By Scott A. Rowan
One of the most pivotal figures in the history of both baseball and business was former Cubs pitcher, manager, president, and owner A.G. Spalding, whose legend as a great pitcher and an even better team manager have been eclipsed by the company he started, which still manufactures baseball equipment today, nearly 100 years after the death of its founder. Baseball fans of all ages are familiar with the sporting equipment brand Spalding, which manufactures baseballs, gloves, uniforms, and equipment for leagues all over the world. His importance to the game of baseball was so noteworthy that the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) ranked Spalding as the No. 2 contributor to the game from the nineteenth century. The only man to play every role in the theater of baseball—from star player to successful manager to club executive to manufacturing mogul—Spalding was one of the most powerful men in sports, a fact he used to his advantage.
What many fans don’t know is that Spalding was also responsible for the worst idea in baseball history—and the fact that it was implemented, albeit only on a short-term basis, only attests to the influence he had over the game.
Born in 1850 and raised in the Rockford, Illinois, area, Spalding fought off loneliness in the farmland by playing baseball. By his early teens, Spalding was described by the Rockford Register as “undoubtedly the best pitcher in the West.”
The Chicago Excelsiors signed him at the age of 17. The team folded after Spalding’s first and only game, but the boy’s passion for baseball was far from diminished. The teenager dropped out of high school and focused on baseball, playing for the local Forest City team.
Standing 6’1″ and 170 pounds, Spalding blossomed into a talented pitcher and was soon signed by the Boston Red Stockings. He was an immediate success, posting a 204–53 record during his five years with the team. In 1874, Spalding became the star player for the first overseas baseball tour, for which players went to England to play exhibition games. The experience gave him the idea for a World Tour of his own in 1888–89.
Always looking for a new challenge in baseball (as well as a way to make more money), Spalding traded in his star player status in Boston in 1876 for a chance to become a player/manager for the Chicago White Stockings. Spalding had another reason for wanting to play for his “hometown” Chicago team: he and his brother had started a new business there that same year manufacturing baseball equipment. He and his brother, Walter, started A.G. Spalding & Bros., the precursor to the international Spalding manufacturing empire, with an $800 loan from their mother, Harriet. The plan was simple: A.G. would use his baseball popularity to secure contracts and help develop product while Walter would manage the company. This was truly a family business: their sister, Mary, balanced the books, and they even asked their mother to help sew uniforms on occasion.
A.G. Spalding & Bros. secured the contract to supply the official baseball for the National League beginning in 1876, and was the only supplier for the next 100 years. Hardly limited to just baseballs, however, Spalding also debuted many other products that sports fans take for granted today. Spalding began selling the first major league baseball glove in 1877, and in 1878, he published the first official rules of baseball. Spalding was still a powerful figure within the sport, as well; in fact, due to the sudden death of Cubs owner and NL founder William Hulbert, Spalding became president of the Cubs in April 1882.
Unfortunately, not all of Spaulding’s innovations turned out well. Spalding was able to convince NL officials to alter its uniform rules at the annual meeting on December 9, 1881. As the supplier of uniforms to the league, Spalding used this rule change to benefit his company—with grave results. The 1882 season marked the first and only time in professional sports history that an entire league took the field with players wearing uniforms color-coded based on their position, rather than their team affiliation. All players wore the same white pants, belts, and ties, but the shirt and cap for each player differed depending on what position they played:
Pitcher: Baby blue
First baseman: Scarlet and white Second baseman: Orange and black Third baseman: Blue and white Shortstop: Maroon
Left ﬁelder: White
Center ﬁelder: Red and black
Right ﬁelder: Gray
The only way fans and players could tell which team each player was on was by the color of his socks (or stockings):
Buﬀalo Bisons: Gray Cleveland Blues: Navy blue Chicago: White
Providence Grays: Light blue Detroit Wolverines: Gold Troy Trojans: Green Worcester Ruby Legs: Brown
Mass confusion ensued. Players and fans alike referred to the uniforms as “clown costumes” or “monkey uniforms.” (GeoVerse™177) While players said it was insulting to have to wear such ridiculous uniforms, media members had fun with the flamboyant outfits, as evidenced by this quote from the book Orator O’Rourke: The Life of a Baseball Radical:
The umpire seems to have been entirely overlooked. Serpentine pantaloons, in imitation of a barber’s pole, harlequin jacket and a circus clown’s wool hat would give them a neat and not particularly gaudy suit, and afford a kaleidoscopic effect as they skipped towards first-base along with a batsman. A log-cabin quilt, worn as a toga, would heighten the effect and add dignity to the office.
The consequences of these new uniforms were both predictable and instantaneous. Confusion reigned on the field, especially when a first baseman singled or was walked. Pitchers repeatedly threw to first to hold the base runner on, only to find (after the ball went sailing past first base) that he had thrown to the wrong player because he was wearing a scarlet and white uniform. The surprised base runner would take off for second (and maybe third) while the first baseman ran off to retrieve the ball. The same thing happened when a second baseman reached second, a third baseman reached third, or a catcher ran home.
The league ended Spalding’s uniform “experiment” by the second month of the season. Teams went back to their old uniforms for the rest of the year: home teams wore white uniforms and visitors wore gray or colored uniforms (a rule that still holds true today).
The fact that Spalding was able to convince NL officials to go along with his idea for nearly two months was only proof of how much power he had over the game. After all, the only real benefactor of the change was his manufacturing company, which essentially made the same “uniform” for every team (except for the socks), reducing costs for a product that the league was contractually obligated to purchase. It made life easier for the company, forced the NL to purchase new uniforms for every player, and assured that A.G. Spalding & Bros. would have a healthy bottom line. It was not the first time a Cubs executive had altered the game for his own benefit, and it surely was not the last.
David Quentin Voight, American Baseball: From Gentleman’s Game to the Commissioner System (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983), 17.
Mike Roer, Orator O’Rourke: The Life of a Baseball Radical (Jefferson, NC: McFarlane, 2006), 99.
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