Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies are probably aware that the team played its first big-league season in 1883. The club lost their first eight official games, suffered through a 14-game losing streak that summer, and finished at just 17-81 that year.
Many may not be aware, however, that the team actually first took the field in Philadelphia during the 1882 season as a member of the League Alliance. The first Phillies owners on joining the N.L. were businessman Al Reach and local lawyer and political operative John Rogers. But it was Reach who had been the driving force in forming the team for at least a year prior.
Reach was a former player in town with a version of the Athletics. He had made a fortune in the sporting goods business and now wanted back into the game as part of management.
He first partnered with Horace Philips, who had been fired as manager of the Athletics in October 1881. The two tried to get a team for Philadelphia into the newly formed American Association, a rival league forming to challenge the National League, but were beaten out by the A’s owners for that spot.
The NL saw the seriousness of the challenge being posed by the upstart A.A., which was going to include cities with much larger populations, including Philadelphia and New York. To begin the process of addressing this challenge, the NL placed Philly and New York teams into the League Alliance for 1882, with Reach and Philips heading the Philadelphia entry.
As explained by Robert D. Warrington for SABR in his excellent piece on the topic:
“The League Alliance was initially established by the NL in 1877 as a means to extend its control over independent teams across the country. It served several purposes for the league and its members:
- Discouraging contract-jumping and escalating salaries by forbidding clubs from luring players away from alliance teams with offers of more money.
- Allowing games against alliance members to be scheduled on off-days. Doing so would expose baseball to wider audiences and provide potentially lucrative paydays for clubs.
- Creating opportunities to assess alliance clubs and their players for possible future recruitment into the league.
- Dissuading teams that joined the alliance from banding together to organize a second major league that would compete with the NL.”
Reach was able to get Recreation Park, located at 24th Street and Ridge Avenue, for his new club and greatly improved the ballpark infrastructure. Philips left the venture suddenly in January 1882, leaving Reach as the sole driving force behind the ball club.
The first team was comprised of a number of players with previous experience in the National League. Included among their number was right fielder Jack Manning who had five years of big-league experience and who would briefly serve as a player-manager before Reach took over that managerial role himself.
Manning, center fielder Fred Lewis, and shortstop Bill McClellan would be the only players from the 1882 group to take the field with the first Phillies team in the National League for the 1883 season.
During the 1882 season the team played a 139-game schedule that was mixed between contests against teams from the NL and the amateur ranks. They also played a direct ‘League Alliance Championship Series’ against the New York club and a two-gamer with the A.A.’s Philadelphia Athletics.
Reach’s team was most often referred to as the “Philadelphias” in newspaper accounts during its first few years of existence. However, Warrington’s research revealed that “Phillies” was also used to describe the team by both home and away publications:
“When used in reference to Reach’s team, the sobriquet first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 14, 1882, in a description of a game the Phillies played the previous day at Recreation Park against Princeton College. The moniker continued to appear periodically in city newspapers throughout the rest of the Phillies’ season in the League Alliance. Newspapers published in other cities also identified the club as the Phillies in their reporting.”
Reach’s first Phillies team finished with a winning record of 67-66-6. However, the club’s record against National League competition was only 15-45-5, proving that they still had a long way to go.
Highlights from the first season included a 3-0 loss to a very tough Providence team from the National League in their first-ever game in front of 3,000 home fans at Recreation Park. The Grays were much tougher on their hosts in the second game held three days later, romping Philadelphia by a 19-6 score.
Then on April 22 in front of a small home crowd, Philadelphia gave a second start in the pitcher’s box to a rookie named “Buffington”, who had been the hurler during that romp by Providence. He was likely actually Charlie Buffinton, who would make his formal debut as a rookie in the National League with Boston in mid-May and go on to win 233 games in the majors over 11 seasons. On that late April day he pitched the first no-hitter in team history during an 11-0 victory over a local “Young America” amateur ball club.
And then there was a head-to-head rivalry showdown with the A.A.’s Philadelphia Athletics. This two-game home-and-home battle ended with a pair of dramatic one-run Phillies victories. The first came on May 20 in a 7-6 win at Oakdale Park (11th-12th, Huntingdon-Cumberland) in front of 10,000 fans. It was the largest crowd to see the team play that year and the Phillies scored the winning run in the top of the 9th inning. The second-largest came in the second game two days later at Recreation Park and resulted in a 6-5 Phillies win.
Warrington described the results of that first season as follows: “By the end of the 1882 season, scheduling games against amateur clubs had clearly served its intended purpose. It avoided long periods of idleness in the Philadelphias’ schedule, crowd size was respectable — and sometimes more than that — at most games, and the contests helped Reach’s team take a key developmental step in preparing for its ascension to the National League.”
Rumors had begun to gain momentum during the summer of that 1882 season that the National League would replace its teams from Worcester, Massachusetts and Troy, New York. The Philadelphia and New York entries participating in the League Alliance were the rumored replacements, and in late September those moves became formal public knowledge.
Reach joined forces with Rogers, a Philly native and attorney who had a great deal of political pull. Their partnership would prove the final piece to the puzzle of bringing the Phillies into the National League, a dream that finally became reality when their application was approved at the December owner’s meeting.
And here we are, 137 seasons of National League baseball later. But fans of the team should know about the true origins of the Phillies while participating in the 1882 League Alliance.