure why the NA isn't considered a major - probably has a lot to do with the fact that some think time began with the National League (propaganda probably pushed by NL officials many years ago).

      The problem extends today. Just who today adjudicates things like this from the past? It can't be MLB - that's a business empire devoted to profits as it should be.

      There is a sound argument for the NA being a major - more so than it not IMO. For one, it's talent level far exceeded that of the UA and FL.

      Comment


      • #4
        The problem I always have with these discussions is that without a definition of "major league" it is meaningless to ask if any particular organization qualifies or not. You have rejected the official MLB definition (which can be summarized as "major leagues are the leagues we say are major"). That is fine, but without offerring an alternative, there isn't really any place to go.

        What do you consider the characteristics of a major league? Is it quality of play? Compared to what? There were no minor leagues at that time, and all openly professional clubs were by definition members of the NA. Or the definition organizational? The modern system of a hierarchy of leagues with a defined relationship to one another kicks in with the 1883 National Agreement.

        Often the subtext to the NA discussion seems to be whether or not we should consider stats from the NA. (The similar UA discussion has the corresponding subtext.) I have a hard time getting too excited by this consideration. Surely the answer depends on the specific question under study. For what it is worth, I can't think of a principled reason to ignore that portion of a professional player's career before the NL was founded.

        A more interesting question, in my opinion, than was the NA major is was it a league? It had some but not all of the characteristic we associate with leagues. This period was the invention of the modern sports league, but it didn't happen in one step. The NA was a transitional stage.

        Comment


        • #5
          Yeah, I agree about the frustratingly imprecise nature of these discussions, and about the subtext being "will these stats count." I happen to find the regard "what is a league" interesting and significant in itself. I regard a league as a body comprised of a fairly limited number of teams playing a set of round-robin series -- with, in its purest form, every team playing every other an equal number of times -- to determine a champion. That fits the NA.

          A major league, to my mind, would be one that comes reasonably close to bringing together the best teams and players in the game to complete in the round robin format. By that criterion, I think the NA has a solid claim to major status. True, in comparison with later leagues, it included clubs and players across a wide range of the quality spectrum, the weakest of whom would hardly fit anybody's definition of major leaguers. As a practical matter, though, the weak teams tended to go belly up fast, so that the NA was dominated by the top clubs to a greater extent than a simple head count of strong clubs and weak one would suggest.

          At any rate, what counts is the presence of a good sample of top talent in a structure that pits them against one another on the playing field on a regular basis. The fact that competition was somewhat diluted by the presence of weaker clubs is a secondary matter.

          At its core the NA was a collection of about six to ten professional teams of the first rank, probably the best six to ten teams in the country or very close to that, playing one another about 40 to 60 games a year (except in 1871, when the teams as a group were strong but the schedules were shorter). In the late 1870's and early 1880's the NL comprised six to eight first-rank professional teams playing one another about 50 to 70 times a year. They continued to play teams in the second and third rank, but they did so as exhibition games, whereas in some cases those games had been at least nominally official in the NA. I don't think that makes a really large difference.
          “Money, money, money; that is the article I am looking after now more than anything else. It is the only thing that will shape my course (‘religion is nowhere’).” - Ross Barnes

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          • #6
            IMO, if you consider the UA a major league, then it's a no-brainer that the NA is as well in the talent department. You could probably also say that about the Federal League. I'm not sure the UA even deserved to be considered on par with today's AAA relative to, say, the NL in 1884.

            I think the NA suffers from perception of having a weak central organization, teams that broke the rules with impunity, allegedly crooked play, many in-season "exhibition" games and the formation of a two-tiered "caste" system where the well-capitalized stock clubs could beat the tar out of the weak co-ops.

            But in terms of having the top talent in the game, I think it's clear the NA was major-league caliber. It had organizational issues that hamper its recognition as a bona fide league, I think.
            Last edited by ziggy29; 03-22-2009, 07:01 PM. Reason: fix typos

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Beady View Post
              A major league, to my mind, would be one that comes reasonably close to bringing together the best teams and players in the game to complete in the round robin format.
              ...
              True, in comparison with later leagues, it included clubs and players across a wide range of the quality spectrum, the weakest of whom would hardly fit anybody's definition of major leaguers. As a practical matter, though, the weak teams tended to go belly up fast, so that the NA was dominated by the top clubs to a greater extent than a simple head count of strong clubs and weak one would suggest.
              This description would cover the early years of the National League as well--which, depending on your point of view, might further support the notion of the NA as "major," or reduce the standing of the early NL.

              Comment


              • #8
                I'll agree with the UA not being "major" league caliber, but the Federal League? Didn't the FL successfully raid A/NL rosters to a large extent? Between that and the funding of the clubs, I thought the FL "qualified" as one?
                "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


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Brad Harris View Post
                  Didn't the FL successfully raid A/NL rosters to a large extent?
                  I'd like to see a list but I don't think "to a large extent" is an accurate phrase. Outside aging major leaguers and unproven younger talent, I'm not sure how many the Federal League raided the majors for. My guess would be few. The FL definitely had the funding.

                  So what are the main aspects of a major league?
                  1) They have to be a league with a relative few # of teams
                  2) They have to make an attempt at playing each other a relative amount of times
                  3) They have to have among the top geographical talent
                  4) Funding is a plus but not necessary
                  5) Any others?

                  The administrative troubles ("having a weak central organization, teams that broke the rules with impunity, allegedly crooked play, many in-season "exhibition" games") and the like don't disqualify the NA in my opinion. All groups have issues. The dominance of the Boston club is troubling but it's not like most of the other clubs didn't have talent. All this is just a part of the learning curve. Was a major league in 1874 supposed to be run like one in 2009?

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Actually, this whole dispute comes down to our being brainwashed by
                    MLB into thinking what "major league" is. Observers and critics during the
                    NA period didn't think in those terms. Their thinking was: which clubs,
                    organizations, represent the game's highest competitive level? On
                    that basis the NA was clearly "major". The real difference between
                    the NA and NL was that the latter took it upon themselves to form a
                    closed circuit, while with the NA any club that paid their entrance fee
                    could get in. Don't think for one minute the NL, in its early years, had
                    the best clubs. Were numerous non-NL clubs just as strong and could
                    beat NL teams regularly. It all comes to do: where do you draw the
                    talent line? Today we have thirty ML clubs. What if the top dozen
                    NL clubs decided to break away and form a separate "major league" and refused to play with any other clubs? Would all
                    the pro clubs left out now be "non-major"? Even today Some triple AAA clubs are
                    probably good enough to be "major league". But the public never gets
                    a chance to know this. MLB is a monopoly. They warehouse all the
                    baseall talent in this country (and are trying to do it to the whole world)
                    and divy this talent up to their advantage. In this respect the old NA was
                    a much more free and democratic organization. Teams had to prove they were
                    "major" on the field against the best teams. Many failed but at least
                    they were given the opportunity. Free competition decided who was "major".

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Brian McKenna View Post
                      I'd like to see a list but I don't think "to a large extent" is an accurate phrase. Outside aging major leaguers and unproven younger talent, I'm not sure how many the Federal League raided the majors for. My guess would be few. The FL definitely had the funding.

                      I don't know about the FL in much detail, but the success of the UA in raiding the NL and AA has been greatly underestimated (okay, "has been underestimated" is a euphemism for "Bill James underestimated it"). For example, you could reasonably argue that the St. Louis Maroon roster included more established ML talent than all the 1882 AA teams combined -- bearing in mind that, with the exception of Cincinnati, there wasn't a single player of established ML caliber on any AA roster. The AA teams had lot of good but unproven young talent, but that's another matter.

                      However, the UA was exceptionally skewed in terms of talent, with a minority of legitimate ML players and strong teams sharing the field with minor leaguers and semipros. In line with rrhersh's comment about subtext driviing the discussion, I think it's fair to say that what really bothers people about the UA is not the poor quality of play, but rather the fact that among the bad players there were a substantial number of good ones, fattening their statistics by competing with the bad. If Henry Moore had led the UA with a .336 BA, nobody would object to it being counted as a major. It's seeing the extraordinary numbers put up by Charlie Sweeney, Orator George Shaffer and especially Fred Dunlap that gets people's attention and throws off their statistical studies.
                      “Money, money, money; that is the article I am looking after now more than anything else. It is the only thing that will shape my course (‘religion is nowhere’).” - Ross Barnes

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        If you count NA as major, what would you call the Western Association and the American League of 1900? I've always considered the NA as just a league. Not major. Just a league. There were good teams that opted not to join the NA.

                        Had the NA rounded up all of the best teams, and the public (and teams not in the NA) recognized the status of those teams in the league as something special, that would be another thing.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Macker View Post
                          If you count NA as major, what would you call the Western Association and the American League of 1900? I've always considered the NA as just a league. Not major. Just a league. There were good teams that opted not to join the NA.

                          Had the NA rounded up all of the best teams, and the public (and teams not in the NA) recognized the status of those teams in the league as something special, that would be another thing.
                          This is rather misleading. The best clubs were all in the NA. There was a second tier of clubs, some of which were in the NA in any given year, while some were not. We can look at a club like the 1874 Eastons and reasonably suggest that they were better than some of the weak NA teams, but the top tier NA teams were clearly better than any non-NA team.

                          This two tier system is the source of much of the debate and the stats angst. My suggestion for the stats people, intended in all seriousness, is to follow the contemporary practice is disregard games in which one or both contenders failed to complete the season. Successfully completing the season correlates strongly with being in the top tier, so this eliminates most of the grossly unbalanced games.

                          As for the public perception of NA versus non-NA clubs, look at any newspaper of the day which covered baseball. Professional (i.e. NA) games received attention nationwide. Amateur (i.e. non-NA) might or might not receive local attention, but very rarely did they gain wider notice.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            People tend to retroject the situation in the late 1870's back into the earlier part of the decade. I tend to take a fairly bearish view of the quality of the leading teams in the International Association, and their claim to parity with the NL, but there's no doubt that some relatively strong teams could be found outside the NL around 1877 and 1878. In large measure they were outside because their cities didn't fit into the NL circuit and the clubs hadn't been accepted for membership . That didn't apply before 1876, when the NA accepted anybody who wanted to join, and I don't believe there was any substantial number of top teams that stayed out.

                            I have done a simple and not particularly sophisticated study that tends to suggest that excluding games played by the bottom feeders would not grossly change the statistics for players on the strong teams. As I remarked earlier, the effect of the second-tier teams is minimized by the fact that they usually disappeared pretty quickly.
                            “Money, money, money; that is the article I am looking after now more than anything else. It is the only thing that will shape my course (‘religion is nowhere’).” - Ross Barnes

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              I would certainly agree that all the top teams in professional baseball were not solely found in the early National League. That's not to say that there were a sufficient number of these teams bandied together in another league of their own at any team. The National League made a habit of bringing the best teams in the country into their fold over the succeeding two decades after its genesis. To the best of my knowledge, none of these other leagues (the AA excepted) were any more competitive than the UA was in '84. Were the teams like Detroit or Buffalo being plucked from a pool of tough competition within their own (non-NL) circles or were they just the only teams in inferior leagues that rose above because they had major league caliber talent where their competitors did not? I doubt there's much argument that some very strong unaffiliated (with the NL or AA) teams existed which were the equals or betters of a fair number of "major" league franchises. What I would question is whether there were a sufficient number of such teams playing a regular schedule against each other that a rival league was really close to the caliber of play seen in the NL/AA at that time.

                              I buy the argument that the NA (1871-75) is "major" because there simply wasn't another professional league in existence so, in effect, it was in fact the league in which the best teams played. If there was a team in a non-league town that was better than half the NA teams, again...that doesn't mean the league was not the top-tier showcase of baseball talent (on the whole) in the country at that time.

                              According to Brian's outline for defining a "major" league, I have to wonder if the Pacific Coast League didn't really qualify at some point in its history.
                              "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

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