Albert Spalding (1850 – 1915)

The Man Who Wanted to Give the World Baseball

I used to work for a company where we talked to students about pursuing their passion in life.  As you can imagine, when we’d go into a school and ask 8 year old boys what they wanted to do when they grew up, many of them would say things like astronauts, firemen or baseball players.  Athletes were always a big part of the mix.  That always gave us a great opportunity to say that it was possible to follow their passion even if they weren’t good enough to make the team… and that that was going to be most of them.

We talked about doing other things in the area of their favorite sport, such as sportswriter, marketing, or equipment manufacturing. Well, Albert Spalding showed how it’s done… although he was good enough to have a career that included both playing his game and working in it.

Albert Spalding was born in 1850 in Byron, Illinois.  He basically lived and breathed baseball his entire life.  He started playing in local leagues when he was a child and in 1866 at the age of 16 started playing for the semi-pro Rockford Forest Citys, an amateur team from Rockford, IL, about 20 miles away from his hometown. He played with Rockford for five years until he joined the Boston Red Stockings (today’s Atlanta Braves) of the newly formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (National Association) in 1871. 

Already good, in the big leagues Spalding shined.  For every one of the five years he played in Boston he led league in wins, led 4 times in games pitched, 3 times led in games saved and shut outs, all while leading the team to every championship from 1872 – 1875.  In a word, Spalding was dominant.   

In 1876 William Hulbert, owner of the Chicago White Stockings (The Chicago Cubs today) who’d just formed the spinoff National League, induced Spalding to jump ship and move back his beloved Midwest and join his team in exchange for an ownership stake. Spalding, now president of the team, planned the move during the season and surreptitiously induced half a dozen of the best players from around the National Association to join him the following year.

He would play for Chicago for only two years and in the second year only play 4 games, but in that first year he once again dominated the league and won the most games. He retired from playing baseball in 1878 at the age of 27.  Many of the records he set in Boston and Chicago remain club records, and his winning percentage of .794 has never been matched and remains the league life time record 150 years after he retired. 

It was in his final season that Spalding set the course for the rest of his life.  He started wearing a glove while playing.  Others had done so, but with Spalding onboard what once was novel and seen as being a “sissy” became common and later fundamental. 

Spalding remained as President of the White Stockings however and would, along with his friend and player manger, Cap Anson, create the first spring training camp in baseball history, which takes its name from the location of Spalding’s first camp, Hot Springs, Arkansas. 

The entire time Spalding had been pitching professionally, he used balls that he manufactured.  In 1876 he would convince the National League, which he had a significant hand in creating, to use balls manufactured by his newly founded A. G. Spalding & Bros. His company would go on to be the official supplier of baseballs to Major League Baseball for the next 100 years.  (MLB was formed in 1903 when the National League merged with the newly formed American League.) He also manufactured the first football in 1887.

A.G. Spalding would go on to manufacture baseballs, softballs, footballs, soccer balls, volleyballs, tennis balls, and golf balls as well as baseball bats, tennis rackets, golf clubs and a wide range of other sports equipment. It was the first company to manufacture baseball gloves and in 1878 it would publish the first “Official Rules Guide for Baseball”. Spalding later sponsored a commission to analyze the origins of baseball and coerced it to conclude that the American game had been invented by Abner Doubleday, when in reality it’s origins harken back to the British sports of cricket and rounders.

As an entrepreneur Spalding always had grand ideas and in 1888 he would take a handful of baseball players on a world tour with the goal of introducing baseball to the world… and hopefully selling equipment when the sport gained popularity. His tour would include games in New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France, and England. Sadly, however, while the tour made for a great novelty, American baseball would never catch on elsewhere in the world.  Twelve years later President McKinley would appoint Spalding as the American Commissioner to the 1900 Summer Olympic Games held in Paris, France. 

Albert Spalding died in 1915 in San Diego CA where he had lived for the last 15 years. The company he created remains one of America’s largest sports equipment manufacturers, making balls and bats and more for professionals and little leagues and everyone in between.  Albert Spalding is one of those few people who live in the rarified air of being both a great professional athlete and also a great entrepreneur.  Being one alone is something special, being both is simply extraordinary. Remember him the next time you head out to the ballgame…

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