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Cleveland's first baseball team, the 1871 Blue Stockings

Cleveland's first baseball team, the 1871 Blue Stockings
April 20, 2013
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The year was 1871.

The country was in the shadow of the Civil War and General Grant was in the White House and what some consider the first Major Leagues was founded.   While the name sounds like a group ran by players, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was actually a group of baseball teams.

After the Cincinnati Red Stockings (1869) made baseball a viable business by becoming the first professional team, professional teams sprouted up throughout the NABBP.    This created a war between the professional and amateur teams in the NABBP so several of the professional teams broke away and founded the first all professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (just referred to the National Association.)

After rain canceled the game between the Boston Red Stockings and the Washington Olympics, the new league would begin festivities on  May 4th in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  In those days, a coin toss was used to determine which team would bat first and the (Fort Wayne) Kekiongas won the toss and sent Cleveland's own Forrest City Blue Stockings to bat first.

In front of 200 spectators,  Fort Wayne sent 20 year old Bobby Matthews on the hill and Forrest City countered with catcher Deacon White.  White won the first battle drilling a pitch into right field for a double but Matthews prevailed on the day hurling a 2-0 shutout (the first in the major leagues if you consider the NA a major league.)  Deacon White had a great game going 3-for-4 but the rest of the Forrest City players would only get two hits. 

It would be two days later at Rockford before the Blue Stockings team would register a win by pounding the Green Stockings club 12-4.  The first road trip concluded with a third game at the Chicago White Stockings where on May 8th the Clevelanders dropped a 12-14 slugfest but third baseman Ezra Sutton launched the new league's first home run. 

Cleveland fans got their first chance to host a National Association game on May 11th when the White Stockings came to town.   The National Association Grounds - where the Forrest City team played a majority of their games - attracted 2500 fans to see the Blue Stockings take on the White Stockings.  The Forrest City club clad in their white hats, white shirts, white pants and trademark blue stockings battled the Chicago team until the 8th inning when a “flagrant error of judgment” caused captain Charlie Pabor to be out at third.   The team protested and walked off the field and the umpire ruled the game a forfeit (Chicago was up 18-10).

National Association Grounds, the home of the Forrest City Blue Stockings

The Forrest City baseball club's home field was located at Garden Avenue and  Wilson Street (now Central Avenue and East 55th Street.)  Prior to the opener the field didn't have seats and the Forrest City faithful either stood to watch games or sat in their carriages surrounding the fields, but the team had built a new grandstand for the new league.

Admission was a quarter but fans could buy season tickets for $6 or $10 which included a lady friend and a carriage in a reserved section behind first or third base.  The Forrest City club played in the grounds during the NA existence in 1871 and 1872.

One man pitching staff

Starting pitcher Al Pratt would make 28 of 29 starts for Forrest City, many times on two days rest.  Pratt went 10-17 in 1871 with a 3.77 ERA and threw 224.2 innings.  "Uncle Al" as he was called was a 5'7” righty from Pittsburgh.  While the Civil War veteran lasted only two years in the NA, his baseball life didn't end there as he went on to found the Pittsburgh Allegenys which became the Pirates.    Pratt also played outfield for the Forrest City team hitting .262 in 1871 (career .267). 

The only other guy to toe the rubber for the Forrest City team in 1871 was player-manager Charlie “The Old Woman in the Red Cap” Pabor, a 5'8” lefty from Brooklyn.  Pabor played primarily left field but threw 29.1 innings going 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA.  Pabor hit .296 in 1871 and spent five years in the NA with four teams.  For his career, Pabor hit .285 and pitched in only 10 games.

As a manager, Pabor may have been the all time worst going 13-64 including a disaterous 1875 season with the Brooklyn Athletics that won only two games all year.  After the 1875 season and the demise of the NA, Pabor joined the police department in New Haven, Connecticut.

Team stars

Third baseman Ezra Sutton was the team's main run producer hitting .352 with a team leading 23 RBI.  On May 8th, the 21 year old Sutton not only hit the first home run in the NA but hit a second home run the same day - though finished with only three on the year (tied for the team lead).  On the season, Sutton led the team with a .352 batting average.  The Seneca Falls, New Yorker would go on to play 18 seasons in the NA and the National League.  A career .294 hitter, Sutton collected 1574 hits in his career.

As a catcher in the barehanded era, Deacon White was the first batter to step into the box for the NA and doubled to kick things off.  The Caton, New York native will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this summer a full 142 years after his historic day with Forrest City.

White led the team in hits while hitting .322 and with 40 runs scored.  In his 20 year career, White led his league in hitting twice - once in the NA in 1875 (.367)  - and in the National League in 1877 (.387).   His best season was 1877 with Boston (NL) where he led the league not only in hitting but triples (11), hits (103), and RBI (49).

Considered the best barehanded catcher of his era, White converted to third base in his mid-30's because the rigors of catching were too great.   It was at third base in 1894 that White recorded 11 assists which remains a Major League record (although tied by eight others) in a nine inning game.  Interestingly, White was maybe the last person to believe the earth was flat for which he was ridiculed.

John Bass was the shortstop and led the league with 10 triples that season while hitting .303.   While the 23 year old shortstop committed 29 errors in 22 games he finished 4th in fielding percentage.  This illustrates how the game was played prior to the invention of the baseball glove.

Bass moved back to his home town of Brooklyn in 1872 but appeared in only two games before playing one National League game in 1877, probably as a fill in player.  Bass was allegedly a Civil War veteran but because of his age at that time most likely enlisted under an assumed name.  Bass passed away from Tuberculosis in Colorado at the age of 40.

The Season

The team's National Association record finished at 10-19 good for eighth place out of nine teams and 11.5 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics.   They were a better road team going 7-9 away from the National Association Grounds and only 3-10 in Cleveland.  The teams in those days would play a combination of NA games and other games against amateur and semi-pro teams, and they went 8-1 during a June and July eastern road trip (3-3 against NA competition during the same trip).

Aftermath

The team returned in 1872 with White, Sutton, Pratt and Pabor but also infused with some new talent but similar results going 6-14 before the team disbanded.   Cleveland would not field a major league team until the Cleveland Blues joined the National League in 1879.

User Comments

Daingean
April 22, 2013 - 9:10 AM EDT
I certainly learned a few things researching on writing this article. There is a book "Baseball on the Western Reserve" that helped with some of the research.....Note that the Forrest City team existed prior to 1871 but the NA is considered (by some) to be the first Major League and started play in 1871 so that's where I started.
Tony
April 21, 2013 - 9:30 AM EDT
I definitely learned something reading this. I know a lot about the Indians, but history is one thing I am still learning. Amazing how much the game has changed over the years....
Bric
April 21, 2013 - 1:10 AM EDT
"The old woman in the red cap" nickname was an unusual one.
Nicknames, the baseball itself, once softer, the equipment----it has all changed drastically.
Now if the Lords of the League would once and for all change three other things:
1. Block the base runner and he's safe.
2. Hit a batter and he gets two bases.
3. Slide out of the baseline and you're out, the runner behind you is out, and the runner who slides wrong is out of the game, now, and the league, later, after repeating a few times.
DJ Sebastian
April 20, 2013 - 3:57 PM EDT
Great history lesson, Rick! Can't imagine a catcher handling pitches bare-handed. And fans taking in the action while standing, since there were no seats. As far as umpires making "errors in judgment", well at least some things are still the same as today's game.

Please do write more about baseball history.

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