George Didn’t Start It

One of the great things about baseball is that no matter what it is you see, the odds are overwhelming it’s been done before. I remember when George Steinbrenner got control of the Yankees and free agency hit he started buying up talent. A bunch of people complained that he was trying to buy a pennant and wasn’t that just horrible. Well, maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t. What it for sure wasn’t was brand new. Frederick Stearns had done it before.

Frederick Kimball Stearns was born in Buffalo, NY in 1854, graduated from the University of Michigan, and took over his father’s hugely successful pharmaceutical business in Detroit. He loved athletics and was instrumental in the local Amateur Athletics Union. But for our purposes, he owned the Detroit Wolverines, a National League team.

The Wolverines were formed in 1881. They were not overly successful finnishing fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth (last) between their founding and 1884. In 1885 Stearns bough the team and immediately began spending money on trying to improve the team. In 1885 they rose to sixth. Then Stearns really began to lay out the cash. In 1886 they rose to second and won the NL pennant in 1887.

So what did Stearns do? Well, frankly, he bought a pennant. He dumped most of his 1885 team and went with a group of players that were stars of the era.  From the last place 1884 team Charlie Bennent, a catcher; Ned Hanlon (a Hall of Fame manager), the center fielder; and pitchers Stump Weidman and Charlie Getzein remained. In 1885 he picked up right fielder and Hall of Famer Sam Thompson along with pitcher Lady Baldwin. The next year left fielder Hardy Richardson, and the entire infield (from first around to third) Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers, Fred Dunlap, Jack Rowe, and Deacon White were on board and Charlie Ganzel was giving Bennett a second catcher that could ease the burden behind the plate. For the era it included some of the most important players in either league: White, Rowe, Brouthers, Richardson, and Thompson.

The Wolverines rolled to the pennant winning by 3.5 games. Thompson won both the batting and RBI titles (.372 and 166) and led the league in hits with 203. Brouthers led the league in runs with 153 and in doubles with 36. The team was first in hitting at .299, slugging at .434, and had 818 RBIs to also lead the league. In fact it led in all major offensive categories except home runs, finishing second to Chicago.

In the post season series of 15 games, Detroit beat the American Association’s St. Louis Browns 10 games to 5. They clinched the series in game 11, but the rules of the day required the entire series to be played. They split the final four. Thompson, Rowe, and Bennett had a great series and both Getzein and Baldwin picked up four wins.

It shold have been a great season for Detroit, but it turned into a disaster. Stearns was putting out a lot more money than he had. The rules for gate receipts were changed during the season to deprive the team of needed revenue and Stearns and the Wolverines couldn’t maintain the pace. From a share of the gate receipts as was normal, the new rule limited the visiting team to $125 per game. It was aimed directly at Detroit and its payroll.

With massive debts and discontented players, Detroit fell to fifth in 1888. Out of money and luck, Stearns disbanded the team at the end of the season, and sold the players to other teams for $45,000 (a whole lot of money in 1888). Detroit would not see Major League baseball again until 1901 when the American League put the Tigers there.

Stearns lived to see the Tigers and to watch them in three World Series. His Wolverines had better luck the the postseason. The Tigers lost all three World Series’ Stearns saw. He died in 1924 at age 70.

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