The Base Ball Championship. - The second championship game between the Empires and Unions will take place this afternoon at 3 o'clock, on the grounds of the Union Club.
We hope to see a huge attendance, as the Union Club deserves great credit for the manner in which they have fitted up their grounds. It is the first attempt in this city to establish enclosed grounds, and we wish them success.
-Missouri Republican, July 10, 1867
What's the big deal about enclosed grounds? With enclosed grounds, you're charging for admission and, when a club is making money, that money is usually going, at least in part, to the players. With the advent of enclosed grounds, you begin to see the beginnings of professional baseball. From this point forward, I would argue that the best clubs in St. Louis were compensating their players in some form. Professional baseball in St. Louis traces its beginnings to the construction of the Union Grounds in 1867.
Prior to this, you really didn't see players jumping from club to club but you begin to see it in 1867. Tobias mentioned the Duncan brothers, who had jumped from the Empires to the Unions and most likely changed the balance of power among the top St. Louis clubs in 1867. Tom Oran would jump from the Unions to the Empires to the Reds. I would argue that these guys were jumping clubs for money.
These clubs wanted to compete for the national championship and the championship of Missouri and they needed the best players they could find. The St. Louis clubs were not the first to pay their players and there is evidence of player compensation in the antebellum era so I think that the St. Louis clubs saw this and adopted the tactics of the Eastern clubs. If the big Eastern clubs were building enclosed grounds, charging for admission, and using that revenue to buy players, the St. Louis clubs, if they wanted to compete with the big clubs, had adopt the same tactics.
I always argue that this was Asa Smith's plan. He wanted the Union Club to compete for the national championship and to do that, he needed to take steps to bring his club and St. Louis baseball generally into what I have always called "the baseball mainstream." By that, I mean that St. Louis baseball was a little bit behind the times and that they needed to adapt to the newest baseball trends being adopted by the Eastern clubs. Missouri needed a state association. The clubs needed to join the NABBP. There had to be a state championship. There had to be enclosed grounds. There had to be road trips. There had to be games played against the highest level of competition. There had to be compensation for players so that you could put together the best possible nine. And Smith advocated for all of that and, I think, achieved it. The only thing that was really missing from his plan was the recruitment of players from outside St. Louis and a tour of the East.
In the end, the Union Club was not good enough to compete for the national championship and this failure was a serious setback for baseball in St. Louis. By the end of the 1869 season, it was obvious to all that the best St. Louis clubs could not compete with the best Eastern clubs and, as a result, there was a bit of a decline in the popularity of the game in the city that wouldn't be overcome until 1874. A St. Louis club wouldn't serious attempt to compete for the national title again until 1875.
But this failure in the second half of the 1860s shouldn't be seen negatively. Smith had a vision for what St. Louis baseball could be and that vision was, in the end, proved correct. He did everything he thought was necessary, improved the quality and nature of baseball in St. Louis, and should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of the game. Smith, in the end, was right. St. Louis baseball clubs could compete for a national title. They could compete with the best clubs in the nation. To do that, they just had to go out and buy the best players they could find. Smith's failure was that he didn't see the need to go outside of St. Louis to get players. If he had done that, the history of baseball would have been very different.