1876 - The First Season

1876 – The Foundation is Built

Fruit magnate William W. Whitney’s vision came to fruition – and yes, that’s a pun – in the spring of 1876 when the Century League took the field for the first time. A West Point-educated engineer, Whitney had fallen in love with baseball while in the Union Army during the Civil War and after getting his fruit business up and running turned his attention to his favorite pastime.

The Century League was born in Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel on January 11, 1876. The invitees were all either men who financially backed touring clubs of professional base ball players or either owned grounds on which games could be played or (like Whitney himself) could afford to have them quickly built. At the inaugural meeting were Whitney (representing Chicago), Jason Kirkham (Boston), Charles Bigsby (New York) and his brother Miles (Brooklyn), Jefferson Edgerton (Philadelphia), James Tice (Cincinnati), Hans Fuchs (St. Louis) and Nicholas Welch (Detroit). Invited to attend, but declining, were three others: Percival Upton (Baltimore), John Q. Miller (Cleveland) and Henry Pulver (Buffalo). The latter three decided they’d rather go out on their own but were unable to find others willing to join them and their rival league fizzled before it even got started.

Whitney, as an avowed enthusiast of the sport, began the meeting by listing the reasons why a successful professional circuit had not yet occurred. They included the tendency for the associations to charge low “dues” for membership; an inexplicable lack of common sense in accepting only larger cities that could support what was in essence, an entertainment industry; lack of proper scheduling (and enforcement thereof); the tendency of the players to jump from team to team, often midseason; and most of all, the lack of a strong, central authority to enforce rules and settle disputes. Whitney went on to explain his solutions for each of those issues. 

Though Whitney was an intelligent and persuasive speaker, not all of the attendees jumped aboard immediately. James Tice noted that his Cincinnati club had been very lucrative while touring the midwest playing town teams. The Bigsby brothers agreed that the touring model seemed to be a good one. Whitney countered this by pointing out that eventually the “townies” would grow tired of being roundly defeated by the professionals. The players too, could grow restive and look for greener pastures. What Whitney’s circuit promised was consistently high-quality games played by the best professionals in the sport. By playing half their contests at home, the clubs would engender a following among the locals – this would be “their” club. And by locking up the players with contractual agreements, the practice of “rounding” (players jumping to other teams on a whim with little or no notice) would be ended. 

By the end of the meeting, Whitney had an agreement with the other seven gentlemen and the Century League would begin playing games in May. Most of the men had the core of their clubs already set in preparation for another summer of touring. Whitney – and a few others – quickly set about negotiating with some of the better players of the multitude of touring clubs.

During the first offseason and before the Century League could reach its first anniversary the brewing resentment among two of its club owners came to a head. The issue was perceived special treatment for the Philadelphia and New York clubs at the expense of the Cincinnati and St. Louis clubs. Considering that New York and Philadelphia were the two largest cities in the country and that meant more potential customers, it was no surprise that a shrewd businessman like William Whitney would not want to keep those ballclubs operating.

This bottom-line reasoning was not good enough for James Tice of Cincinnati and Hans Fuchs of St. Louis. They stood on the agreement upon which the league had been founded that all clubs guaranteed to finish their complete “championship” schedule. Since both New York and Philadelphia neglected to do so, Tice & Fuchs believed they should be expelled from the league. Whitney refused to do so, instead opting for a guarantee from Charles Bigsby (NY) and Jeff Edgerton (Philly) to not repeat themselves or face expulsion. 

Thus thwarted, Tice and Fuchs removed their clubs from the Century League and would “operate as independent touring clubs” instead. So the Century League embarked on it’s 1877 campaign with only six clubs.

Interestingly, this would not be the last the baseball world would hear from Tice & Fuchs. It also prevented the strangling at birth of one of the two oldest existing professional clubs as today’s Philadelphia Keystones trace their history back to that 1876 Philadelphia Centennial club that defied the league rules by not completing its schedule. New York (the Bigsby family) would be another matter, but that’s a story for another day….