"He was the greatest batter that ever walked up to hit at a baseball thrown by a pitcher. I have seen them all from his day to this. I played against him and I know. He was a fine, big, honorable man on and off the baseball field."
- Charles Comiskey
Adrian Constantine "Cap" Anson (1852-1922) was baseball's first superstar. Anson batted over .300 in 24 of his record 27 seasons played, and was also an outstanding manager whose high expectations and stern demeanor helped raise the level of play on his Chicago White Stockings squad and eventually baseball as a whole. Anson was the first player ever to collect 3,000 hits, and although he retired way back in 1897, he is still the all time Chicago Cubs franchise leader in hits, runs, RBI, and doubles
Born in a log cabin in Marshalltown, Iowa, Anson fell in love with baseball at an early age and at age 15 was the starting second baseman for the Iowa state champion Marshalltown Stars team. Anson later attended Notre Dame for a year before signing his first professional contract with the Rockford Forest Citys of the National Association at age 19 in 1871.
Soon dubbed "The Marshalltown Infant," Anson batted .325 for Rockford, but the last place team disbanded after the season. Anson was quickly snapped up by the Philadelphia Athletics, whom he rewarded by batting .415 in 1872.
Over the next three seasons, Anson emerged one of baseball's brightest stars, hitting .398, .336, .325, and .356. But although he was the darling of Philadelphia, Anson was lured away in 1876 by William Hulbert to play for the Chicago White Stockings in his newly established National League. Anson batted .356 that year and led the White Stockings to the very first NL championship.
Anson played a variety of infield positions and often played catcher as well in the early years of his career, but by the 1880s he settled in firmly at first base. He was certainly not a good defensive player, as he was noted for his lack of mobility and still holds the all-time major league record for errors as a first baseman (although, to be fair, errors were much more common in those days because players fielded with their bare hands, and Anson's longevity contributed to the high total as well).
As far as offense, Anson was what is known in baseball terminology as a "pure hitter" who stroked clean, hard line drives to all fields, producing mostly singles and doubles in an era when fences were far and home runs were rare.
In 1879, Anson was named "Captain" of the White Stockings, which is what we would now call "player-manager." The title was soon shortened to "Cap" and the name stuck. Over the next 18 seasons at the helm, Anson would lead his team to 5 additional NL championships.
As a manager, Anson was an innovator both on and off the field. At a time when professional baseball players were possibly even more fond of boozing and whoring than playing the game, the stern and hot-tempered Anson enforced strict discipline on his team, even with his fists if necessary. By demanding excellence and professionalism from his players, Anson helped to permanently raise the level of the game.
Anson was the first manager to institutionalize spring training for his team, the first to have a regular rotation of pitchers, and is also often credited with inventing the hit-and-run, a notion he actively tried to promote. Although it is doubtful that Anson was the very first person to ever think of the hit and run, he was certainly the first manager to use it with any real frequency.
If there is one major stain on the record of a man otherwise known for his high morals and personal integrity, it is that Anson was a racist who once threatened to walk out on an exhibition against a team who wanted to start a black pitcher. This incident is sometimes cited as the precedent which led to blacks being banned from the game until 1947, but this is significantly exaggerating the impact of Anson's bigotry.
In 1888 Anson signed a 10-year contract to manage the White Stockings, but due to a typographical error which no one noticed at the time, the contract actually ended a year early, in 1897, and Anson's skills having declined precipitously by then (he was 45 years old), the White Stockings refused to renew his contract. By now the aged Anson was known more often as "Pops" or "Grandpa" than "Cap," but he was still the most famous ballplayer alive and the most beloved man in Chicago, so beloved in fact, that bereaved fans took to calling his team the "Orphans" for several years after it lost its "Pops." Anson started the 1898 season as non-playing manager for the New York Giants, but opted to retire before the year was out.
Anson finished his career with 3,418 hits as a professional, the first ever to clear 3,000 in an era when teams often played less than 100 games a year. Major League baseball officially only credits Anson with the 2,995 hits he recorded in the National League, but that is just silliness as the National Association was certainly the "major" league of its time.
Anson was arguably the greatest baseball player of the 19th century, and his achievements did much to increase the professionalism and the popularity of the game. He was honored with election into the Hall of Fame in 1939.
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