As a retired sportswriter who bleeds baseball Red and could steal second base before I was able to walk to first, I was recently deep into the internet researching the history and origins of the game when I stumbled on a fact that had somehow escaped my attention as a young writer: “The Perfect Season.”
Now, baseball is no stranger to perfection with perfect games, perfect plays, perfect weather and perfect serendipity such as the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 to produce the perfect ending to the 2016 season.
But a “Perfect Season?” I, personally, had never heard of such a thing, other than Don Shula’s 1972 Miami Dolphins, and almost feel embarrassed to admit it. Yet here are the undisputed facts of the matter:
Cincinnati Red Stockings
Year W L T
1867 17 1 0
1868 36 7 0
1869* 65 0 0
1870* 67 6 1
And here are the names of the 10 men who did it, the first professional baseball players in history and the only ones to complete a full season without a loss:
Asa Brainard, Pitcher
Doug Allison, Catcher
Charlie Gould, First Base
Charlie Sweasy, Second Base
Fred Waterman, Third Base
George Wright, Shortstop
Andy Leonard, Left Field
Harry Wright, Centre Field/Manager
Cal McVey, Right Field
Dick Hurley, Substitute
The stars of the team were the Wright brothers – and not Wilbur and Orville. Harry was the manager who also played centre field and his brother, George, was the best hitter and fielder.
Only one player, first baseman Charlie Gould, was actually from Cincinnati. The others were from the east, most from the corridor between Washington, DC and Troy, NY, which was considered the hotbed of baseball in those days. They were enticed to the banks of the distant Ohio River, far across the Allegheny Mountains, by the lure of money and the opportunity to be paid to play the game they all loved and had always played for nothing.
Of course, they were an All-Star team of sorts, playing against amateurs – so if any team was ever going to go undefeated it would be them. But it still sounds unfathomable to me to win 81 games in a row and most of them by lopsided scores. If there had been a World Series in 1869, nobody would have played them.
But reality set in after the 1870 season and the team went broke, folded and broke up. The Wrights and two others, Gould and McVey, went to Boston as pros and started the Boston Red Stockings and the others, Brainard, Allison, Sweasy, Waterman and Leonard to DC and the Washington Olympics for the new all professional league called the National Association.
In 1872, Leonard jumped to Boston to rejoin the Wrights, McVey and Gould for the first of four consecutive NA titles making the Boston Red Stockings the first powerhouse in pro baseball. They won six of seven titles with Harry a non-playing manager in 1877 and 1878, the last two.
The Red Stockings, beginning business with half of the Cincinnati team, followed the winning Wright tradition and spread it to Boston. Eventually the Red Stockings adopted the name Boston Braves. That club is now based in Atlanta and still retains red as one of its uniform colours. The Boston Red Sox, established in 1901, adopted their version of the old nickname in 1908.
Although the Cincinnati Reds website tries to claim the Red Stockings as their own, in fact the heart and soul of that incredible perfect season and 81 game winning streak over two seasons, belonged to Boston and now Atlanta.
On Feb. 2, 1876, the National League was formed in New York City with Cincinnati and the Reds as a charter member. The other cities in the league were Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Hartford, Louisville, New York and Philadelphia.
But it was a brief honeymoon. On Oct. 8, 1880 Cincinnati was expelled from the NL, due in part to its refusal to stop renting out their ballpark on Sundays and to cease selling beer during games. They didn’t rejoin the league again until 1888.
Whether Cincinnati, Boston or Atlanta deserves the credit for baseball’s most unbreakable record including the only perfect season in baseball history, it’s just another stat to think about as we begin another historical season with something that sounded impossible a year ago and for most of the 20th century: “The defending World Series Champions, the beloved Cubbies of Chicago.”