By Scott A. Rowan
Despite his well-established deep-seated racism, Chicago Cubs player/manager Adrian “Cap” Anson also had a positive impact on baseball—in fact, the sport would not be the same without him. It may be hard for contemporary fans to realize, but some of the most strategic elements of the game did not always exist. It took the creative minds of baseball innovators such as Anson to develop the game that we know today.
Anson was a pioneer when it came to ideas such as pitching rotations, the hit-and-run, hand signals, and team-sponsored spring training. As is the case with much of baseball history, some critics have offered claims that other individuals were responsible for some of these inventions. You can decide for yourself based on the evidence gathered here.
Pitching Rotations: This is the least-debated of Anson’s innovations; nearly all baseball historians agree that the Cubs squad of 1880 forever altered the game. In 1880, Chicago’s National League team (then called the White Stockings) finished first in the league with a 67–17 record, 15 games ahead of the Providence Grays. (The Grays were led by pitcher/manager John Montgomery Ward, a pioneer himself who was philosophically opposed to Anson—a fact that will be important in our discussion of Anson’s place in baseball history.) Chicago’s success came after a mediocre season the previous year during which they barely broke .500 (46–33), finishing fourth in the NL. Why the big difference between the two seasons? Two pitchers, Larry Corcoran and Fred Goldsmith, and the way Anson used them to give his team a competitive advantage.
Prior to the 1880 season, baseball teams used pitchers in the same way as most hockey teams use goalies today: employing only one for the majority of games, while also having a backup take the field on occasion. However, Anson had two very good pitchers at his disposal in 1880, and the shrewd manager wanted to get the most out of both of them. For the first time in baseball, two pitchers would share the mound during the season, Corcoran starting 60 games and Goldsmith 24. While two starting pitchers is still a long way from the five that teams usually employ today, this was the first time that multiple pitchers were used in a season as a strategic move, rather than as a necessity due to injury.
The two pitchers also had very different styles, a fact that allowed the team to open the season with a 35–3 mark, including 21 straight wins (still a Cubs record). Wrote Glenn Stout in his book The Cubs:
Corcoran was considered a speed pitcher. Goldsmith, on the other hand, lacked Corcoran’s speed but was a pioneer of the curveball. Teams that faced Goldsmith and Corcoran back to back had to adapt to their differing styles, and on occasion Anson even used one man in relief of the other in the same game, making that adaptation even more difficult.
Seeing clear results from using this rotation, Anson evened the balance between the two in 1881, with Corcoran starting 44 games and Goldsmith 39. The result was another first-place finish in the NL. By the end of the century, every team in baseball was using a pitching rotation. Never again would teams rely on only one pitcher to handle nearly all of their games.
The Hit-and-Run: Opinions are split on whether Anson deserves credit for the hit-and-run. Noted baseball historian Bill James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Abstract that credit should go to Boston manager Tommy McCarthy for creating the strategy. However, that assertion appears to be wrong given the evidence of other authors.
James’ based his contention on an 1893 interview with Ward, Anson’s rival, who credited McCarthy’s team with using a new scheme to advance the runner, describing what we would now call the hit-and-run. “It was clear,” James surmised, “that Tommy McCarthy and the Boston Beaneaters had developed a new play, the hit-and-run.” McCarthy played for the Beaneaters in 1885 and then from 1892 to 1895. It was during his second stint with the organization that McCarthy, according to Ward and later James, created the hit-and-run.
However, by the 1892 season, Ward had reason to refuse to give Anson credit for any innovation that improved the game. In fact, in 1887—six years before his interview denying Anson any credit for the innovation—Ward was thwarted by the bigoted Anson when trying to sign African American players Fleet Walker and George Stovey to the New York Giants. Not only were the Giants a rival of the Cubs, but Ward was an open-minded man who welcomed racial diversity; Anson, on the other hand, was a dyed-in-the-wool racist. While Anson’s bigotry was deplorable, it also explains why Ward would want to give credit to anyone other than Anson for any game-improving innovations.
The proof that Anson was actually the first to employ the hit-and-run dates back to an 1877 Chicago Daily Tribune article discovered by Anson biographer David L. Fleitz in which the author attempted to explain the new strategy to fans:
Some chap stated the following conundrum, professing not to understand it: “Why do batsmen strike a ball when a base-runner is half-way to second base on a clever steal?” The answer was found in Thursday’s game, when [Cal] McVey started to second base, and Anson hit the ball in the exact spot where [St. Louis’ Mike] McGeary had been standing before he ran to his base to catch McVey. It is really a clever batting trick to hit to the right field when it lies all open.
After retiring from baseball, Anson loudly protested that he deserved credit for inventing the hit-and-run. But James dismissed Anson, writing that Anson “was a blowhard and the older he got, the harder he blew. The fact that Cap Anson said, twenty or thirty years after the fact, that his team was using the hit and run play first—that really doesn’t mean anything.”
James has been a respected baseball authority for decades, but if he had read the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1877, he would know that Ward’s denial of Anson’s invention was biased.
Hand Signals: William “Dummy” Hoy, who lost his hearing as a child, was the first deaf major league baseball player. His rookie season was in 1888 with the Washington Nationals. He played for 14 seasons, pioneering the use of hand signals for balls and strikes along the way. Previously, umpires had only yelled out these calls. However, what few fans know is that this is actually another innovation started by Anson years earlier.
The White Stockings’ historic 1880 season was special in many ways, including the fact that it was the first season that a team communicated with hand signals. It began with Anson taking a coaching position in foul territory near third base to help guide his players. (Base coaching was another of Anson’s firsts.) While coaching, Anson developed a way to use “hand signals to communicate with players on the field. Pitcher Larry Corcoran picked up on the approach, and after he developed a curveball of his own, he began to signal to his catcher which pitch was coming next by moving around the chaw of tobacco in his cheek.”
While Hoy’s contribution to the game was significant, the hand signals that he introduced due to his deafness were merely an adaptation of the signs Anson and his players had been using for nearly a decade before Hoy’s first game.
Spring Training: Whether Anson actually invented this tradition is among the most debatable of his claims to history. During his early years in baseball, Anson enjoyed drinking as much as any player. But as he grew older, Anson extolled the virtues of good eating, clean living, and abstinence from alcohol, smoking, and womanizing. Yet despite his good example, nearly all of his players reported to the team at the start of the season overweight, out of shape, and in need of several weeks of practice to get into playing condition. In March 1885, Anson took the team to Hot Springs, Arkansas, with the express idea of getting them physically fit and ready to play baseball.
While this idea wasn’t entirely new, Anson’s intent—namely to have the players lose their excess weight and get in playing shape—was a new approach. Teams had of course played preseason games in the past. For example, in 1870 the White Stockings and the Cincinnati Red Stockings played several exhibition games in New Orleans, while the previous year, the New York Mutuals had played exhibition games against a local team in New Orleans. But between 1869 and 1885, no one took the idea of spring training seriously—in fact, that term didn’t even exist then. It was only after Anson, who wanted “to sweat the winter fat off ”16 his players, began going to Hot Springs in 1885 that rivals began to follow suit.
It only made sense that other teams would mimic the White Stockings, who dominated baseball during the 1880s. They finished first in the NL in 1885 and repeated as champs in 1886, thanks in part to being in better shape than their rivals at the start of the season. Finishing first five times in seven seasons, clearly the team was doing something worth copying. “Anson and Spalding may not have invented ‘spring training’ but they made the concept a viable one,” Fleitz wrote, “and all other major league teams followed their lead in subsequent years.”
In Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training, baseball historian Charles Fountain clarified what Anson did differently from anyone else when it came to spring training:
Cap Anson did two things that his spring-trip predecessors had not. He won championships in his first two seasons after bringing a team south, which convinced him to make spring training a regular affair. And he brought along a newspaper reporter to publicize the trip. Both played no small part in building the legend that he had been first.
Spring training has, of course, become big business since Anson’s time. In fact, the SportsBusiness Journal reported in 201219 that more than $1 billion was spent between 1988 and 2011 on spring-training facilities in Florida and Arizona. The same report cited figures showing that local cities and counties in Florida and Arizona received approximately $11.5 million in 2011 in revenue generated during spring training. This estimate would be even larger except that the spring- training homes of the Atlanta Braves (Champion Stadium in Florida) and both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies (Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Arizona) are privately owned and do not report their revenue figures.
In that same 2012 report, the Cubs’ HoHoKam Park was No. 1 in revenue generated by a single team in its own park, creating $1.2 million for the City of Mesa, Arizona. The most revenue generated overall went to the city of Peoria, Arizona, which received an estimated $2.7 million in revenue from the Peoria Sports Complex, spring-training home of both the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres.
Despite his many innovations and the future wealth they would generate, Anson died penniless in 1922. The elaborate tombstone at his grave in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago was paid for by a special fund created by the National League to honor one of the most inventive men in baseball history. (GeoVerse™144)
Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson, The Cubs: The Complete History of Chicago Cubs Baseball (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 13.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2003), 65.
David L. Fleitz, Cap Anson: The Grand Old Man of Baseball (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), 72.
James, Abstract, 65.
Stout and Johnson, Cubs, 1
S. Derby Gisclair, “History of New Orleans Baseball,” neworleansbaseball.com, http://www.neworleansbaseball.com/history.html, accessed June 27, 201
Charles Fountain, Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11.
Fleitz, Anson, 134.
Fountain, Under, 12.
David Broughton, “Clubs give winter homes a branding boost,” SportsBusiness Journal, February 27, 2012,http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2012/02/27/Research-and-Ratings/ Spring-training.aspx.
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