The National League grew out of the first professional league, the National Association. Depending on which source (or which motive) one chooses to believe, William Hulbert, the owner of the Chicago franchise in the Association, founded the new league because the disorganized, undisciplined NA was a hotbed of rowdyism, drunkenness, and gambling, or because he had just stolen the four best players of the championship Boston club for his own use the following season and wanted to preempt any move to expel him from the NA. What matters is that the league Hulbert founded, whether from high-mindedness or necessity, has lasted to the present day and is largely responsible for baseball’s having retained its integrity and popularity through its early troubled history.
Hulbert did have the diplomacy to make Morgan Bulkeley, the owner of the Hartford team in the Association, the president. The new league consisted of four western teams (Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville) and four eastern teams (Hartford, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia). The inaugural year featured such innovations as a set number of franchises limited to cities big enough to fiscally support a team (populations not less than 75,000), regular schedules arranged in advance (70 games, 10 against each team), teams that actually played all the games on those schedules, and enforceable contracts; the first pennant was won by Hulbert’s Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), who were led by Hulbert’s confidant and co-conspirator Al Spalding, one of the league’s best pitchers (and one of players taken from Boston). The league met over the winter and elected Hulbert president (Bulkeley didn’t come to the meeting). He proceeded to expel the New York Mutuals and the Philadelphia Athletics for not having honored their entire schedules when doing so would have been financially difficult; the NL played with six teams in 1877 (and a 60-game schedule). A gambling scandal involving second-place Louisville, which had looked like a pennant-bound team until it began losing in unlikely ways in the second half of the season, led to the banning for life of four players, showing the new league was serious about its integrity. The most powerful teams were Boston, Providence (which joined in 1877), and Chicago (soon managed by Cap Anson, as Spalding went into the business end of the game and started his famous sporting goods company).
Hulbert continued as a strong president until his death in 1882. The league had remained unprofitable for most of that time, and various austerity measures were adopted by the teams, most notably lower salaries and greater use of the reserve clause (first thought of by Boston owner Arthur Soden in 1879). But the nation experienced an economic boom centered in urban areas, and the effects boosted pro ball’s popularity and profitability, allowing the annual schedule to be lengthened over the course of the century. The advent of a second major league in 1883, the American Association, provided a popular two-league format. Beginning in 1884, that format included loosely-organized postseason series between the two league winners, the precursor of the World Series. The NL and the AA between them crushed the fledgling Union Association, which lasted for just one year, 1884. Following that season, the short reign of A.G. Mills as NL president ended and the strong-willed Nick Young took over through 1902. As business picked up, Chicago remained a league power under Anson, and the New York Giants joined them at the top of the standings.
The NL and the AA continued to work together until the fateful 1890 season, when the Players’ League revolt turned the baseball world upside down. In the 1884 “war” with the UA, relations between the NL and the AA had been strained by such NL actions as persuading the AA to expand to counter the new league (a move which was a financial disaster for the AA) and the purchase of the champion New York Mets of the AA by the NL New York Giants, who annexed much of the Mets’ roster in the following year. But the NL reached new heights of ruthlessness in the Players’ Revolt by persuading the AA’s two best franchises, Brooklyn and Cincinnati, to move to the NL. Of the three leagues operating in 1890, the AA suffered the most, and collapsed after the 1891 season. The NL took in four AA franchises and spent the rest of the century with an unwieldy 12-team format in which most teams spent the majority of the season out of contention and post-season play was meaningless (and unprofitable).
The 1890s were dominated by Boston, led by Frank Selee and starring Hugh Duffy, Billy Hamilton, Jimmy Collins, and Kid Nichols, and the famous Baltimore Orioles, managed by Ned Hanlon and featuring John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Willie Keeler, and Wilbert Robinson. Cleveland often finished a strong second under player-manager Patsy Tebeau, thanks to the strong arm of Cy Young. But the controversial result of the 12-team structure was the concept of syndicatism, used in 1899, wherein two teams could be owned by the same people. In a farcical pennant race, Brooklyn freely plundered sister team Baltimore’s roster and won. A similar move by the St. Louis club, which picked the best players off the Cleveland roster, resulted in only a fifth-place finish, and a disastrous 20-134 last place finish for the hapless Spiders. The NL returned to the eight-team format for the 1900 season, paring down both for maximum profitability and in preparation for another baseball war.
The American League, which was the old Western League with a name change, spent the 1900 season gearing up for battle and declared war in 1901, raiding NL rosters for stars. The AL proved to be a better-organized, better-financed, and more determined foe than previous rivals, and the NL gave up the fight after two seasons. The two leagues began cooperating in 1903 as the NL acquired a new president, Harry Pulliam. The return to a two-league format allowed the resumption of postseason play with the World Series of 1903, and after a one-year hiatus due to McGraw’s continuing feud with AL president Ban Johnson, the Series resumed in 1905 and has continued to the present day.
By this point baseball had come to closely resemble the current-day game. Foul balls were strikes, the pitcher threw overhand from a mound 60′ 6″ away from home plate, gloves were in universal use, and the franchises were all in familiar cities. The situation at the top of the league was also stable, with the Pirates, Giants, and Cubs dominating. Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner led Pittsburgh to consecutive pennants in 1901-03, and slipped in another title in 1909. John McGraw‘s Giants then won in 1904-05 on the strong arm of Christy Mathewson. Frank Chance‘s Cubs, celebrated in “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” then set the major league victory record in 1906, winning 116 games in the first of three straight pennants. They won again in 1910, and then the Giants took over again for three years. The “Miracle Braves” surprised in 1914, the year the Federal League presented a new challenge. The American and National leagues outwaited the upstart, with the help of Judge Landis in the courts. But the subsequent realignment of rosters and salaries evened competition, and from 1914 through 1920 no team repeated. John McGraw had rebuilt the Giants by the beginning of the 1920s (also winning in 1917) and won four straight pennants, 1921-24. The Pirates won in 1925 and 1927, but a new era in team development was previewed by the Cardinals, who won their first pennant in 1926 and upset the Yankees in the World Series. Rather than relying exclusively on trades and purchases to build his team, GM Branch Rickey began putting together the “farm system” as we have come to know it, featuring exclusive working agreements with minor league teams. The concept was resisted at first by some minor league owners and by organized baseball; Commissioner Landis several times released minor league players from their contracts and criticized the new structure as being anti-competitive. But it worked, as the Cardinals became the next NL dynasty, and success as usual brought imitation. But the Cardinals had not only gotten there first, they also carried the concept to its broadest use, with the most far-flung organizational structure in the history of baseball. The Cardinals won additional pennants in 1928, 1930-31, and ’34 and later became known as the “Gas House Gang” for the players’ brash, all-out style of play. Although the stars included such untutored personalities as Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin, they were led by the educated Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash.”
The Cubs, with Gabby Hartnett behind the plate, won in 1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938, while the Giants, now led by Bill Terry and featuring the slugging of Mel Ott and the screwball of Carl Hubbell, won in 1933 and 1936-37. The Reds closed out what many consider the Golden Era of baseball with consecutive flags in 1939-40. However, the AL had dominated the past two decades in the World Series and philosophically by developing the home-run-dominated game that the fans liked best. The NL tried to join in by juicing up the ball to unprecedented levels in 1930, producing a season in which the league average was .303 and Terry led with a .401 average, the last National Leaguer to hit .400. But despite such stars as Rogers Hornsby, Chuck Klein, Mel Ott, and Ernie Lombardi, it was the AL that featured the big boppers who stood out above their peers. But the balance of power would shortly begin a slow but steady shift.
First came World War Two. World War One had led to a shortened season in 1918, but President Roosevelt felt that baseball was good for the nation and the restrictions this time were largely travel-related. However, the rosters were weakened to a much greater extent by the length of United States involvement as players were drafted or volunteered. The years 1941-45 featured increasingly weaker teams, although certainly not at first as Branch Rickey and Larry McPhail worked their respective magic on the laughingstock Dodgers to bring the “Bums” their first pennant since 1920. The 1941 Dodgers were largely McPhail’s creation, but Rickey was responsible for the future success of the franchise. Unlike many owners, he signed players regardless of their draft status (Pee Wee Reese being the best example) and once again built a formidable farm system. By the end of the war the Dodgers were poised on domination. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ system at first ensured them a steadier supply of replacements for lost regulars, as St. Louis won three straight pennants, 1942-44. The Cubs had their last gasp in 1945. The team with the longest record of success in the league would thereafter win nothing but a pair of divisional titles 40 years later.
St. Louis won again in 1946, beating the Dodgers in a three-game playoff, but that year Branch Rickey had taken the most significant step of the century when he signed Negro Leaguer Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers’ minor league Montreal club, opening up a vast new source of talent. NL president Ford Frick, who reigned from 1934 to 1951, was instrumental in quashing player protests against Robinson’s move to the majors in 1947. Robinson immediately led Brooklyn to a pennant. He was soon followed to Ebbets Field by Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and others, and the Dodgers won in 1949, 1952-53, and 1955-56, never finishing lower than third place in the other seasons. Not only the Dodgers, but the NL in general signed black ballplayers more willingly than AL clubs, and although the Yankees continued AL superiority in the World Series, the NL caught up in the All-Star game. The Giants signed Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and became instant winners, beating the Dodgers in the spectacular 1951 playoff. New York won again in 1954 in Mays’s first full season after losing much of 1952-53 in the military.
Former Reds GM Warren Giles became NL president in 1951 and reigned until 1969, overseeing major changes in the league. The Boston Braves became the Milwaukee Braves in 1953, the league’s first franchise shift of the 20th century but hardly the last. New York’s two NL clubs moved to the West Coast after the 1957 season, when Milwaukee won the first of two straight pennants on the strength of Hank Aaron‘s youthful talents. And the Yankees finally lost some World Series, to Brooklyn in 1955 and to Milwaukee in 1957. The Dodgers won in 1959, finally taking a playoff series (from Milwaukee). They signaled another shift, to a more varied offense that relied less on home runs. This change was aided by a move away from the old bandbox ballparks into newer and larger stadiums. Sluggers such as the Dodgers’ Gil Hodges and Duke Snider found that this hastened the ends of their careers, and soon the Dodgers’ stars were pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and speedsters Maury Wills and Willie Davis.
The two leagues expanded to undercut a proposed third circuit, Branch Rickey‘s Continental League. The NL added the New York Mets and the Houston Astros in 1962. The Pirates in 1960 and the Reds in 1961 won one-shot pennants, and then it was back to the Dodgers, Giants, and Cardinals. The Giants beat the Dodgers in a playoff yet again in 1962, but Los Angeles won in 1963 and 1965-66. St. Louis, led by Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, won in 1964 and administered the coup de grace to the Yankee dynasty in the World Series. They put together back-to-back titles in 1967-68, and then came something completely different.
The 1969 expansion, in which the NL and AL both became 12-team leagues, resulted in a new structure in which the leagues were divided into divisions. It prevented the problem of earlier 12-team leagues, where too many teams suffered bad attendance after being eliminated from the pennant race early on. The once-lowly Mets beat the Braves in the first League Championship Series, and the new franchises, the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres, both finished last in the new format. Expansion mirrored the growing popularity of the game.
The 1970s were largely dominated by the Reds and the Dodgers in the Western Division, and by the Pirates and the Phillies in the Eastern Division. The “Big Red Machine” won six division titles, with Los Angeles taking the rest of the Western crowns; Pittsburgh also won six division titles, with Philadelphia winning three and the Mets sneaking in at .509 in 1973, the lowest winning percentage ever for a division winner. The big winners based their strength on imposing offenses. The Reds featured Johnny Bench, George Foster, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose, while Pittsburgh had Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Bill Madlock, and, at the beginning of the decade, Roberto Clemente. The Dodgers and Phillies mixed in pitching, with Philadelphia led by Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton while Los Angeles had Don Sutton, Tommy John, and the longest-lasting infield ever: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey. The Mets got by on pitching, and were eliminated from contention by the 1977 trade of Tom Seaver to the Reds. Free agency in general had less of an influence in the NL, perhaps because the Reds eschewed it.
The NL by this point had settled in as the more traditional of the two leagues, choosing not to adopt the designated hitter rule and not expanding in 1977. However, Astroturf became much more common in the NL, with seven teams installing fake grass (although San Francisco later returned to the real thing). This and more big parks increased the NL’s reputation as the speed league. Manager Whitey Herzog relied on speed to make the Cardinals an oddly-dominant team in 1980s. They won the NL flag in 1982, 1985, and 1987, but finished out of contention (and usually below .500) in all other years except 1981, when they had the best record in the division but did not win either half of the strike-split season. A similar fate befell the Reds that season, their last good effort until four straight second-place finishes, 1985-88, under manager Pete Rose.
No NL team repeated, even as division titlists, in the 1980s. Houston finally won in 1980, beating the Dodgers in a playoff, but lost to the Phillies in the LCS. Philadelphia went on to finally capture its first World Championship that year, and won the pennant in 1983, but have declined ever since. Houston also won a division title in 1986 on the strong right arm of Mike Scott. The Dodgers won division titles in 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1988, winning the pennant and World Championship in 1981 and 1988. They still relied on pitching above all; the new stars were Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser. The hapless Mets were rebuilt completely and established something of a dynasty in the second half of the decade. They were World Champions in 1986, won the East in 1988, and finished second in 1984, 1985, and 1987. But stars such as Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds, and the team in general, were accused of playing below their potential. Dwight Gooden anchored their pitching staff starting in 1984, when he had one of the greatest rookie pitching seasons ever. The 1969 expansion teams finally won, the Expos in 1981 and the Padres in 1984. San Diego upset the Cubs, who won another surprising division title in 1989. And split-finger fastball guru Roger Craig led the Giants to a division titles in 1987 and 1989 despite a perpetually injured pitching staff.
Bart Giamatti became NL president in 1987 and immediately faced controversies ranging from brawls and knockdown pitches to Pete Rose pushing an umpire to redefinitions of the balk and the strike zone. Perhaps the biggest issue arose early in the season, when Dodger GM Al Campanis gave an interview on nationwide TV in which he impugned the qualifications of blacks to manage or otherwise take part in the business end of baseball. When Giamatti moved up to become Commissioner in 1989, he was replaced by Bill White, the first black to hold that high an office and also the first ex-major leaguer to be NL president.