Monday, October 5, 2009

Another Anniversary For The Empire Club

To-day is the sixteenth anniversary of the Empire Base Ball Club, and, should the weather be fine, the event will be celebrated by playing a match game, this afternoon, at their park, on Grand avenue. Nine married men will play the same number of single men, and both sides will do their best to win.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 16, 1876

The St. Louis baseball landscape had changed considerably in the sixteen years of the Empires' existence and the day of the old fraternal, social baseball club was fading away but the club continued with its traditions and activities. With the establishment of openly professional baseball clubs competing on a national level, the Empire Club was beginning its slide into irrelevance and eventual extinction.


Richard Hershberger said...

This was the general trend. The Empires actually did pretty well to last this long.

One of my pet theses is that there was a revolution in organized baseball in the 1870s, with the old system and the old clubs being replaced (without exception, if we allow for a few tail-enders through the 1880s) by a new system.

The new organizations were bare teams: nine guys, some small number of backups, and a greater or lesser support organization. This was true from top to bottom: from clubs like the Red Stockings of Boston down to the sandlot. This revolution goes largely unnoticed because it was gradual, with the new organizations retaining vestiges of the old: the most obvious example being that we still talk of baseball "clubs."

How long did the Empires last? By way of comparison, the Knickerbockers lasted to 1882. The record by a long shot, however, goes to the Olympics of Philadelphia. The last trace I find of them is from 1889, giving them a history of some 56 years. The Eckfords and the Excelsiors of Brooklyn lasted into the 20th century, but by abandoning baseball in the 1870s and morphing into purely social clubs.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

As I was typing this post up, I thought about mentioning that the trend was well established, ongoing and not unique to the Empire Club but didn't. St. Louis baseball was, as usual, behind the national trends and the fact that the fraternal, social clubs were still, to some extent, prominent in StL in the mid-1870s speaks to that.

The best evidence suggests that the Empire Club was active through 1877. All references to the club between 1878 and 1883 are in the past tense and there are no records of any games played. There is also no announcement of the club ceasing operations or stating that they were no longer playing baseball. There is also some evidence that the Empires continued to exist as a social club during this period. In 1884, there is a club playing in StL called the Empire Base Ball Club but there is little evidence linking this club to the 1860-1877 Empires.

There seemed to be talk as early as the winter of 1874/1875 about the role of the Empires in StL baseball. With the advent of professional clubs compeating on the national stage, there was talk about the Empires not fielding a club in 1875. However, a market still existed for the amateur clubs in StL, bolstered, on would imagine, by tradition and habit.

Considering that professional, "major league" baseball struggled to establish itself in StL, it's difficult to argue that the existence of the Brown Stockings killed the Empire Club. It seems more plausible that it was the inability to attract the top StL baseball talent that led to the decline and end of the club. In the mid-1870s, the club was still playing the core of the championship clubs of a decade before. They were unable to compete for the services of players like Pud Galvin or Silver Flint, losing them to the bigger professional clubs around the country. The Empire club got old and was uncompetative on and off the field. Their model of operation was no longer successful by the mid to late 1870s. The game had passed them by.

I would think that if there was a revolution in the way clubs were organized in the 1870s, the ability to purchase talent from a nationwide pool played a large part in it. It would work in positive manner for a club like the Brown Stockings who had the vision and resources to bring in players from the East. At the same time this adversely impacted local social clubs like the Empires, whose talent pool was being bought up by the larger clubs.

The only way for the a club like the Empires to compete with this over the long term would have been to become an openly professional club and begin to purchase the best players that they could afford from wherever they could find them. Of course, at that point, they would no longer be a fraternal social club but rather a group of shareholders running a business. The Empires were presented with a choice of either evolving or perishing and they chose the latter.