Professional baseball was born with the formation of the barnstorming Cincinnati Red Stockings on this day in history, March 15, 1869.
“The onset of professionalism was no small step for baseball: players received a small but growing degree of financial stability, and fans were treated to an ever higher standard of play,” writes the Baseball Almanac.
“The cradle for this groundbreaking practice was Cincinnati, where the first openly professional baseball team was founded.”
Baseball had evolved from earlier sports such as cricket and rounders over the previous three decades.
Its evolution is traced to its reported advent by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839; to the proliferation of recreational “base ball” clubs in New York City in the 1840s; and to the formalization of the rules of the game we know today, including nine men per side and nine innings per game, in 1857.
The Red Stockings turned recreation into a whole new ball game.
They played their first official game on May 4, thumping the crosstown rival Great Western Base Ball Club, 45-9.
They never relented the rest of the year.
And never lost.
“The onset of professionalism was no small step for baseball’ — Baseball Almanac
The Red Stockings departed on May 31 for what the National Baseball Hall of Fame calls “the greatest road trip in baseball history.”
The team left by train from the former Little Miami Railroad Depot, located less than a mile east of today’s Great American Ball Park, home arena of the National League’s Cincinnati Reds.
“The Red Stockings’ 32-day road trip was more like a rock ‘n’ roll tour than a baseball trip,” reports the Hall of Fame.
“Huge crowds turned out to see the handsome young men in their crimson hose and white-knicker uniforms in Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where the Red Stockings received an audience with President Ulysses S. Grant.”
The 1,821-mile trip included 20 games in the month of June alone.
The epic tour of America then brought the game to the Pacific Coast — a trip that would have been nearly impossible only year earlier.
“They capped a 57-0 inaugural season with a 4,764-mile trip to San Francisco and back aboard the Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed only the previous May with the pounding of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah,” said the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The players were quite young, most ages 18 to 23. They apparently enjoyed the good life on the road, as their tour began to generate widespread national interest.
“Huge crowds turned out to see the handsome young men in their crimson hose and white-knicker uniforms.” — National Baseball Hall of Fame
“A group of young women passed in front of the Red Stockings’ hotel,” the night before a big game in Philadelphia, reports the Hall of Fame.
“They lifted their long skirts to avoid the mud in the streets, many revealing a flash of red stockings.”
The Cincinnati Red Stockings lived only briefly. The organization folded in 1870.
But it changed the face of American sports forever.
The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional sports league, was created in 1871 and survived until 1875.
The National League of professional baseball was founded with eight clubs in 1876. The American League followed in 1901. Both leagues still compete today in Major League Baseball.
“Triumphs over all the top Eastern clubs had made them the center of attention in the sporting press.” — Society for American Baseball Research
The champions of each league squared off in the first World Series in 1903.
The Red Stockings and their distinctive crimson hose are still seen on the fields of Major League Baseball today.
The National League’s Cincinnati Reds and the American League’s Boston Red Sox both trace lineage to the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Both cities also embraced the sport early in the history of baseball, with rabid fan bases still today.
“Cincinnati is nuts with baseball!,” sportswriter Bugs Baer wrote 50 years later, in 1919. “They ought to call this town Cincinnutty!”
Baer, among other claims to fame, dubbed Babe Ruth the Sultan of Swat.
The impact of the Cincinnati Red Stockings on American sports was profound — helping popularize from coast to coast a sport that would soon be known as America’s pastime.
Two Red Stockings are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Shortstop George Wright was inducted in 1937; his brother, center fielder/manager Harry Wright, was inducted in 1953.
Writes Greg Rhodes for the Society for American Baseball Research:
“Not only were they undefeated, but the novelty of their all-salaried status, their distinctive uniform style with the long red socks, and the triumphs over all the top Eastern clubs had made them the center of attention in the sporting press.”