Most baseball seasons go along pretty much the same. Very few of them end up being particularly memorable except for a few diehard fans, bloggers like me, and antiquarians whose job it is to study them. Case in point: who won the World Series in 1933? OK, if you looked it up you know the Giants beat the Senators in five games. If you went further, you found the MVPs, the stat leaders, and maybe a bit of info like it was the first All Star Game. But almost everybody had to look it up. But 1884 is different and memorable. It is arguably the most interesting year of 19th Century baseball for five reasons.
1. There are three leagues. It’s the first time the country tried to deal with three major leagues. As with the other two attempts (1890 and 1914-15) it was a failure. Henry Lucas was a son of wealth in St. Louis. A fan, he decided to form a new league to compete with the existing leagues (National League and American Association). There’s some dispute about his motivation. Some works cite his anger with the reserve rule (which bound a player to a team) and others favor something akin to an ego trip. Whichever you pick (and I tend to agree with ego trip) Lucas founded the Union Association in 1884. It lasted one season, was a disaster, and floundered almost immediately. The team in St. Louis ran away with the pennant going 94-19. If you add that up, it equals 113 games. The original schedule called for 112 games (got me, coach). Other teams managed records of 69-36, 58-47, but still others were 8-4, 2-6, 6-19, and 2-16. The team in St. Paul was the 2-6 team. It was in such bad shape it folded before ever playing a home game, the only major league team to never play before a home crowd. The competition was utterly uneven, and some teams never played each other (Winner St. Louis never played Milwaukee, the 8-4 team). St. Paul obviously played almost no one. There were teams in Wilmington, NC and Altoona, PA., both nice enough towns, but not big enough in 1884 to support a big league franchise. Atloona managed to survive 25 games and Wilmington only 18. At the end of the season, the league was gone. You could argue it gave the major leagues one very good player (Tommy McCarthy) and that’s all. Bill James in his Historical Abstract argues that the Union Association is not really a major league. I tend to agree with him. Major League Baseball doesn’t.
2. Charles Radbourn had the greatest season ever by any pitcher in the majors. Radbourn pitched for the Providence Grays. Early in the season the team’s other pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, bolted to the Union Association. Radbourn at that point agreed, for contractual and monetary considerations, to pitch every inning of every game for the remainder of the season. Well, it didn’t work out that way, but it came close. Read the following numbers closely. For the year Radbourn was 59 (or 60)-12 with 73 complete games, 441 strikeouts, 98 walks, 11 shutouts, and an ERA of 1.38 in 679 innings (not a record. The record is 680 by Will White in 1879). In fairness to modern pitchers, Radbourn wasn’t on a mound, and wasn’t 60’6″ away. His delivery was sidearm, and he could take a short run before releasing the pitch. Still, it’s a heck of a year. About the 59 (60) business. There are differences in the way wins were determined in 1884 and the modern method. Under the old way Radboun gets 60 wins, under our contemporary method he gets 59. So the modern Major Leagues recognize 59 wins, while his colleagues saw 60. I leave it to you to determine which you prefer. Me? Well, 60 is a nice round number.
3. The first postseason playoffs were held in 1884. Radbourn led his Grays to the NL pennant by 10.5 games. Meanwhile, the New York Metropolitans (not the modern Mets) won the American Association title by 6.5. They challenged the Grays to a three game set, all to be played in New York, to determine a champion for the year. The Grays accepted and Radbourn continued to pitch as he’d done in the regular season and Providence won all three games with Radbourn pitching complete game (what else?) victories giving up no earned runs. The first “World Series” ended with a National League victory.
4. There was a home run explosion at Chicago. The park in Chicago was a little odd. The fences were short, less than 200 feet to right field. Previous seasons balls going over the fences were ruled doubles. In 1884, the team changed the rule to make them home runs. The White Stockings put up astronomical numbers by 19th Century standards, coming up with 149 homers in 112 games. That’s a team record that lasts until 1927 and the Murder’s Row Yankees. The big winner was Ned Williamson, the third baseman, who set a 19th Century record with 27 home runs, all but two at home. Three of his teammates, second baseman Fred Pfeffer, first baseman Cap Anson, and outfielder Abner Dalrymple also posted 20 or more home runs. Dan Brouthers of Buffalo hit 14 for the most of any player outside Chicago. The next year the White Stockings moved to a new park and Dalrmyple’s league leading 11 homers were the most by any of the Chicago four. It took until Babe Ruth in 1919 to best Williamson’s record.
5. Integration first occurred in 1884. The American Association Toledo Blue Stockings hired Moses Fleetwood Walker to be their catcher. Fleet Walker was a black American and the first to play in the Major Leagues. I’ve done a previous post on him, so will simply say here that he wasn’t well received (maybe the understatement of this blog ever) and was gone after the season ended. His brother Welday also got into five games (all in the outfield) and was gone at the end of the season. It took until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to reintegrate the big leagues.
So there’s 1884, it’s not so famous today. It is, after all, a long time ago. But it’s still one of the most important and interesting seasons in Major League history.
BTW there’s a new book out on the season that is supposed to center around Radbourn and his accomplishments. I haven’t read it, but if anyone has, I’d appreciate a quick review if possible.