The sporting reporter of the Chicago Tribune though extremely zealous in the cause, has found it rather a difficult task to demonstrate the superiority of the Consolidated Chicago-Boston nine over the St. Louis Brown Stockings. One fact is conspicuous by its absence in that gentleman's summing up of the season's play. It is this: When the League Managers met before the season opened the question of the championship was thoroughly discussed. Mr. Hurlbut [sic], of Chicago, did all in his power to have the title awarded to the club which should win the greatest number of series from the various organization during the season. Though aided in this endeavor by Harry Wright, it was not deemed advisable to change the rules in relation to the championship. Had Mr. Hurlbut [sic] succeeded in carrying through his pet scheme, the St. Louis Browns would today be hailed as champions of the United States. The club has a magnificent record for the season which is virtually at an end. They have played 64 League games in all, winning 45 and losing 19. They tallied 388 runs to their opponents' 223, or an average of 6.4 to 3.31, the last being the smallest average of runs ever made against a club in a season. The Browns have won a series of games from every other club contesting for the championship, a feat accomplished only once before-namely, by the Bostons in 1875. The St. Louis men retired their opponents without allowing them a single tally seventeen times during the season, a feat unparalleled in base ball annals. They "whitewashed" the Hartfords in three consecutive contests, something never dreamed of or heard of in the history of the game. It might be remarked here that these three games were the only ones in which Hartford was calcimined during this year. The St. Louis Club was "Chicagoed" only twice, a less number of times than any other League organization-once by Hartford in a six inning game, interrupted by rain, and again by Louisville...Taking the fact into consideration that the St. Louis Brown Stockings have won a majority of their games with every club in the arena, including the Chicagos, whom they also defeated in four out of five exhibition games, they are virtually champions by their play, although not so in name, owing to the foolish rules governing the title. This will be conceded by all fair-minded lovers of the game...
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, October 18, 1876
Putting aside the argument that the Brown Stockings were "virtually champions" and would have been actual champions if the rules had been different, this article, if the facts are correct, spells out a fine argument for regarding the 1876 Brown Stockings as a historically great baseball club.
-They had "the smallest average of runs ever made against a club in a season." I'm not sure if that's true and I don't feel like fact checking it but if it is accurate then it's a significant feather in their cap.
-They won every series against their League opponents, "a feat accomplished only once before..." Certainly other clubs during the pioneer era won all the series that they played during the season and the Globe may only be talking about the NA/NL era. It would be interesting to know how many other clubs accomplished this in the history of the League. Regardless, I think this is a significant accomplishment.
-Seventeen shutouts. Well, it's actually sixteen plus the forfeit on August 21 but who's counting. Also, they held their opponents to one run six times. So in 24 games, the Brown Stockings gave up one run or less. It should probably go without saying but the sixteen shutouts established a League record.
-The Brown Stockings were shutout only once in a game that went the full nine innings.
What the Globe doesn't talk about in this article is the hitting record of the Brown Stockings. The club scored 6.0 runs a game in a league that averaged 5.9 runs a game. They were basically a league average hitting club. Their 6 runs a game pale in comparison to Chicago's 9.5 runs a game. With Chicago giving up only 3.9 runs a game, there is no argument to be made, under any circumstances, that St. Louis was a better club than the Chicagos. If the 1876 National League decided their championship like modern college football and the champion was decided by a vote, I think Chicago would win handily but the Brown Stockings would finish second with a first place vote or two.
I know that there has been a lot of talk in certain circles about the quality of the play in the League in 1876 and whether or not it should really be considered a major league (whatever "major league" actually means) but I think that's ridiculous. The 1876 Chicagos and Brown Stockings were both great baseball clubs and were loaded with talent. The Hartfords were every bit as good. Boston and Louisville were both decent clubs. So you had an eight team league with five good teams, three weak sisters and the biggest stars in the game. The only league quality issue that I think is legitimate is the one that takes into account the evolutionary improvements in game play over time.
Taking all of this into account, I would argue that the 1876 Brown Stockings were an outstanding baseball club and a historically great defensive club.