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Though Beaten, Not Disgraced

The Atlantics End the Red Stockings 80-Game Winning Streak
The 1869 Red Stockings of Cincinnati.

Before baseball had leagues, and before there was even an effective method of determining a champion, the 1869 Red Stockings of Cincinnati were the most famous team. Captained by the estimable Harry Wright and bolstered by a number of high-salaried imports, the Red Stockings toured the East and shocked the baseball world by beating every one of the powerful New York and Philadelphia nines. After returning to Cincinnati, they went in the opposite direction, traveling to California on the recently completed transcontinental railroad. Baseball was relatively new on the West Coast, and the Red Stockings defeated the local clubs easily.

When the season ended, the Red Stockings had won 57 games, lost none, and tied one, a contested affair in which their opponents, the Haymakers of Troy, walked off the field after a dispute with the umpire. There had been undefeated teams in previous seasons, but none had played anywhere near 58 games.

The Red Stockings began the 1870 season with another 23 victories, stretching their winning streak (excluding the disputed tie) to 80 games. As they had the previous year, the club left Cincinnati for a long road trip that would begin on May 31 in Cleveland and end on June 28 in Washington, D.C. On June 14, the Cincinnati nine would face the famed Atlantics of Brooklyn, the dominant club of the previous decade. On their 1869 tour, the Red Stockings had defeated the Atlantics by the one-sided score of 32–10.

The New York baseball establishment had been shocked and embarrassed by the manner in which the Red Stockings had beaten their best teams the previous year. Baseball began in New York, and to have a Midwestern nine (even if it contained a number of New Yorkers) humiliate their venerable organizations was a slap in their collective face. The Reds’ dominance in 1869 had been somewhat of a surprise, but by 1870 the New York and Brooklyn clubs were ready and determined to gain revenge.

The June 14 game took place at the Capitoline Grounds, one of two enclosed fields in Brooklyn, and 12,000 to 15,000 spectators filled the enclosure, many standing in the depths of the outfield and still more looking in from beyond. Brooklyn fans were enthusiastic, and unfortunately they sometimes took an active role in the proceedings. In a key game between the Atlantics and Excelsiors in 1860, Atlantics fans were so rowdy and disruptive that Excelsior Captain Joe Leggett removed his team from the field and brought the game to an abrupt end.

The Brooklyn Atlantics, baseball’s first dynasty, featured greats Dickey Pearce and Charlie Smith.

The Atlantics were experiencing some turbulence early in the 1870 season. Infielder Bob Ferguson had been named captain of the nine. Ferguson was a talented ballplayer, highly intelligent, and an inscrutably honest man. On the other side of the ledger was the bullying, abrasive personality that rendered him unfit for a leadership position.

After being named captain, Ferguson immediately alienated several members of his club. One reporter wrote, “Ferguson . . . was formerly a quiet, hard-working member of the nine, but since he has been crowned with ‘a little brief authority’ he lords it over his men in an insultingly demonstrative and domineering way that cannot fail to wound the feelings of the nine.”

Ferguson was feuding with veteran shortstop Dick Pearce, and after one of the Atlantics defied his order during a practice session, Ferguson angrily stormed off the field. By the end of May, the Atlantics team was nearly in a state of revolt. Reporter Si Bascom of the Cincinnati Commercial reported, “The Atlantics this year, as a nine, are reported to be a little shaky.” He expected that the Red Stockings’ most serious challenges would come from the Stars and Mutuals of New York, the Athletics of Philadelphia, and the Olympics of Washington.

Baseball has always been a highly unpredictable affair, however, and during the early innings of their game with the Red Stockings, the Atlantics gave every indication that the Cincinnati nine were in for an arduous afternoon.

After six innings, the Atlantics held a 4–3 lead. The play on both sides, as indicated by the low score, had been sharp. Harry Wright had furnished a relatively dead ball, which made fielding easier and led to a crisper game. After the Reds took the lead with two runs in the seventh, the Atlantics tied the game in the eighth on a sacrifice fly by first baseman Joe “Old Reliable” Start.

Joe Start was one of the biggest baseball stars of his era. A man of integrity and an excellent first baseman, “Old Reliable” played professionally until the age of 43.

Start was one of the most remarkable players of the nineteenth century. He began playing baseball with the Enterprise Club of Brooklyn in 1859 and finished in 1886 with Washington’s National League club. His career spanned several eras, and he had to adapt to many changes in pitching style and equipment.

Start is little remembered today, partly because he played twelve years in the pre-league era and was 28 when he first played in an organized league. The limited number of games played during the 1870s rendered his statistics unimpressive, and he was a power hitter in an era when no one hit home runs. Start was also, by most accounts, an excellent fielder and swift base runner.

Neither the Atlantics nor Red Stockings scored in the ninth inning, which ended with a 5–5 deadlock. The rules called for extra innings to be played only if one club insisted; if both agreed to a draw, the game was over. When the ninth inning ended, Atlantic Director Mike Henry, quite satisfied that his club had held the undefeated Red Stockings to a tie, told Ferguson to take his nine to the clubhouse. By ending the game, Henry would achieve two aims. First, he would protect the bets he and his compatriots made on the Atlantics, and, second, a tie would necessitate a replay and another remunerative payday. Start later said that the players favored such a resolution, for it would provide an additional $300 to 400 to divide among themselves.

The Red Stockings received a fixed salary and did not share in gate receipts, so they were not enthused by the prospect of another game. They had plenty of games to play before returning to Cincinnati and wanted to win then and there. Harry Wright found umpire Charley Mills, who was leaving the field, and told them his nine wanted to play the game to a conclusion.

Mills told Ferguson, who had not yet repaired to the clubhouse, of Wright’s decision and informed him that, if the Atlantics did not return to the field, he would forfeit the game to the Reds. Ferguson went to the clubhouse and gathered his nine. There was great confusion on the Capitoline Grounds as the players drifted back, the fans returned to their stations, and the field was readied for play. The 10th inning began about 25 minutes after the ninth inning ended.

Cincinnati failed to score, and the Atlantics put two men on base in the bottom of the 10th with one out. Veteran third baseman Charlie Smith hit a popup that, in the pre-infield fly rule era, George Wright intentionally allowed to hit the ground, and then turned a double play.

The Red Stockings scored twice in the top of the eleventh to take a 7–5 lead and, if pitcher Asa Brainard could hold the Atlantics in check for one inning, Cincinnati would have its 81st consecutive win. Smith led off with a single past third base and, shortly afterward, went all the way to third on a wild pitch.

Start hit a long, high drive to right field, and the Reds’ Cal McVey took off in hot pursuit. The crowd had thinned considerably between the ninth and 10th innings, but there were still fans encroaching on the outfield. As McVey scooped up Start’s hit on the bounce, a fan grabbed him and tried to prevent him from throwing the ball back to the infield. McVey shook the fan off and threw to third, but Start beat the throw easily and stood on the base representing the tying run.

Ferguson, the next batter, stepped into position to bat left-handed. The Atlantic captain was a switch hitter, but he did not alternate depending upon whether the pitcher was left- or right-handed. He batted according to situation and whim, and, perhaps, he hit from the left side at that moment to keep the ball away from star shortstop George Wright. Ferguson bounced a single to right, scoring Start with the tying run.

Atlantic pitcher George Zettlein hit a line drive that first baseman Charley Gould could not stop. Zettlein reached first safely, and Ferguson moved to second. George Hall then hit a ground ball to shortstop. Wright threw to second to try to start a double play, but the ball went into right field, Ferguson crossed the plate, and the streak was over. The Atlantics had a hard-fought 8–7 win in one of the finest, most exciting games of baseball that had ever been played.

When the Atlantics tendered the Cincinnati share of the gate receipts, Harry Wright believed he had been defeated a second time. Despite estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people watched the game, the Atlantics claimed they sold only 5,000 tickets. Wright left town feeling he had been cheated of more than $1,000.

Red Stocking President Aaron Champion, a Cincinnati attorney, returned to his hotel room and wept. He sent a telegram to Cincinnati that read, “The finest game ever played. Our boys did nobly, but fortune was against us. Eleven innings played. Though beaten, not disgraced.”

Sketch of Brooklyn’s Capitoline Grounds ballpark in 1870.

 

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