Chapter 3: Captain & Champion - The Chicago Years

The year 1876 is among the most significant in baseball history. It was in this year that the National League was founded, and many historians consider it the first "major" league. William Hulbert was responsible for its creation, having decided to form a new league that would eliminate the three greatest vices-alcohol, gambling, and religious sacrilege-that he felt were the bane of the National Association, the era's most prominent league. First, the new league would prohibit players from drinking and ban the sale of alcohol at games. Second, the National League would ban gambling on games and ban any player for life found "fixing" games. Lastly, games would not be played on Sunday in accordance to the Catholic doctrine of keeping holy the Sabbath Day. Into the 1890s, first among the "Objects" in Article II of the National League's constitution was, "To encourage, foster, and elevate the game of base ball."

Hulbert was at the time owner of the Chicago White Stockings, who together with teams in Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford, St. Louis, New York, Louisville and Cincinnati would form the National League. Hulbert was determined to make his Chicago team a winner at all costs. He met with Boston's star pitcher Al Spalding in the winter of 1875, and convinced him to both play for and manage his team. Spalding, regarding himself a man of integrity, agreed with Hulbert's philosophies on league rules. He not only agreed to join the team, but also promised to bring with him three other Boston stars: Ross Barnes, Deacon White, and Cal McVey. Because of their Rockford Forest Citys ties, he was also successful in convincing Cap Anson to leave Philadelphia for Chicago.

Anson was, pardon the pun, the "feather in the cap" for Hulbert’s new team. Spalding had convinced Hulbert that Anson was just the type of man that the White Stockings most needed. He had ties to the West and possessed great talent on the field. His character echoed Hulbert’s vision of high moral living, as Anson rejected gambling and alcohol, and was a religious man. Though Anson’s contract dispute (see Chapter 2) did not sit well with Hulbert, he nonetheless relented to Spalding’s judgment and thus enlisted Anson’s services.

From 1877 to 1889, Anson's stature as a ballplayer continued to grow. He batted .337 in 1877, .341 in 1878, and .317 in 1879. The White Stockings as a team struggled during these years, loosing Al Spalding to retirement and several other players to the competition. Yet Anson's star was shining bright during these dark times in Chicago. Team management tried him at several different positions during these years, trying him at third base, catcher, outfield, second base and finally first base, the position he would dominate for the rest of his career.

Adrian Anson became "Cap" Anson in 1879. With three straight loosing years looming over them, the White Stockings management looked to shake things up on the field. Anson took over the role of team captain from catcher Silver Flint during the season. At the time, being team captain carried many responsibilities. It was not the "honorary" title that it is today, but an active role akin to the manager's job today. A captain managed the team while it was on the field. He set the lineup and batting order, made player substitutions during the game, and was the only person on the field allowed to argue an umpire's call. Anson proved to be an excellent choice for the Chicago captaincy. His talents on the field had earned him the respect of his teammates. Players listened to his instructions, and he earned the reputation of being fair in both his praise and chastisement of player performance.

Anson took great pride in leading his team to victory in his first full year as Captain. The 1880 Chicago team was, in Anson's words, a "rattling good organization...and perhaps the strongest the league had seen up to that point." Led by Anson, star pitcher Larry Corcoran, and slugging outfielders Mike "King" Kelly, Abner Dalrymple, and George Gore, Chicago steamrolled the competition with a 67-17 record and 15 game lead over second place Providence at season's end. Anson finished the season with a .337 average, second best in the league behind teammate Gore's .360 average. He led the league with 74 RBI.

The 1881 season proved to be Cap Anson's finest. He batted an astounding .399, knocking out 137 hits and driving in 82 RBI, all league bests. Sporting much the same lineup as the previous season, Chicago once again ran away with the National League pennant. The team's final record stood at 56-28, which was nine games better than runner up Providence. With three championships under his belt and his spectacular 1881 season statistics, Anson became a superstar in Chicago, perhaps the most recognizable face of the city.

The White Stockings continued their dominance into the 1882 season, capturing the NL pennant for a record third straight season with a 55-29. Cap's continued to sizzle at the plate with a .362 batting average, good for second among the league leaders. He lead the league with 83 RBI, one of the main reasons why Chicago scored an average of 7.2 runs per game, 1.2 more than the next highest scoring team. With back-to-back-to-back championships, Anson and his White Stockings were the toast of the baseball world.

Historians describe Anson's personality as "colorful" or "aggressive" if they are being kind, "abrasive" and "temperamental" if they are not. He is by no means the first star of sports to cause controversy on the field. There have been countless similar attitudes, and there will be countless more. However, Anson was renown for his colourful temperament. Standing six foot and weighing in at 227 pounds (big for the day), Anson was an imposing physical presence. On the field, Anson was quick to argue any call that did not favor his team. His arguments with umpires became legendary, but by this time in his career his stature as the league's biggest star gave him the credentials to bend the umpire's ear without getting tossed. Chicago's home town fans delighted in his theatrical antics, and often encouraged him to engage with the umpires as often as possible. Anson did not disappoint. His tirades mixed pure anger with high comedy. When Chicago traveled, Anson was the target of the home team's fan's scorn. He was often taunted with the nickname "Crybaby." Anson believed his antics had a positive effect for his team by wearing down the umpire and influencing his calls. Sometimes he argued calls just to give his pitcher a rest.

The White Stockings stumbled in the 1883 and 1884 campaigns, finishing in second and fourth place respectively. This did not sit well with Cap or team management. When the team took to the field in 1885, the lineup sported fresh faces. In Anson's autobiography, he states "The team...was, in my estimation, not only the strongest team that I ever had under my management but, taken all in all, one of the strongest teams that has ever been gotten together in the history of the League." Up and down the lineup, Chicago had strong talent at every position. Anson was joined in the infield by 2nd baseman Fred Pfeffer, 3rd baseman Ned Williamson, and shortstop Tom Burns. The city's sportswriters bestowed the nickname the "Chicago Stone Wall" on this famous foursome. It was said that a ball would have to be hit over the heads of these four fielders if it had a chance of finding its way to the outfield. The Stone Wall was backed up with the talented trio of outfielders in Kelley, Gore and Doubleday, holdovers from Chicago's 1880-1882 championships. Pitchers John Clarkson and Jim McCormick kept the opposition of the basepaths.

The 1885 season crown was fiercely contested for by the Chicago and New York teams. Which team would win was not decided until the last series of the year when the two teams met in Chicago for a four game series. The Giants had beaten the White Stockings in 8 of 12 meetings leading up this final series. Many New York sportswriters that accompanied the team placed large wagers on their team's success with writers from the Chicago papers. They would leave town with empty wallets, as Chicago won three of the four games to finish two games ahead of New York.

The first World Series had been played in 1884, so Chicago's first appearance in the fall classic was in the second World Series. They squared off against the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, which had been formed in 1882. At the time, the World Series was little more than an exhibition series. The player's didn't take much interest in it. Though Chicago was heavily favored to win, the series ended in a tie, each team winning three games outright and one game being called as a tie. Anson attributed Chicago's disappointing showing to his inability to keep his teammates from enjoying the nightlife and libations. He himself could hardly be faulted, batting .423 for the series.

Chicago would repeat as champions in 1886, giving Cap his sixth NL championship as a player and fifth as a manager. He had one of his best seasons during the year's campaign. Anson batted .371, with 187 hits in 125 games played. His 147 RBIs were a career best. His average and RBI totals were good for second and first in the league, respectively. The White Stockings finished with a sparkling 90-34 record, but the pennant race was still a tight one, with Detroit finishing two and a half games back after posting an 87-36 record. Chicago once again faced the St. Louis Browns in the World Series, and once again disappointed its fans losing the series 4 games to 2. Anson did not fare as well statistically in his second series appearance, batting a meager .238 in the six games.

The years of 1880 through 1886 were an incredible run by Chicago with its 5 pennants in 7 years. Anson was the undisputed king of baseball by this time. He attracted large crowds wherever he went. He was loved by his hometown fans and feared by the opposition. His ability to reliably crack a hit in pressure situations added to his fame. Many a game was decided with Anson at the plate. 1886 was Cap's sixteenth in organized baseball, a fine career for most players. What is remarkable is that he would play another 11 seasons before retirement.

Chicago's stranglehold on the NL leaderboard began to loosen in 1887. From 1887 to 1889, the White Stockings finished in second or third place. Then, in 1890, an event took place that would have lasting repercussions for Chicago. Players from around the league revolted against the reserve clause and formed a new league in the Players Association. Cap was one of the few White Stocking players to remain loyal to the National League. The "Brotherhood Revolt" as it was called decimated the Chicago team. It took the field in 1890 with a crop of rookies and only Anson and third baseman Tom Burns returning as veterans. It was such a drastically different team that the sportswriters, who at that time gave the teams their names, began calling the team the Colts in reference to the collective youth of the players. Anson became a father figure to this band of greenhorns. The team got off to a poor start, yet improved over the course of the season under Cap's tutelage to finish in second place.

The Player's League lasted only one year, yet its impact on Chicago's future would be far reaching. Anson felt betrayed by the players that had abandoned the team to take up with the Brotherhood. He refused to give his old teammates their jobs back. Other NL teams were more than happy to welcome them onto their rosters. The rest of the league got stronger with the return of their players while Chicago would now be worse off talentwise. The Colts surprised everyone by finishing in second place in 1891, but from 1892 to 1897 would finish no higher than fourth place.

Beginning in 1891, critics began to say Anson was over the hill and no longer capable of captaining the team. Cap mocked their collective scrutiny at a memorable September 4th game that season. He set the fans abuzz when he took to his position at first wearing a white wig and long beard, then proceeded to play the entire game in his disguise. Afterwards, he was quick to tell reporters that "Old Anse" still had plenty of ballgames ahead of him.

In 1894, at the age of 41, Anson again silenced his naysayers by batting a remarkable .388 for the season. But the reprieve was short lived. Support for Anson's removal began to grow. In the fall of 1897, the papers began publishing articles to the effect that Cap would be dropped by the team, although no representative made contact with Anson personally. At the end of the season, Anson accompanied Al Spalding on a trip to England in order to discuss the rumors. Spalding assured Anson all was well and that his position was secure with the team, but upon their return to the States, Anson discovered that Tom Burns had been made manager. Spalding asked Anson to resign, but Cap, heartbroken by the turn of events, refused. Unceremoniously fired, Anson found himself out of baseball after 27 seasons.

Anson's career statistics were simply unparalleled. He was the first member of the 3,000 hit club, with 3,418 hits. He had played in 2,523 games and averaged 1 hit in every 3 at bats (a .333 career average). Despite despising the bunt as an "unmanly" tactic, Anson struck out only 302 times in 10,277 at bats. Only two players, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, have bettered his 2,076 career RBIs. Even today, over 100 years after Cap Anson played his last game, he is 3rd all time in RBIs, 7th in hits, 8th in runs scored, 14th in doubles, 28th in career average, and 64th in triples. Anson was simply the greatest hitter of 19th century baseball.

There is an interesting footnote to Anson's departure from the game. So great was Anson's regard in the city of Chicago, sportswriters renamed the 1898 club as the Chicago Orphans. The Colts had at long last lost their father figure, the great Cap Anson.