The two best teams in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (referred to by historians as the National Association) in 1874 met each other in an early season game at the South End Grounds in Boston. The Mutual Club of New York faced off against the two-time defending champion Boston Red Stockings squad. And the star-studded Boston squad won easily 11-4 to run its record to 2-0 on the season. The Mutuals were 0-3.
Both teams had young starters. The Mutuals, captained by shortstop Tom Carey, started 22-year old Bobby Mathews. Boston, managed by Harry Wright, started 24-year old Al Spalding, a man who would go on to much greater fame in baseball off the field, but nevertheless was a great player, and Harry Wright batted his young pitcher in the fourth spot in the order.
Boston scored in every inning but the first and eighth and batted in the ninth as they opted to bat first. They had 13 hits for the game, 3 by Spalding and 3 from Cal McVey. The Mutuals also committed 14 errors which was not an unusual amount in an era where no one was wearing gloves. Boston committed 8 errors.
Harry Wright had put together a team that mixed together both young and old (relatively speaking) stars and was nearly unstoppable during the five years that the Association existed. The 1874 squad featured, Harry's brother, George Wright at shortstop and Ross Barnes at second base. Barnes would be the first player to lead the NL in batting average and was a master of the "fair-foul" hit. Under the rules of the day, a ball was fair if it landed first in fair territory even if bounded off in to foul ground. Barnes was able to squirt the ball in front of the plate with a lot of spin that would send it off to the sidelines. By 1877, the rule was changed and the rules on fair and foul balls more closely resembled today's rules. (But they still would have seemed weird, trust me.)
The Wright brothers (the baseball ones, not the airplane ones) were the stars of baseball's first all-professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings team. When the National Association was formed in 1871, the Wrights went to Boston and brought along some of their teammates. By 1874, McVey and outfielder Andy Leonard along with the Wrights remained together on the team.
But there was some significant new blood on the team too in first baseman Jim O'Rourke, who was 23 and would play regularly in the majors until 1893 and would make a token appearance in 1904. 23-year old Deacon White played the outfeld for Boston and would play in the majors until 1890. The Wrights, Spalding, and O'Rourke are in the Hall of Fame.
The Mutuals had an 1869 Cincinnati alum as well in Doug Allison, who played catcher and outfielder. Allison started out the May 4 game at catcher and then moved to the outfield. He switched places with Dick Higham. Higham would become an umpire in the National League after he stopped playing. He became the only umpire in the history of Major League Baseball to be fired on grounds of corruption. That happened in 1882. But in 1874, Higham would still be trusted enough to captain the Mutual squad after Carey lost that title.
Boston won the pennant in 1874 with a 52-18-1 record. The Mutuals were 7 1/2 games back at 42-23. The scheduling was a bit odd that year (actually it was odd all the time the NA existed) as teams didn't necessarily play a balanced schedule. Boston played the most games because they were good and people wanted to see them. If an NA team, started having a bad year, it would play fewer games or schedule games against teams that weren't part of the NA. The last place team, Baltimore, played just 47 games.
Sources: Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference, Boston Daily Globe.