In the be­gin­ning …

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - AN­DREW DAL­TON

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 odour 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 Big league base­ball’s found­ing doc­u­ments to be auc­tioned 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 small­time 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 hon­ourable.”

But it did some­thing far more rev­o­lu­tion­ary in sports. It cre­ated a strict di­vi­sion be­tween cap­i­tal and labour. 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.

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. “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.”

REED SAXON, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dan Im­ler, vice pres­i­dent of SCP Auc­tions, with the bound vol­ume of the 1876 con­sti­tu­tion that founded the Na­tional League of Pro­fes­sional Base Ball and the mod­ern busi­ness of big league sports, that is go­ing up for sale at SCP Auc­tions in La­guna Niguel, Calif.

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