While most fans in St. Louis are focused largely on the history and lore of the Cardinals, there is some familiarity among them with the more arcane history of St. Louis baseball. There are many that can tell you stories of Chris Von der Ahe and the Four Time Champion Browns. There are many who are aware of the Perfectos of 1899 and the role they played in the transition from Von der Ahe's Browns to the Cardinals of the 20th century. There are many who are aware of the significance of the 1875-1877 Brown Stockings and how they brought professional, major league baseball to the city. There are many who are experts in the rich history of African-American baseball in St. Louis. If you listen closely, you'll hear people speak of the Terriers or even the Empires and the Unions. For the most part, the casual baseball fans in St. Louis have a deep appreciation and understanding of the history of the game in their city.
But the most overlooked, significant baseball club in the history of St. Louis, among fans and historians, is the 1873-1876 Red Stockings. Most baseball fans in St. Louis, and in general, have no idea who this club was or that they even existed. When mentioned by baseball historians, the club is usually dismissed in a sentence or two as a footnote to the 1875 season. William Ryczek, a fine historian, went so far as to call them “a blasphemous incarnation of that hallowed name...,” implying that their very existence insulted the memory of the great Red Stocking clubs of Cincinnati and Boston.i One can go online and search for information about the club and what information you do find is scant and often wrong. There is no sense, in the official records and histories of the game, of the significance of the Red Stockings of St. Louis. Certainly, they were not the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings or the great champion Boston Red Stockings of the 1870s but they were also not a blasphemous incarnation or a mere footnote to baseball history. Regardless of the fallow obscurity in which the memory of the club lies, the St. Louis Reds, in their original incarnation from 1873 to 1876, were one of the most popular, successful, and significant St. Louis baseball clubs of their era.
The significance of the club is largely a result of two things. First, the Reds were a club made up of the best young talent that St. Louis had to offer. The core of the club, with one notable exception, were all from St. Louis, and, for the most part, all around nineteen or twenty years old when the club was formed. They were the best St. Louis baseball players of their generation and almost all of them would go on to play organized baseball with major clubs, to varying degrees of success. The club was formed around and for this young core of talent.
This stood in contrast to their two main rivals – the Empire Club and the Brown Stockings. The core of the Empire Club had been playing together and winning championships for almost a decade prior to the formation of the Reds. They were a veteran group used to winning. The Brown Stockings were, essentially, mercenaries. They were the best professional baseball players that the club could hire – veterans from Philadelphia and New York. The Reds were a group of young, local ballplayers competing against wily veterans and hired guns. Members of the local sporting press and the fans took note of this and embraced the team because of it.
The 1873 Reds, in particular, were extremely young, with the core of the club all being teenagers - the youngest member being just seventeen. In 1875, after the club had added two veterans in Charlie Sweasy and Tom Oron, they were still a rather young group and, to illustrate the point, the Brown Stockings, that season, had four starters older than the oldest member of the Reds. Take Sweasy and Oran off the club and the youngest starter for the Reds was only twenty-three years old in 1875.
While the local press used a number of nicknames to identify the club, including Red Stockings, Red Sox, and Reds, one of the more popular nicknames given to the team was a reflection of their youth – the Ponies. There are countless references to the club as the Ponies or the Pony Reds. The nickname compared the young ballplayers to a young stallion, with all of the positives and negatives that go with that. While the Pony nickname inspired visions of speed, agility, and untapped, raw power, it also has a connotation of the excess of youth and of an unharnessed ability. It was absolutely a fitting nickname.
The other significant thing about the Reds was that they were a team that was put together to compete for and win championships. From the beginning, the team was expected to win and there was a great deal of excitement in St. Louis baseball circles about this young group of talent that had been put together to challenge for the baseball championship of St. Louis and Missouri. It was recognized, early on, that this Reds team was the equal of any in St. Louis.
By the early 1870s, the baseball fever that had engulfed St. Louis in the immediate post-Civil War years had died down. The game in the city, in the eyes of the fans, had grown stagnate and there were several reasons for this. The top local clubs had attempted to compete nationally and been found wanting in the face of the talent brought to the field by the top clubs from the East. This was a great blow to the pride of the St. Louis baseball establishment and local fans. It had become clear by 1870 that the best St. Louis had to offer was not good enough and that they were not able to compete with the top Eastern teams. Also, around this time, the great Union Club no longer were putting a team on the field. One of the reasons that baseball in St. Louis was so exciting in the post-war era was the competition between the Unions and Empires for baseball supremacy in the city. That rivalry drove and created a wonderful atmosphere of competition among teams in St. Louis but, with the loss of the Union Club, there was no one who could compete with the great Empire Club on the local level. Without any real competition, the Empires won the championship handily every year and their dominance quelled any sense of excitement that existed around the game in St. Louis. That great outbreak of baseball popularity, that sense that the St. Louis clubs were as good as any in the country, that fervor that surrounded a classic rivalry – all of that was a memory by 1873.
Into that void stepped the Red Stockings, a young, exciting team that represented a new generation of St. Louis baseball and the hopes and aspirations of a baseball community that longed to be counted among the very best in the country. This was a generation of players that had grown up playing the game in St. Louis. They weren't the pioneer players or the players that had grown the game after the Civil War. They weren't the players who had tried to beat the best Eastern teams, failed miserably, and then quit trying. This was a new club, stocked with the best young players St. Louis had to offer, and they represented a fresh start and a new opportunity.
While the club was embraced by the St. Louis fans and press because of what they represented, it is the tragedy of the Red Stockings that they failed to achieve their championship aspirations. Not only did they fail but they failed in spectacular and unique ways. In both 1873 and 1874, they came within one victory of snatching the championship away from the Empire Club. In 1873, they lost the deciding game in what was described, in 1896, as “the finest game ever played in St. Louis between home clubs.”ii The following year, they lost because they used an illegal player in the first game of the series, in a knowing violation of the rules. In 1875, after two years where they were arguably the best baseball club in St. Louis and after winning a few victories over minor Eastern clubs, they attempted to compete nationally by joining the National Association and were absolutely crushed by the competition. Not only were they unable to compete at that level, the core of the club fell apart as the losing went on, with key members jumping ship in mid-season. That disastrous season is what the club is remembered for, if they are remembered at all. Even the 1876 season, which was a brilliant campaign highlighted by the pitching of the great Pud Galvin, is forgotten in the shadow of their failures the previous year, as well as the success of the 1875/1876 Brown Stockings.
In the end, the Red Stockings of 1873-1876 failed to achieve the promise of their youth. They were unable to win the local and state championship and were destroyed by national competition. All those hopes and aspirations that came with representing a new generation of St. Louis baseball players were crushed by bad decisions, petty squabbling, over-reaching, greed, selfishness, and losses on the field. It was a failure but it was a glorious failure.
Sure, the club failed to achieve the lofty goals that it set for itself and that were set by the expectations of their fans but that doesn't make them a blasphemous incarnation of a baseball team; it makes them tragic heroes. They failed because of their own flaws. They failed because of bad decisions that they made. They failed because, in the end, they weren't good enough and their reach exceeded their grasp. But they are an endlessly fascinating group of players. Pud Galvin is a Hall of Fame pitcher who threw the first perfect game in the history of organized baseball while playing for the Reds. Joe Blong is one of the most notorious players of his era. Tom Oron was the first Native American baseball player in the history of the Major Leagues. Charlie Sweasy played with the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Silver Flint has been described by more than one of his contemporaries as the best catcher of his generation. Joe Ellick became a National League umpire and wrote some of the most interesting accounts of what life was like umpiring in the 19th century.
The Reds failed to win a championship and their play in the NA in 1875 did not exactly cover them in glory but, in their glorious failure, they were able to achieve great things. The 1873 and 1874 seasons in St. Louis, due in large part by the struggle of the Reds with the Empire juggernaut, rekindled the baseball fever in the city. The growth of the popularity of the game in St. Louis during this era led directly to the establishment of openly professional baseball and the beginning of major league play in the city. It should never be forgotten that the Reds took part in the first major league baseball game in St. Louis history and that that game was played on their field. It should never be forgotten that one of their pitchers threw the first known perfect game in baseball history. One can even make the argument that their disastrous 1875 season was one of the reasons for the creation of the National League. Even in failure, the club had historically significant achievements.
While the casual baseball fan may not be aware of their existence and baseball historians have been dismissive of them, the Red Stockings of St. Louis played a significant role in the history of baseball, generally, and in St. Louis baseball history, specifically. It is a shame that they have largely been forgotten and that their story has never really been told. They were a good club, with good players, unique achievements, and unique failures. There simply was never another team quite like the Reds.
On a personal note, this team has a very special place in my heart. They are, without a doubt, my favorite 19th century baseball club and they are the reason I got into researching and writing about the history of 19th century baseball. Many years ago, I stumbled upon a reference to the St. Louis Reds and, like most, I had no idea who the club was. I had a good, decent knowledge of baseball history and had read a little about the early history of the game but I had never heard of the St. Louis Reds and was curious. I had a degree in history and applied the skills that I had been taught to the problem. More than a decade later, I'm still researching and writing about the club and have expanded my field of inquiry into the earliest history of American baseball. The work that I do, the website that I run, the things that I have published, the talks that I've given – all of that is a result of trying to answer a simple question: Who were the St. Louis Red Stockings?
Everything that I have done as a baseball researcher and historian is result of wanting to share what I have learned over the years and trying to save people the work that I had to do in learning it. There is a lot of misinformation out there about early baseball history – a lot of myths, legends, and errors that are reported as fact. To get to the truth of the matter involves a lot of work – a lot of digging, a lot of reading old newspapers and obscure texts. To understand something like the Reds, you have to understand the historical context in which they existed and it is an alien world. It's weird and strange to the modern person and I've spent a good decade plus immersing myself in that world just so I could understand what was happening. I did it – and do it – out of curiosity. I share what I've learned because I know that there are a lot of folks out there who are just as curious about this as I am. I know that there are a lot of folks out there who are just as fascinated by this as I am. While the entire thing may have started, for me, by accident, I do it because I love it and I try to share it with everyone for the same reason and because there are many who love it just as much as I do.
I've been wanting to write this history of the Reds for a long time and my first notes on the subject are over a decade old – on yellowing paper in an almost illegible hand. Looking back on those notes, it is amazing how very close I came in a short period of time to getting the story correct. But it took time to run down all of the details – and I am certain that I'm still missing some – so I just kept digging and poking at it. In the end, after organizing all of my notes on the Reds, I find myself with a document over a hundred pages long, consisting mostly of newspaper accounts from the 19th century. In the end, as a researcher, I'm fairly satisfied with just that. A smart man would put that up on line and let somebody else write the history. But nobody ever accused me of being a smart man. So I guess I'm stuck with the task of writing up the history of my favorite 19th century baseball club. It's been a long time coming.
i Ryczek, William; Blackguards and Red Stockings; p 179.
ii Tobias, E.H.; The Sporting News; January 18, 1896.