Baseball's Oddest Season

A look back at the peculiar personalities of the short-lived 1890 Players' League.

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Mark Byrnes

Another Major League Baseball All-Star break is nearing a close. The three-day combination of time off and talent exhibitions serves as a way for the league to celebrate itself and its athletes, all in an era where players can see their value appreciated not only on the field but in their paychecks.

Relations between the league's owners and the players union are relatively strong these days in a sport that has long had contentious times between the two sides. But perhaps no era was as turbulent as the late 19th century, when baseball was well on its way to seeing just how popular it could become and how much money there was to be made. Owners held nearly all the power in contract negotiations, forcing players to accept mediocre if not offensive pay as well as occasional pay cuts. By 1889, many players had had enough of their owners and broke away from the popular National League.

Together, they formed the Players' League, a collection of eight teams meant to rival the National League in talent and surpass it in labor fairness, creating a shared revenue system and holding no reserve clauses over players.

The league only lasted one season, but it was far from an unserious business experiment. More than half of the National League's players joined in the new league, a sudden dilution of talent that hurt some rival NL teams in attendance and revenues. In 1968, a committee appointed by MLB commissioner William Eckert ruled that the Players' League was in fact a "major league," meaning all PL statistics count towards MLB records.

The Players' League didn't have much faith in its own finances during its inaugural (and ultimately, only) season, mostly because of the profit sharing system agreed upon. Secret meetings with the National League were eventually arranged and the teams were bought and disbanded by rival squads. The league then completely folded for good by the end of 1890, with hardly any labor progress made. The infamous reserve clause of Major League Baseball contracts remained until free agency's advent in 1975.
 

Despite its short life, the Players' League represented an increasing awareness among professional athletes that they deserved more than what they were earning and, consequently, it also put a spotlight on fast-growing resentment toward owners.

Combined, the stories of the eight squads and their players give us a unique glimpse into 1890s America and the sport of baseball.

BOSTON REDS
(81-48, league champions)

THE TEAM

Built just in time for the 1890 season, the Reds played their games at Congress Street Grounds (currently a collection of office buildings behind the Boston Children's Museum). Fans were treated to the league's best team, as the Reds ended up winning the only championship the Players' League ever had.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

"Old Hoss" Radbourn

Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, famous today thanks to a Twitter account of the same name (and possibly similar persona), started 41 games that season, winning 27 of them and posting a 3.31 ERA. Radbourn made his final Major League appearance the following season with the Cincinnati Reds.

Pop Swett

Despite having a fantastic name, Pop Swett's rookie season ended up being his only season, posting a .176 batting average. He did manage to play in other, non-professional leagues for the next six seasons, including the California league where Sporting Life called him "without doubt one of the best catchers on the coast."

 

 

BROOKLYN WARD'S WONDERS
(76-56, 6.5 games back of first place)

THE TEAM

Ward's Wonders, named after team founder, Monte Ward, finished 6.5 games behind Boston, good enough for second place in the league. The team played its games at Eastern Park, where Pitkin and Van Sinderen avenues in Brooklyn currently meet. After the league folded, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, now known as the Los Angeles Dodgers, purchased the team.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

Monte Ward

Player manager and one of the leauge's founders, John Montgomery (or "Monte") Ward was the face (and name) of the team. Ward batted .335 with 60 RBI, one of the better statistical seasons of his 17-year career. 

Gus Weyhing

Famously durable, Gus Weyhing earned his nicknames of "Rubber Arm" and "Rubber Winged Gus." In what was a typical season for the pitcher, Weyhing posted 30 wins in 49 appearances for the Wonders, just one of the six straight seasons in which he won over 20 games.

Luckily for the Wonders, the league folded before they would ever have to deal with his alleged dabbling in pigeon theft. According to a 1892 newspaper report in Louisville, Kentucky:

Louisville, Jan. 26 — Gus Weyhing, pitcher of the Philadelphia Base Ball Club, was before the police court this morning upon an alleged charge of grand larceny. During the past two days a number of pigeons have been stolen from the coops at the National Pigeon Show, and last night, when Weyhing started out of the building with his basket, a pair of blondinettes, valued at $100, were found in his possession. He could not explain how he got the birds, and was therefore arrested. The case was continued and he was released on bail.

Weyhing has a weakness for fine pigeons; in fact, is quite a pigeon fancier, and this fact makes the charge appear plausible. It does not, however, seem possible that a man in Weyhing's position, and with such an income as he enjoys, would be guilty of such a deed for a couple of birds.

Weyhing has in the past been in trouble through indiscretion, but nothing more serious than conviviality, and consequent excesses, was ever charged against him. It is to be hoped, however, for his own sake, as well as for the sake of the Philadelphia Club and the good repute of the profession, that the charge against him is unfounded. If he should not be able to clear himself it would be a hard blow to the Philadelphia Club, which had counted on Weyhing as its star pitcher next season.

Weyhing was able to make his way back into baseball in time for the 1892 season, retiring in 1901.

 

NEW YORK GIANTS
(74-57, 3rd place, 8 games back of first place)

THE TEAM

These Giants, not the more famous National League squad, were the first to play at the famous Polo Grounds, the stadium opening just in time for the start of the 1890 season. After a third-place finish, their National League counterparts purchased the squad.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

Fred Dunlap

Said by many to be one of the greatest second basemen of his era, Frederick "Sure Shot" Dunlap was also the highest paid player in baseball before 1890, but his career was fast in decline by the time he joined the Giants. 

In the first 17 games of the 1890 National League season, Dunlap (playing for the Pittsburgh Alleghenies) was hitting .172 upon being released by the team in May. His manager was quoted as saying at the time, "Dunlap is certainly the worst man to get along with that I ever met."

The same player who hit .412 six seasons prior signed on with the Giants after his release from Pittsburgh, but only appeared in one game, getting two hits in four at bats. He returned to baseball the following year but broke his leg early in the season, never to play again. Dunlap managed to blow away his $100,000 in savings afterwards, dying "penniless and alone" in 1902. According to Sporting Life, the "last two years of his life were spent in abject poverty and mental gloom."

George Gore

Consistently good for 20 doubles, 50 RBIs and a .300 average each year, George "Piano Legs" Gore also managed to reach double digit home run totals for the first time during his successful 1890 season. But Gore struggled to keep his life in order off the field. Famous former teammate Cap Anson said of him in a 1900 book titled A Ball Player's Career, "women and wine brought about his downfall, however, and the last time that I saw him in New York he was broken down, both in heart and pocket, and willing to work at anything that would yield him the bare necessities of life." 

 

CHICAGO PIRATES
(75-62, 4th place, 8 games back of first place)

THE TEAM

The Pirates played six more games than the Giants in 1890, but still finished just as many games back from first place. The team played at South Side Park (not to be confused with the other two South Side Parks built in the same neighborhood) on West 35th and South Wentworth avenue, just next to where the Chicago White Sox currently play.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

Charles Comiskie

Son of local politician John Comiskie, Charles managed and played for the South Side squad and was eventually bought out by the National League's Chicago Colts at season's end. Comiskey eventually owned the White Sox in the early 20th century. Ironically, despite his time in the Players' League, Comiskey earned a reputation as a notoriously stingy owner, forcing star players to accept substandard wages and even wash their own uniforms.

"Tip" O'Neill

James Edward "Tip" O'Neill was so good at baseball that he inspired the nickname of famed  U.S. politician Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, a nickname the politician acquired in his youth. Thirty-two at the time the Players' League was formed, baseball's "Tip" was in the twilight of his career in 1890, but still managing to hit .302 and drive in 75 runs. He retired two years later.  O'Neill lived out his days as a saloon owner in Montreal before dying in a streetcar accident in 1915. 

 

PHILADELPHIA ATHLETICS
(68-63, 5th place, 14 games back of first place)

THE TEAM

Despite a fifth-place finish, the Athletics' existence helped lead to the demise of the American Association's squad with the same name in the same city. The financials of the AA's Athletics were so poor in 1890, thanks to declining gate receipts and soaring player contracts, that they finished the season using a pick-up team, losing their last 21 games and being expelled from the league. The Players' League Athletics were then allowed into the American Association to replace their neighbors in 1891.

Also known as the Quakers, the Players' League Athletics played their home games at Forepaugh Park, located at North Broad Street & West Dauphin Street in Philadelphia.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

Charlie Buffinton

Charlie Buffinton burst on to the pro baseball scene in the 1880s, winning 48 games in 1884, his third pro season. Despite signs of arm trouble, he managed to stretch his career out until 1892. But he had a bit of a disappointing season with the Athletics, posting a 19-15 record with a 3.81 ERA, below average numbers for one of the best pitchers of the previous decade. He retired two seasons later in midseason, becoming a coal and cotton investor. 

Ben Sanders

Ben Sanders' calling card as a pitcher was his highly unusual delivery which ended with him off-balance and his back turned to home plate. While unique, it also made it difficult for him to react to any ball that came his way and especially difficult for him to field a bunt on time. Sanders managed to have a slightly above-average season for his slightly above-average team in 1890, going 19-18 with a 3.76 ERA. 

 

PITTSBURGH BURGHERS
(60-88, 6th place, 20.5 games back of first place)

THE TEAM

The team played at Exhibition Park, a stadium built for the franchise in 1890 and eventually torn down in 1915. Like today's PNC Park, the stadium was situated on the north side of the Allegheny River right across from downtown. The Burghers were bought by the National League's Pittsburgh Pirates at season's end. 

PLAYERS OF NOTE

James Francis Galvin

James Galvin AKA "Pud", AKA "Gentle Jeems" AKA "The Little Steam Engine" was one of the better pitchers of his era, registering 365 wins and two no-hitters, including the first no-hitter in major league history to be thrown as a visiting pitcher.

Galvin was also the first baseball player to be known for using performance-enhancing drugs, openly using an elixir that contained monkey testosterone. Still, Galvin had an unimpressive 1890 season, registering a 4.35 ERA and a 26-25 record.

Ed Morris

Morris, like Galvin, was one of the more talented pitchers of his time, posting league-leading totals in innings pitched, wins, games played, and strikeouts throughout his career. By the time 1890 came around, his arm had worn out, pitching only 144 innings, a far cry from his American Association-leading 581 innings in 1885. A 74-year old Morris died in a bar fight in Pittsburgh.

 

CLEVELAND INFANTS
(55-75, 7th place, 26.5 games back of first place)

THE TEAM

The Infants played at Brotherhood Park on the east side of Cleveland, about two miles from Progressive Field where the MLB's Indians currently play. Outscored by nearly 200 runs during the season, the Infants finished in second to last place and 20 games under .500.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

Cub Striker

Cub Striker was kind of like Albert Belle, if Belle couldn't hit. For the Infants, Striker hit .241 with 65 RBIs and eight triples, one of his better seasons. But he was most famous for his inability to get along with fans. Two years after the league folded, Striker, then a player manager for the St. Louis Browns, jumped into the stands after a home loss, punching a fan who had been heckling the team. He was soon traded for aforementioned monkey testosterone user Pud Galvin. 

Striker ended his career doing what made him famous, physically harming fans. In a 1893 road game, Stricker walked towards a jeering crowd and pretended to throw the ball at the crowd until actually releasing it, breaking a kid's nose on a bounce. Stricker was arrested and held until a hearing was conducted.

Ed Delhanty

Eventual hall of famer Ed Delahanty started to show signs of a promising career in 1890, posting a .296 average in 115 games. Delahanty soon became one of the better hitters in the majors, frequently leading the league in doubles, RBIs, and slugging percentage. 

While playing for the American League's Washington Senators in 1903, his life was suddenly cut short during a strange sequence of events along the U.S./Canada border on the night of July 2. 

Delahanty, drunk and disorderly, was kicked off a train by its conductor who later claimed that the baseball star was brandishing a straight razor and threatening passengers. After being removed from the train in Fort Erie, Ontario, Delahanty started to walk his way across the International Bridge, only to either fall or jump off, his body discovered a week later and 25 miles downstream below Niagara Falls. Whether he died from his plunge over the Falls or drowned on the way there remains unknown.

 

BUFFALO BISONS
(36-96, last place, 46.5 games back of 1st place)

THE TEAM

A team so bad that they were almost fascinating. In the winter of 1889, 28-year old catcher Connie Mack (who eventually joined the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager) invested his entire life savings of $500 in shares of the new Buffalo Bisons squad only to lose all of his investment by the time the league folded. The team finished 46.5 games out of first place, mostly due to a horrific pitching staff, with only two of its 16 pitchers managing to finish the season with an ERA under 5.00. One of its pitchers, Bert Cunningham, managed to throw five wild pitches in one inning, a regular season record that still holds to this day.

PLAYERS OF NOTE

[FIRST NAME UNKNOWN] Lewis

The Bisons' pathetic season was perhaps best exemplified by the mysterious, one game appearance of "Lewis." 

Lewis, whose first name remains unknown, appeared at the stadium before the Bisons' game in Brooklyn on July 12, telling manager Jack Rowe that he could pitch. Rowe, against better judgement, put Lewis in the game and the mystery pitcher proceeded to give up 20 runs in 3 innings. Lewis never pitched again, his career ERA stuck at 60.00, and the Bisons lost the game 28-16.

Dummy Hoy

The team depended on Dummy Hoy, whose speed and ability to get on base helped made him the Bisons' offensive spark plug. One of the most famous deaf players in baseball history, Hoy enjoyed a successful 14-year career as a consistent hitter with high totals in stolen bases and runs scored.

After retiring, Hoy operated a dairy farm with his wife, became an executive at Goodyear, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1961 World Series before dying two months later at the age of 99.

Illustration by Mark Byrnes. All Players' League trading cards courtesy the Library of Congress.

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