It’s time to go way back, back, back to the very first decade of recorded baseball statistics: 1871-1880. The United States was still only beginning to heal from the Civil War. Nearly all of the people watching the games would have remembered when Lincoln was president. Nobody sitting in the bleachers of a Boston Red Stockings game would have seen a car, radio or movie. Billy the Kid was a teenager, doing whatever it as that Billy the Kid liked to do. Wyatt Earp’s famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral hadn’t happened yet. It was a long time ago.
Baseball had been around informally since before the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the 1870’s that consistent, reliable records were kept of professional games. As I said in the Introduction, the game was very, very different. Rules about strikes and balls, walks and home runs, scoring and base running were considerably different. Depending on the ballpark, the pitching mound might have been as close as 40 feet away from home plate, though more often cannot, pitchers were only allowed to throw sidearm (not overhand). There were almost no rules for player safety, and you’d just as soon see drinking and cheating as good sportsmanship on the field.
Still, the name of the game was to hit the ball, run around the bases and score, and then to stop the other team from doing the same. It was baseball.
Looking at stats alone, it is clear who the best hitter of the 1870’s was. Ross Barnes, second baseman for the Boston Red Stockings (and then the Chicago White Stockings), dominated all of the major hitting categories.
We don’t have records of any player tallying more than 3000 PA during that decade. Seasons were generally only 50 or 60 games long, and it’s more than likely that many games went unrecorded. So while Barnes only has 2195 PA for the decade, that still puts him 17th of all players.
Based on what we do have, this is how things break down for Barnes from 1871-1880:
|Stolen Bases||73 (1st)|
Even if we were to doubt some of the accuracy or completeness of these numbers, Barnes ranks so high in everything that he was surely one of the best hitters in the game at the time.
Barnes’ career was notable for a couple of other reasons as well. He was a master of what was called the “fair-foul bunt”, a technique that involved bunting a ball with a spin that made it curl dramatically into foul territory after first landing fair. He was one of the primary reasons for the rule that insisted a fair ball must remain fair until it leaves the infield.
Unfortunately, like so many other players from the early days, illness shortened Barnes’ career. In the late 1870’s he came down with a debilitating fever that recurred regularly, eventually forcing him to miss the entire 1878 season and ending his career by age 31.
But while Barnes was at his peak, he and his teams dominated the world of baseball.
BLUE = LEAD LEAGUE
In 1872, Barnes’ Red Stockings finished 1st (of 11 teams) in the National Association, with a brilliant 39-8 record. Again in 1873, the Boston team was best at 43-16, and in 1874 they were 52-18, finishing 1st once more. The 1875 Boston team was perhaps the most dominant in the history of the sport. With 5 players in the top 8 in OPS, the Red Stockings finished with an astonishing 71-8 record, winning the league by 15 games over the second place Philadelphia Athletics.
In 1876, the National League was formed, which included many of the teams from the National Association. Barnes and several teammates took this opportunity to make more money by switching over to the Chicago White Stockings team, and the results speak for themselves: Chicago finished first (52-14) while Boston fell to 4th place.
It is a bit surprising that Barnes isn’t in the Hall of Fame. His peak wasn’t very long, but it came at a pivotal moment in the history of the sport. Though the seasons were short, few players have dominated a span of years quite like Barnes did.