Spalding, Albert Goodwill ("A. G.")

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SPALDING, Albert Goodwill ("A. G.")

(b. 2 September 1850 in Byron, Illinois; d. 9 September 1915 in Point Loma, California), baseball player, promoter, and sporting goods executive who helped professionalize sports in the United States.

The son of James Lawrence Spalding and Harriet Irene Goodwill Wright Spalding, Spalding grew up in prosperity in a small village ninety miles west of Chicago. His sister was born in 1854, and his brother and future business partner James Walter in 1856. Spalding's mother brought an inheritance from a previous marriage, and his father farmed and managed rental property. When Spalding's father died in 1858, Spalding was sent to live with an aunt in Rockford, Illinois, where he attended public schools and eventually Rockford Commercial College. In Rockford, Spalding began watching local boys play baseball at the town commons. After catching a fly ball hit beyond center field during one game, Spalding threw the ball back to the participants with authority. His arm strength impressed the players, and they invited him to join their games.

Spalding's family joined him in Rockford in 1863, and city businessmen formed a new baseball club, the Forest Citys, in 1865. Spalding was recruited to pitch, and he led the club to a victory in 1867 over the Washington Nationals, considered one of the best teams in the country. Although rules during this era forbade salaries, teams often paid players "under the table" or provided additional employment. Urban boosters and businessmen were beginning to realize how effectively traveling baseball teams promoted individual cities, and Spalding received a position as a clerk in Rockford while playing for the Forest Citys.

Shortly after his successful pitching helped defeat the Nationals, Spalding received competitive offers to play elsewhere. He elected to work in a wholesale grocery store and pitch for the Chicago Excelsiors in 1867. After financial disaster overtook this firm and other job prospects were poor, Spalding returned to Rockford and acted as a bookkeeper while again pitching for the Forest Citys. By 1870 Spalding was called "Big Al," in reference to his six-foot, one-inch, and 170-pound frame, and in 1871 he joined Harry Wright's newly created professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBP). Spalding served as captain and pitcher for Wright's Boston Red Stockings, who won four NAPBP championships from 1872 to 1875. He compiled 207 wins during this period to become baseball's first 200-game winner. On 18 November 1875 Spalding married Sarah Josephine Keith; they had one son.

Spalding returned to Chicago in 1876 when local businessman and team president William Hulbert recruited him to pitch for and manage the Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs). Spalding used his influence and fame in the Midwest to assist Hulbert in promoting the excitement of professional baseball. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (eventually the National League) was established in 1876. Spalding acted as secretary and team manager of the Chicago club while working with Hulbert to draft a constitution for the new league. The bureaucratic nature of the venture appealed to Spalding, long a proponent of honorable play. National League bylaws forbade Sunday games, alcohol sales at baseball parks, and gambling.

Spalding's move to Chicago also led to business opportunities. In March 1876 Spalding and his brother James Walter launched a sporting goods business. They spent $800 to establish an emporium in Chicago that sold baseball equipment. In 1878 Spalding retired from pitching and concentrated full-time on team management and his sporting goods business. A. G. Spalding and Brothers became the exclusive provider of baseballs for league play and the publisher of Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide, an annual publication edited by Spalding himself from 1878 to 1880. Over time, the company manufactured footballs, basketballs, golf balls, and golf clubs in the United States and led marketing innovations such as sporting goods boutiques in department stores, celebrity endorsements, and team sponsorship. In 1885 the first store outside of Chicago opened in New York City, and in 1889 new stores opened in Denver and Philadelphia.

After Hulbert's death in 1882, Spalding served as president of the Chicago White Stockings until 1891. The squad won five pennants under his direction, and he continued to promote the game with passion. He organized professional baseball's first round-the-world tour in 1888, featuring the Chicago White Stockings and an All-Star squad. Contests were held before enthusiastic audiences in fourteen different countries of the world, spanning five continents. In 1900 Spalding's role as an international ambassador of sports competition was solidified when he was appointed United States Commissioner of the Olympic Games by President William McKinley.

Spalding was also a major contributor to the debate and intrigue surrounding baseball's heritage. The English game of rounders, which involved four bases laid out in diamond-shaped configuration, strikes, outs, and a "feeder" who tossed the ball to a "striker," preceded baseball. Yet Abraham G. Mills, then president of the National League, proclaimed during a New York baseball banquet at Delmonico's restaurant that baseball had evolved from U.S. origins. The men at the center of this debate were baseball writer Henry Chadwick and Albert Spalding. Chadwick believed baseball grew from English origins; Spalding felt U.S. ingenuity was the source. In Spalding's memoirs, America's National Game (1911), he argues that baseball was an adaptation of a New England game called town ball, itself inspired by the English game of cricket. However, Spalding also vigorously attempted to distinguish cultural differences. He claimed the English played cricket because it was easy and did not overtax their energy or their thought. Conversely, he believed baseball personified American courage, confidence, and combativeness. Mills chaired a commission assembled to research baseball's history from 1905 to 1907. The group's conclusion was that General Abner Doubleday had drawn the first known diagram of the baseball diamond in Cooperstown, New York, a finding drawn from the recollections of an elderly former Cooperstown resident. Since a great deal of evidence contradicts this explanation, baseball historians have never accepted the committee's conclusion.

Spalding's wife died suddenly in 1899 and he married Elizabeth Churchill Mayer, a widow and childhood friend from Rockford, nearly two years later. Historian Peter Levine contends that Mayer and Spalding shared a relationship for years and had a son. The newlyweds established a new life for themselves in Point Loma, California. Spalding was nominated to run in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1910, a race he lost by a slim margin.

Spalding died of heart failure in Point Loma in 1915; his remains were cremated. At the time of his death he was recognized nationally and internationally as the father of "America's game." He received further recognition in 1939 when the Committee on Baseball Veterans inducted him posthumously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Spalding's papers are in the library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and in the Spalding Collection at the New York City Public Library. There also is a large selection of information and memorabilia available at the Byron Public Library in Byron, Illinois. In his memoirs, America'sNational Game (1911), Spalding describes his version of the history of baseball and his involvement in the development of the sport. Harriet I. Spalding, Reminiscences of Harriet I. Spalding (1910), provides detailed information about Spalding's childhood and family background. Arthur Bartlett, Baseball and Mr. Spalding; The History and Romance of Baseball (1951), is a standard account of Spalding's life based primarily on Spalding's memoirs. Peter Levine, A. G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball: The Promise of American Sport (1985), is the most comprehensive and helpful description available about Spalding's life and his impact on the growth of baseball. Harold Seymour, Baseball (1960), provides a good general history of baseball during Spalding's era. Warren Goldstein, Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball (1989), delivers background information about mythology surrounding the history of baseball. Steven A. Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (1989), is an insightful history of the connection between baseball teams and promoters like Spalding in urban America. Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 and 11 Sep. 1915).

R. Jakem Sudderth