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Complex Anson a legend of baseball
07/18/2007 10:56 AM ET
CHICAGO -- Any comprehensive survey put together in search of the greatest players scattered throughout the Cubs' long and storied history certainly would include Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins and Sammy Sosa, to name a very few from the recent modern era of baseball.

Travel back quite a few decades and players such as Gaby Hartnett, Mordecai Brown, Hack Wilson and Tinker to Evers to Chance also must be listed among the Cubs' legends.

But possibly the greatest player in franchise history, Adrian Constantine Anson, better known as Cap, oftentimes gets completely overshadowed.

Anson played from 1876 to 1897 as part of the Chicago White Stockings and the Chicago Colts, different names for the same original National League team that eventually would become the Cubs. He has been credited as baseball's first player to reach 3,000 hits, although the date and the official total both are up for debate because of his five years spent as part of the main pro league known as the National Association, before the NL began.

Some sources, including Baseball Almanac and, claim that Anson recorded his 3,000th hit on July 18, 1897, which makes Wednesday the 110th anniversary of him reaching the plateau.

When he retired following the 1897 season, completing 27 years as a starter and frontline force, Anson held the all-time records for at-bats, games played, runs scored, hits, doubles and RBIs -- all of which have since been broken. Arguably, Anson stood out as the most prolific hitter of the 19th century, producing a .333 career average and topping the .300 mark in all but three years.

So, why does the late Hall of Famer not always receive the credit he richly deserves? Those plaudits probably are lacking because the counter to his great on-field play was an off-the-field attitude that could be more than off-putting.

It was not a tragically flawed persona like the one belonging to Ty Cobb, for example. By many accounts, Anson was a stoic and highly principled figure. But Anson also was considered a racist and pointed to by some as a primary figure in originating the banning of African American players in the Major Leagues, which lasted until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

"He was a very complex individual and was as honest as the day is long," said author David L. Fleitz, who wrote the definitive Anson biography, titled "Cap Anson: The Grand Old Man of Baseball." "His personality was so belligerent that if he believed something, he would state it at the top of his lungs.

"I still wonder if that's giving him too much power," added Fleitz, when asked about Anson being responsible for baseball's one-time segregation. "Segregation would have happened without him, but he might have crystallized the forces at work there. By his outspoken nature and belligerence, he put himself out in front of that parade."

Here stood a devoted family man, an individual who was married for more than 30 years and had four daughters who "absolutely adored him," according to Fleitz. Yet, one frequently written about moment in time quickly linked Anson to a shameful part of the National Pastime.

The event took place in August 1883, when the semi-pro team from Toledo was scheduled to play an exhibition contest against Anson's White Stockings. Moses Fleetwood Walker happened to play an integral part for Toledo as its starting catcher, but Anson refused to play against a team with a black player on its roster.

Ironically, in Anson's later years, when he was a 60-year-old owner and player with a semi-pro baseball team, he played against black teams in the Chicago city league.

"I'm not sure if he had a change of heart or just had no choice," Fleitz said. "I couldn't find evidence he complained about it."

"Anson's name is always connected with the imposition of the color line," added Steve Gietschier, senior managing editor, research, at The Sporting News. "He was a star. When he spoke, people listened, unfortunately."

On a less controversial plane, Anson carved out quite an existence for himself. Although he was an uncommonly big man for his competitive time, Anson also was an exceptional athlete.

Fleitz lists cricket as one of Anson's areas of expertise, as well as becoming a terrific trap shooter, a world-class billiards player and an accomplished golfer. Anson also took part in bowling, eventually owning one of the biggest bowling alleys in Chicago, and serving as one of the founders for the American Bowling Congress.

"He was a very complex individual and was as honest as the day is long. His personality was so belligerent that if he believed something, he would state it at the top of his lungs."
-- David L. Fleitz
on Cap Anson

Theatrics played a role in the life of a man who often gained an edge on the diamond through intimidation of both baseball players and umpires alike. While Anson was an active player during the 1895 season, he also acted in a play on Broadway called "The Runaway Colt," in which Anson basically took on the part of himself as a manager.

After baseball came to an end, Anson became a success on the vaudeville circuit. Gietschier said it was not uncommon for players to make extra money through vaudeville, as the most public figures of their time, drawing the most attention. Anson, the intense competitor, would read poems and monologues on stage and perform skits with two of his daughters.

"During the last 10 years of his life, he went across the country sharing the stage with animal acts and tumblers," Fleitz said. "The hardness and harshness was washed out by then. He had a lot of sympathy from the crowd."

When Anson stepped between the white lines, though, much of the sympathy would go to his vanquished opponents. He did whatever possible to emerge with a victory, and matched with his incredible talent, it made for an unbeatable combination.

Some give Anson credit for inventing the hit-and-run, but in truth, Anson was able to use such a play because he was an expert handler of the bat. He never struck out more than 30 times in a season, and in 1878, fanned one solitary time over 261 at-bats.

His hit total officially has been listed at 3,418, but this number developed from an abbreviated schedule. Anson never played more than 146 games in a season, and he did that only once, in 1892, at the age of 40. For the first 13 years of his illustrious career, Anson never topped the 98-game barrier and had nine seasons with 69 or fewer games played.

For one of the appendices in Fleitz's book, he put together a spreadsheet figuring out the plateau Anson would have reached if he played 162-game seasons.

"There would have been over 5,000 hits," Fleitz said. "He was the first great hitter. He was probably one of the four or five greatest hitters of all time."

On top of his skilled work with the bat, Anson also served as the modern-day equivalent of manager for his teams. He led the White Stockings to five pennants and incredibly was the Player of the Year and the Manager of the Year for the 1881 season.

"Cap Anson was the Albert Pujols of his time," Fleitz said. "Now, imagine if Pujols was the manager of the Cardinals and won five pennants in seven years. That's what Pujols would have to do to compare. He was the greatest hitter and greatest manager at the same time.

"Most player-managers became player-managers at the end of their career. Anson did it at his peak."

Not every baseball skill was finely honed, as Anson still holds the record for single-season errors made by a first baseman. One of the last players not to use a glove in the field, Anson committed 50 errors in 1876, 58 in 1884 and 57 in 1885.

Players who received Anson's wrath or lived through his intimidation often used the absence of a glove to get even.

"There were stories that if he somehow angered the third baseman or shortstop, they would hold the baseball and burn it over to him as fast as they could," said Fleitz, adding Anson first started using gloves in 1890. "It took a lot of courage to play bare-handed."

Courage and pride governed Anson's life in his later years, before he passed away on April 14, 1922, at the age of 69. Anson died without much to his name, having refused to accept charity or an offer of a pension to be set up for him by the National League.

According to Fleitz, Anson said that he was healthy and he could work to earn his own wages. Anson was a true hero in Chicago, briefly holding the position of city clerk in 1905, as well as one of the greatest players in Cubs history -- with or without the name recognition.

"They don't have his number flying from either foul pole," said Gietschier of the Cubs and Anson. "But he certainly is part of their all-time team."

Anson's competitive nature served him well as a player, leading to 2,076 RBIs, 1,996 runs scored and a Hall of Fame induction as one of the original 26 members in 1939.

That same sort of demeanor sadly didn't translate as well away from the field.

"In my book, I come to a conclusion," Fleitz said. "After his career ended and he went bankrupt and his political career failed, the very personality trait that made Anson a success on the field, that drive, will to win and competitiveness, served him badly off the field."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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