How William Hulbert forged the team that would become the Chicago Cubs

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) /

Extreme polarization. Economic chaos. The ever present threat of political violence. Welcome to 1876, the year the franchise eventually to be known as the Chicago Cubs came into existence. The man most responsible for this happy development was William Hulbert.

With the Ricketts family’s ownership of the Cubs under fan scrutiny after a dismal 2022 campaign, this offseason, we’ll be taking a look at earlier owners and how they helped (or hindered) the franchise’s development. Today we examine the first, and in some ways still most influential, Chicago baseball owner.

How the first Cubs owner shaped the game in monumental ways

Hulbert was an energetic and effective businessman who managed to get a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade. In 1871, he decided to throw some of his money at a newfangled sports fad called base ball (that internal space wouldn’t disappear for decades). Hulbert’s team (he was just a part owner then), the Chicago White Stockings, would finish just two games back in 1871.

And then came fire. Yeah, that fire.  Americans would get severe lessons in the late 19th century: it turns out that building cities out of wood and packing them with accelerants was a suboptimal urban planning approach. Also, thanks to Mrs. O’Leary’s (albeit unfairly blamed) cow, the troubled relationship between Chicago baseball and ruminants got a very early start: Two years would pass without any National Association baseball in the city.

And then came the apocalypse. Textbooks today call it the Panic of 1873, but people back then called it simply The Great Depression. It would continue to be called that all the way up to, well, the Great Depression. Massive unemployment and bitter labor unrest swept the nation. The system of contract labor, so recently triumphant in the Civil War, seemed to be unravelling.  In this chaos Hulbert saw, and seized, the future. We are still living in his future today.

Crack open the Collective Bargaining Agreement (hey, it beats raking leaves, right?) and you’ll see that each major league team is referred to as a “Club.” This is a misnomer. A club is a voluntary association of like-minded individuals pursuing a common purpose. A garden club is a club. A gun club is a club. A major league team is the local front-facing franchise of a multi-billion dollar business. There’s nothing “club” about it. It was William Hulbert who purged baseball of its club-ly nature once and for all.

Many of us who came of age during the Marvin Miller/Bowie Kuhn period see owners as grasping reactionaries looking to wring every last penny out of fans, players, and cities regardless of the damage done. But the more player-friendly club version of baseball played in the 1870s had its own set of problems.

Players signed and broke contracts freely. Teams rose and collapsed into bankruptcy with alarming frequency. Drunken brawls were common, as were thrown games (“hippodroming” in the delightful phrase of the day). Snooty east coast teams often refused to show up for away games with their stump-toothed, hairy-backed cousins in western cities like Chicago. Whatever baseball was in the early 1870s, it was not yet a business.

William Hulbert changed all that. Particularly furious at how the New York and Philadelphia teams bent (or ignored) the National Association’s flimsy rules to their advantage, Hulbert took his Chicago White Stockings (and their newly acquired superstars Cap Anson and Albert Spalding) out of the NA, having reached an agreement with other western owners (St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville) to form a new league based on sound business principles. The National Association played its last games in 1875. In 1876, the National League was born.

Hulbert’s White Stockings were to be a new kind of team, and yes, a team, not a club. They would have a stable roster of players that fans would grow to love and pay to see. They would play in an alcohol-free environment so fans need not fear for their personal safety when attending games (a move possibly motivated by Hulbert’s own battle with alcoholism). Players would be paid a good minimum wage to combat gambling and reduce internal team wage disparities. Hippodroming players would be banned for life, and teams refusing to show up in Chicago to play their scheduled games would be expelled. No team would be allowed into the NL unless they agreed to these rules.

There were darker sides to this shiny new brand of baseball. It wasn’t cheap; fans would be asked to pay more for tickets. Ensuring roster stability meant allowing teams to reserve five players per season, preventing them from jumping to new teams. Literally and figuratively, players in their prime would gradually lose their free agent status as the reserve list degenerated into the reserve clause. Sunday games were banned to better ensure public morality.

Hulbert didn’t originate all of these ideas, but he implemented them vigorously. When four star players on the Louisville Grays were caught throwing games in 1877, Hulbert banned them for life. When the New York and Philadelphia teams once again failed to honor their scheduled western road trips in 1876, Hulbert kicked them out of the NL.  New York and Philly would not have NL franchises again until 1884. Hulbert wouldn’t be alive to see it though, felled by a heart attack in 1882 at just 49.

William Hulbert made the modern game and the first Chicago baseball dynasty

Not everything Hulbert tried succeeded: the bans on alcohol at games and baseball on Sunday would disappear thanks to competition from yet another upstart league called the American Association. Gambling would continue to plague the game for some time.

But the baseball we watch today is still very much William Hulbert’s game: Fixed schedules, minimum player salaries, relatively steady rosters still sustained by a reserve system (today commonly known as pre-arbitration), and games that aren’t cheap. Hulbert’s periodic fights with the New York and Philadelphia teams embodied Chicago’s own 19th century coming of age as it grew into one of the great U.S. cities. These battles may have also spurred the enduring rivalry between Chicago and New York teams. Cubs fans didn’t need the bitter 1969 experience to hate the Mets (although it sure helped).

And Hulbert built a winner. The White Stockings would top the league five times between 1880 and 1886, becoming the first NL dynasty. The Cubs’ next significant owner, Albert Spalding, would break them up. We’ll look at that story next.