Chances are you've never heard of him; yet the Baseball Hall of Fame is incomplete without his plaque, and the game owes him a profound debt of gratitude. His name is William Ambrose Hulbert. He was the force behind the formation of the National League, the first of the major leagues, 114 years ago. He deserves to be in Cooperstown as much as any baseball executive, not just because he organized the National League but also because he brought stability to that shaky enterprise and helped rid the game of the influences of gambling and booze.
Hulbert should have been selected back in 1937, when many of the pioneers of baseball were chosen. But in a case of mistaken identity, Morgan Bulkeley, the first president of the National League and a figurehead who was installed by Hulbert, was picked. Early next month, the Veterans' Committee, which selects individuals who may have been passed over, will have another opportunity to redress this injustice.
Hulbert was born in 1832, in Burlington Flats, N.Y., a hamlet not far from Cooperstown in Otsego county. When he was two, his family moved to Chicago, where Hulbert grew up. He became a stockbroker and a fan of the new game of baseball. Eventually, he took a position with Chicago's baseball club in the National Association, the White Stockings, and in 1875 he was asked to become its president. Upset by his team's performance that same season, Hulbert recruited Albert G. Spalding, a star pitcher for Boston but a native of Illinois, telling Spalding, "I'd rather be a lamppost in Chicago than a millionaire in any other city."
Anticipating expulsion from the National Association for signing Spalding and three other players already under contract to Boston, and fed up with a league beset by gambling, drinking and loose scheduling, Hulbert decided to form his own league. He and Spalding drew up a constitution that remains in effect to this day. Hulbert brought the National Association owners to a meeting at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City on Feb. 2, 1876, and then locked the door behind them to make sure they would not walk out. He outlined his new league for them, and appeased them by proposing that Bulkeley, owner of the Hartford franchise, be made the president.
February 26, 1990
Bulkeley lasted only 10 months in the job, and later served in the U.S. Senate. Hulbert, who retained ownership of the White Stockings, then took over as league president, and in one of his first official acts he kicked the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics out of the league for failing to complete their 1876 schedules. Hulbert was a man of conviction—he later threw the Cincinnati Red Stockings out of the league because of their refusal to ban the sale of beer on Sundays in their park. Hulbert's greatest crisis came in 1877, when four members of the Louisville club—Jim Devlin, Bill Craver, George Hall and Al Nichols—were accused of throwing games. Hulbert banned them from baseball for life. Spalding, in his 1911 book, America's National Game, described a scene in Hulbert's office on a day several years after the scandal. Devlin, a once handsome figure, appeared in the office, disheveled and threadbare. He walked up to Hulbert's desk, dropped to his knees and pleaded, "Please, Mr. Hulbert, have mercy on me, and let me play again. Do it not for me—I am not worthy of your consideration—but do it for my wife and child."
Spalding wrote that Hulbert shook with emotion and that tears welled up in his eyes. He pulled a $50 bill from his pocket and thrust it at Devlin, saying, "That's what I think of you personally, Devlin. But damn you, you are dishonest and you sold out a game. I can't trust you. Now go on your way, and never let me see your face again, for your act against the integrity of baseball never will be condoned as long as I live."
Hulbert did not live much longer. At the age of 49, he died of heart failure just before the start of the 1882 season, the National League's seventh. He had seen his league born, survive and prosper. He left another legacy as well. He organized the first umpiring staff, hiring 20 impartial men; before that, home captains had selected the umpires.
In his book The Baseball Story, the respected baseball writer Fred Lieb wrote, "It always has been the contention of the author that the role of this strong man of the Middle West in baseball has been grossly underplayed. No one in authority even has had the perspicacity to give him a plaque in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame."
That was written 40 years ago. It's time for William Ambrose Hulbert to return to Otsego County.