Big league baseball’s founding documents to be auctioned

LOS ANGELES — In 1876, a group of owners and team officials gathered at a New York hotel to draft and sign the constitution that created baseball’s National League and would ultimately have ramifications far beyond the diamond.

The principles the document laid out, largely the work of Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert, would provide the basic model for every major team sports league in the world that followed.

The constitution is getting a public airing for the first time in more than a century when it’s put up for sale by SCP Auctions of Laguna Niguel, California, starting Wednesday.

It offers a glimpse into a time when nearly half the teams in the league had “stockings” in their names, 50 cents for a ticket was considered a steep price, and getting paid to play sports was deemed dirty.

“The idea that grown men would pick up a bat and ball and put on costumes was suspicious,” said John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. Not to mention the “residue and foul odor of drunkenness” thought to permeate the game.

Many fans were convinced the outcome of games was determined in advance. Occasionally they were correct, Thorn said.

 

The NL’s immediate predecessor was the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, known casually as the National Association or NA. It was plagued with problems in its short life including weak central organization, teams constantly folding, and East Coast teams refusing to travel west.

Players just split up the gate receipts as though they were a small-time rock band playing a nightclub. One team, the Boston Red Stockings, was utterly dominant.

(The Red Stockings are not, as one might suspect, the modern Boston Red Sox, but the modern Atlanta Braves. Similarly, Hulbert’s White Stockings are not the modern Chicago White Sox, but became the Chicago Cubs.)

The league’s demise after the 1875 season gave Hulbert, a man of the West who did not like the dominance of East Coast teams, an opening to found something new and lasting.

On Feb. 2, 1876, in a meeting at the Grand Central Hotel in New York that included other early baseball luminaries like Harry Wright and Al Spalding, the new constitution of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was drafted and signed.

It listed on its opening page its central principles, including:

* “To encourage, foster and elevate the game of base ball.”

* “To enact and enforce proper rules for the exhibition and conduct of the game.”

* “To make base ball playing respectable and honorable.”

But it did something far more revolutionary in sports. It created a strict division between capital and labor. Owners and their officers ran the business end, and paid wages to the players.

“Hulbert was a genius in the model he created with the National League,” Thorn said. “It is this model that gave birth to every professional sports league that followed, from football to basketball to European football. Professional sports teams owe everything to Hulbert.”

The new league had eight teams: Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, the Cincinnati Reds, the Hartford Dark Blues, the New York Mutuals, and the St. Louis Brown Stockings.

The documents themselves have been held privately for decades by the family of an old National League executive that is now putting them up for sale. The auction house is not making their names public.

“Everything is in great condition. It’s been preserved in a bound volume since 1925,” said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP auctions.

Last year, SCP auctions sold a similar document, 1857’s “Laws of Base Ball,” which laid out the rules of the modern game.

That went for $3.26 million. This prize could easily surpass it. Imler said he expects both institutions and individuals will be among the bidders.

While its 74 pages have the ink-and-parchment dignity of old government documents, there are also cross-outs and other signs of mistakes, changes and corrections.

“It’s highly dramatic because it’s the first draft of history,” said Thorn, who has studied the documents but is not involved in the auction. “This is sloppy. This is messy. This is what historians love.”

The new constitution was no magic bullet. At first things were the same as ever. Toward the end of the inaugural season, Philadelphia and New York both refused to make scheduled western road trips.

Hulbert kicked both teams out. It was a risky move, but one that would help ensure the league’s survival.

“He stuck to his guns,” Thorn said. “He was not going to permit the clubs to flout the rules.”

By the 1880s, the National League started to see real success. The upstart American Association would provide competition that ended up helping the NL; the older league dropped its prices from 50 cents to 25 to match the new league, and crowds started coming in droves.

The American League would arrive as a major league in 1901, the first World Series would be played in 1903, and 114 years of Major League Baseball would follow.

Hulbert’s White Stockings would become one of the great teams of the late 19th century and, as the Cubs, one of the most popular sports franchises in history.

But he died in 1882 at age 50, just six years after the day he changed everything.

“He did not live to see the great success he had made,” Thorn said, “that he had created a structure and a model and an absolute dedication to following the rules that would make his league last.”

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