Monday, September 17, 2007

1877 NL

The National League entered 1877 with just six teams after the expulsion of two of its largest markets, New York and Philadelphia. The season would go forward with the six teams, making it the smallest major league ever (a distinction it shares with the 1878 NL and the 1882 American Association). Incidentally, it is along with the 1878 NL the only league in which all of the team nicknames included colors.

There were a number of significant rule and procedure changes enacted for the NL’s second season. For the first time, scheduling was handled by the league office rather than being the responsibility of team management. The schedule was reduced to 60 games from 70 due to the smaller number of teams, but each season series now consisted of twelve games rather than ten.

On the field, home plate was made part of fair territory. But most significant was the elimination of the fair-foul hit (much of the information on this topic comes from the article “The Lost Art of Fair-Foul Hitting” by Robert H. Schafer in The National Pastime #20). Prior to 1877, a ball that hit initially in fair territory was a fair ball, no matter where it bounded after that. In 1877, the new rule defining fair and foul was essentially the modern rule that we are all familiar with.

Before the rule change, a small group of batters had shown proficiency in intentionally batting the ball so that it hit near the plate in fair territory, then bounced off wildly into foul territory. If executed successfully, it almost always resulted in a base hit and often a double. Ross Barnes even hit a fair-foul home run in 1872, the only homer he hit that season.

While the rule changes did bring the treatment of fair and foul closer to modern standards, one antiquated rule that remained in effect was that a foul ball fielded on the first bounce was treated the same as a caught pop-up was. Some observers felt that maintaining this rule while eliminating the fair-foul hit swung the scales too far in favor of the defense, but it would remain in effect off and on for the foreseeable future.

The National League had quite an odd season indeed. The Hartford Dark Blues played all of their home games in Brooklyn, looking to make a better profit; it didn’t work. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, in the midst of another awful season, folded in June; although the franchise was quickly reorganized, they sold Charley Jones, Jimmy Hallinan, and Harry Smith to Chicago during the brief outage. The outcry forced William Hulbert to return Jones to Cincinnati, but the additions did not help the defending champion White Stockings, who tumbled to fifth place, fifteen and a half games off the pace after winning the pennant by six games in 1876.

On August 8, Mike Dorgan of St. Louis supposedly became the first to use a rudimentary catcher’s mask during a game. The innovation was initially mocked, but within a couple short years had become standard equipment, as catchers moved up close to the plate and provided a target for the pitcher. At around that time in the season, Louisville had established themselves at the top of the pack, with a 3 1/2 game lead over Boston on August 13 (the source for the information on the Louisville saga presented here is an article by Daniel E. Ginsburg entitled “The Louisville Scandal” in SABR’s Road Trips). At that point, the Grays embarked on an eastern road trip to Hartford and Boston, going 0-7-1 and yielding the lead to the Red Stockings, who would go on to capture the pennant by seven games over Louisville.

It would later come out that four Grays were involved in a game throwing conspiracy (the exact details have never been fully exposed, in regards to who was the mastermind, if all the players fingered were actually complicit, etc.). They were reserve Al Nichols, shortstop Bill Craver, star left fielder George Hall, and the only man who appeared in the pitcher’s box for Louisville all year, Jim Devlin. There was immediate suspicion and all four were promptly banned for life when the scheme was uncovered.

At the conclusion of the season, the disgraced Louisville franchise exited the league, as did Hartford/Brooklyn, who did not find greener pastures in New York, and St. Louis, leaving uncertainty hanging over the NL as it scrambled to find enough teams to play ball in 1878.


It would be interesting to see a breakdown on the runs/runs allowed of Louisville before and after the road trip, as Boston comes out far superior to the Grays in component stats, although I suppose that when you have just one pitcher and he’s on the take, it can do a lot of damage to your runs allowed in a short period of time.

So I looked it up. From the eastern trip to the end of the season, the Grays were outscored 86-68 in 20 games. In the eight game eastern trip, they were outscored 38-11 (.110 EW%). If you throw out the last 20 games, they 271 and allowed 202 in 41 games, for a .645 EW%, which while still well behind Boston, shows them to be a much stronger club.

In 1877, the league hit .271/.289/.338 for a .092 SEC, 5.67 runs/game and 24.06 outs/game.


The Red Caps won their fifth pennant in six years after finishing fourth in the inaugural season. A big lift was getting Deacon White back from Chicago, as he is my choice for National League MVP. Tommy Bond was the league’s top pitcher, brought over from Hartford to replace the slightly above average trio employed in 1876, and Jim O’Rourke went from having a fine 1876 to being the NL’s second best position player in 1877.


The Grays were done in by their ace pitcher and by their top position player (Hall). Of the tainted four, only Devlin had been with Louisville in 1876; Hall and Craver were added from the expelled Philly and New York entries. Al Nichols had played for the Mutuals in ’76, and did not play at all in ’77 until added by the Grays in early August after Bill Hague was sidelined by illness.


The Dark Blues were badly hurt by the loss of both of their highly effective pitchers, as Candy Cummings went to Cincinnati and Bond was the league’s best pitcher in Boston. Rookie Terry Larkin was average as their primary pitcher, and John Cassidy went from playing in twelve games to being the league’s best right fielder. But every other position save first base suffered a noticeable WAR dropoff, and the Dark Blues lost four games relative to the pennant winner.


The Brown Stockings were also crippled by pitcher musical chairs as George Bradley jumped to Chicago, leaving them with a pair of rookie sub-replacement level pitchers in Tricky Nichols and Joe Blong. John Clapp was once again excellent behind the plate, but Joe Battin tumbled from being the circuit’s top third baseman at 153 ARG and +3.1 WAR to a 77 ARG, +.4 WAR campaign. He would not again appear in the major leagues until 1882. The Brown Stockings also lost their top 1876 WAR performer, Lip Pike, to the Red Stockings. On the bright side, Mike Dorgan was the top rookie performers in the game.


The defending champs took a precipitous dive, much of it traceable to Al Spalding’s decision to give up pitching. George Bradley, signed as Spalding’s replacement and +5.4 WAR with St. Louis in 1876, dropped off to +1, although even a repeat of his good year would have failed to match Spalding’s ’76. Deacon White went back to Boston, and had an MVP season, while Spalding was barely replacement level in taking his spot. Ross Barnes, MVP in ’76, is often cited to have struggled due to the elimination of fair-foul hits. While Barnes was a fair-foul fiend, the more likely culprit in his collapse was a serious, “malaria-like” illness that slowed and then shelved him, threatening his baseball career. To add insult to injury, the White Stockings were the last team in major league history to go the entire season without hitting a home run.


If you can ignore the stats and what you know about their 1876 performance, and just look at the names, the Red Stockings look to be a fairly solid team. Candy Cummings, Levi Meyerle, Charlie Gould, Bobby Mathews, Charley Jones, and Lip Pike are all big names. The Red Stockings may have therefore been the first team to field an early 2000s Mets or current Giants-like team that would have been pretty darn good five years earlier. Cummings at 29 was on his last major league legs, as were the 32-year old Meyerle (who would have a brief fling with the questionably major Union Association in 1884), and the 30-year old Gould. Pike at this point was 32 and had one more good season left in him. Jones and Mathews were the only two that had good days in front of them, although Mathews was awful in ’77. Bobby Mitchell, the #3 pitcher, was the first left-handed pitcher in the major leagues.

The Red Stockings were the only team in the NL not to have a winning record at home (12-17); only the champion Red Caps managed a winning record on the road (15-13).

Now the leaders and trailers:
1. Deacon White, BOS (.377)
2. John Cassidy, HAR (.378)
3. Cal McVey, CHI (.368)
Trailer: Amos Booth, CIN (.172)
1. Jim O’Rourke, BOS (.407)
2. Deacon White, CHI (.405)
3. Cal McVey, CHI (.387)
Trailer: Will Foley, CIN (.205)
1. Deacon White, BOS (.545)
2. Charley Jones, CIN/CHI (.471)
3. John Cassidy, HAR (.458)
Trailer: Amos Booth, CIN (.197)
Once again, the Red Stockings swept the trailers in BA/OBA/SLG, but at least poor Redleg Snyder was spared from doing it all himself.
1. Charley Jones, CIN (.221)
2. Deacon White, BOS (.188)
3. Lew Brown, BOS (.167)
Trailer: Jack Burdock, HAR (.029)
1. Deacon White, BOS (70)
2. Jim O’Rourke, BOS (64)
3. Cal McVey, CHI (60)
4. John Cassidy, HAR (57)
5. George Hall, LOU (56)
1. Deacon White, BOS (213)
2. Jim O’Rourke, BOS (188)
3. John Cassidy, HAR (187)
4. George Hall, LOU (165)
5. Cal McVey, CHI (160)
Trailer: Will Foley, CIN (45)
1. Deacon White, BOS (+3.3)
2. Jim O’Rourke, BOS (+2.7)
3. John Cassidy, HAR (+2.4)
4. George Hall, LOU (+2.2)
5. Cal McVey, CHI (+1.8)
Trailer: Will Foley, CIN (-1.7)
1. Deacon White, BOS (+3.9)
2. Jim O’Rourke, BOS (+3.6)
3. John Cassidy, HAR (+3.3)
4. George Hall, LOU (+3.1)
5. Cal McVey, CHI (+3.0)
Trailer: Will Foley, CIN (-.6)
1. Tommy Bond, BOS (130)
2. Jim Devlin, LOU (111)
3. Bobby Mitchell, CIN (108)
Trailer: Bobby Mathews, CIN (73)
1. Tommy Bond, BOS (+3.4)
2. Jim Devlin, LOU (+1.5)
3. Terry Larkin, HAR (+.8)
Trailer: Bobby Mathews, CIN (-1.3)
1. Tommy Bond, BOS (+4.1)
2. Jim Devlin, LOU (+3.5)
3. Terry Larkin, HAR (+1.8)
Trailer: Bobby Mathews, CIN (-1.2)

My all-star team:
C: John Clapp, STL
1B: Deacon White, BOS
2B: Joe Gerhardt, LOU
3B: Cap Anson, CHI
SS: John Peters, CHI
LF: Mike Dorgan, STL
CF: Jim O’Rourke, BOS
RF: John Cassidy, HAR
P: Tommy Bond, BOS
MVP: 1B Deacon White, BOS
Rookie Hitter: LF Mike Dorgan, STL
Rookie Pitcher: Terry Larkin, HAR

I gave Clapp the edge over McVey at catcher because Palmer has him at +10 defensively versus McVey’s -10, and the offensive edge is meaningless. Peters was .1 WAR behind Ezra Sutton, but was +20 according to Palmer versus -5, so he gets the nod for the second straight season. Mike Dorgan in left is the choice as George Hall helped tank a pennant, and is thus utterly disqualified in my mind.

1 comment:

  1. I have tried to make it clear in writing this series that I am by no means a historian--the sketches of each season I present are threadbare and based on a cursory examination of a couple secondary sources (good secondary sources like Seymour, Voigt, and Nemec mind you, but secondary sources none the less).

    To drive this home, here is an interesting post from the This Game of Games blog (devoted to 19th century St. Louis base ball) on the 1877 Brown Stockings and accusations of gambling. And could this be at least a partial explanation of why Joe Battin fell off the cliff?

    This Game of Games


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