I’ve spent the past few months obsessed with the Union Association, baseball’s bastard major league.
134 years after the Union Association’s single season, the league remains mysterious and enigmatic. Compared to baseball’s other former major league’s, the Union Association’s influence is scant at best.
After all, the National Association of 1871 to 1875 is baseball’s first attempt at a major league and is directly responsible for the creation of the National League. The American Association was formed in 1882. It’s legacy includes marketing baseball to the working class with beer and 25 cent tickets. The AA also gave birth to four of baseball’s greatest franchises: the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Players League of 1890 attempted to usurp baseball’s power structure and give players control of their careers. The Federal League of 1914-1915 directly led to the establishment of baseball’s anti-trust exemption.
Meanwhile the Union Association has no significant legacy. Esteemed thinkers such as Bill James have suggested that calling the Union Association a major league is a significant mistake.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with baseball cards. Well, one of the fascinating and frustrating aspects of researching the Union Association is the lack of visual documentation of the league’s existence. I’ve found a team photo of the Boston Unions and a few scorecards and advertisements, but otherwise photos or illustrations of Union Association players and uniforms are virtually non-existent.
There are no Union Association baseball cards.
But there is the Old Judge (N172) set. Of the 500+ players featured in the mammoth N172 set, 60 are Union Association alumni. Approximately 277 players appeared in the Union Association in 1884, spread across 13 different franchises that appeared in 14 different cities. So that means roughly 20% or the league’s players were pictured in the Old Judge set and it provides the most comprehensive visual account of the men who played in the UA.
Of those 60 Union Association alumni in the Old Judge set, only a handful were or would become star major league players. I’ll focus on what I deem the top 5 players to appear in the Union Association in this post. In future posts, I will do a team by team breakdown of Old Judge cards featuring UA alums.
1. Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap
Virtually forgotten now, Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap was arguably the best second baseman in baseball in the 1880’s. Hall of Fame second baseman Frank Grant was nicknamed “The Black Dunlap” as a tribute to the strength of his play. Dunlap was a legitimate star and one of the few great players to jump from the National League the Union Association. In each of his first four previous seasons with the Cleveland Blues, he finished in the top ten in position player WAR. As the crown jewel of the UA champion St. Louis Maroons, he led the UA in virtually every offensive category, including a .412/.448/.621 slash line and a 256 OPS+, which is the best non-Barry Bonds OPS+ in major league history. He quickly declined upon his return to the National League due to injuries, but his peak is Hall of Fame worthy and in just 965 career games he totalled 36.8 WAR (I am using baseball-reference for WAR totals).
Dunlap is pictured as captain of the Pittsburg Alleghenys, longingly remembering the 1884 season when he had the whole baseball world in his hands. ca. 1888
2. “Pebbly” Jack Glasscock
“Pebbly” Jack Glasscock was a promising shortstop for the Cleveland Blues and Dunlap’s double play partner. He famously defected from the Blues along with pitcher Jim McCormick and catcher “Fatty” Briody to join the Cincinnati Unions in August 1884. Glasscock hit .419 in 38 games for Cincinnati, as he helped the club to a second place finish. He would enjoy a long career amassing 2041 hits and establishing himself as the game’s premier defensive shortstop. With 61.5 career WAR, he has a strong case for the Hall of Fame and was named by SABR as an Overlooked 19th Century Legend in 2016.
Glasscock is pictured with the now defunct Indianapolis Hoosiers ca. 1887 to 1889, though at least one variation has him in an Indianapolis uni with a hastily added “New York” on his chest, covering his move to the New York Giants in 1890 after the John T. Brush owned Indianapolis Hoosiers folded. Brush purchased the Giants and brought former Hoosiers like Glasscock and Amos Rusie over to the Big Apple.
3. Jim McCormick
Pitcher Jim McCormick was one baseball’s best pitchers in the 1880’s. As the workhorse of the Cleveland Blues from 1879 to 1884, he led the National League in victories and innings pitched twice, while also leading the league in ERA+ and ERA in 1883. Frustrated by a heavy workload and low pay, he joined the aforementioned Glasscock and Briody in defecting from the Blues to the Cincinnati Unions. He would post a sparkling 21-3 record with a UA leading 1.54 ERA in two months of work down the stretch. He joined Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings after the UA folded and had a couple more strong seasons before retiring after the 1887 season. His 265 career wins and 75.2 career WAR are the most of any UA alum and had he pitched for better known club in his peak, he would probably be in the Hall of Fame.
The stout McCormick is pictured in his Chicago White Stockings uniform ca. 1886. This means that the photos for the Old Judge set were taken as early as 1886, though generally were not released until 1887. (He spent 1887 with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, but his Old Judge cards list him without a team, and none of his Old Judge variations capture him in an Alleghenys uni.)
4. Jack Clements
Baseball’s last full-time left-handed catcher and one of the first to adopt a chest protector, Jack Clements was just 19 years old when he made his debut for the Keystones, Philadelphia’s Union Association entry. Despite his youth, he hit .275/.318/.401 with a 146 OPS+ in 41 games for the dismal Keystones. When the Keystones were on the verge of folding in early August, he was sold for $500 to the rival Philadelphia Phillies. The proceeds of the sale settled an outstanding debt for the lumber used to build the Keystones ballpark. Clements would become a key contributor for the strong Phillies clubs of the 1890’s. His .394 average in 1895 remains the all-time record for a catcher. He totalled 32.1 career WAR in 17 seasons and is one of the top catchers of the 19th century.
Clements is pictured with the Phillies, eternally waiting for the pitch to arrive ca. 1887 to 1890.
5. Tommy McCarthy
Tommy McCarthy is also the only Union Association player elected to the Hall of Fame. As a 20 year rookie, he debuted with his hometown Boston Unions as a pitcher and outfielder. He did not enjoy much success at either position, going 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA on the mound and hitting just .215 in 53 games. He has a reasonable case for being the worst regular in the Union Association. He bounced around several major league clubs before establishing himself as a star with the St. Louis Browns. He enjoyed his greatest success alongside Hugh Duffy on the Boston Beaneaters, where the duo was nicknamed “The Heavenly Twins.” McCarthy was credited with inventing the “hit and run” and was acknowledged as one of the most strategic players in the game. His 14.6 WAR is the lowest of any Hall of Famer, though it seems he was elected more his pioneering influence than his on field credentials.
A pre-stardom McCarthy is pictured with the Phillies ca. 1887 committing homicide via tag. He also appears in other variations from his time with the Brown Stockings.