Grave Story: William Hulbert (1832-1882)

Here lies William Hulbert, a baseball pioneer who helped launch the National League and navigated the league through its early growing pains. He also happens to have one of the most famous grave markers of anybody in the baseball world.

William Ambrose Hulbert was born on October 23, 1832, in Burlington Flats, N.Y. – about 15 miles away from Cooperstown. He was the oldest child of Eri Baker Hulbert and Mary Louisa (Walker) Hulbert, and the only one born in New York. The family moved to Chicago in 1834, which is where younger brothers Eri Jr. (1841) and George (1844) were born. William Hulbert’s SABR bio states that Eri Walker had multiple business ventures, backed by friends or his in-laws. Success proved to be short-lived each time. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, Eri Hulbert Sr. was employed as a grocer. He died two years later at the age of 45. The rest of the family soon left for Oswego County in New York, but William Hulbert remained in Chicago.

Hulbert attended Beloit College in Wisconsin. He left after just a couple of semesters and began working for J.H. Dunham & Co., a wholesale grocer. He is listed in the 1860 U.S. Census as a clerk. That October 27, he married Jeannie Murray. According to his SABR bio, Hulbert was a heavy drinker, which contributed to his short stay at Beloit College. It took a few years into his marriage before he got over his drinking habit, but once he did, he became a sound and successful businessman. He was connected to the Rogers & Co. coal business and was an associate of Charles Walker, a founding member of the Chicago Board of Trade and its second president. By the late 1860s, Hulbert was a member of the Board of Trade. The 1870 Census lists him as a grain dealer, but it seems that he had a hand in a variety of business ventures. His oldest son, William, was born in 1864. A second son, George, was born in 1870, but he died just a year later.

During the 1860s, the game of baseball (or base ball – two words at the time) had spread from its East Coast roots out to the West. The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 were the first great non-East Coast professional team, but Chicago had a number of good ballplayers as well. When the National Association launched in 1871, the Chicago White Stockings were one of its charter teams. Hulbert was one of the financial backers. It was one of the better teams in the league, with star hitters Jimmy Wood and Fred Treacy and an ace pitcher in George Zettlein. Unfortunately, the team’s existence was short-lived; It wasn’t a lack of talent or civic interest, but rather the Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire, which burned for three days in October, leveled much of the city. The White Stockings lost their ballpark and their gear, and they played their final three games on the road on the East Coast.

Chicago was without a professional team for two years. During that time, Hulbert assumed ownership of the team and worked to get the ballclub up and running by 1874. The new White Stockings team was average at best, with a few familiar faces (Zettlein and Treacy) along with some new talent (Paul Hines, Levi Meyerle). There were larger problems within the National Association. Western teams like Chicago and St. Louis did very well financially when they traveled East for games, but the East Coast teams weren’t as willing to travel West. Furthermore, the NA was a “professional” league in the broadest sense. Teams came and went, with some playing no more than a handful of games before folding. In 1875, Keokuk played in 13 games before calling it quits, and the Philadelphia Centennials lasted just 14. Contract jumping was commonplace, and there was a need for a little more order and stability.

William Hulbert’s grave at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, with its distinctive baseball marker.

Before Hulbert established that order, he jumped into the chaos with an open wallet. In August of 1875, in the midst of the season, it was reported that star Boston Red Stockings pitcher Albert Spalding would join Chicago in 1876 and possibly bring Cal McVey and Deacon White with him. Then Ross Barnes, one of the game’s best hitters, also joined the team from Boston, and so did Cap Anson from the Philadelphia Athletics. In a few short months, Hulbert had bought most of the game’s best players away from their former teams. The retaliation could have resulted in those players being expelled from baseball and Chicago kicked out of the National Association entirely. Before that could happen, Hulbert took the next step – dissolve the National Association.

Sporting News founder Alfred H. Spink, in his baseball history book, The National Game, wrote that Hulbert and Spalding as well as Charles Fowle and C. Orrick Bishop of St. Louis decided on a plan to re-organize baseball. Contract jumping was to be forbidden – though the Big Four (Spalding, McVey, White and Barnes) who jumped from Boston to Chicago weren’t affected. Rather than open the new National League to any team that could pay the entry fee, they restricted it to eight teams, in cities with no less than 150,000 people. The initial teams were to be St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Boston, Hartford, Brooklyn and Philadelphia – if he could get those owners to buy into the plan.

Spalding, who became Hulbert’s business partner as well as his star pitcher, related to Spink about how the signing of the Big Four was supposed to have been a secret. “But the secret lasted just ten days, and I believe that is longer than any other baseball secret was ever kept,” Spalding noted.

The Boston baseball scene exploded in threats of banning the four players, but Spalding shared Hulbert’s opinion that the old National Association had to be destroyed to save the game from the corrupting elements that had crept into it. In big cities like New York and Philadelphia, club officials had become very tolerant of gamblers, for instance.

“After deciding on the name of the new organization, we worked out the new league constitution, section by section, having in mind only one thing – to raise the standard of the game in every possible way, and without much regard to the then existing customs and methods of operation of professional clubs,” Spalding continued. “Pool selling and all forms of gambling were prohibited, liquor selling on the grounds was abolished and contract jumping penalized. Mr. Hulbert and myself were quite proud of the final draft. We were both confident that the new departure would be favorably received by the better class of club officials, players and public generally.”

The National Association teams were to meet in March of 1876. Fearing a backlash against Chicago, Hulbert first met with the three other western teams – Louisville, Cincinnati and St. Louis – at a secret meeting in Louisville. He got them on his side before they faced the East Coast teams. The presidents of the eight teams met at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City on February 2, 1876, which is where Hulbert made the sales pitch of his life. “Before that conference ended the new National League was born,” Spalding said.

The first president of the National League was Hartford executive Morgan Bulkeley, but it was common knowledge that the real power of the NL was Hulbert. His White Stockings were the class of the 1876 season, finishing 52-14 with all the players that he had purchased before setting rules forbidding contract jumping. Spalding won 47 games in his last full season as a player. He turned to the business side of the team in 1877, and Hulbert became president of the National League, officially. He held that title until his death.

Hulbert was unafraid of adhering to the rules that had been established within the NL. In September of 1876, Bill Cammeyer, president of the New York Mutuals, wrote to Hulbert and said that he could not bring the team West due to financial problems. Hulbert wrote to Fowle of St. Louis and came up with an offer that guaranteed Cammeyer $400 for his share of two games in Chicago and $400 more for three games in St. Louis – and they would rearrange the schedule to shrink the road trip to one week. Cammeyer still refused the offer. When the National League presidents convened a meeting in December of 1876, they kicked New York and Philadelphia, which had also violated NL rules, out of the league. It was a bold move to remove teams from two baseball-crazed cities, but Hulbert was determined to keep the NL from following the National Association down the slippery slope of lawlessness.

Running the fledgling professional league was difficult work at times. Louisville looked to be the runaway champion of the NL in 1877 before mysteriously fading toward the end of the season. It was later revealed that Jim Devlin, George Hall, Al Nichols and Bill Craver were all involved in a gambling scheme to throw games. Hulbert promptly banned all four players from the league, even though the decision caused two teams to fold – Louisville and St. Louis, which had signed Devlin and Hall and decided to fold in disgust. Teams came and went from the NL, and Hulbert had to scramble to find enough teams to keep the league viable. Occasionally, he had to accept teams from smaller cities like Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

A report from the December 4, 1878, issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat showed that Hulbert didn’t necessarily excel in public relations. A meeting of the NL Board of Directors was entitled, “A Brainless Body“ with “The Lunatics Who Legislate for the Base Ball League” as a deck. “President Hulbert, with his usual politeness, refuses to let the press have any of the proceedings of the Board until tomorrow,” wrote the unnamed correspondent, who was nevertheless able to detail the proceedings. “The Milwaukee club was unceremoniously bounced. Judging from what followed, Rogers, President of the club and one of the directors, left the room in a great huff and refused to go back. It is understood that the rest of the Board concluded the league could not afford to be hampered with a club which hadn’t paid all its last year’s debts.” The paper reported that teams from Syracuse, Cleveland and Buffalo would enter the NL.

Sometimes the problems were more comical. Chicago players Joe Quest, Silver Flint and Orator Shafer played for Indianapolis in 1878 and were accused of skipping town with unpaid bills. When the White Stockings played an exhibition game in Indianapolis in 1879, team captain Anson was approached by a constable, who was looking to arrest Flint and Shafer. Anson convinced the police to let them play the game and then arrest the players. Naturally, Flint and Shafer ducked out and avoided the police, though Anson himself was arrested twice after getting in a fracas with police and swearing he would “knock [the] hell out of you.” The next time the train full of Chicago and Cincinnati ballplayers passed through Indianapolis, dozens of police and posse members raided the train, roughed up a few of the ballplayers and tried to arrest Quest. Hulbert, who was on board the train, ultimately showed up and threw enough money at the officers to make the problems go away.

Hulbert and the NL Board continually made changes to the league rules and bylaws. He established a version of the reserve clause, which further prevented players from jumping teams. It would also be the source of strife between players and owners for the next century. Other changes involved the positioning of pitchers, the hiring of umpires by the NL instead of individual teams and continued attempts to remove vice from the league. Hulbert read “An Address to Ball-Players” at the February 1880 meeting in which he counselled the men, “to lead honest and straight-forward lives, and to exert themselves to promote and elevate the tone of the profession they had chosen,” according to newspaper reports.

Hulbert and the board were so determined to keep the league free of vice that they signed an agreement at the October 1880 meeting to forbid selling alcohol at games. Cincinnati president W.H. Kennett refused to sign the pledge, claiming that too much of his concession sales were tied to alcohol sales and Sunday baseball games – another source of contention in the NL. So the National League kicked Cincinnati out. Hulbert took this extreme step even though he acknowledged that Chicago benefited from having Cincinnati in the league.

The Cincinnati Enquirer theorized that the plan was not to kick out the Cincinnati club, but to kick out the owners of the Cincinnati club. It was rumored that Hulbert had new Cincinnati owners in mind who would go along with his edicts.

“The Cincinnati Club were unceremoniously kicked out of the League yesterday, and Boss Hulbert engineered the job,” the Enquirer angrily reported. “It was done without decency or cover of fairness, but is only another specimen of the way that honorable (?) body does business.” The paper also warned of a competitor that would soon rise up, with teams in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburg and even Chicago – Hulbert’s home turf. That competitor ended up being known as the American Association. While the AA failed to surpass the NL, it lasted for a decade and incorporated many of the cities that had been cut out of the NL for one rules violation or another. It proposed to be as liberal as the NL was strict, with lower admission, baseball on Sundays and alcohol sales.

Hulbert never got to see the competition between and NL and the AA, or any of the other fly-by-night leagues that existed in the 19th Century. Not long after the October meeting that resulted in Cincinnati’s expulsion, Hulbert became ill and was confined to his home at 1334 40th St. in Chicago. He was suffering from heart disease, and his health was touch and go for months. He started to rally in April of 1882 and had even raised the possibility of taking in a ballgame. However, his condition worsened quickly, and Hulbert died suddenly from a heart attack on April 10, 1882. He was 49 years old.

Hulbert’s plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. ISource: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Hulbert was a businessman first and foremost, so he ran the White Stockings and the National League as a business. He never catered to the media, which helps to explain why his work didn’t generate more friendly newspaper headlines. However, the National League was able to survive its rocky start because of his single-minded business outlook. He brought professionalism and legitimacy that didn’t exist in the National Association. While his actions may have spurred the development of the National League’s greatest rival, he helped make the NL strong enough to withstand that competition.

The Chicago White Stockings executives convened immediately following Hulbert’s death and issued a resolution that was equal parts businesslike and touching: “Resolved. That the officers, stockholders and players of the Chicago Base Ball Club have received with deep sorrow and regret the sad announcement of the death of their esteemed President, William A. Hulbert. They fully appreciate the fact that in losing him the surviving officers have lost the leader of their councils, the director of their policy, and the promoter of their success, the stockholders a zealous and trustworthy custodian of their interests, who was ever true to the trusts submitted to his care, and the players a sincere friend and candid adviser, whose main object was ever to promote their welfare, to encourage harmony, and to command for them the honorable success by teaching them to deserve it. Mr. Hulbert was pre-eminent as an organizer; to him almost alone is due the present standard of right and honorable dealing so rigorously enforced by the league of professional base ball clubs, for it was he who conceived the idea of the league itself; and to him more than to any other are due the main features of league legislation and discipline.”

Hulbert’s funeral featured floral pieces donated by each of the National League clubs. The Chicago arrangement was a floral baseball diamond with the words “Our President.” Pallbearers included Albert Spalding and Cap Anson, and the entire team and its executives were on hand as well. Hulbert is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. He has one of the most famous monuments associated with anyone in baseball. The National League teams funded the placement of a stone baseball, etched with the names of the National League teams at the time of his death: Boston, Providence, Worcester, Troy, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit. (It is not, as is sometimes reported, marked with the original NL teams. There is no reference to Cincinnati or New York, for example.)

For all his influence in the game, Hulbert was overlooked by the Baseball Hall of Fame for decades. Even Morgan Bulkeley, who was largely a figurehead for the one year he was heavily involved in the NL, was inducted in 1937. Spalding received his due in 1939. The veterans committee finally inducted Hulbert in 1995, but that long delay should not diminish his importance to the game. The Chicago Tribune, in its obituary on the man, published these words:

“In him the game of base-ball had the most useful friend and protector it has ever had; and in his death the popular pastime suffers a loss the importance of which cannot easily be exaggerated. There is not in America a player, club, officer, or patron of the game who will not feel that the loss is irreparable.”

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