MLB carries on strong, 200,000 games later
Look what they started on a ballfield in Philadelphia in 1876
George was first to preside, Hancock first to sign and Martha was first lady, the first first lady. The Wright Brothers -- not David and his siblings -- were the first to fly, and Lindbergh was the first to fly from here to there. Armstrong took the first small step. Sputnik, Sally Ride, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson also were firsts.
We treasure our children's first steps and save their first teeth. We believe Columbus got here first and credit Alexander Graham Bell with the first call, albeit wired. Adam and Eve are the first folks we know of. Michael Phelps, the Yankees and Secretariat finished first. Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Banks and even the great DiMaggio played first. Mex was the foremost at first. Georgeann Wells-Blackwell was the first woman to dunk. And getting to first base is a challenge.
We cherish our first kisses and take a shine to our first cars. We have first violins, first dibs, first cousins, the first amendment and first editions. We rushed to be first in line when Cabbage Patch Kids were first on our kids' lists. We count down to January first. First class isn't what it used to be -- neither in mail delivery nor air travel. We pay the rent on the first of the month and fuss over the first scratch in a new car. The first cut, we know, is the deepest, and the first quarter-mile the most expensive. We know first impressions count and all about priorities -- first things first.
Now ... may I be the first to admit I didn't know the first thing about the first game in Major League history.
Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Before this exercise in baseball research, I sorta knew the first game was in 1876, based on something I read before I got stuck on the Mickey Mantle page in my first Baseball Encyclopedia in 1957. Otherwise, my knowledge of the beginning of the big leagues was anything but first-rate.
I figured, because the National League is older than the American -- hence the term Senior Circuit -- the first game contested was in the NL. The rest of what I knew was equal to the number of leadoff grand slams by Duane Kuiper, Mets no-hitters and Astros World Series rings.
But because baseball is about to celebrate its 200,000th game -- its ETA is Saturday -- I decided I'd better learn something about the first one. So here goes: First of all, the W's:
Who: Boston Red Caps, Philadelphia Athletics.
The Red Caps, nee Red Stockings, eventually became the Braves of Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta -- but not until they had gone by the names Beaneaters, Doves, Rustlers, Braves (1912-35) and Bees (through 1940). Neither Phil Niekro nor Julio Franco was on the Red Caps' roster in 1876.
These Athletics are not to be confused with those of Connie Mack, Charlie Finley and Rollie, Reggie and Rudi who have played exclusively in the American League, beginning in 1901, and who moved to Kansas City and then to Oakland. The National League Athletics, as well as the New York Mutuals, were forced from the league following the 1876 season because each team had failed to play a full league schedule of 70 games.
What: The first game in the National League of Base Ball Clubs.
When: April 22, 1876, a Saturday.
Where: Jefferson Street Grounds, Philadelphia.
Whither: Boston 6, Philadelphia 5.
Winning pitcher: RH Joe Borden.
Losing pitcher: RH Lon Knight.
The Boston Daily Globe published a brief account of the lid-lifter -- sports scribes used such clever jargon 135 years ago -- two days after it was played, referring to the Red Caps as the "Bostons" and noting in its 80-word report that Red Caps catcher Tim McGinley had been struck in the eye by a foul ball in the seventh inning. But, the report said, he had "pluckily played through." Turns out McGinley ran out of pluck and appeared in merely eight more games that season.
The Bostons, who had scored first in the second inning, scored twice in the ninth to lead 6-4; the Athletics scored once in the ninth. Both pitchers threw complete games. The Globe report appeared with a modest box score -- no pitching lines -- and without quotes, first-name references or a byline. MLB.com has it on good authority the reporter wasn't that Gammons fellow.
The paper characterized the Red Caps' victory as "a little surprise party" for the Athletics and noted that the Bostons "won by their superior fielding and base running." No prose supported that claim, but the box score said the Red Caps were guilty of merely seven errors, seven fewer than the Athletics.
Note: Superior is a relative term. So is inferior, and the gloves used in those days -- if gloves were used at all -- were relatively awful.
The Athletics did execute two double plays, one of the 6-4-3 variety with the defenders involved named Force, Fouser and Fisler. Much more lyrical than Tinker to Evers to Chance, don't you think? That was Davy Force to Bill Fouser to Wes Fisler, of course.
Earned runs were listed in the box -- the Bostons had one to the Athletics' two. There is no indication, however, whether the runs mentioned were scored or surrendered. Presumably the Globe readers and the first generation of seamheads understood. Time of game -- without pitching changes, Carlton Fisk trips to the mound, waits for television to return from commercial or Mike Hargrove at-bats -- was two hours, five minutes.
And there was this cheery critique from the unnamed writer: "The contest was very exciting." Well, there you have it.
Of course it was exciting -- no pomp, but some circumstance. Competing that day were 18 legitimate candidates for the Rookie of the Year and two future Hall of Fame players. The rookie candidacy of Red Caps' left fielder Billy Parks was short-lived. A refugee from the National Association, as most big leagers were in that first season, Parks never played after his 0-for-4 Opening Day performance.
Red Caps midfielder Jim O'Rourke produced the first two of his 2,132 big league hits -- it was the first hit in NL history -- and teammate George Wright was the shortstop. Each was elected to the Hall by the Veterans Committee.
The first game, attended by some 3,000 people, couldn't have compared with what followed two days later. The Athletics, facing Borden again, must have delighted the home fans when they won, 20-3. Knight was the Athletics' starter again.
He was one of merely five pitchers the Athletics used during their 60 -- should have been 70 -- games. And three of those five combined for merely three starts and 34 innings. Knight (10-22) and George Zettlein (4-20) certainly did the heavy lifting.
Knight was particularly busy. Five days after his second start, he served as the plate umpire -- base umpires hadn't been invented -- in a game the Red Caps lost to the Hartford Dark Blues in Boston. Borden was the Red Caps' starter in that one as well. They used six pitchers all year. So they must have had the deeper bullpen, right?
The National League was very much a new venture. Players routinely umpired games. Fortunately -- perhaps -- one of the men not to wear two caps was a member of the '76 Red Caps. His name -- Tricky Nichols. Unfortunately no NL games were officiated by the wonderful George H. Bradley, who pitched in 22 games for the Bostons that season, his lone season in the big leagues. Bradley worked as a full-time umpire in subsequent seasons and earned his nickname -- Foghorn -- for obvious reasons.
Yes, the nicknames then were far better than what we have today -- A-Rod, K-Rod, I-Rod, F-Rod and Hot Rod (Kanehl).
An aside: Bradley was the umpire in the first perfect game, thrown by Lee Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs against the Cleveland Blues on June 12, 1880. No surprise -- Richmond umpired a game in 1883 while he was an active player. His perfect game was preserved in the fifth inning, after the Blues' Bill Phillips hit a ball through the right side of the infield for an apparent hit. The right fielder handled the ball quickly and threw out Phillips at first base. The right fielder was Lon Knight.
That's the way it was then. Games were more like Sunday-afternoon family softball games, with players taking different positions, changing teams and umpiring. Consider this:
Fouser appeared in 21 games in 1876, completing his career on Sept. 16. In the week preceding his final game as a player, he umpired two Athletics games against the last-place Cincinnati Red Stockings, who would finish with a 9-56 record. Fouser's team won the first but lost the second game. There is no record of Fouser "being retired" by the Athletics because of the 15-13 loss. The losing pitcher in the game incidentally was -- who else? -- one-game umpire Lon Knight.
The Athletics placed seventh in the eight-franchise league, eight games ahead of the dreadful Red Stockings and their .138 winning percentage. The Philadelphias produced a 14-45 record despite an offense that scored 20 or more runs three times and 10 or more 13 times in 60 games and despite having Fouser work the plate in two games.
The Red Caps ended their sixth season -- the first five were in the National Association -- with a 39-31 record and fourth-place standing. Ted Turner already was interested in buying them.
And see now what that first game has begotten. We have WAR and VORP, unimaginative nicknames and scoreboards bigger than Frank "The Capital Punisher" Howard. We have adjusted OPS and the always-essential "base-out runs added." We know what everybody hits with a 1-0 count. We have T-shirts launched into the stands and -- thank goodness -- fewer home runs launched over buildings.
The Red Caps and the Athletics couldn't have imagined any of it. Neither could John McGraw, Kenesaw Mountain Landis or Hall of Famer Harry Wright, considered the "Father of Professional Base Ball" in his time, manager of the 1876 Red Caps and brother of George.
Now we're approaching the 200,000th game. And the name of the game no longer is two four-letter words. We can add Cal's games, Nolie's K's, Pete's hits, Rickey's steals, Henry's homers, Mo's saves and all the scores of errors that were made back then and not even approach 200,000. The game is so durable. It has such stature and such a prominent place on our society. It carries on -- quite pluckily.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.