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Aaron Marshall
By Aaron Marshall July 30, 2010

Ohio the first state for a professional baseball team

OK, so it probably won’t make or break the governor’s race in 2010, but a recent speech from Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Yvette McGee Brown touched on an oft-repeated piece of baseball lore to establish the importance of Ohio’s cities.

While speaking on urban issues June 22, McGee Brown reeled off a list of accomplishments born in Ohio, including the widely-repeated claim that "the first professional baseball team" was formed in an Ohio city. But is baseball’s professional lineage so clearly rooted in the Buckeyes State? It was time to take a 7th inning stretch from serious politics and see if this claim was a hit or an error.

In a timeline for his acclaimed documentary on baseball, filmmaker Ken Burns asserts that the first professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, which finished its tour of the National Association of Base Ball Players matches with a sparkling 70-0 record.

An open and shut case? Not so fast.

A history of the Red Stockings compiled by the Society for Cincinnati Sports Research suggests that the club’s secretary John Joyce knew that "all the top Eastern clubs were paying their star players" but not admitting it when he set out in 1869 to pursue a team of the best players at every position. Clearly, there were professional baseball players prior to the Red Stockings season of 1869.

Gabriel Schecter, a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, said the key is that the Red Stockings were the first all-professional team where the players were openly paid — payroll records tally $9,400 for 10 players.

"That’s the distinction that has to be made," Schecter said. "Prior to the Red Stockings, there were players here or there who were paid or who were given jobs, but it wasn’t a full team being paid above board."

For example, a powerhouse team from Washington that toured in the late 1860s prior to the Red Stockings turning pro was stocked with players on the federal payroll.

"All or most of the players had those jobs that basically subsidized them so they could play ball," he said. "The question is how much work those federal employees actually were doing," he said.

A timeless question no doubt, but it probably doesn’t equate to professional in the sense we use it today. Still, was it possible that an entire team of players was being paid under the table prior to the Red Stockings?

"I can’t say that I’m 100 percent sure," Schecter said. "I think that’s very unlikely because it would have been uncovered by now."

Because it appears that no other team fielded a lineup of fully-professional players prior to the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869, we rule this claim to be True. If only all the calls made on the diamond were so clear-cut.

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Ohio the first state for a professional baseball team

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