A premier batsman and leader, Anson is widely regarded as the foremost on-field baseball figure of the 19th century. He led the NL in hitting three times and was the first man to get 3,000 hits. As a manager, he took his Chicago team to five pennants. Counting five years in the National Association, he played 27 seasons at the highest level of baseball competition and was a regular each year. He was stern, iron-willed, and incorruptible, and his influence went far beyond the field as baseball became the national game.
After a year at Notre Dame, the 19-year-old Iowan turned pro in 1871 with the Rockford Forest Citys of the National Association, the forerunner of the NL. The following season, he joined the Philadelphia Athletics as a third baseman and first baseman. In five NA seasons, he hit over .350 four times. One of the first players signed by William Hulbert when he launched the NL in 1876, Anson helped the Chicago team (then called White Stockings) to the first NL pennant, hitting .356.
Although he’d played mostly as a third baseman and catcher in his early years, when he became playing manager in 1879, he put himself permanently at first base. The stocky six-footer was no artist in the field. He holds the all-time record for most errors committed by a first baseman, but he played at a time when gloves were not used and errors were common. Longevity also helped account for his error record.
He made up for his fielding shortcomings with his bat. In all but two of his 22 NL seasons, he topped .300. He led the league in 1879, 1881, and 1888, with his .399 in ’81 his personal high. He led the league in RBI four times and five times drove in more than 100 even though teams played fewer than 100 games each season until 1884. Line-drive singles were his hallmark, although he twice led in doubles and totaled 532 two-base hits over his long career. He hit 96 home runs, but 21 came in 1884, when the White Stockings played at Lake Front Park, with a 180-foot left-field foul line. He had five homerless seasons.
Anson managed the White Stockings to three straight pennants from 1880 to 1882 and two more flags in 1885 and 1886. An innovator, he encouraged basestealing, devised hit-and-run plays, and was one of the first to rotate pitchers. The first manager to institutionalize preseason training, he laid down strict training rules for his players and sometimes enforced them with his fists. He had an explosive temper and could be a cruel bench jockey and umpire baiter. Many of the greatest stars of the 19th century played for him, but none outshone him.
Anson participated in baseball tours of England in 1874 and of the world in 1888-89. He improved the quality of play in his time and spread the game’s popularity. He raised the caliber of players with his own integrity and principles. Yet, at the same time, he was a bigot who once pulled his team off the field rather than play against a team with a black player. He is often cited as a force in the banning of black players from ML baseball, an unwritten rule that persisted until 1947. That Anson was a racist is beyond question. The extent of his influence in keeping blacks out of the majors in the 19th century is debatable.
Anson became part-owner of the White Stockings in 1888, but he won no more pennants in the 1890s. The team was so linked with his image that when he finally left after the 1897 season, they were known for a while as the “Orphans.” He managed the Giants for 22 games in 1898, then left baseball. When he later had financial problems, the NL attempted to establish a pension for him, but he rejected it. In 1939, he was named to baseball’s Hall of Fame.