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Forgotten Powerhouse: The 1876 Chicago White Stockings

By Peter Cozzens , May 18, 2016

(public domain)

Like other Chicago Cubs fans, I’ve been waiting a lifetime for a triumphant postseason. I won’t reveal my age, but memories of the Cubs’ September 1969 collapse and the Miracle Mets’ surge remain among the most painfully vivid of my childhood. Some historically inclined Cubs fans seek solace in stories of the great teams of 1906–1910, 1908 being of course the last year the Cubs won a World Series. I prefer to reach further back, all the way to 1876 and the birth of the National League, and tell myself that the champions of the centennial year season, the Chicago White Stockings (the franchise that would later become the Cubs), were one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Admittedly, my hometown pride may cloud my judgment a bit because I’ve yet to see a list of even the top 50 teams in Major League history that includes the 1876 White Stockings. But a .788 winning percentage and a team batting average of .337 (the league average was .265) have to count for something.

The Chicago White Stockings franchise had a rough beginning. They were a charter member of the National Association in 1871. Most Chicagoans were convinced that the “Whites,” as the White Stockings were otherwise known, would have won the first championship that year (they were in a virtual dead heat with Philadelphia and Boston) had the Great Fire not intervened to destroy the team’s ballpark, bankrupt the players, and compel the club to play its remaining three games on the road, all of which they lost. Not until 1874 was Chicago again able to field a team. By then, the Boston Red Stockings dominated the association. As Boston rolled toward a fourth straight pennant in 1875, Chicago businessman William Hulbert, the civic-minded part owner of the White Stockings who famously said that he would “rather be a lamppost in Chicago than a millionaire in any other city,” decided Chicago had suffered humiliation enough. Coincidentally, Boston’s star pitcher—24-year-old Albert G. Spalding—had concluded that his team’s dominance had become “monotonous” and was likely to “destroy interest in the game.”[i] In July 1875 he agreed to cut a deal with Hulbert—with whom he also shared a desire to purge baseball of the gambling element and “elevate” the sport—to come to Chicago in 1876 as pitcher and manager. Spalding, in turn, induced teammates Roscoe Barnes, Calvin McVey, and James White, the three best batters in the association, to join him. For good measure, he convinced Adrian Anson, a 23-year-old rising star with the Philadelphia Athletics, to also sign with the White Stockings.

Word of the clandestine contracts quickly leaked, but the “seceders,” as Boston fans labeled their turncoat stars, played their hearts out, and Boston won bigger than ever, closing the 1875 season with a 71–8 record. 

For a time it appeared that Hulbert, named president of the White Stockings in the offseason, would lose Anson, whose fiancée objected to leaving Philadelphia. Anson offered $1,000 to be released from his contract, but Hulbert and Spalding refused.

As the 1876 season approached, a larger problem than Anson’s rebellious fiancée loomed. Expecting that National Association owners would expel the White Stockings over the player raids, Hulbert not only staged a coup and created the National League, but also convinced National Association team owners to join him in the new enterprise on the strength of his pledge to bring reform to baseball.

The Chicago White Stockings would play their home games in a wooden ballpark bounded by 23rd Street, 22nd Street (now Cermak Road), and present-day Federal Street. Known as both the 23rd Street Grounds and the State Street Grounds, the park had a capacity of about 4,500 and was conveniently located on the State Street streetcar line.

The “Big Four” from Boston anchored the lineup. As starting pitcher, Spalding was expected to hurl—and complete—nearly every game of the season. His catcher was former Boston battery mate James “Deacon” White, a consummate gentleman and genuine church deacon who also was the best catcher of the barehanded, no-facemask era. In a day when catchers normally grabbed the pitch on the bounce, White not only caught the ball but also threw runners out. He also happened to believe the earth was flat and labored to convince his teammates of the “fact.” Anson played third base, the sure-handed John Peters returned at shortstop, Barnes played second, and Cal McVey, the club’s most agile player, who would delight fans with cartwheels and handsprings on the field after each White Stockings victory, played first. Former Philadelphia Athletic Robert “Honorable Bob” Addy, the team wag, who sometimes played shoeless because of his habitually sore feet, shared right-field duty with Oscar Bielaski. The first Polish-American Major League ballplayer, Bielaski had learned to play baseball while a drummer boy in the Union army. Returning White Stockings John Glenn and Paul Hines played left and center field respectively. In his capacity as manager, Spalding varied the batting order regularly; the only constant was Barnes in the leadoff spot.

As was to be expected, the most intense rivalry of the eight-team inaugural National League season was that between Chicago and Boston. To the mortification of Bostonians, the “Whites” took the first nine of 10 games played between the two clubs. Off to a 13–3 start, Chicago first squared off with the Red Caps (the team had ceded the name Red Stockings to Cincinnati) in Boston on May 30. From third base, Anson marveled at the spectacle.

It was Decoration Day, and therefore a holiday, and it seemed to me as if all Boston had determined to be present on that occasion. By hundreds and thousands they kept coming, and finally it was found necessary to close the gates in order to keep room enough on the grounds to play the game. With the gates closed the crowd began to swarm over the fences, and the specially hired policemen had their hands more than full of trouble.[ii]

To the relief of the Whites, when they took the field the Boston fans gave the “Big Four” a standing ovation. Chicago won 5–1 behind Spalding’s pitching, and went on to sweep the three-game series. At the 23rd Street Grounds in July, the Whites pummeled Boston 18–7, 11–3, and 15–0. Fourteen of the Whites’ runs in the first game were unearned, leading a Chicago sportswriter to crow that the Whites had “cleaned out the Bostonian men of brains.” The Red Caps’ starting pitcher Joe Borden had been so wild that day—an errant pitch struck a woman in the stands behind home plate—that Whites’ fans were advised not to “station themselves anywhere within 25 feet of the line the ball pursues to the catcher” the next time Borden pitched.[iii] Boston won the final encounter of the season on September 23 only because the umpire permitted the game to continue until “the darkness had become so general that nobody in the reporter’s stand could see the ball when thrown or hit.”[iv] While Spalding stumbled around the pitcher’s box looking for a weakly tapped grounder, Boston scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. An amused Cap Anson thought the Red Caps owner was “happier that day when [Jim] O’Rourke crossed the home plate than he would have been had somebody made him a present of a house and lot, so anxious was he to win at least one game from Chicago.”[v]

Boston had plenty of company in its season of misery against Chicago. Three other teams also beat the Whites just once, and Cincinnati went 0–10. Only the St. Louis Brown Stockings had a winning record against Chicago, 6 games to 4. Although St. Louis and the Hartford Dark Blues each briefly challenged the Whites for first place, Chicago concluded the 1876 season with a 52–14 record, six games ahead of both teams. The Whites dominated the league in every offensive category, outscoring opponents 624 to 257 runs. Every regular, including the pitcher Spalding, hit over .300. (Addy and Bielaski platooned in right field, combining for a .245 average.) Barnes won the batting title with a .429 average; Anson finished third with a .356 average; Peters fourth with a career-high .351 average; and McVey fifth at .347. Their combined .371 batting average stands as the highest ever recorded by a Major League infield. Barnes also led the league in hits, on-base percentage, slugging average, total bases, runs scored (126 in 66 games), and RBIs with 60. Hines, Anson, and Barnes tied for second with 59. Spalding fulfilled his promise as the Whites’ principal starting pitcher, winning 47 games and compiling a 1.75 ERA.

Chicago’s 1876 Champions of the National League (clockwise from the top) featured Ross Barnes, John Peters, Cap Anson, Paul Hines, Cal McVey, John Glenn and Albert Spalding (center). Also shown are two members of the 1877 team—George Bradley and Charlie Waitt.

In view of the White Stockings’ dominance in 1876, Chicagoans not unreasonably expected a repeat championship the next year. But such was not to be. Deacon White returned to Boston in the offseason. Spalding had exhausted his pitching arm, and as player/manager moved himself to first base in 1877. His replacement on the mound struggled. Anson and McVey played well, but Barnes fell ill with ague, batting just .272 in 22 games. The Whites also went homerless on the season, the only Major League team to hold that dubious distinction, and they ended what Anson called “a year of disaster” in next-to-last place. It was the sort of season Chicago fans have come to expect. But, with apologies to Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, “We’ll always have 1876.”

[i] A. G. Spalding, America’s National Game (New York, 1911), 204, 208.
[ii] Adrian C. Anson, A Ball Player’s Career (Chicago, 1900), 95-96.
[iii] Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, July 12, 1876.
[iv] Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1876.
[v] Anson, Ball Player’s Career, 96.




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