February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Albert Spalding

Albert Goodwill Spalding was the best known baseball man in the United States in the 19th century having played a part in every major development in the early history of professional baseball. He shrewdly used his fame to build the greatest sporting goods empire in the world. Whenever Americans thought about going out to play they thought Spalding.

Spalding was born outside Chicago in 1850 into a family of some means. His father died when he was eight and his mother, who had an inheritance from the death of her first husband, moved the family to Rockford, Illinois.

Here Spalding showed natural baseball talent, excelling as a pitcher for the local Rockford nine. At the age of 17 Spalding was a strapping 6'1" and 170 pounds. He began establishing a widespread reputation as a pitcher for the powerful Forest City Club. In 1871 Spalding signed a contract for $1500 with the Boston Red Stockings in baseball's first professional league.

Pitching virtually every game Spalding became the premier pitcher in the game. The Red Stockings finished in second place in 1871 and then reeled off four consecutive league championships. Spalding, in succession, won 21, 36, 41, 52, and 56 games. He was baseball's first 200-game winner.

In 1876 Spalding had a hand in forming the new National League. He went to Chicago to play for and manage the Chicago White Stockings franchise.
In addition to his $2000 salary Spalding received 25% of the gate receipts.
Before the season started Spalding took his team on a two-week southern swing
of exhibition games with amateur teams, each selected for their largest profit potential. It was baseball's first spring training.

Spalding's White Stockings won the first National League championship with a 52-14 record. Spalding personally won 46 of those games. But in 1877 an injury limited Spalding to only four starts and the team tumbled to 5th place. Spalding was heavily criticized for his managing and accused of "having too many irons in the fire." He retired from playing and managing after 1877 to become Secretary of the White Stockings.

One of Spalding's "irons" was a sporting goods house he opened in 1876 with his brother Walter. Other players had entered the bustling sporting goods trade but Spalding soon overwhelmed them all. His national reputation as a pitcher helped but his connection with the White Stockings, whose owner was also National League president, was his biggest asset.

A.G. Spalding & Brother occupied the same offices as the Chicago ballclub. Spalding received the contract to supply all National League baseballs in exchange for the designation as "Official Major League Baseball." In 1879 Spalding began to manufacture his own products when he bought a croquet-and-baseball bat company. The firm was renamed the Spalding Manufacturing Company.

Spalding gained exclusive rights to publish the first "Official League Book" in 1876. At the same time he introduced "Spalding's Official Baseball Guide." It was not connected with the National League in any way but Al Spalding did little to dissuade that natural assumption. Spalding was soon selling 50,000 Guides a year which not only promoted Spalding's sporting goods and Spalding himself, but attracted advertising dollars as well. By 1892 Spalding's American Sports Publishing Company was a separate concern, eventually producing 300 different publications on every conceivable sport or physical activity.

Lest anyone not know who the authoritative author of the Guide might be, Spalding printed a full-page, autographed picture of himself inside. Spalding was not the first to recognize the money-making possibilities of sport but he was the best. As a promoter he was often mentioned in the same breath as the other great entertainment promoter of the times, P.T. Barnum.

Spalding promoted his team heavily through the newspapers.
To him controversy and criticism were as important as praise and like George Steinbrenner a century later, Spalding was often at the center of any ruckus.
He tried to stage a game between his White Stockings and a team of "picked nine from other teams in the evening under electric lights." Baseball's first all-star game and first night game did not materialize but Spalding used his lights to illuminate a toboggan slide in the park.

The White Stockings won the pennant in 1880 and 1881 and Spalding became president in 1882. The powerful club won again in 1882, 1885 and 1886. Spalding arranged the first post-season championship matches, again to make Spalding money. His Chicago team, at the instigation of players, drew baseball's color line by refusing to play against the few blacks in professional baseball in 1884.
It would be another 64 years before blacks again played in the major leagues.

Spalding had first become involved in lucrative barnstorming baseball exhibition to other countries in 1875 when he arranged a baseball and cricket tour of England. In 1888 off-season Spalding organized the first round-the-world tour of major league baseball players. Publicity-generating events like these were important to Spalding to establish his reputation as "America's leading sportsman."

In the 1890s Spalding sponsored and managed a bicycle team at the height of the bicycle craze. He was head of the American delegation to the second modern Olympic games in 1900 in Paris. Each venture, of course, sold Spalding's wide array of sporting goods. Spalding was not only the major supplier of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics but built the stadium as well.

Albert Spalding viewed baseball as a railroad baron or oil tycoon looked at their businesses. He crushed employee revolts, like the Player's League in 1890 and stifled competition from rival leagues and franchises whenever possible. In 1891, owner of the largest sporting goods firm in the world and weary of his baseball battles, Spalding retired. But his activities hardly slackened.

His formal retirement lasted ten years when he returned to thwart an attempt to turn baseball into a monopolistic National League Baseball Trust with all players, owners and franchises owned by a single corporation that would "arrange" competitions. A contemporary sports magazine wrote: "So A.G. Spalding is coming back into baseball, eh? Pray, when did he ever leave it? You may not have observed him but he was there all the time."

In 1902, at the urging of his second wife, Spalding became a member of the Raja Yoga Theosophical Society and moved to San Diego, California. He ended his direct involvement in baseball and in business but worked on special projects. Spalding authorized a baseball history, America's National Game, in 1911.
Much of it was factually questionable, including Spalding's fabrication of Abner Doubleday as the inventor of baseball, but was hugely influential in baseball lore.

In 1910 Spalding ran for the United States Senate from California. He always believed baseball prepared men for life and regarded political service as the ultimate extension of this rise to respectability. Spalding had always sought to make the rough-hewn baseball of the 19th century a "respectable" game.
To this end he banned liquor and Sunday games in Chicago.

Still, he accepted his nomination with reluctance. He attached conditions to his drafting: no special interests, no personal canvassing of the state, and he would only spend $7500 - the same amount a United States Senator earned. Spalding assumed the nominating committee would reject his demands but he was wrong.
Despite not entering the race until mid-July Spalding carried the majority of the Senatorial and Assembly Districts but the California Legislature elected to send another candidate to Washington, ending his political career.

Albert Spalding died of a series of strokes at the age of 65 in 1915, the same year a Baltimore youngster by the name of George Herman Ruth hit his first major league home run. Spalding was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1939. His plaque in Cooperstown reads:

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