The Spitter History Project: It’s Kinda Calm Before the Storm: 1885-1889

Years:  1885-1889

A/K/A: The Calm Before the Storm

Best Teams: 1887 St. Louis Browns (95-40), 1889 Brooklyn Bridegrooms (93-44), 1886 Chicago White Stockings (90-34)

Worst Teams: 1889 Louisville Colonels (27-111), 1886 Washington Nationals (28-92), 1886 Kansas City Cowboys (30-91)

Average Roster Size: 20

Average Pitching Staff Size: 8

Roster Highs: 1886 Washington (37) – Including six one-game wonders.

Roster Lows: 1889 Brooklyn (15), 1886 Chicago (15), 1885 St. Louis Browns (15)

Staff Highs: Four teams with 15 in 1886 – of those, Washington didn’t use a position player to pitch.

Staff Lows:  1885 St. Louis Browns (3)

Players Who You Should Know: Dave Orr, Jocko Flynn, George Gore, Dave Foutz, Matt Kilroy, John Clarkson

Names, Names, Names: Cannonball Titcomb, Toad Ramsey, Pebbly Jack Glasscock, Lady Baldwin, Silver King, Ice Box Chamberlain

Died Too Soon: Alex McKinnon, Charlie Ferguson (Typhoid was a bitch.)

Solid Leadership: Charlie Comiskey, Bill McGunnigle, Jim Mutrie

Horrible Mismanagement: The 1889 Louisville Colonels

Rule Changes: Some scoring rules were invoked. They tried flat bats and marble home plates (ouch!). The calling of pitches high or low were eliminated, the pitching box shortened, and by 1889 the balls and strikes rules were set to where they were today. Oh, and in 1888, a batter hit by a pitch was allowed to take first base. Before then, it was just a ‘ball’ (and a concussion, probably).

Let’s Play the Feud: Cubs vs. Browns, Browns vs. the AA, John Montgomery Ward vs. the Plutocrats

So, Here’s the Thing: The NL and AA beat back the threat from Henry Lucas and the Union Association, but not without some financial pain. So, in order to get back on solid footing, the AA dropped their extra teams, the NL extorted a settlement from Lucas in order to join the NL as the St. Louis Maroons, and then the two leagues had an on-paper peaceful co-existence for the next few years.

On the field, this was the era of the St. Louis Browns of the AA. After a 4th place finish in 1884, the Browns walloped the rest of the AA in 1885 behind the pitching of Parisian Bob Caruthers and Dave Foutz and skillful managing (i.e. making sure his players were sober and ready to play) by Charlie Comiskey. Over the next few years, they WERE the AA for all intents and purposes and their flamboyant owner, Chris von der Ahe, made more enemies than friends with his flamboyance and braggadocio. It was quite the surprise when Brooklyn defeated the Browns in 1889, and von der Ahe blamed the league for stacking the deck against them. (He was a wee bit paranoid when he was drunk, and he was always drunk.)

Over in the NL, White Stockings of Cap Anson were the team to beat in 1885 and 1886. In 1887 Detroit surpassed them when ownership was concerned about costs and drunkenness, then the Giants of Jim Mutrie overtook the rest of the league in 1888. The New York squad was stacked to the gills with talent – a who’s who of Hall of Famers from that era. The White Stockings faded away, but Boston, a team that was just meh for most of the era, came alive and challenged New York.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 1886 NL season was about as lopsided as you could get. Two teams (Chicago and Detroit), had winning percentages over .700, with the Giants and Philly Quakers over .600. They constantly pummeled the St. Louis Maroons, Kansas City, and Washington with no mercy, quarter, or any relief. It didn’t occur to anyone that trying to sell teams that were 46, 58 ½, and 60 games behind wouldn’t be easy, and it was no wonder those three teams bit the dust.

Kansas City and Washington were outscored by nearly three runs a game that year.

After 1884’s post-season experiment, this era featured post season matches between the NL and AA champs. These were arranged by the owners and were ‘winner-take-all’ series, in that the players of the winning team got all of the bonus money. Well, what happened was that the players got together and agreed to split the pot.

Even with that, the 1885 and 1886 contests were compelling and thrilling. The 1885 series ended in 1 3-3-1 tie after a disputed forfeit. The 1886 contest was won by the Browns and was a thrilling series that was the talk of the baseball world. Of course, baseball being the way it was, they really overextended the post-season to ridiculous lengths. In 1885, they did play neutral site games, but it got out of hand, thus reducing the whole post season to money losing experiments. Gee, you wonder why no one in Washington showed up when the series was already clinched and it was rainy and cold.

Off the field, it was unstable, as after the Union Association debacle the cash reserves weren’t as robust, and teams were teetering on the brink.. Buffalo gave up the ghost in 1885, with Detroit acquiring most of their talent for 1886. But after their pennant in 1887, Detroit went broke the next year. The once mighty Providence Grays succumbed to indifference before 1886, and major league baseball didn’t take in Kansas City (they tried twice during this time frame in both leagues after being about the only profitable locale in the UA), Indianapolis (yet again), and Washington (another repeat cast-off). Lucas’ St. Louis Maroons played two mediocre seasons and then disbanded as they couldn’t compete with the Browns in admission price or alcohol (or on the field, either).

Then there were the 1889 Louisville Colonels. While the White Stockings did get rid of players for drinking, they at least got competent replacements. The Colonels began by fining and suspending their players for every two bit offense. While they had some competent players in Pete Browning, Chicken Wolf, Farmer Weaver and Toad Ramsey, they were soon demoralized by the constant haranguing. When players complained that they were basically playing for free (and some owed money thanks to the fines), and actually went on strike (forcing the team to play three semi-pros against Baltimore) the AA stepped in after missed payrolls, rescinded the fines, and brought in new management. Still, the Colonels wound up 66 ½ games behind, and won just 27 games all year. During the worst of the fines and suspensions, they lost 26 games in a row.

It was almost as if there wasn’t enough talent for 16 teams to be reasonably competitive, especially with the reserve clause limiting player movement and more and more leagues forming around the nation. But eight team leagues were looked at as the best answer for scheduling, so the haves crushed the have-nots fervently.

The AA was played for sucker by the National League at almost every turn, and it was mostly their fault. The inept league management couldn’t decide on discipline without some team or another claiming favoritism (which was more of a feature than a bug in baseball for a long time), and the NL made overtures to teams from Cleveland and Pittsburgh to join their league, and they jumped.

Meanwhile, while New York had franchises in both the AA and NL, after 1884, the franchises basically ‘swapped’ leagues (to be honest, the owners of the Giants decided they could make more money in the NL due to the fifty cent admission, and they were right) and the AA Metropolitans were soon driven out of existence. (Pity Dave Orr, who put up monster numbers for horrible teams, and then after one year with a winner, was shipped off again to an expansion team). The 1889 champion Bridegrooms left for the NL in 1890 as did the ‘original’ AA team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

The AA tried to keep their franchise total at eight, thus Kansas City joined the league after a team failed there the year before. Columbus came back into the fold as well, and they did everything they could to keep the New York franchise hanging around.

Behind all of this was a rumbling by the players. John Montgomery Ward, who was quite possibly the smartest baseball man of his time, helped form the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. Yep, a union. They were quite concerned about the reserve clause, salary limits, and making sure the players had a better say in the game. The owners at first brushed them off, and commenced with their own bickering until it was too late. Ward and his players convinced enough backers, and formed their own league.

This shocked the owners, of course, since they never expected mere players to be able to form their own league. So the NL convinced the AA to fight with them, and the AA put franchises in Long Island (called Brooklyn, because why not), Syracuse, Rochester and Toledo, just like old times. 1890 was going to be a ‘fun’ year for all. Heh.

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