Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, Anson spent a year at Notre Dame before he started playing professionally in 1871 in the National Association, considered baseball's first "professional" league by most historians (it is not universally recognized as one however). At 19, he was the star third baseman on a team in Rockford, Illinois and the following year, played similarly well with the original Philadelphia Athletics at third and first base for four years before the NA dissolved.
Cap found a new home with the newly formed National League in 1876 with the Chicago Cubs, then called the White Stockings. They won the first league title, but fell off the pace the following two seasons. Anson remained their best hitter each of those years and did so at three positions: third base, catcher, and left field. He moved to first base for good in 1879, and also became a player manager that year. He proved to be equally talented as a manager.
With Anson pacing the way, the White Stockings won five pennants between 1880 and 1887. They were helped to the titles by innovative managerial tactics devised by Cap. He developed the first pitching rotation by alternating his two star pitchers. He created some of the first "hit and run" plays, and encouraged stealing bases. He was also the first to regularly have his teams practice before the season, the basis for modern spring training. An aggressive manager, he regularly helped players play better, and his contributions helped make baseball a higher-quality sport, while at the same time making it more popular with fans.
Unfortunately, Anson was well known to be racist. He regularly refused to play exhibition games versus dark-skinned players, and he is sometimes considered to be the reason that baseball was not truly integrated until Jackie Robinson debuted in 1947.
Despite this, Anson remained very popular in Chicago playing for the White Stockings, which were renamed the Colts in the 1890s after a popular play of the time that Anson had a part in. Still playing at a high level into his 40s, he was forced into retiring at the age of 45, when he was fired as manager and in effect ended his playing career, which had lasted 27 years, the longest tenure in major league history among those who recognize the NA. The following season, they were called the Orphans, as a tribute to Anson's departure. He was by far the all-time hits leader in major league baseball when he gave up playing, only yielding the title when Ty Cobb broke his record some 20 years later. To those who recognize the NA, he is also the first player with 3,000 hits in his career.
Anson briefly made a return to baseball managing the New York Giants to end the 1898 season but was fully retired afterwards. He died in Chicago three days after turning 70 years old. Anson became immortalized in Cooperstown when he was inducted into the United States Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
Over 100 years after his retirement, he remains one of the best Cubs of all time, and still holds several Cubs team records, most hits and most runs among his more important ones, and is second or third in several others, with only Ernie Banks and Billy Williams having passed him. He is also the winningest manager in team history.