The Complicated Legacy of Cap Anson: Baseball Pioneer and Racist

Helmar baseball card featuring Adrian “Cap” Anson

How old is baseball? Well, the most prominent figure in the sport in the 19th century was born in a log cabin on the prairie.

Adrian Constantine Anson’s birth in 1852 was a big deal, not because he was royalty, but because he was the first infant to survive birth in a ragged little outpost in Iowa called Marshall (later to be renamed Marshalltown). He came into the world eight years before the U.S. Civil War, and soon competed with two younger brothers for food at the dinner table.

Anson grew into a tall, broad-shouldered redhead with long arms. He must have looked like an odd duck: he was nearly a foot taller than his father and expanded to more than 220 pounds. Along with brothers Henry and Sturgis, Adrian played ball for a local team sponsored by the local newspaper. In 1870, the little Iowa town was buzzing with excitement when the Rockford Forest City team arrived to play two exhibition games against the local nine. The Anson boys did something to impress the visitors, because Rockford’s management offered all three of the brothers a contract to play professional ball. Only Adrian took the offer, and he embarked on an odyssey that would lead him around the world as a baseball icon.

The dominant league in the 1870s was called the National Association, which was little more than a loose affiliation of teams that agreed to play a short season. Anson was only 19 years old but larger and stronger than most men in the league. As a rookie in 1871, he led the Association in doubles, and his strong throwing arm earned him a spot as a third baseman. When Rockford disbanded at the conclusion of the schedule, Anson was gobbled up by the Philadelphia Athletics. He was one of three batters to hit over .400 in 1872, and he finished second in the batting race in 1873 when he batted .398, mostly as a singles hitter at the time.

Anson was large: if you read any contemporary account of him in the 19th century, it will include mention of his broad frame and tree-trunk like legs. He was not fast at all, he was more like a lumbering giant, but he could hit a baseball, and he was moved across the diamond to first base when he was still a young man. Mostly due to his size, but also on account of his confident personality, Anson became a team leader even when he was still junior in years to his teammates.

Baseball was sort of like an extreme sport in the 1870s, still a novelty to many people around the country and definitely a new spectacle for others in the world. Anson sailed to England in 1874 as part of a contingency that demonstrated baseball to folks over there. He ended up leading all players in batting during the tour, and also took his turns on a cricket field, showing off his strong swing.

The Cap and Spalding

One of the most important friendships in baseball history was the one forged between Anson and Albert Goodwill Spalding, who was three years older than Adrian, but served as a father figure during their partnership that eventually stretched across three decades. Spalding convinced Anson to come with him to a team he created in a new circuit called the National League, a move that legitimized the enterprise. Anson served as player-manager of Spalding’s team for almost two decades.

The first powerhouse of the National League were the Chicago nine operated by Spalding, who won 52 of their 66 games in 1876. Spalding was fastidious, he didn’t miss a detail, outfitting his team in spiffy uniforms with fabulous socks. They were dubbed the White Stockings, and Anson at 24, was the best player on the club. 

How important were Spalding and Anson to the growth of baseball? The former was the first to write down the rules of the game and actively disseminate them, and the latter developed the strategic methods for playing infield defense. Anson urged Spalding to finance the Chicago team to train in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1886, and after the club proceeded to win the pennant, the tradition of “spring training” was in place. The first “Spalding Guide,” which Spalding pioneered as the game’s first popular annual, included diagrams that Anson devised to illustrate defensive schemes. Meanwhile, Anson (who was now known as “Cap” because of his status as leader of the club), matured into a power hitter and won four batting titles.

Racism in 19th Century Professional Baseball

We have to talk about racism when we have Anson and Spalding on our tongues. I suspect it doesn’t come as a surprise to you, dear reader, that the attitudes toward race in the 19th century were quite narrow. Anson was a bigot, and Spalding used his stature as the most powerful owner in the National League to keep black players off the field. Author David Fleitz wrote in his biography of Anson:

An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.

Author David Fleitz

It has become popular to blame Anson for the color barrier that held in place until the mid-20th century. It’s been said that through the force of his personality and sway in the National League, Anson single-handedly kept black and dark-skinned Latin players from entering the league.

Well, it’s not that simple. There were seven other teams in the NL with seven owners and seven managers. By 1900, the Western League (later to be rebranded the American League) was in direct competition, and it seems to me that one of the best ways the renegade league could have carved away at the old guard would have been to sign black players. But they didn’t. No one ever discussed the idea, as far as I can tell. The American League, and every “minor” league in the country refused to sign black players for decades, when Anson was still in the game, and long after he was placed in the ground in Illinois. Black players had their own leagues, just like they had their own hotels, their own schools, and their own neighborhoods. Baseball embraced “separate but equal” just as America did. They would have done the same whether Adrian “Cap” Anson ever existed or not. That’s not to alibi for Anson, I don’t mean to do that, but I think his influence on the levers of power in major league baseball has been overstated.

Saving the National League and Retirement

Anson’s role in saving the National League is often overlooked. In 1890 a group of disgruntled players formed the “Brotherhood of Professional Ball Players” and created their own league, violating their contracts with NL teams. The “Players League” was a genuine threat to National League dominance, and many of the game’s biggest stars went to play in the circuit. Anson stood firm and used his influence with local officials in key cities, as well as the media, to undermine the Brotherhood. He restocked his Chicago team with young players, who soon became known as “Andon’s Colts,” and after one difficult season, the Players League collapsed. Anson emerged as the most revered figure in the game by the forces that wanted the game to adhere to tradition.

Anson aged slowly, he was one of those guys who was still the strongest and most fearsome athlete on his team into his late 30s and early 40s. He was famous for taking care of his body, never touching alcohol or tobacco, and usually tucking himself into bed early. He had more than 800 hits after the age of 40, and he still batted .317 as the players got younger and the pitchers threw harder. He was an athletic freak. He played his final game in 1897 and most of his teammates had been born after Cap had played his first professional game.

Ironically, Anson’s end as a player also served as the death knell of his friendship with Spalding, who by the dawn of the 20th century was a rich man thanks to his burgeoning sporting goods company and interests in the National League.

Anson tried to buy his way into the Western League before it became the American League, but Spalding blocked his attempts to place a rival team in Chicago. The friendship was over, and Anson was finished with the National League. He never again worked in baseball and even refused invitations to attend old timers games in Chicago, even though he held a 13 percent share in the Cubs (as they soon became known).

Anson opened a pool hall, dabbled in professional bowling, and successfully ran for city council in Chicago. Later, his businesses a failure, Anson returned to organized baseball, playing for a semi-pro team at the age of 56. By that time he was known as “Old Man” Anson, and he lasted just a few seasons before turning to vaudeville, where he wrote and starred in a one-man show that highlighted his playing accomplishments.

He later became destitute and stubbornly refused assistance from the National League. Anson died at the age of 69 in 1922, and the National League, which he had been so instrumental in growing and keeping alive, paid for his funeral and burial. In 1939, Anson was elected to the new Baseball Hall of Fame by a committee that also elected Spalding.

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