Saturday, March 22, 2008

Greener Pastures: Joe Blong And The Collapse Of The 1875 St. Louis Red Stockings

On June 14, 1875, the Red Stockings of St. Louis were in Covington, Kentucky to play the Stars. In the inaugural game at the new Stars Ground, a large crowd was on hand and witnessed the Reds score seven runs in the first inning and defeat the Stars by a score of 17-0. The Reds visit to Covington set into motion a series of events that would have a dramatic impact on the history of baseball in St. Louis.

By the middle of June, 1875, the Reds' on the field fortune had sunk low and it was apparent that the club was unable to compete with the best teams in the National Association. The only NA team that the Reds had been able to beat was the Westerns of Keokuk, a team whose lone NA victory came at the expense of the Reds on May 6th. The team had lost nine of eleven championship contests and would not win another NA game until June 27th. To add insult to injury, on May 30th in a game against the Empire Club of St. Louis, the Reds gave up ten runs in the bottom of the seventh and lost 15-12 to their old rivals.

The "ambitious young professionals," as E. H. Tobias described the Reds, "were passing through one of those streaks of bad luck..." The team was not only struggling on the field but were also having problems drawing a crowd. The weather in St. Louis during April and May had been poor, with a series of storms passing through the area. The Reds were unfortunate to have a number of their games rained out or played in conditions that suppressed the expected crowd. Their game against the White Stockings of Chicago on May 11th, for example, was played in a severe windstorm and only three hundred people showed up to witness a game which under normal circumstances would have drawn one of the biggest crowds of the season. On the season as a whole, the Reds only drew an average of 465 fans per game to their championship matches. While there is evidence that suggests that the team drew better crowds to games against local clubs such as the Brown Stockings, the Empires, and the Stocks, the combination of poor weather and an uncompetitive team combined to kill the Reds' box office. By way of comparison, the Brown Stockings, with a more competitive team, was able to draw over 2300 people per game.

It's generally accepted that the Reds were a co-operative team, meaning that their players were paid a percentage of the gate receipts rather than a straight salary. A poor showing at the gate meant less money in the pockets of the players. This, of course, was one of the major problems with the co-op plan and, when it happened, tended to breed dissatisfaction among the players who were not receiving what they believed to be a fair wage for their labor and instability in the club which did not usually have the capital to survive the lean times. As Richard Hershberger wrote in The Borderlands Of Professionalism, "Since a player's pay was directly tied to attendance, players were tempted to switch to clubs drawing larger gates and to skip scheduled games not likely to be lucrative. An extended dry period could lead to the entire collapse of the club, as the players drifted off to other pursuits."

With the club floundering on the field and financially, there were several avenues open to the Reds that could have salvaged their NA season. An extended road trip to the baseball hotbeds of the East would have been a lucrative enterprise for the club. While it's often been stated that the Reds had no intention of ever making an Eastern trip or did not have the money to make such a trip, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote in late 1875 that the reason the club never traveled East was because they were unable to reach an agreement with the Eastern clubs as to how the gate receipts would be divided. Certainly one can not blame the stronger and more established Eastern clubs for taking a hard line in negotiations with the upstart Reds but the loss of a potentially lucrative road trip had to have been a blow to the struggling club and their players.

At the same time, the Reds were unable to schedule more games with the two Western powers, the Brown Stockings and White Stockings. The Globe-Democrat had rather harsh words for the Brown Stockings, who they claimed simply refused to play their city rival after two initial games. Obviously, a Reds/Brown Stockings series would have drawn well in St. Louis but there was no incentive for the Brown Stockings to schedule the series. They were doing just fine, on the field and financially, and saw no need to extend a helping hand to a financial competitor. The White Stockings, on the other hand, appeared to have been open to more games against the Reds and the possibility exists that the two teams were going to met in the first week of July when the White Stockings visited St. Louis at the beginning of a month long road trip. Of course by that time it was too late for any help as Reds management had already made the decision to end their pursuit of the whip pennant.

So with the team playing poorly, struggling to draw crowds, and unable to schedule more lucrative games against the best clubs in the National Association, the Reds made a trip to Covington, Kentucky to take on the Stars. Financially, the trip was probably successful with a large crowd opening the new grounds. But the consequences of the trip would bring about the end of the Red Stockings as an entity in the NA.

The Reds of St. Louis were alive only in that they had not officially disbanded...By seasons end the team's top players had deserted for greener pastures and the Red Stockings were reduced to challenging semipro competition.
-William Ryczek

Ryczek's quote from Blackguards And Red Stockings is interesting and truthful but fails to accurately convey the entirety of the Reds' situation in 1875. Like most baseball historians, Ryczek is rather dismissive of the Reds, going so far as to call them "a blasphemous incarnation" of the hollowed Red Stocking name. Of course there was nothing blasphemous about the Reds, whose history, according to Al Spink, dated back to the early 1860's. In the first half of the 1870's, the Reds were consistently one of the best teams in St. Louis and annually challenged for the championship of Missouri. The success of the Reds in 1874, when they won the championship against competition from the Empires, the Unions, the Elephants, and the Stocks, and the success of the season in general "created so much enthusiasm that in the fall of 1874 steps were taken to put a professional team in the field..." The Reds were not some fly by night operation created to milk other NA teams but a team with a rich past and a history that would continue into the 1880's.

However, by the middle of June in 1875, the Reds were experiencing difficult times. Certainly, from a pure baseball standpoint, they were in over their heads. While an outstanding amateur club, they simply were unable to compete with the professional baseball powers on a national level. They were not winning, they were not drawing well and their players were not making any money. It was under these circumstances that Joe Blong bolted the club.

In the aftermath of the Reds' trip to Covington, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported the following on June 16, 1875: "One of the Directors of the Stars says that Blong, the vigorous pitcher of the St. Louis Reds, wants to come to Cincinnati to live, and proposes to cast his base ball fortunes with the Stars." On June 19th, the other shoe dropped: "The Star Base Ball Club have secured the services of Blong, the pitcher of the St. Louis Red Stockings. He is the man that pitched those crazy balls that our boys could not bat."

One of the more interesting players in the history of 19th century St. Louis baseball, Joseph Myles Blong, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in St. Louis on September 17, 1853. He and his brother Andrew attended the University of Notre Dame in the late 1860’s, where they were members of the baseball team. Blong was married to a woman named Mary in 1880 with whom he had four children (Joseph, Mae, John, and James). In the 1880 census, Blong listed his occupation as painter. He died in 1892 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

While details about his personal life are rare, much more is known about Blong’s baseball career. After leaving Notre Dame, Blong returned to St. Louis where he played on amateur teams, joining the Reds in 1874. In the spring of 1875, as the Reds got ready for their NA season by playing various amateur teams and picked nines, Blong played first base, second base, the outfield, and pitched for the team. By the time the NA season began in May, Blong was selected as the Reds' main pitcher.

The 1875 season was an eventful one for Blong. He certainly had a disappointing record on the mound, officially going 3-12 for the Reds with a 3.35 ERA and an ERA+ of 72. While his performance was certainly not what the Reds had been hoping for, Blong did throw a few gems that showed the potential he had as a pitcher. On May 11th, he held the Chicago White Stockings to six hits and one run in a 1-0 Reds loss. That game, according to Baseball, was the lowest scoring game in baseball history at the time. Also, on May 23rd, Blong threw a two hitter against the Keokuk Westerns. The Reds won 7-1 although the game, because it was played on a Sunday, did not count in the official standings.

Blong's departure from the Reds was always somewhat of a mystery. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle both suggested that Blong had been expelled from the Reds for selling games. Daniel Ginsburg, in The Fix Is In, also states that Blong was expelled from the Reds for "hippodroming." However, based on available evidence, it does not appear that Blong was involved in the selling of games while with the Reds. There are certainly no specific accusations against Blong while he was with the Reds. All the allegations against Blong in 1875 are the result of events during an exhibition game he played with the Stars on September 18, 1875. These allegations, which also are questionable, led to Blong's expulsion from the Stars on September 20th.

Based on reporting in the Globe, it does appear though that Blong was officially expelled from the Reds for breaking faith with the club, either as a result of refusing to play without getting paid or for having jumped to the Stars. Blong himself stated to The Ticket, a northern Kentucky newspaper, on June 26, 1875 that "his salary was not paid and that the St. Louis Reds have no right to complain." Blong's retroactive expulsion from the Reds and his expulsion from the Stars resulted in the negative press that he received in both the Globe and the Eagle. When combined with accusations of game selling made against him in 1877, Joe Blong's historical reputation as a blackguard was made.

Blong's departure from the Reds was a serious blow for a team that was already struggling. Unable to compete in the NA with their best team on the field, the Reds now faced the prospect of playing without their top pitcher. Also, with Blong as an example, other players began to defect. On July 23, the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote "We are a little late in announcing the engagement of Dillon, a famous St. Louis player, with the Star Club of Covington. Mr. Dillon has arrived, and is being assigned to the positions of first baseman and change catcher." Dillon was, of course, Packy Dillon, the Reds catcher who had been injured for most of the 1875 season and had lost his starting job to Silver Flint. Trick McSorley, the Reds' starting third baseman, also bolted for the Stars.

Interestingly, the departure of Dillon and McSorley for the Stars happened after the Reds made a return trip to Covington in July. W. A. Kelsoe, while writing about a game that took place in St. Louis on July 14th, noted that "The St. Louis Reds...were in Cincinnati for two games, one being with the Covington Stars across the river, which they won, losing the other." It seems that Dillon and McSorley took the opportunity, while in Covington and most likely under the influence of their old friend Joe Blong, to jump the Reds' sinking ship.

The relationship between Blong, Dillon, and McSorley is a fascinating one. They were all about the same age, all grew up in the same St. Louis neighborhood, all went to Notre Dame at the same time, all played for the same amateur teams in St. Louis, all played for the Reds, all jumped to Covington in the summer of 1875, and all would later play with W.B. Pettit’s Indianapolis club. The loss of the three friends in late June/early July 1875, along with the departure of captain Charlie Sweasy, signaled the end of the Reds NA incarnation, whose last championship match was a 12-5 loss to the Nationals of Washington on July 4th.

At this point the Reds enter a historical black hole. If any history even takes notice of the Reds, it usually states that the team disbands in July of 1875. This is, of course, far from the truth. The "loyal Reds," as the Globe described them, soldiered on for the rest of the season. They picked up new players from some of the amateur teams in St. Louis to fill out their ranks and continued to play baseball into October. Their season ending series against the Stocks was the talk of the city and drew large crowds for all four games.

The Globe, in a post-season wrap up, noted that the Reds were re-organizing and looking forward to competing for the national championship in 1876. However, subsequent events would ensure that a team like the Red Stocking Base Ball Club of St. Louis, for better or worse, would never again take a place on the national baseball stage.

Note: I want to take this opportunity to thank David Ball, who was kind enough to share his research on Blong and the Stars of Covington. This piece wouldn't have been possible without his work and generosity. Also, the picture at the top of the post is of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge that spans the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati.


richard hershberger said...

Very interesting post. We tend to know much more about club origins and about their good times than we do about their collapses. Part of the collapse was the loss of interest by newspapers. So it is good to see the story of the Reds of 1875.

As for Ryczek's analysis, he suffers from the usual lapse of baseball histories of conflating "baseball" with "major league baseball". It is as if all but a handful of clubs simply disappeared. I have been pounding the drum for some time now that if we want to really understand the business of baseball in the 1870s we have to include nominally amateur clubs in the discussion. Your point about the Reds honorable history is very much on point.

Jeff Kittel said...

The question of what happened to the Reds in July 1875, when they're "disappeared" from the histories, is what really started me doing all of this. Just a nominal bit of research showed that the club didn't break up or cease to be. Other than the loss of a few players, the press at the time didn't take note of anything monumental happening to the club. It's only in retrospect, when looking at the history of Major League Baseball, that these events take on any importance.

As far as Ryczek goes, I love that quote of his about the Reds. It's a nice turn of phrase and it amuses me to no end. In general, though, while I respect the man and the work that he's done, I find him to be rather unreadable. I can't really put my finger on it (and it may just be a matter of taste) but if I'm having difficulty falling asleep all I have to do is pick up Blackguards or Johnny and I'm out like a light. It's a shame because I really want to like those books.

Richard Hershberger said...

Ryczek deserves credit for writing about a period that had been neglected, but the overly narrow focus on the "major" clubs means his books don't age well. And yes, the writing style is not the most gripping.