The National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, known simply as the National League (NL), is the older of two leagues constituting Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States and Canada, and the world’s oldest current professional team sports league. Founded on February 2, 1876, to replace the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, it is sometimes called the Senior Circuit, in contrast to MLB’s other league, the American League, which was founded 25 years later. Both leagues currently have 15 teams. The two league champions of 1903 arranged to compete against each other in the inaugural World Series. After the 1904 champions failed to reach a similar agreement, the two leagues formalized the World Series as an arrangement between the leagues. National League teams have won 48 of the 113 World Series contested from 1903 to 2017. The 2017 National League champions are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Houston Oilers in Game 7 of the World Series.
The earliest known mention of baseball in the United States was a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance banning the playing of the game within 80 yards (73 m) of the town meeting house. In 1903, the British sportswriter Henry Chadwick published an article speculating that baseball derived from a British game called rounders, which Chadwick had played as a boy in England. Baseball executive Albert Spalding disagreed. Baseball, said Spalding, was fundamentally an American sport and began on American soil. To settle the matter, the two men appointed a commission, headed by Abraham Mills, the fourth president of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The commission, which also included six other sports executives, labored for three years, after which it declared that Abner Doubleday invented the national pastime. This would have been a surprise to Doubleday. The late Civil War hero “never knew that he had invented baseball”. [But] 15 years [after his death], he was anointed as the father of the game”, writes baseball historian John Thorn. The myth about Doubleday inventing the game of baseball actually came from a Colorado mining engineer. Another early reference reports that base ball was regularly played on Saturdays in 1823 on the outskirts of New York City in an area that today is Greenwich Village.
The first team to play baseball under modern rules was long believed to be the New York Knickerbockers. The club was founded on September 23, 1845, as a social club for the upper middle classes of New York City, and was strictly amateur until it disbanded. The club’s by-laws committee, which included William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker, formulated the Knickerbocker Rules, which in large part dealt with organizational matters but which also laid out rules for playing the game. One of the significant rules prohibited soaking or plugging the runner; under older rules, a fielder could put a runner out by hitting the runner with the thrown ball, similarly to the common schoolyard game of kickball. The Knickerbocker Rules required fielders to tag or force the runner, as is done today, and avoided a lot of the arguments and fistfights that resulted from the earlier practice. A recently discovered newspaper interview with Wheaton indicates that the rules he and Tucker wrote for the Knickerbockers in most respects duplicated the rules he had written for the Gotham Club in 1837; the Knickerbockers were founded as a breakaway group of former Gothams.
Writing the rules did not help the Knickerbockers in the first known competitive game between two clubs under the new rules, played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846. The “New York nine” (almost certainly the parent Gotham Club) humbled the Knickerbockers by a score of 23 to 1. Nevertheless, the Knickerbocker Rules were rapidly adopted by teams in the New York area and their version of baseball became known as the “New York Game” (as opposed to the “Massachusetts Game”, played by clubs in the Boston area).
As late as 1855, the New York press was still devoting more space to coverage of cricket than to baseball. By 1856, local journals were referring to baseball as the “national pastime” or “national game.” A year later, sixteen area clubs — including the Knickerbockers — formed the sport’s first governing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). The NABBP was the first organization to govern the sport and to establish a championship. The 1857 convention also established three key features of the game: 90 feet between the bases, 9-man teams, and 9-inning games (under the Knickerbocker Rules, games were played to 21 runs).
In 1858, in the Corona neighborhood of Queens (now part of New York City), at the Fashion Race Course, the first games of baseball to charge admission took place. The games, which took place between the all stars of Brooklyn, including players from the Brooklyn Atlantics, Excelsior of Brooklyn, the Putnam and Eckford clubs of Brooklyn, and the All Stars of New York (Manhattan), including players from the New York Knickerbockers, Gothams (predecessors of the San Francisco Giants), Eagles and Empire, are commonly believed to the first all star baseball games.
In 1863, the organization disallowed putouts made by catching a fair ball on the first bounce. During the Civil War, soldiers from different parts of the United States played baseball together, leading to a more unified national version of the sport. Aided by the war, membership grew to almost 100 clubs by 1865 and to over 400 by 1867, including clubs from as far away as California. In 1867, the NABBP barred participation by African Americans.
The game’s commercial potential was developing: in 1869 the first fully professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed by Henry Wright and George Ellard. who had ten men on salary for eight months, March 15 to November 15. Wright played center field and coordinated the team defense, a novelty from any position. Younger brother and shortstop George Wright, new to the team in 1869, was its best player, maybe the best of his time. The professional Cincinnati Red Stockings played their first game May 4, 1869, with a 45–9 win over the Great Westerns of Cincinnati. In 1869, the Red Stockings posted a perfect 65–0 record, the only perfect season in professional baseball history. This was the first team to play on the East and West coasts in the same season. More than 2,000 people greeted the team when it arrived in San Francisco at 10:00 p.m. “They really helped nationalize the game and put Cincinnati on the map as a baseball town,” said Greg Rhodes, a Reds historian who wrote “The First Boys of Summer” (Road West Publishing Company, 1994), along with Enquirer reporter John Erardi, about the 1869–1870 Red Stockings.
Another club, the Chicago White Stockings, won the championship in 1870. Today known as the Chicago Cubs, they are the oldest team in American organized sports. Because of this growth, regional and state organizations began to assume a more prominent role in the governance of the sport. Businessman Ivers Whitney Adams courted Cincinnati manager Harry Wright and founded the “Boston Red Stockings” and the Boston Base Ball Club on January 20, 1871.
In 1870, a schism developed between professional and amateur ballplayers. The NABBP split into two groups. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players operated from 1871 through 1875, and is considered by some to have been the first major league. Its amateur counterpart disappeared after only a few years. By 1875, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was dangerously weak. The organization suffered from a lack of strong authority over clubs, unsupervised scheduling, unstable membership, dominance by one team (the Boston Red Stockings), and an extremely low entry fee ($10) that gave clubs no incentive to abide by league rules when it was not convenient.
William Hulbert, a Chicago businessman and an officer of the Chicago White Stockings, approached several N.A. clubs with the plans for a league with stronger central authority and exclusive territories in larger cities only. Additionally, Hulbert had a problem — five of his star players were threatened with expulsion from the NAPBBP because Hulbert had signed them to his club using what were considered questionable means. Hulbert had a great vested interest in creating his own league. After recruiting St. Louis privately, four western clubs met in Louisville, Kentucky, in January 1876.
With Hulbert speaking for the four in New York City on February 2, 1876, the National League was established with eight charter members:
- Chicago White Stockings from the N.A. (now the Chicago Cubs, not to be confused with the current Chicago White Sox of the American League)
- Philadelphia Athletics from the N.A. (expelled after the 1876 season)
- Boston Red Stockings, the dominant team in the N.A. (now the Atlanta Braves, not to be confused with the present-day Boston Red Sox of the American League)
- Hartford Dark Blues from the N.A. (folded after the 1877 season)
- Mutual of New York from the N.A. (expelled after the 1876 season)
- St. Louis Brown Stockings from the N.A. (folded after the 1877 season, having committed to Louisville stars for 1878)
- Cincinnati Red Stockings, a new franchise (disband after the 1879 season)
- Louisville Grays, a new franchise (folded after the 1877 season when four players were banned for gambling)
The first game in National League history was played on April 22, 1876, at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Street Grounds, 25th & Jefferson, between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston baseball club. Boston won the game 6–5.
The National League put its emphasis on “clubs” rather than “players”. Clubs now had the ability to enforce player contracts, preventing players from jumping to higher-paying clubs. Clubs in turn were required to play their full schedule of games, rather than forfeiting scheduled games once out of the running for the league championship, as happened frequently under the National Association. A concerted effort was made to reduce the amount of gambling on games which was leaving the validity of results in doubt.
At the same time, a “gentlemen’s agreement” was struck between the clubs to exclude non-white players from professional baseball, a bar that remained until 1947. It is a common misconception that Jackie Robinson was the first African-American major-league ballplayer; he was actually only the first after a long gap (and the first in the modern era). Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday Walker were unceremoniously dropped from major and minor-league rosters in the 1880s, as were other African-Americans in baseball. An unknown number of African-Americans played in the major leagues by representing themselves as Indians, or South or Central Americans, and a still larger number played in the minor leagues and on amateur teams as well. In the majors, however, it was not until the signing of Robinson (in the National League) and Larry Doby (in the American League) that baseball began to remove its color bar.
The new league’s authority was tested after the first season. The Athletic and Mutual clubs fell behind in the standings and refused to make western road trips late in the season, preferring to play games against local non-league competition to recoup some of their losses rather than travel extensively. Hulbert reacted to the clubs’ defiance by expelling them, an act which not only shocked baseball followers (New York and Philadelphia were the two most populous cities in the league) but made it clear to clubs that league schedule commitments, a cornerstone of competition integrity, were not to be ignored.
The National League operated with six clubs during 1877 and 1878. Over the next several years, various teams joined and left the struggling league. By 1880, six of the eight charter members had folded. The two remaining original NL franchises, Boston and Chicago, remain in operation today as the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs. When all eight participants for 1881 returned for 1882—the first off-season without turnover in membership — the “circuit” consisted of a zig-zag line connecting the eight cities: Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Troy (near Albany), Worcester, Boston, and Providence.
In 1883, the New York Gothams and Philadelphia Phillies began National League play. Both teams remain in the NL today, the Phillies in their original city and the Gothams (later renamed Giants) now in San Francisco.
The NL encountered its first strong rival organization when the American Association began play in 1882. The A.A. played in cities where the NL did not have teams, offered Sunday games and alcoholic beverages in locales where permitted, and sold cheaper tickets everywhere (25 cents versus the NL’s standard 50 cents, a hefty sum for many in 1882).
The National League and the American Association participated in a version of the World Series seven times during their ten-year coexistence. These contests were less organized than the modern Series, lasting as few as three games and as many as fifteen, with two Series (1885 and 1890) ending in disputed ties. The NL won four times and the A.A. only once, in 1886.
Starting with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1887, the National League began to raid the American Association for franchises to replace NL teams that folded. This undercut the stability of the A.A.
Other new leagues that rose to compete with the National League were the Union Association and the Players’ League. The Union Association was established in 1884 and folded after playing only one season, its league champion St. Louis Maroons joining the NL. The Players’ League was established in 1890 by the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, the sport’s first players’ union, which had failed to persuade the NL to modify its labor practices, including a salary cap and a reserve clause that bound players to their teams indefinitely. The NL suffered many defections of star players to the Players’ League, but the P.L. collapsed after one season. The Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York franchises of the NL absorbed their Players’ League counterparts.
The labor strike of 1890 hastened the downfall of the American Association. After the 1891 season, the A.A. disbanded and merged with the NL, which became known legally for the next decade as the “National League and American Association”. The teams now known as the Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers (originally Brooklyn) and Pittsburgh Pirates (as well as the now-defunct Cleveland Spiders) had already switched from the A.A. to the NL prior to 1892. With the merger, the NL absorbed the St. Louis Browns (now known as the St. Louis Cardinals), along with three other teams that did not survive into the 20th century (for those three teams, see “Partnership with the American League”). While four teams that moved from the A.A. remain in the NL today (Pittsburgh , Cincinnati , Los Angeles [originally Brooklyn; 1890], and St. Louis ), only two original NL franchises (1876) remain in the league: the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves (originally in Boston, and later Milwaukee). The Cubs are the only charter member to play continuously in the same city. The other two pre-1892 teams still in the league are the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants (originally New York), both of which joined in 1883.
The National League became a 12-team circuit with monopoly status for the rest of the decade. The league became embroiled in numerous internal conflicts, not the least of which was a plan supported by some owners (and bitterly opposed by others) to form a “trust”, wherein there would be one common ownership of all twelve teams. The NL used its monopsony power to force a $2,400 limit on annual player wages in 1894.
As the 20th century dawned, the National League was in trouble. Conduct among players was poor, and fistfights were a common sight at games. In addition to fighting each other, they fought with the umpires and often filled the air at games with foul language and obscenities. A game between the Orioles and Boston Beaneaters (a precursor to today’s Atlanta Braves) in 1894 ended up having tragic consequences when players became engaged in a brawl and several boys in the stands started a fire. The blaze quickly got out of hand and swept through downtown Boston, destroying or damaging 100 buildings. Team owners argued with each other and players hated the NL’s $2,400 salary cap. Many teams also ran into trouble with city governments that forbade recreational activities on Sunday.
Billy Sunday, a prominent outfielder in the 1880s, became so disgusted with the behavior of teammates that he quit playing in 1891 to become one of America’s most famous evangelical Christian preachers. Most fans appear to have felt the same way, because attendance at games was plummeting by 1900.
After eight seasons as a 12-team league, the National League contracted back to eight teams for the 1900 season, eliminating its teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville (which has never had another major league team since), and Washington. This provided an opportunity for competition. Three of those cities received franchises in the new American League (AL) when the AL opened for business in 1900, with the approval of the NL, which regarded the AL as a lesser league. The AL declined to renew its National Agreement membership when it expired, and on January 28, 1901, the AL officially declared itself a second major league in competition with the NL. By 1903, the upstart AL had placed new teams in the National League cities of Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Only the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates had no AL team in their markets. The AL among other things enforced a strict conduct policy among its players.
The National League at first refused to recognize the new league, but reality set in as talent and money was split between the two leagues, diluting the league and decreasing financial success. After two years of bitter contention, a new version of the National Agreement was signed in 1903. This meant formal acceptance of each league by the other as an equal partner in major-league baseball, mutual respect of player contracts, and an agreement to play a postseason championship — the World Series.
Major League Baseball narrowly averted radical reorganization in November 1920. Dissatisfied with American League President and National Commission head Ban Johnson, National League owners dissolved the league on November 8 during heated talks on MLB reorganization in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal. Simultaneously, three American League teams also hostile to Johnson (Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and New York Yankees) withdrew from the AL and joined the eight NL teams in forming a new National League; the 12th team would be whichever of the remaining five AL teams loyal to Johnson first chose to join; if none did so an expansion team would have been placed in Detroit, by far the largest one-team city at that time. Four days later, on November 12, both sides met (without Johnson) and agreed to restore the two leagues and replace the ineffective National Commission with a one-man Commissioner in the person of federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The National League circuit remained unchanged from 1900 through 1952. In 1953, the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee; in 1966 they moved again, to Atlanta. In 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, bringing major league baseball to the West Coast of the U.S. for the first time.
The NL remained an eight-team league for over 60 years.. In 1962 — facing competition from the proposed Continental League and confronted by the American League’s unilateral expansion in 1961 — the National League expanded by adding the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s. The “Colts” were renamed the Houston Astros three years later. In 1969, the league added the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals), becoming a 12-team league for the first time since 1899.
In 1969, as a result of its expansion to 12 teams, the National League — which for its first 93 years had competed equally in a single grouping — was reorganized into two divisions of six teams (respectively named the National League East and West, although geographically it was more like North and South), with the division champions meeting in the National League Championship Series (an additional round of postseason competition) for the right to advance to the World Series.
In 1993, the league expanded to 14 teams, adding the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins (which became the Miami Marlins shortly after the end of the 2011 season). In 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks became the league’s fifteenth franchise, and the Milwaukee Brewers moved from the AL to the NL, giving the NL 16 teams for the next 15 seasons.
In 1994, the league was again reorganized, into three geographical divisions (East, West and Central, all currently with five teams; from 1994 to 1997 the West had one fewer team, and from 1998 to 2012, the Central had one more team). A third postseason round was added at the same time: the three division champions plus a wild card team (the team with the best record among those finishing in second place) now advance to the preliminary National League Division Series. Due to a players’ strike, however, the postseason was not actually held in 1994.
Before the 1998 season, the American League and the National League each added a fifteenth team. Because of the odd number of teams, only seven games could possibly be scheduled in each league on any given day. Thus, one team in each league would have to be idle on any given day. This would have made it difficult for scheduling, in terms of travel days and the need to end the season before October. In order for MLB officials to continue primarily intraleague play, both leagues would need to carry an even number of teams, so the decision was made to move one club from the AL Central to the NL Central. Eventually, Milwaukee agreed to change leagues.
Often characterized as being a more “traditional” or “pure” league, the National League never adopted the designated hitter rule that was adopted by the American League in 1973. In theory, this means the role of the manager is greater in the National League than in the American, because the NL manager must take offense into account when making pitching substitutions and vice versa. However, this is disputed by some, such as former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who claims the American League is more difficult because AL managers are required to know exactly when to pull a pitcher, where an NL manager merely pulls his pitcher when that spot comes up in the batting order. Overall, there are fewer home runs and runs scored in the National League than in the American, due to the presence of the pitcher in the NL batting order. From the 1970s until the early 1990s, the use of artificial turf in place of natural grass was far more prevalent in National League ballparks than in the American League.
For the first 96 years of its coexistence with the American League, National League teams faced their AL counterparts only in exhibition games or in the World Series. Beginning in 1997, however, interleague games have been played during the regular season and count in the standings. As part of the agreement instituting interleague play, the American League’s designated-hitter rule is used only in games where the American League team is the home team.
In 1999, the offices of American League and National League presidents were discontinued and all authority was vested in the Commissioner’s office. The leagues subsequently appointed “honorary” presidents to carry out ceremonial roles such as the awarding of league championship trophies. Additionally, the distinction between AL and NL umpires was erased, and instead all umpires were unified under MLB control. With these actions, as well as the institution of interleague play, little remains to differentiate between the two leagues besides the American League’s use of the designated hitter.
By 2011, MLB had changed its policy on interleague play, deciding to schedule interleague games throughout the season rather than only during specially designated periods. This policy would allow each league to have 15 teams, with one team in each league playing an interleague game on any given day. As a condition of the sale of the Astros to Jim Crane in November 2011, the team agreed to move to the American League effective with the 2013 season.
Through the 2017 season, the Giants have won the most NL pennants, with 23. Representing the National League against the American, the Cardinals have won the most World Series (11) followed by the Giants (8), Dodgers (6), Pirates (5), and Reds (5). St. Louis also holds the distinction of being the only A.A. club to defeat an NL club in the 19th-century version of the World Series.
Scott #1381, marking the 100th anniversary of professional baseball was issued on September 24, 1969, at Cincinnati, Ohio. Alex Ross of Ridgefield, Connecticut, designed the 6-cent stamp, which was printed by lithography and engraving in four colors by three passes on the presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It depicted a player in white uniform, red cap, and black sweat shirt. The foreground was green and the background yellow. The inscription was black. Yellow and green was the first offset pass; red and black the second. An additional black was applied by the RCA press. The stamp was issued in panes of fifty, perforated 11, with an total printing of 130,925,000 stamps.