How William Hulbert forged the team that would become the Chicago Cubs

Extreme polarization. Economic chaos. The ever-present threat of political violence. Welcome to 1876, the year the franchise would finally be known as Chicago Cubs came into the world. The man most responsible for this happy development was William Hulbert.

With Ricketts family ownership of the Cubs under fan scrutiny after a dismal 2022 campaign, this offseason we’ll be looking at previous owners and how they helped (or hindered) the franchise’s development. Today we take a look at Chicago’s first baseball owner, and in some ways still the most influential.

How the Cubs’ first owner shaped the game in monumental ways

Hulbert was an energetic and efficient businessman who managed to secure a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade. In 1871 he decided to throw some of his money into a new sporting fad called baseball (this internal space wouldn’t go away for decades). Hulbert’s team (he was then just a part-owner), the Chicago White Stockings, would finish just two games in 1871.

And then came the fire. Yeah, this fire. The Americans will draw severe lessons from this at the end of the 19th century: it turns out that building cities out of wood and stuffing them with accelerators was a suboptimal approach to urban planning. Plus, thanks to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (albeit unfairly blamed), Chicago baseball’s troubled relationship with ruminants began early: two years passed without a national baseball association in the city. .

And then came the apocalypse. Textbooks today call it the Panic of 1873, but people at the time just called it the Great Depression. He would go on calling himself that until, well, the Great Depression. Massive unemployment and bitter labor unrest swept the country. The system of contract labor, so recently triumphant during the Civil War, seemed to be collapsing. In this chaos, Hulbert saw and grasped the future. We are still living in his future today.

Open the collective bargaining agreement (hey, that’s better than raking the leaves, isn’t it?) and you’ll see that every major league team is called “Club”. It is an abuse of language. A club is a voluntary association of like-minded people pursuing a common goal. A gardening club is a club. A shooting club is a club. A major league team is the local franchise of a multi-billion dollar business. There’s nothing “club” about it. It was William Hulbert who baseball purged of its club nature once for all.

Many of us who came of age during the Marvin Miller/Bowie Kuhn era view owners as greedy reactionaries out to snatch every penny from fans, players, and cities, regardless of the damage done. But the more player-friendly club version of baseball played in the 1870s had its own problems.

Players have signed and broken contracts freely. Teams have risen and crashed into bankruptcy with alarming frequency. Drunk brawls were common, as were throwing games (“hippodrome” in the charming sentence of the day). Pretentious East Coast teams have often refused to show up to away games with their stump-toothed, hairy-backed cousins ​​in western cities like Chicago. Whatever baseball was in the early 1870s, it was not yet a business.

William Hulbert changed all that. Particularly furious at the way the New York and Philadelphia teams bent (or ignored) the National Association‘s flimsy rules to their advantage, Hulbert retired his Chicago White Stockings (and their newly acquired superstars Cap Anson and Albert Spalding ) of the NA, after reaching an agreement with other western owners (St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville) to form a new league based on sound business principles. The National Association played its last games in 1875. In 1876 the National League was born.

Hulbert’s White Stockings were to be a new kind of team, and yes, a team, not a club. They would have a stable roster of players that fans would love and pay to see. They would play in an alcohol-free environment so that fans would not have to fear for their personal safety when attending games (a decision possibly prompted by Hulbert’s own battle with alcoholism). Players would be paid a good minimum wage to combat gambling and reduce pay disparities within the team. Racetrack players would be banned for life, and teams refusing to show up in Chicago to play their scheduled games would be expelled. No team would be allowed to enter the NL unless they agree to these rules.

There were darker sides to this shiny new brand of baseball. It wasn’t cheap; fans would be asked to pay more for tickets. Ensuring roster stability meant allowing teams to book five players per season, preventing them from moving to new teams. Literally and figuratively, players at their peak would gradually lose their free agent status as the reserve roster escalated into a reserve clause. Sunday games were banned to better ensure public morals.

Hulbert was not the originator of all these ideas, but he implemented them vigorously. When four star Louisville Grays players were nabbed throwing games in 1877, Hulbert banishes them for life. When the New York and Philadelphia teams once again failed to honor their scheduled trips out west in 1876, Hulbert kicked them out of Newfoundland. New York and Philadelphia wouldn’t have any more NL franchises until 1884. Hulbert wouldn’t be alive to see it, felled by a heart attack in 1882 at just 49 years old.

William Hulbert created the modern game and Chicago’s first baseball dynasty

Everything Hulbert tried was unsuccessful: Alcohol bans on Sunday games and baseball would be lifted thanks to competition from another upstart league called the American Association. The game would continue to plague the game for some time.

But the baseball we watch today is still the game of William Hulbert: fixed schedules, minimum wages for players, relatively stable rosters still backed by a reserve system (now commonly referred to as pre-officiating), and games that are not cheap. Hulbert’s periodic bouts with the New York and Philadelphia teams embodied Chicago’s own maturity in the 19th century as it grew into one of America’s great cities. These battles may have also spurred the enduring rivalry between the Chicago and New York teams. Cubs fans didn’t need the bitter experience of 1969 to hate the Mets (although it certainly helped).

And Hulbert built a winner. The White Stockings would dominate the league five times between 1880 and 1886, becoming the first NL dynasty. The Cubs’ next major owner, Albert Spalding, would separate them. We will see this story next.

Comments are closed.