By the end of 1870 it was obvious that the "National Pastime" needed a league. Players were being paid to play all over the country and the next step, seemed obvious. So on St. Patrick's Day in 1871, ten team representatives met at Collier's Bar in New York. A league was thus formed and baseball entered into a brand new era. Professional baseball had arrived and the National Association was formed. It was baseball's first major league but mostly just in name. The National Association was doomed from the start.
Firstly, there was no organization. It was professional players but with an amateur feel to it. Gambling would be a huge problem throughout the five year league's existence. Revolving (players jumping from team to team) also still proved a problem since players had no "real" contracts. Another problem was drunkenness and not just with the fans. Players drank before, during and after games. So although a professional league had arrived, it was fraught with problems.
But whatever the issues were, it was a start. The 1871 season began with 10 teams; the Boston Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Washington Olympics, Troy Haymakers, Fort Wayne Kekiongas, Cleveland Forest Citys, and the Rockford Forest Citys. These teams were to play games against all the other teams but were left to schedule the games for themselves.
Rockford's Nine - with a young Cap Anson
The actual playing of baseball was vastly different from the way it is played today. It still closely resembled the game from the early days of baseball, although within the next couple decades many changes would take place to modernize the game. One rule which definitely helped hitters during the NA days was the fair-foul rule. The ball would only have to hit in fair territory once and many hitters had mastered the art of swinging down and using spin to direct it away from fielders. This rule would continue through the NA’s existence but once the rule was discarded many hitters were forced to retire from baseball because of such a reliance on this rule.
Other differences; were the number of ball and strikes, no gloves, pitchers had to release the ball under their waist and they were only 45 feet away inside a pitchers box. This pitcher box actually led to a phrase that is still used today. When a pitcher is hit hard and removed from the game it is still known as “knocking the pitcher out of the box”.
The first season saw teams only play around thirty games with Philadelphia winning the championship. The season was filled with the problem that would eventually bring down the National Association and hinder baseball’s early growth. New York, owned partially by Boss Tweed, had a fairly good team but lost a lot of games it should not have. Many thought fixing was involved, which was a major issue in baseball’s first few decades. Another issue was money. Many clubs in the early years would lose money and then would cancel road games to save travel expenses.
Another issue that really formed during baseball's early days was revolving. This is where a player jumped from team to team. Although the National Association lacked leadership they were forced to deal with this issue the first season and they had even set up a rule stating that if a player jumped teams he must wait sixty days. But Scott Hastings, the player-manager for Rockford, had jumped from New Orleans and had not waited the sixty days. Known as the Hastings case, the league decided to forfeit four of Rockford's games and two of those were given to Philadelphia. These two games actually decided the season since Philadelphia finished two games ahead of both Boston and Chicago. Early baseball leaders did seem to lack a little bit in the logic area.
The rest of the National Association's years (1872-75) were filled with mounting problems and Boston winning championships. If baseball fans feel the Yankees have an unfair advantage today, they should have seen in the National Association and the All-Star team Boston played with. Future Hall of Famers; Al Spalding, Jim O'rourke, George Wright and Harry Wright were joined with star players Ross Barnes, Cal McVey and Deacon White. This team would dominate the National Association, winning four straight championships culminating with a 71-8 record in 1875. Lack of parity was a major issue and hurt attendance as well as finances. Gambling continued to be a problem, drunkenness was increasing and if baseball was to survive, something needed to be done. That something would be done by William Hulbert.