By Scott A. Rowan
It seems odd that a company begun by a Chicago Cubs pitcher would become the official manufacturer of balls for the National Basketball Association, the Women’s National Basketball Association, the Beach Volleyball tour, and the Little League World Series, but not Major League Baseball—well, at least not anymore.
Albert Goodwill Spalding had a short career as a major league player/ manager not because his talents were limited, but because his success in the business world led him to end his playing days. What the Cubs (then called the White Stockings) lost when he left would prove to be the rest of the world’s gain. Wrote Peter Golenbock in his book Wrigleyville, “Albert Goodwill Spalding was the game’s George Washington, the Father of Professional Baseball. Spalding [had] far-reaching, ambitious plans, both for himself and for the game of baseball. . . . Spalding loomed over the game of baseball that he first described as America’s Pastime.”
After his first five seasons pitching for the Boston Red Stockings (1871–75), Spalding was lured to Chicago by team president William Hulbert, who offered the pitcher the princely sum of $4,000 to become player/manager of the White Stockings. Having notched a record of 204–53 in Boston, the right-handed Spalding had proven his ability to pitch. His managing skills were untested, but Hulbert had faith that the Illinois native who had become Boston’s star player would turn the team into a contender.
Hulbert’s intuition about both business and baseball were unparalleled. A wealthy coal merchant who loved the game, Hulbert became the White Stocking’s first president in 1871. Disappointed at the failures of his team from 1871 to 1875, Hulbert decided that to fix the problems with his team, he would first have to fix even bigger problems in the game.
From 1871 to 1875, the team that would eventually become the Cubs played in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, otherwise known as the NA. But in 1876, Hulbert huddled with like-minded executives from teams in Boston, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. These men felt that the NA players had too much control of the game and knew nothing about business; they, therefore, decided to form a new league. On February 2, 1876, they created the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, otherwise known as the National League. While it’s true that the discord between players and owners dates back to Hulbert and the founding of the NL, it’s also true that no other professional sports league has lasted as continuously as has the NL. Hulbert was as much a businessman as he was a baseball fan, and the two traits combined to change history. (GeoVerse™155)
Hulbert’s plans for his team, now playing in the NL, hinged on one player: Spalding. Not only did Hulbert offer Spalding a pay raise to leave Boston for Chicago, he also gave the player/manager a cut of all gate receipts. A businessman at heart, Spalding understood that his own earnings would depend on the team’s success. Spalding made an immediate impact, leading the White Stockings to the franchise’s first NL championship in his first season (1876), going 47–12 with a 1.75 ERA.
But Spalding had business plans of his own beyond playing baseball—and the burgeoning city of Chicago would be the perfect location from which to launch the sporting goods empire of which he dreamed. On February 12, 1876, Spalding and his brother, J. Walter, borrowed $800 from their mother to open a sporting goods store at 118 Randolph Street in Chicago. (GeoVerse™166) Her investment would prove to be a wise one, as Spalding soon convinced NL officials to sign a contract that gave his company, Spalding & Bros., the rights to supply the National League’s official baseballs. Spalding’s company would hold this right for 100 years, until Rawlings replaced them in 1977. The American League also used Spalding baseballs from 1888 to 1973.
The 1876 season would be Spalding’s first and last as a pitcher for Chicago. He moved to first base in 1877—not because his pitching was weak, but because his business was doing so well that he couldn’t afford to spend the extra energy, both mental and physical, to pitch every day. But ever the marketer, Spalding wore a special glove manufactured by his company during his last season. Soon Spalding had secured the right to manufacture gloves for major league baseball teams while he was still drawing a paycheck as a player/manager.
Spalding left the playing field after the 1877 season to become secretary of the club, helping Hulbert direct the organization from the front office. Spalding’s lasting impact on the game of baseball would prove to be profound. As Glenn Stout wrote in his book The Cubs:
In less than two years, he had not only remade the game but also gained a virtual monopoly over the manufacture and sale of baseball equipment. He retired as an active player at age twenty-seven to run his business and serve as a club official, probably the first professional ballplayer in America to parlay his skill on the diamond into an even more lucrative career in the game off the field. . . . Thus, Spalding inaugurated another grand tradition of Chicago Cubs baseball, one since followed by both later owners, such as Philip K. Wrigley, and the Tribune Company. For much of their history, the Cubs have taken a backseat to the larger business interests of management. Spalding used the White Stockings to position himself to make money regardless of how well the White Stockings played. Wins and losses were less important than profit potential, a circumstance that, over time, Cubs fans would find as recognizable as Wrigley Field’s outfield ivy.
By age 28, Spalding had become a millionaire who was getting richer by the month. And his firsts kept coming. In 1878, Spalding & Bros. became the first publisher of the official set of rules for major league baseball. In 1887, the company manufactured the first football for the consumer market. And in 1894, they became the official manufacturer of both the rules book and the ball for professional basketball.
When Hulbert died in 1882, he left a massive void at the top of baseball’s hierarchy; his foresight and guidance had changed the landscape of American sports forever. Spalding stepped up to fill the void as owner and president of the team until 1891. During his tenure as secretary and then owner, Spalding proved himself to be one of the smartest men in baseball—as well as the richest. The White Stockings dominated baseball during the last decade of the nineteenth century, taking first in the NL five times and second twice.
Globalization is a common term in the twenty-first century, but Spalding was the first person in sports to attempt to take a national game to the rest of the world. His first attempts at globalizing the sport came in 1874, when he helped organize an attempt to spread the game to England. British tastes didn’t take to baseball, however, and the tour “fizzled” because “the aggressive, win-at- all costs attitude of the Americans were too foreign for the British to accept.”
Building on this experience, Spaulding took baseball on a true global tour between the 1888 and 1889 seasons in order to promote the game in foreign lands (as well as to sell more equipment to untapped markets). As the owner of the first major league dynasty team, Spalding pitted a select group of his White Stockings against handpicked players from other teams. In December 1888, Spalding’s All-Star World Tour played exhibition games in Australia, making stops along the way in Hawaii, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, and France, showcasing the sport to would-be fans.
Spalding had a unique influence on the world of professional baseball. What Bill Gates was to computer software, Spalding was to the American Pastime. In fact, it was his vision that actually made baseball the sport of the nation. In 1904, Spalding took it upon himself to establish the story of the birth of baseball. A patriot given to mythmaking and storytelling, Spalding set up a commission of seven sports executives to determine the true origin of the sport. After three years, the commission declared that Abner Doubleday had created baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday was a Union army officer who had overseen the first shot at Fort Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War and later survived the Battle of Gettysburg. It made for a good story (and is the reason why the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown)—but it was more fiction than fact.
In 1839, Doubleday was a student at West Point, not in Cooperstown, and there is no evidence that he ever played a game like baseball. In fact, he was a serious military officer who would have been surprised to learn that he had supposedly “invented” a sport. What’s more, according to John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, the game of baseball was already being played in several big cities during the early part of the eighteenth century, particularly in New York, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia. Each of these areas had large settlements of immigrants from England, where a similar game called Rounders was popular. Spalding wanted to establish the idea that baseball was an American invention, rather than an offshoot of a British sport—and adding a Civil War hero to the story couldn’t hurt. Pursuing his dream of creating a national pastime that his countrymen would be proud to play, Spalding created the myth of Doubleday, and had no qualms about bending a few facts in the process.
Like so much in baseball, it was all Spalding’s idea.
Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 20.
Stout and Johnson, Cubs, 9.
Robert Elias, The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad (New York: The New Press, 2010), 20.
“The ‘Secret History’ Of Baseball’s Earliest Days,” npr.org, March 16, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/03/16/134570236/the-secret-history-of-baseballs-earliest-days.
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