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.

Wes Fisler Scores Baseball’s First Run

It may seem like only yesterday, but it was 135 years ago today, April 22nd, 1876, that Wes Fisler of the Philadelphia Athletics (not related to the later Philadelphia A’s) was credited with scoring the first run in MLB history. Don’t ask me how they decided that this game between two teams who no longer exist in a league that was called the National Association counts as being the first game that really counts in the modern MLB history. I have no idea. But they do start stats from this date, and because of that, Philly first baseman Wes Fisler has gone from being a forgettable utility player of the early 1870s and into the record books.

He was the son of Camden’s Mayor, and the Philly first baseman stood a whopping 5’6″ and weighed 137 pounds. In other words, 10 inches shorter than Ryan Howard and 120 pounds lighter. With much sweeter facial hair. He died in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1922, and is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery. He’s on facebook.

The 1876 Athletics

After 1875, the National Association was in big trouble. The teams refused to take long road trips, players were fixing games, and Boston club was kicking everybody’s ass. So in 1876 a new league was formed. It was called the National League, and it is the same National League that the Phillies play in today. The first game in National League history took place in front of 3,000 people at the Jefferson Street Grounds in Philadelphia. The Athletics, who had come to the NL from the NA, took on the Boston Red Stockings (the forerunner not to the Red Sox, but to the modern day Atlanta Braves.) The Red Stockings edged the Athletics, 6-5, helped in part by 11 Philadelphia errors. Late in the season, out of the pennant race, the Athletics decided to not take a western road trip. The decision would cost them, as they were kicked out of the league. This would mark the end of pro baseball in Philly in the 1870s, but baseball would return with a vengeance in the early 1880s.