The 1867 Nationals of Albany
Limited springtime activity was typical for most clubs of the 1860s, but the Nationals had an additional reason for delaying their important games until midsummer. Archibald “Archie” Bush, perhaps their best player, was not available until his classes at Phillips Academy were finished.
Bush was a talented catcher who would become one of the stars of the Harvard College nine, a powerhouse team capable of playing competitively with the best clubs in New England. Bush’s return greatly improved the Nationals’ prospects in their fight with the Knickerbockers for the championship of Albany.
“When do we have the first match for the Base Ball Championship?” inquired the Albany Evening Times on July 22. “Are not the college boys home?”
Following his service as a lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War, Archibald “Archie” Bush became a student at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He and his cousin James McClure (below, right) organized the first prep school “nine” in the country. Bush went on to serve as Captain of the Harvard Nine for three years and was considered one of the country’s greatest players of the time.
Bush was in the lineup at second base when the Nationals faced the strong Unions of Lansingburgh on July 29, and he played well in a lopsided 54-26 loss. Bush scored seven runs while not making a single out, registering what was known as a “clean score,” in a game marred by a dispute over the umpire. The Nationals brought a member of the Active Club of New York to serve in the position, but the Unions refused to accept him.
“Bush [who apparently acted as captain] would have been justified in insisting that he should act, even if the game was not played in consequence,” stated the Times.
The Nationals had consented to the umpire the Unions brought to Albany in 1866 and were surprised that the Unions objected to their choice, since the Active Club was a respectable organization. The obstreperousness of the Unions (sometimes known as the Troy Haymakers) was characteristic of an organization that in future years would acquire a deserved reputation for shadiness and questionable associations with gamblers.
The Knickerbockers won their first game against the Nationals in early August. Details are unclear because the Times apparently did not send a reporter to the game and no account appeared. The second game was played Sept. 3, and a 24-11 Knickerbockers win made them once more champions of Albany. However, Bush starred for the Nationals, making two excellent catches of foul balls and scoring two runs.
Unfortunately, the final weeks of the season were filled with unpleasant controversy. The Hampden Club of Springfield, Mass., complained bitterly of the treatment it received in Albany, claims refuted by the Times in less than convincing fashion: “All the ill-treatment that they experienced was the shouting of a lot of young vagabonds whose voices no one can control and who hooted our Albany Nationals when playing for the championship with the Knicks, much more loudly than they did the Springfield players. Men should not take such things to heart.”
A couple of weeks later, the Hudson Club came to Albany but refused to play the Nationals. Again the Times ridiculed the visitors: “The Hudsons were apparently upset that two regiments of the National Guard were not present to escort them to the field and that the city’s church bells had not rung out a welcome.”
As to the more substantive charge that locals stole money from the player’s civilian clothes during the game, the newspaper replied, “There are always prowling thieves to be found in large cities. The captiousness of the Hudson nine was so evident and persistent that a feeling of disgust was manifested all around.”
The following week, the Times printed an excerpt from the Hudson Star that began, “We do not wish the TIMES to infer that we upheld the Hudson Club in anything ungentlemanly.” The Star had received its information from a reliable source, the Times noted, but had not witnessed the incident in person. “The Hudson Star washes its hands of all complicity with the Hudson Base Ball Club,” the Times proclaimed triumphantly.
The last hurrah of the 1867 Nationals ended in disappointment. The famous Nationals of Washington visited Albany and Troy in late October. They were beaten by the Unions in Troy in an exciting 16-15 game on Oct. 21 and were scheduled to play the Nationals in Albany the following day. With the Washingtonians leading 9-4 in the bottom of the first inning, the skies opened and the game was called.
Though the Nationals encountered tough competition, as well as some controversy, during their 1867 season, they were victorious over the Live Oak Base Ball Club of Rochester, New York.
A week later, with the season winding down, the Times asked the Nationals, Knickerbockers and Live Oaks clubs to send them scores of their games so they could publish a complete season summary. A week later, having elicited no response, the paper renewed its request, insinuating there was a reason for the clubs’ reticence: “The [Knickerbockers and Nationals] probably do not feel so anxious for a printed record this year as last. The Nationals’ averages we think are against them; for they have pluckily played strong clubs this season.”
It had indeed been a mixed season for the Nationals in which they beat the Live Oaks and other second-tier clubs while losing to better nines like the Knickerbockers. The Nationals were seemingly doomed to second-class status for they were amateurs, and while professionalism was forbidden by the rules of the National Association, everyone who watched baseball knew that players on the top teams were being paid.
The amateur era was coming to an end, and many were displeased. In October, the Times delivered a blistering editorial condemning professionalism: “It seems to us that the modern bubble has been blown up so big that it must burst before long. There are already signs of decay. Professional players are multiplying who are recruited from that idle, shiftless, and yet ambitious class of men who seem to have been born with an invincible antipathy to useful employment but who are willing to work with the energy of giants at some useless task one day in the week, provided they have the privilege of lounging about the other six days, boasting of their exploits [to] win fame for their employers, who perch themselves daintily on the fence to smoke and applaud while their substitutes do the hard work.”
To address the growing practice of secretly or indirectly paying men to play the game, in December of 1868 the National Association of Base Ball Players established a professional category for the 1869 season. This cabinet photo features the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first team to declare themselves as openly professional (all-salaried).
Professionalism was legalized for the 1869 season, but it was impossible for pros and amateurs to co-exist under the umbrella of the National Association. The conflict came to a head at the convention of December 1870 at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City, and it was a member of the Nationals of Albany that lit the match.
Thomas Cantwell, who had been one of the best players from the 1867 club, was one of the Nationals’ delegates. He introduced a motion stating, “This Association regard the custom of hiring men to play the game of baseball as reprehensible and injurious to the best interests of the game.”
That ship had long since sailed, and the heyday of amateurs was over. Even though the overwhelming number of delegates was from amateur clubs, the motion was defeated. Within three months, the professionals formed their own association, and the domination of baseball by pros was formalized. Clubs like the Nationals of Albany were recalled fondly as the pioneers of baseball, gentleman who treated each other with decorum and respect. Incidents such as those involving the Hampden and Hudson clubs were forgotten and the sumptuous dinners served by the Old Elm Club immortalized in history as emblematic of the glorious amateur era.
Along with many other great amateur ball clubs of their time, the 1867 Nationals Club of Albany forged the way for baseball to become our country’s National Pastime.