A.G Spalding: Baseball Pitcher, Club Owner, and Sporting Goods Tycoon

A.G. Spalding, pitcher,b baseball executive, businessman. And flawed.

Albert Goodwill Spalding is barely a whisper in baseball commentary today. A.G. Spalding was a fundamental piece in moving baseball from the 19th to the 20th century. But, as history is prone to show, he was far from perfect. His influence on the game provides an origin story for baseball. That origin story also happens to be red, white, blue, and untrue.


Baseball Player and Champion


Spalding took to baseball at an early age. Born in 1850, both his parents had died by the time he was eight. Sent to live with other family members, the lonely A.G. found enjoyment in playing baseball. He was good. Good enough to make an amateur team when he was 15 years old.

In 1867 A.G. pitched his team to a victory against Washington Nationals, widely regarded as the best team in the country. By 1870, Boston Red Stockings manager Harry Wright started organizing the first professional baseball league, the National Association. Among the players he recruited was A.G. Spalding. 

The National Association lasted from 1871 to 1875, with Spalding pitching his way to leading the league in wins each year. Those league-leading wins were 19, 38, 41, 52, and 56. The 52 wins in 1875 included 23 wins in a row. 

Pitching had not progressed during these early stages of baseball. Pitchers were throwing underhand from 45 feet. Spalding was one of the best pitchers in the league. With Spalding as their pitcher, the Red Stockings would finish second in 1871. From 1872-1875 Boston, with Spalding pitching, would win the pennant each year. He had emerged as a star. 


A Trip to Jolly Olde England


In 1874 Spalding was chosen by Harry Wright to lead a team of baseball players on a tour of England. The Spalding lead players played 14 baseball games against English opponents, but also seven cricket games. The American teams won eight baseball games. The English were less than impressed with American baseball, calling it nothing more than an extension of an English named Rounders, routinely played by children. On the cricket side, the Americans won six games and lost none. The experience would stay with Spalding. He was not only a great player but was also learning how to organize and run a team. 


The National League and the White Stockings


By 1876 some people were thought the baseball players were getting a bit unruly. William Hulbert proposed a new league that would curb the drinking, gambling, and other moral inadequacies of the National Association. Hulbert offered Spalding a promotion to player/manager and partial ownership of the Chicago White Stockings to jumped to the new league. Soon the National League absorbed some of the Eastern clubs and brought fort the end of the National Association. Spalding captioned and pitched the White Stockings to the 1876 National League pennant, leading the new league in victories. Spalding played first base in 1877 and only one game in 1878. His career player was over. 

Spalding saw there was more to be had running a team and running a sporting goods business. Even better to be involved in a sports league run a company that could supply that sport with equipment and training materials. 

After leaving the field, Spalding became the Secretary of the White Stockings. When Hulbert died in 1882, Spalding became the owner of the White Stockings and now served as the owner. During his reign in charge of the team, Chicago top the National League in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886. 

Spalding’s success gave him influence in the league. He led the charge to keep salaries down by supporting a reserve clause to keep players attached to clubs curb salary wars between teams. He was influential in starting spring training. He was a proponent of the league hold a moral authority over players, keeping alcohol, gambling, and immoral behavior out of baseball. 

He attempted to start a World Series, pitting his pennant-winning team against the American Association champion St. Louis Browns in 1885 and 1886. Chicago fared poorly with an upset Spalding, after the 1886 season, started to dismantle his team. He sold his players to other teams for cash. 


Around The World In Six Months


In October 1888, Spalding took his Chicago White Stockings and a team of All-Stars, chosen from other National League teams, on a tour of the United States and the world. They would travel west playing games in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. November would have them sailing for Hawaii for a few games. Soon they traveled to Australia for a few exhibition games. Their journey soon found them in Egypt in February of 1889, Spalding and his All-Stars playing in the shadows of the pyramids. After Egypt, they played in front of audiences in cities including Naples, Rome, Florence Paris, London, Glasgow, Belfast, and Dublin. Baseball was traveling the world with A.G. Spalding as ambassador. 

They finally made it back to New York on April 6, 1889. Given two days reset, they played a game in Brooklyn followed by a banquet that included Mark Twain. By April 19th they would also play games in Baltimore, Philly, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indy. On April 20th, 1889 they played a game on West Side Park where they started the journey six months before. 

During their foreign travel, Chicago won 11 of the 28 games played. The All-Stars won 14 with three games ended in a tie

The National League started its season on April 24th in 1889. So the players did get a four-day off-season. 


Helping to Establish A Divide


Surprisingly, not all players were happy with owners like Spalding. In 1885 John Montgomery Ward had recently graduated from Columbia Law School. When not attending class he played for the New York Giants. To help improve things, Ward helped to form the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first American sports labor union. Ward served as the president. He began working to change the reserve clause. He wanted to end one-year contracts along with the buying and selling of contracts. Salary caps, and reducing the absolute authority the owners held over the players were also issues the union wanted to address with the owners. Dissatisfied with the progress, Ward and the Brotherhood formed Players League in 1890. The owners were not happy as Spalding led the charge to crush the league. It took one year. By 1891, the Players League and union were gone. Organized Baseball monopolist powers were gaining strength. 

Enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1964, the inscription for Ward carries no mention of his union activities. This fact puts the incredible journey organizers, including Marvin Miller, endured to establish a Players Union shortly after Ward entered the Hall of Fame. The free agency won in the 1970s was similar to ideas Ward had presented in the late 1880s.

By 1892, Spalding stepped down from active involvement in the White Stockings. He would sell the team in 1902 after losing an election for the National League presidency. Initially, he had won the election. Nicholas Young was named the president after a court battle labeled the process flawed. While still influenced in baseball, baseball was not ready to let Spalding drive the bus. 


Business Tycoon


With more time now, Spalding was free to continue running his sporting goods company, Spalding & Bros. 

Since 1878 they had been the official baseball of the National League. he did retire to green pastures. They also sold gloves, A.G. starting to wear one in 1877, bats, and other baseball equipment. There were not limited to baseball and sold equipment for additional sports. They would often buy competitors but keep the names to feign competition. Spalding also employed Henry Chadwick, the Father of Baseball, to write a yearly baseball journal, training materials, and an official rule book each year. Spalding & Bros would also supply other baseball leagues. The Spalding name is still a sportings goods company today but is mainly out of the baseball business.

To be clear, Spalding ran a team and supplied the baseballs to the league. Spalding was the official supplier of MLB baseballs until 1977. Here is when things went sideways for Spalding and baseball. Rawlings, known for baseball gloves, was purchased by the Spalding Company in 1955 to produce baseballs. Spalding, using the Rawlings name, would create the Gold Glove Awards in 1957. By 1968 an antitrust investigation forced Spalding to sell Rawlings. Feigning competition and monopolistic business practices finally caught up with the Spalding Company. When Spalding Company sold Rawlings, the sale included an agreement to continue using the Spalding logo on MLB baseballs. This agreement ended in 1977 with the Rawling logo replacing Spalding. In 2018, a private equity firm bought Rawlings with MLB as a co-investor. Baseball often circles back. 


The Certified Myth of Baseball’s Origin


In 1903, Henry Chadwick wrote his belief baseball originated from the English game rounders. Spalding had heard the comparison of rounders before. Now he was determined to prove it wrong. Patriotism and nationalist pride fueled Spalding and his ego; baseball was American. Spalding created a commission to prove it. 

In 1905, Spalding created the Mills Commission to determine the origin of baseball. The commission included:

  • Abraham Mills: Former NL President
  • Mogan Buklely: Former NL President
  • Nicholas Young: Former NL President (No hard feelings it appears)
  • Arthur Gorman: Former president of the Washington Baseball Club
  • James Sullivan: former player and President of the AAU
  • George Wright and Alfred Reach: Former players and sport goods entrepreneurs. 

Bulkeley and Gorman were also former United States Senators. Henry Chadwick, baseball writer, and advocate since the 1850s failed to make the commission. Nobody with any background as a historian. Everybody did owe a debt to Spalding. 

For almost two years evidence was gathered. Much of it newspaper articles or letters from former players. By 1907, Spalding was pushing for an answer. Sullivan, who was collecting most of the evidence and passing it along to Mills. Mills notes three letters he has received. 

  • Henry Chadwick describing baseball evolution from rounders.
  • Spalding describing baseball evolving from town ball and old-cat bat ball games.
  • John Montgomery Ward (him again) supporting Spalding. (No hard feelings here either).

He also discussed a “circumstantial statement by a reputable gentleman, according to which the first diagram, indicating positions for players, was drawn by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.” That letter was sent in 1905 by 71-year-old Abner Graves. 

Doubleday had also been a friend of Mills for 30 years. Doubleday, who passed in 1893, was a United States General. A veteran of the Civil War and ordered the first shots to be fired at Fort Sumter. 

A.G. Spalding knew of Abner Doubleday also. Spalding and his wife were members and supporters of Theosophical Society. Abner Doubleday was the vice president of chapter Spalding supported. 

A famous United States Genera! and veteran of the Civil War is responsible for the creation of baseball? One that knows two of the members on the commission that also includes two former United States Senators? A collection of consequences to good to be true. 

One might pause before accepting this evidence. Mr. Graves was 5 in 1939. In 1938 and 1939 Abner Doubleday was in West Point. Abner Doubleday passed away in 1893 and left many journals behind. He never mentioned baseball once. He knew Mills for 30 years during part of that time when Mills was the National League President. Doubleday never pursued the topic in conversation. 

Well, we know how this turns out. The Baseball Hall of Fame is where? Cooperstown, New York. An American war hero invented baseball; damn the truth.

Spalding would move to the west coast and become a civic leader in San Diego. In 1910 he ran for the United States Senate but would lose. He died on September 9, 1915. 

Without a doubt, baseball owes a large debt to A.G. Spalding. He helped to spread the game inside and outside the country. He was one of the best players when he played. Playing for Boston in the National Association he won 90% of the team’s games. A team that won four of five pennants. He was the cornerstone of building the National League. He supported Henry Chadwick and helping to spread the word of baseball in print. He was a successful businessman. 

But he was a flawed man. 

He pushed a narrative of the origin of baseball because it had to be American. One of his strongest relationships in baseball was Cap Anson, who led many of the great Chicago teams after Spalding. Anson was a racist that refused to take the field with players of color. Spalding supported this. Spalding thought anybody could play baseball, as long as they were white, male, and morally sound. People of color? Women? Not a game for the morally corrupt and fairer sex. Spalding wanted morally sound people in baseball, while he exploited the business of baseball.

Buying companies competing against him and ran them under the old names to fake competition. The man demanded morals for these players but had a child out of wedlock. Spalding was one of the first owners to establish a strong separation between the players and the front office, a problem that continues to plague baseball today. He could have built unity between the players and the people that ran baseball. His choice was to drive a gap between the two. Spalding might not have been successful be he was one of the few people at the start of Organized Baseball that could have built a better system. 

Spalding, like many people in baseball, is a contrast. For all the good he did for baseball he also hurt it. For the great things he could have done, he stopped short. But we should talk about him. We should know more about it. We should build on the good things he did while learning how to avoid what he did to hurt the game. Perhaps we should use Albert Goodwill Spalding shows us why history should also keep looking back to history and include both the good and bad about people. If anything, it makes history much more interesting. As Spalding demonstrated, if you stick to your required view you’ll get things wrong. 

And why are people not talking about pitcher, shortstop, lawyer, union organizer, and Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward?


(Photo by George Grantham Bain | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

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