How Booze Helped Philly Win the Controversial 1871 Pennant

There was a team called the Philadelphia Athletic Club that played in Philly in the 1860s and 70s, a separate entity from the American League A’s Club that would be gin playing in 1901. But before I tell you much more about the Athletics controversial pennant win of 1871, I should tell you a bit about baseball rules in the 1870s. They were radically different than today (A special thanks to David Nemec’s Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Baseball,¬†an amazing reference book where I am getting a lot of my info.)

Home plate was a 12 inch square. The pitcher threw from a box, not a mound, 45 feet from home plate. In 1871, he had to throw underhand, though there was a new rule in 1872 that allowed him to throw sidearmed. The batter was allowed to request high pitches or low pitches. The batter had three strikes, but foul balls did not count as strikes. A hit batsman did not get to take his base until the 1880s. Balls could not roll foul back then. It was deemed fair or foul by where it first hit the ground, not where it ended up. In the 1870s, no-one wore a glove, including the poor catcher, which makes me think that catchers in those days must have been dumb and easily persuaded, because who in their right mind would play catcher with no damn glove?


Anyways, the Athletics team was owned by billiard parlor operators and liquor store owners. That would come into play in the controversial 1871 pennant chase. Showing all of the foresight of Bud Selig, the league leaders had never decided whether the team that won the most games or the team that won the most season series would win the pennant. There was also controversy over what to do about some games that a team in Rockford had won with an illegal player. The following is taken from the Great 19th Century Encyclopedia:

On November 3, in Philadelphia, loop president James W. Kerns called a meeting to sort out the confusion and find a way to name a champion by November 15. Harry Wright (manager of the Boston Red Stockings, the other team the committee was considering for the pennant) could not have felt easy when he realized that Kerns and the Athletics, in their role as hosts of the meeting, meant to provide refreshments-namely champagne. In the convivial atmosphere it was perhaps inevitable that the committee, after waffling all season, resolved enough of the contested issues in the Athletics favor to crown them the first major league champions.

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