Tuesday, November 22, 2011


In The Background of Professional Baseball in St. Louis, published in the Missouri Historical Society Bulletin of October 1850, Anthony Lampe makes a significant claim.  He writes that "The year 1868 held promise of being a great season.  Certain important changes had taken place since 1867.  The Union Ball Players now had no occupation other than playing baseball, though they were still not referred to as professionals."  While Lampe does not cite his source for this claim, it most likely came from the Missouri Republican, whose contemporary accounts of St. Louis baseball activity in the 1860s represent his primary source for the article.

I've claimed for sometime that St. Louis baseball players were being payed by the late 1860s.  This stands in contrast to most descriptions of the St. Louis pioneer era, which described the city as a bastion of pure amateurism.  My claim was, up to this point, entirely based on circumstantial evidence with little contemporary source material to support it.

The most important fact that led me to conclude that St. Louis players were being paid in the late 1860s was the establishment of the Union Grounds, the first enclosed ballpark in St. Louis and the first to which admission was charged.  Lampe dates this to the beginning of 1868 while Edmund Tobias, writing in 1895, stated that the new ballpark opened in May of 1867.  Regardless of whether it opened in 1867 or 1868, the fact that the Union Club was charging for admission to their games is sufficient evidence to support the idea that they were paying their players.  The general thinking among 19th century baseball historians is that enclosed ballparks and admission charges were an indication that players were being paid.  Where you find enclosed ballparks and admission charges, you find payers being paid.

There is other evidence that supports the idea that players in St. Louis were getting paid in the late 1860s.  The relationship between the Empire Club and the St. Louis Fire Department implies that Empire Club players were being compensated for their play with jobs.  Some of the player movement in the late 1860s, specifically Tom Oran's movement from the Unions to the Empires and, later, to the Red Stockings, is very suspicious and can be explained if one assumes monetary enticement.  There were also some hints in the national sporting press that implied that the top St. Louis clubs were paying their players.  Add all of this to the fact that the top clubs were charging money to see their teams play and a picture emerges of a culture of paying players that fits with what was happening nationally.

While the weight of evidence supports the idea that pioneer players in St. Louis were being paid, one must point out that when you see claims of St. Louis amateurism during this era, the word "amateur" does not mean what it means today.  Today, an amateur club is one that does not pay their players.  During the pioneer era, however, it implies that the club was not competing for the national baseball championship.  A club that did not pay their players but competed for the national championship was a "professional" club while a club that paid their players but did not compete for the national championship was an "amateur" club.  In that sense, St. Louis baseball clubs were all amateur clubs until 1875, when the Brown Stockings and Red Stockings joined the NA.

Over time this distinction was lost and, I believe, that has confused the issue when it comes to what was happening in St. Louis as far as player compensation is concerned.  The idea that St. Louis clubs were not compensating their players may have arisen from the fact that they were described as amateurs because the clubs were not competing nationally.  Modern historians may have picked up on the word "amateur" and given it a meaning that it did not originally have.  Complicating the issue is the fact that Tobias and Al Spink also made claims that the players were not being compensated prior to 1875.

Regardless of the work of Tobias, Spink and modern historians like William Ryczek and Jon David Cash, the weight of the evidence supports the idea that St. Louis baseball players were being paid by 1867 or 1868.  Lampe, who should be considered a significant figure among baseball historians of the 20th century, believed that to be true and, while he doesn't present the evidence for his assertion, it's significant that he ties baseball professionalism in St. Louis to the opening of the Union Grounds.  It's entirely possible that I find this significant because it appears that Lampe supports my thinking but it can't be denied that he is the first source that I've discovered that explicitly stated that St. Louis players were being paid during the pioneer era.

In the end, we don't need Lampe to establish the idea that the pioneer players in St. Louis were being paid.  I believe that the weight of the evidence, while circumstantial, is strong enough to support this on its own.  But Lampe is a very creditable historian and his piece in the October 1850 Bulletin is a significant, if largely forgotten, historical work.  I'd like to run down his sources and find that contemporary source that led him to make his claim but I don't believe it's absolutely necessary.  Lampe's claim can be added to the rest of the evidence and only strengthens the idea that St. Louis baseball players were being paid in the late 1860s.

Note:  I've doing a bit of research on Lampe and I've discovered that he was an expert on the 19th century St. Louis Fire Department, dating back to the antebellum era.  I've pointed out that there was a relationship between the Empire Club and the StLFD that implies that the players were being compensated and, given Lampe's interest in both St. Louis pioneer-era baseball and the 19th century StLFD, I find it hard to believe that he wasn't aware of this connection.  To me, this lends a great deal of credence to Lampe's claim.  I have a feeling that the man saw the same evidence that I saw and came to the same conclusion.    


Cliff Blau said...

Perhaps census records or city directories would confirm that base ball was their profession?

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I've taken a look at both the census records and some city directories and haven't seen any evidence that supports the idea of professionalism in StL in the 1860s. By the 1880 census, you see lots of guys listing their occupation as baseball player (or some variation thereof) but you don't see that in the 1870 census, as far as StL is concerned.

I really don't have any doubt that these guys were getting paid to play by the late 1860s but there just isn't any kind of smoking gun reference that I can point to. There's a lot of evidence that points in that direction but nothing conclusive.