Review Fix Exclusive: Jack Bales Talks ‘Before They Were the Cubs’

Review Fix chats with author Jack Bales, who lets us know why his book is one very Chicago Cubs fan needs in their library.

About Before They Were the Cubs:

Founded in 1869, the Chicago Cubs are a charter member of the National League and the last remaining of the eight original league clubs still playing in the city in which the franchise started. Drawing on newspaper articles, books and archival records, the author chronicles the team’s early years. He describes the club’s planning stages of 1868; covers the decades when the ballplayers were variously called White Stockings, Colts, and Orphans; and relates how a sportswriter first referred to the young players as Cubs in the March 27, 1902, issue of the Chicago Daily News.

Reprinted selections from firsthand accounts provide a colorful narrative of baseball in 19th-century America, as well as a documentary history of the Chicago team and its members before they were the Cubs.

About Jack Bales: 

Jack Bales is the Reference and Humanities Librarian at the University of Mary Washington Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The author of numerous books and articles, he lives in Fredericksburg.

For more on the book, click here.

Review Fix: What inspired this book?

Jack Bales: I’ve written quite a bit over the years, and after my last big project I was thinking about branching off into an entirely new area, and one more popular in nature than my previous works of literary research and biography. Since I grew up outside of Chicago, I had followed the Cubs here and there, and I thought I would dig around and see if there was a Cubs era that hadn’t really been covered before in great detail. I quickly discovered that there was a dearth of works on the nineteenth-century team. I have to admit that completing this book took a lot of work, as I tried to rely on original source materials. But in any case, it’s all been a lot of fun, especially as along the way I’ve gotten to know many wonderful fellow baseball researchers and Cub fans, all of whom graciously shared their knowledge of the sport and the team. And my colleagues here in the library and across campus have all followed it from the very beginning. Their interest and support have helped keep me going.

I got the idea in 2004, and I started acquiring and reading books at about that time. It took years of research and writing (after all, I have a full-time job), and since some of the newspapers I needed to consult are not available online, I spent several years going through microfilm page-by-page and year-by-year. While researching I would spend every Christmas vacation camped out by the library’s microfilm reader-printers. One of my colleagues still remembers how she came in one day when I wasn’t there and noticed my CD player, sweater, water bottle, snacks—and even my bedroom slippers—all neatly arranged beside reels of microfilm. By the way, I wrote the first sentence of chapter 1 on July 31, 2012. Before They Were the Cubs: The Early Years of Chicago’s First Professional Baseball Team came out in the spring of 2019. I used—and cited—some 2,000 primary sources and include thirty photographs and other illustrations.

Review Fix: How did the name Cubs come about?  By what names were the players known?

Bales: Many clubs during this period were simply referred to by their cities, such as the Chicagos or Bostons.  The team names themselves were often coined not by their respective clubs but by the newspapers’ sportswriters. The names would catch the public’s fancy and eventually, through popular use, become a part of the club’s history.  

The Chicago team played the St. Louis Unions on April 29, 1870, and the Chicago players wore uniforms of blue and white.  A boy exclaimed, “Oh, look at the White Stockings.” 

In November 1889 a players’ union, called the Brotherhood, which by then included most of the National League’s stars, announced the formation of the Players’ League.  Players joining were offered contracts that did not include a reserve clause and players and the financial backers would share revenues.  

The players intended to launch clubs in cities that already had baseball teams (Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, as well as an eighth club in Buffalo).  Cap Anson lost some of his best players to the new Chicago Pirates.  Sportswriters called the team the Colts (young players hired to replace men who left for the Players’ League).

Chicago club President James Hart sounded out former third baseman Tom Burns (manager of a minor league team in Massachusetts) while they were at the National League meeting in November 1997.   Cap Anson’s managerial contract was not renewed when it expired on January 31, 1898.  There was no manager, so sportswriters started calling them the Orphans.  (There was even a name contest in Tribune.)   

James Hart hired Frank Selee in 1901, who in twelve years managing the Boston Beaneaters had taken home five pennants. With a new managerial regime, it seemed fitting that the team should have a new name. Fred A. Hayner of the Chicago Daily News felt that “Orphans” was too long to put in headlines; moreover, he preferred a name that would reflect Selee’s rebuilding plan and the manager’s emphasis on youth.  In the opening sentence of an unsigned article in the March 27, 1902, Daily News, Hayner observed that “Frank Selee will devote his strongest efforts on the team work of the new Cubs this year.”

Former Daily News city editor James Gilruth recalled years later that the name change was a result of a discussion with him, Hayner, Daily News assistant sports editor Charles Sensabaugh, and baseball reporter George C. Rice. Gilruth said that Hayner had objected to Orphans, so “we tried one name and another, then one of us, I don’t recall who, came up with the name Cubs, and Cubs it was and Cubs it is even today.”

Review Fix: What was the writing and editing experience like for you?

Bales: I wanted to write a lively history of the first few decades of Chicago baseball, based on primary sources.  This took years to do, for obvious reasons, as I had to read countless contemporary newspaper articles, sporting publications (such as the New York Clipper, Sporting Life, The Sporting News, and volumes of Spalding’s Base Ball Guide), periodicals, and memoirs.  As I said, I wanted it to be a LIVELY history, so much thought went into what to include and what not to include.  At times I would end one year and go to the next and fantasize what it would be like to actually FINISH the book.  I’d plot out on paper what I wanted to include in each chapter, what were the important details and what I should leave out.  MUCH editing was involved.  I read and reread every chapter many times.  I checked and rechecked every citation.  I did the index myself.  I wanted it to be more than just a “name” index, and so I compiled my own list of subject headings, plus cross references.

Review Fix: What makes it different from other baseball books?

Bales: Hundreds of books have been published on the Chicago Cubs, but very few focus on their formative years in the nineteenth century, and none thoroughly document these years.  Drawing on newspaper articles, memoirs, archival records, and books, I describe the club’s planning stages of 1868; cover the decades when the ballplayers were variously called White Stockings, Colts, and Orphans; and relate how a sportswriter first referred to the young players as Cubs in the March 27, 1902, issue of the Chicago Daily News.   I also reprint selections from firsthand accounts to provide a colorful narrative of baseball in nineteenth-century America, as well as a documentary history of the Chicago team and its members before they were the Cubs.  I include thirty photographs and other illustrations, and I use—and cite—some 2,000 original sources, as well as numerous secondary works, such as baseball histories.

Review Fix: Did you learn anything you weren’t expecting?

Bales: As I said, I went through newspapers on microfilm, page by page. This somewhat tedious process was invaluable, however, as I serendipitously came across things that I would have missed if I simply had relied on an online database. After all, you can’t find the article if you aren’t putting in the right words to search the database, especially if you don’t know that a particular item even exists to begin with. My favorite example is a drawing of the team’s nineteenth-century ballpark that I happened to find by going through microfilm of the old Chicago Evening Post newspaper.  It’s in the book.

I knew that beginning in 1888 the baseball players wore gray and black uniforms and were informally called the “Black Stockings,” but I had not realized that Virginia Anson, the wife of team captain Adrian “Cap” Anson, had designed the outfits.  The men stopped wearing them prior to the 1894 season, supposedly for superstitious reasons as the players had failed to win a league championship during the years they wore black. 

I wanted to determine when and why the club left the South Side Park for the West Side Grounds.  By June 1, 1893, the Colts had compiled just a 10–17 record and were in eleventh place in the National League.  Later that month, President James Hart leased the South Side Park to the promoters of the World’s Fair college baseball tournament, a series of games that would begin on June 26.  He consequently moved all of the Colts’ games to the West Side Grounds for the rest of the season.

One player’s lackluster performance and apparent apathy particularly infuriated William Hulbert, and on July 29, 1877, he wrote a scathing letter to the slumping center fielder Paul Hines:  “This club will not consent to pay first-class prices for third-rate play.  We have the right to expect of you that you will fully maintain your reputation for skill at bat, in the field, and in base-running.  You have fallen off amazingly in all respects, and you show an indifference to the interest of your club which would warrant us in dismissing you.  If you desire to retain your position with us you must wake up, and attend to your business in first-class shape.  I hereby warn you that unless you do improve in respect to the matters to which I have, in this letter, called your attention, you will be dismissed and your pay stopped.  You are not trying to play.  Your father would not like to have you home with half your salary lost.”

Review Fix: What led to the formation of the team that eventually became the Cubs?

Bales: Chicago really liked its baseball. There were a handful of teams before the Civil War, but in 1866 the city had about 30.  The Civil War had been tough, and people wanted some enjoyment.  Teams were looking forward to a game on July 21, 1868, between the Chicago Excelsiors and the Cincinnati Buckeyes. Ten thousand people had recently gathered to watch the Excesiors play, and it was counted as one of the best teams in the Midwest.  In 1867 they had won 10 games and lost only one. 

Chicago Excelsiors lost to the Cincinnati Buckeyes, 43-22.

After Chicago lost to the Excelsiors on July 21, 1868, the Chicago Times wrote:  “Chicago needs a representative club; an organization as great as her enterprise and wealth,—one that will not allow the second-rate clubs of every village in the northwest to carry away all the honors in base ball contests.  The Excelsior club evidently cannot fill the bill; its repeated defeats are inexcusable” (This quotation is interesting, as other sources say the Chicago Tribune.  Authors of baseball books took the quotation—incorrectly—without verifying it!)

A meeting was held of persons interested in forming a professional ball club in October 1869. Cincinnati was getting all the recognition and Chicago wanted a team.  The Cincinnati Red Stockings were founded in 1866 and in 1868 its record was 36–7.  A year later it won all 57 games it played.   Real estate tycoon Potter Palmer was president of the Chicago Base Ball Club.  Various vice presidents included Union general Philip H. Sheridan, industrialist George Pullman, Tribune City Editor Samuel J. Medill.

The Chicago Team played the St. Louis Unions on April 29, 1870.  The Chicago players wore uniforms of blue and white.  A boy exclaimed, “Oh, look at the White Stockings.”  Team won 47–1 and they came to be known as the White Stockings.

Review Fix: What else makes the teams featured here so special?

Bales: The times, the sportswriters, and the people

The Times

The sport was changing in the 1860s.  Its administrative body was the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABB), which had been organized in 1858 to oversee and govern the game.  It included 500 amateur teams (whose players played for recreation), and 15 professional teams (whose players competed for money).  The salaried teams were growing in popularity.  They had the best players, so of course they would generate high interest and large ticket sales.

Some matters needed correcting.  Gambling, throwing of games (called hippodroming), excess alcohol drinking.  Clubs complained of “revolvers,” players who broke their contracts by jumping from one team to another that offered more money.  Game scheduling was haphazard at best, which made the playing for championships difficult.  Some teams would form and play a few home games, earn money, but then disband when the more expensive traveling started.

The Chicago White Stockings and nine other professional teams gathered in New York City in March 1871 at Collier’s Rooms, a saloon, and formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (soon to be called the National Association). Rules were discussed.  Team charged an entry fee. Each team would play the best three out of five games with each of the other clubs.  The team that won the most games would be champions of the United States.

The new organization represented relatively few clubs.  They had to play a lot of exhibition games against amateur clubs.

The National Association was founded in 1871 in part to curb gambling and the throwing of ball games (hippodroming), but the largely player-run organization had no central leadership and it was not up to the task.

Game fixing kept people away, as did alcohol and rowdiness. The Red Stockings’ continual winning discouraged other clubs.  Some teams joined just to make money during the home games but then disbanded before the expensive road trips.  Teams from small cities lacked the financial backing of large-city teams.  Mediocre teams did not attract large crowds.  Ball players played for high salaries, but they signed for only one year, so there was little team loyalty.  Players broke their contracts to join higher-paying teams—called revolvers.

William Hulbert of the Chicago Base Ball Association saw how the wealthy teams in the East, with its powerful and influential managers, controlled the whole league.  Started thinking about how he could change things, and that led to the formation of the National League in 1876.

The Sportswriters

Nineteenth-century sportswriters were masters of florid and flowery prose, and they were skilled in the use of hyperbole, similes, metaphors, and various types of allusions.  

On May 17, 1877, for example, a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter complained that the new league baseball was “too soft,” for during a game it quickly “grew flabby on the outside, so that one could be picked up by the slack like a kitten by the scruff of its neck or a small boy by the slack of his breeches.”  After former Chicago players John Clarkson and Mike Kelly helped the Boston Beaneaters trounce the White Stockings, 20–5, on May 15, 1888, the Chicago Times writer declared that pitcher Clarkson “breathed on his enemies and they were as are the snow banks of last winter.  The unrivaled Kelly smote the enemy’s curves and they sailed away like robins seeking the summer.” 

The reporter added that the Beaneaters beat the Chicago players “as no nine young men have been beaten since the Pecatonica Blues won their long tin horn.”  During an 1866 baseball tournament, the Pecatonica, Illinois, club lost a game by the lopsided score of 49–1. The team had the dubious distinction of winning a silver-mounted tin horn engraved with the word “Practice,” for being the club that had lost by the biggest margin.  As baseball historians Peter Morris and David Nemec observe in The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball, “The name Pecatonica remained a byword for futility for decades.”

_ _ _ _

When Chicago beat the mighty Cincinnati Red Stockings on October 13, 1870, a Cincinnati newspaper wrote:

“We were beaten!  We know it, we feel it, but how could we help it?  The umpire was against us, the weather was against us, the crowd was against us, the heavens were against us, the ground was against us, the pestilential air of the Chicago river was against us, the Chicago Nine was against us, and last, but not least, the score was against us” (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 14, 1870)

_ _ _ _

The White Stockings played their first home game of 1871 on May 8.  They beat the Cleveland Forest City Club by score of 14–12 (Cleveland’s Ezra Sutton hit the first home run in National Association history).  On May 19 they were down 4–0 in the eighth inning.  Captain Jimmy Wood said, when his players came up in the ninth inning, “We need a run from every man on the team.  See that we get them.”

“The crowd fairly ran riot with excitement,” according to the Chicago reporter. “Men threw their hats into the air, and cheered until they were hoarse, while the ladies in the pavilion waved their handkerchiefs and clapped their hands, and did all sorts of excitable things.  It is related of Lotta [Crabtree], the popular little actress, who was present, that in her ardent enthusiasm she brought down her parasol upon the shoulders of a dignified old lady who sat in front of her, breaking the parasol, and astounding the old lady, who had never attended a base ball match before, and couldn’t see what there was to make such a fuss about.”

_ _ _ _

There was a problem with the baseball in early 1877.  It was “too soft,” for after only a brief period of use it “grew flabby on the outside, so that one could be picked up by the slack like a kitten by the scruff of its neck or a small boy by the slack of his breeches” (Chicago Daily Tribune, May 17, 1877)

_ _ _ _

In its game-day coverage for a July 4, 1870, game in which the White Stockings lost, 30–20, to the Brooklyn Atlantics, the New York Star contemptuously called the White Stockings “simply a number of base-ball hacks . . . who never were anything more than third-rate players until they took the notion of going to Chicago and coming back as representatives of the West a la ‘Red Stockings.’ . . . They were soundly thrashed, and were, moreover, exposed as humbugs, mountebanks, and side-show people of no ability, except in the Barnum style of base-balling.”

_ _ _ _

Journalist Finley Peter Dunne was well known for his bold, lively essays, and as I read the 1887 Chicago Daily News, I enjoyed his account of right fielder Billy Sunday (who played baseball before he became an evangelist) dashing across the field to catch a fly ball: 

Sunday . . . saw that the ball would light between the clubhouse and a row of benches about ten feet distant. . . . The people opened a gap, and with a tremendous leap he cleared the bench, his speed carrying him against the brick wall with great force.  Ten thousand pairs of eyes saw him throw his arms above his head, and they were ready to applaud the act, but no one expected that he had caught the ball.  As he turned and limped away from the wall, holding aloft the ball for judgment, the shouts of the crowd could be heard for blocks away.”

The People

These individuals are some of the really noteworthy ones of the decade (there are others, of course)

Cap Anson

Adrian Anson joined the Chicago White Stockings in 1876 and captained the team from 1879 to 1897.  In his career with Chicago, he batted over .300 every year except 1891, 1892, and 1897. Upon his retirement in early 1898, Sporting Life listed his accomplishments in a February 12 article and declared that “as a consistent batsman no one ever equalled [sic] Anson.”  Some of his records have since been broken, of course—and his modern-day reputation is tainted by his racism—but according to the statistical resource Retrosheet, among the Chicago franchise’s ballplayers he is the all-time leader in hits (3,012), runs (1,722), runs batted in (1,880), and doubles (529). He ranks second in games played (2,277), at-bats (9,104), and batting average (.331), behind, respectively, Ernie Banks (2,528), Banks (9,421), and Riggs Stephenson (.336). 

Few ballplayers could generate both cheers and jeers the way Cap Anson could.  Sporting Life reverently called him “the greatest batsman the game ever produced. . . . As a field captain Anson has few equals and no superior.” The members of Anson’s nine might disagree, however, as he was a renowned taskmaster who expected them to work out both mornings and afternoons during spring training, even if they were stiff and sore from practice games and exercising. As one Chicago player bluntly stated, “Training under him was a nightmare.”

William Hulbert

The early success of the White Stockings—and of baseball itself—was due to William Ambrose Hulbert.  As secretary of the Chicago Base Ball Association, he signed some of the sport’s top players for the 1876 season.  He saw firsthand that baseball’s National Association could not adequately govern the teams and the players, and before the season had even started he spearheaded the formation of a new administrative body, the National League. His White Stockings won the league’s inaugural championship, and under his watch the team also captured National League pennants in 1880 and 1881.  

Hulbert had been elected president of the Chicago Base Ball Association in the fall of 1875 and president of the National League in December of 1876. He held both offices until his death on April 10, 1882.  At its annual meeting in December that year, the National League adopted several resolutions, one of which recognized “that to [Hulbert] alone is due the credit of having founded this League, and to his able leadership, sound judgment and impartial management, are chiefly due the success it has thus far attained.” William Hulbert was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Mike Kelly

Mike Kelly—later known as “King” Kelly—joined the Chicago team in 1880. Right fielder Kelly also played catcher.  During his lengthy career he gained prominence for his strong arm, aggressive base running, daring base stealing, and especially his flamboyant slides, which inspired crowds to scream “slide, Kelly, slide” during games.  He was also a genial, charismatic raconteur with a fondness for liquor.  White Stockings manager Cap Anson wrote in his autobiography that Kelly “was a good fielder when not bowled up, but when he was he sometimes failed to judge a fly ball correctly, though he would generally manage to get pretty close in under it.  In such cases he would remark with a comical leer: ‘By Gad, I made it hit me gloves, anyhow.”

Kelly also used his special tactics to prevent teams from scoring runs.  For instance, he would conceal balls in the outfield grass, so if a long drive got by him, he could pick up one of his nearby hidden baseballs to rob the batter of an extra base or two.  When an opposing player ran after a White Stocking fly ball, Kelly would occasionally try to confuse him by calling out the name of a different player to take the ball.”

In the seventh inning of an August 1886 game, Kansas City Cowboy Pete Conway hit a single and was heading for second on a passed ball when he heard Mike Kelly cry “foul!” (Kelly had started the game as catcher but hurt his hand in the fifth inning and had exchanged positions with first baseman Cap Anson.)  Conway stopped at second and asked Kelly if the hit was a foul ball.  Kelly said that it indeed was, and Conway turned and started walking back to first base. Pitcher Jim McCormick, who had the ball, threw it to second baseman Fred Pfeffer, who tagged Conway out.  When Conway objected, Kelly innocently replied, “O, I thought you asked if that was a passed ball.”

Albert “Al” Spalding

The name “Spalding” usually brings to mind the sporting goods store by that name, though founder Albert G. “Al” Spalding’s reputation also rests on his career as a baseball player and White Stocking executive.  By mid-1875, the 24-year-old pitcher had already led the Boston Red Stockings to three National Association championships when William A. Hulbert of the White Stockings convinced him to sign with the Chicago team.  Spalding soon moved to Chicago and opened his baseball “emporium.”  A year later, the White Stockings—with Spalding as team captain as well as club secretary—won the National League’s championship in the league’s inaugural season. 

Spalding found it difficult, however, to juggle both baseball and a business, and he decided to end his playing career after the 1877 season.  He still retained his administrative duties with the club, and when Hulbert died in 1882, he assumed the presidency.  Under his sharp managerial eye, the White Stockings took home National League pennants in 1882, 1885, and 1886.  He also published an annual baseball guide of statistics, analyses, and season summaries.  

Spalding retired in 1891, though for years he retained his ties to both the Chicago club and the National League.  In 1911 he published his history of baseball—and his own role in the sport—titled America’s National Game.  He died four years later.  Al Spalding was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.  

Jimmy Wood

When the Chicago Base Ball Club in October 1869 advertised for “first class professional base ball players . . . desirous of connecting themselves with the Chicago Club,” second baseman Jimmy Wood was the first player the organization signed.  A well-known and respected player of the day, Wood captained Chicago’s White Stockings in both 1870 and 1871.  “No blot has ever tarnished his reputation,” the Chicago Republican declared in its January 27, 1871, issue, “and never have his actions either upon or off the field been imputed to dishonorable motives.” An accidental knife wound to his right leg during the 1873–74 off-season led to infection and the amputation of the limb.  Outfitted with an artificial leg, he was able to manage the Chicago team in 1874 and 1875, but was not hired in 1876 after Al Spalding assumed the managerial duties. Wood held a variety of jobs around the country following his Chicago baseball career.  He died in San Francisco on November 20, 1928, just one day before his 85th birthday.

Review Fix: Who do you think will enjoy this book the most?

Bales: Certainly fans of the Chicago Cubs, but also people who want to learn about the early history of baseball and how it developed.

Review Fix: What are your goals for this book?

Bales: In the introduction to my book, I note that in the summer of 2004, I picked up the June issue of Vine Line, the official magazine of the Chicago Cubs, to read the letters to the editor. One fan related that he had been having a heated argument with a friend, who said that the team had not always played at Wrigley Field.  The fan had “begged to differ” and asked Vine Line, “Will you please settle this disagreement, and set the record straight?”

The magazine’s editor explained that the Cubs had called a number of ballparks home before settling down in 1916 at what was then Weeghman Park (renamed Cubs Park in 1919 and Wrigley Field in 1926).  So many fans believe that the Cubs have always played at the field at Clark and Addison Streets. I guess I want to “set the record straight” myself and show that the team had a rich history before Wrigley Field, and before they were the Cubs.

Review Fix: What’s next for you?

Bales: One of the reasons this book took so long to complete is because I kept getting sidetracked by other projects, such as a couple of major articles for baseball journals.  I wrote an article on a woman who shot her ex-boyfriend—a Chicago Cubs ballplayer—in July 1932.  For this article, “The Show Girl and the Shortstop: The Strange Saga of Violet Popovich and Her Shooting of Cub Billy Jurges,” I interviewed the woman’s nephew and relatives of the ballplayer, went through lots of old newspapers and court records, and I ended up finding information about this well-known incident in baseball history that no one knew about.  In fact, the article won the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award from the Society for American Baseball Research, which “honors the best articles on baseball history or biography completed or published during the preceding calendar year.”  I’ve since acquired more information—including many photographs—and I would like to turn the article into a small book.  After all, we’re talking attempted murder, stolen love letters, blackmail, a burlesque show, sex, and, of course, baseball—what else is there?!

The article link is: https://sabr.org/research/show-girl-and-shortstop-strange-saga-violet-popovich-and-her-shooting-cub-billy-jurges

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About Patrick Hickey Jr. 9432 Articles
Patrick Hickey Jr. is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief, Master Jedi and Grand Pooh-bah of ReviewFix.com and is the author of the book, "The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews with Cult and Classic Video Game Developers," from leading academic and non-fiction publisher McFarland and Company. He is currently the Assistant Director of the Journalism Program at Kingsborough Community College and is a former News Editor at NBC Local Integrated Media and a National Video Games Writer at the late Examiner.com. He has also had articles and photos published in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Complex and The Syracuse Post-Standard. Love him. Read him.

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