Cincinnati's cocky leadoff hitter swings and cracks a line drive over the second baseman's head. The ball rises into the wind and hooks away from the lunging San Francisco rightfielder. The Cincinnati player sprints around first base and heads for second, scarlet calves driving. He dives headlong, his fingers stabbing the base an instant before the second baseman slams the ball against his shoulder.
"Safe!" yells the ump, spreading his arms. The spectators roar their approval of the visitor's hustling play.
Grinning, the Cincinnati player edges away from second and steals third on the next pitch with another dust-spraying slide.
Pete Rose in his prime, tormenting the Giants at Candlestick? No, the hustling ballplayer was 22-year-old "Smiling George" Wright, the Cincinnati Red Stockings' all-everything shortstop and leading hitter, bedeviling the Pacific Base Ball Club at San Francisco's Recreation Grounds on Sept. 29, 1869. All told, he went 6 for 10 on the day, stole seven bases and scored eight times.
The Red Stockings of Cincinnati were America's first pro team. In the years prior to the Civil War, baseball had been controlled largely by amateur "gentlemen's" clubs, whose members regarded play-for-pay as vulgar. As the popularity of spectator sports surged after the war, however, many teams began to charge admission, distributing the take among their players—and some even covertly paid salaries to a few star performers. In 1869, a group of Cincinnati businessmen, inspired by a loss to a touring team from Washington, took things a step further. They hired a chap named Harry Wright to form a crack baseball squad.
The English-born son of a pro cricketer, Wright had played cricket for a living in New Jersey and also excelled at baseball, which he had learned growing up in New York. Wright recruited top players—including his talented brother George—from around the nation and openly signed them to contracts before the start of the '69 season. Harry himself was not only the team's manager but its captain, centerfielder and relief pitcher.
In the summer of '69 the newly professional Red Stockings set off on a tour of the country, taking on all challengers. One of their first stops was New York, where they toppled Boss Tweed's powerful Mutuals 4-2 in a confrontation regarded by many contemporaries as the best game of the sport's infancy. In Philadelphia they beat the renowned Athletics 27-18; in Cincinnati they routed the New Orleans Southerns 35-3; and in St. Louis the Empires, "Champions of Missouri," crumbled 31-14. The Stockings continued to blow away the opposition as they swept through 22 cities in all on their way west.
By the time they arrived in California in September, they boasted an unprecedented streak of 44 straight victories and a larger-than-life legend; they had become known as the "invincible nine," and their exploits were flashed by telegraph throughout the country. On the evening of Sept. 23 in San Francisco, more than 2,000 people mobbed the Broadway Wharf to greet them when they arrived by river steamer from Sacramento. They were scheduled to stay 11 days and play three of San Francisco's amateur clubs—the Eagles, the Pacifies and the Atlantics. Already, poster-sized color lithographs of the players were being sold throughout the city.
All of the games were played at the Recreation Grounds, at the corner of Folsom and 25th. Opened two years before by Australian immigrants August and William Hatton, it was the scene of circuses and bike races, as well as cricket and baseball games—anything that would draw a paying crowd. It was William Hatton who had thought of inviting the Red Stockings to play there.
The guests immediately set about displaying their prowess on the field. During their first four days in the City by the Bay, they played two baseball games with the Eagles and a five-hour cricket match, inflicting, according to a local writer, a " Waterloo" on their opponents each time.