I smelled spring the other day. It was nice, I felt young. I have been rubbing a baseball for weeks now, just rubbing it, getting ready for the snow to leave. This time of year, I always get into a mode. Basseball is on my mind, and this year, it went into places I had never really looked at, one of them being the first baseball champions in Detroit, the 1887 Detroit Wolverines of the National League.
Never heard of the Detroit Wolverines? Many haven’t, so don’t feel alone. This is pre-1900 baseball. Only the hardcore baseball fans read about this, and when I say hardcore, I mean the kind that did one report a year in school on baseball, whether it be the physics of different pitches or the history of professional baseball in America (I did both, among others). So if you get bored, just remember this: The Detroit Wolverines were our FIRST World Champions in any sport, and that one magical season is what set into motion the future of Detroit baseball.
The Mediocre Beginnings
The Detroit Wolverines started in 1881 as a new team in the National League, the top circuit of baseball leagues. They lost their first game in front of 1,286 fans 6-4 to Buffalo at home. Home was a place not too far from the current home of the Tigers; in fact, it is just a hair over a mile away. Recreation Park stood where the DMC is now. There is a Michigan Historical Waymarker where left field was on Brady Ave. The exact spot of home plate was located on the north side of Brady Street, between John R. and Brush, but has been lost to time and expansion of the DMC, but the description of the actual property is that Recreation Park was bounded on the south by Brady Street, on the east by Beaubien Street, and on the west by Harper Hospital, past which ran John R. Street. At the southwest corner was a T-intersection where Brush Street ended at Brady Strret, and that was where the main gate into Recreation Field was located.
The Detroit Wolverines wallowed in the bottom half of the National League, as many new clubs do, for much of their existence. From 1881 to 1885, they never finished above fourth out of 8 teams. This was a time of change though, as only two teams from their inaugural season, the Boston Red Stockings (by then the Beaneaters, and now the Atlanta Braves) and the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), remained in the league. The other teams from the 1881 season – Buffalo Bisons, Worcester Worcesters (or Ruby Legs), Cleveland Blues, Troy (N.Y.) Trojans, and Providence Grays – had all folded or been bought and folded into new teams. One instance of note was a game played September 6th, 1883, when the Wolverines 18 runs in one inning to the Chicago White Stockings, still a Major League record.
New Ownership Starts to Pay Off
In 1885, the new owner of the Detroit Wolverines, Fred Staerns, started to spend heavily on building a “super-team”, most notably buying the entire Buffalo Bisons franchise in order to gain access to what was known as the “Big Four” – Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Deacon White, and Hardy Richardson. That same year, the Detroit Wolverines became the first team to try a four-man rotation. So in 1886, things started to look up for the Detroit Wolverines, as they finished in second place, 2 and a half games behind Chicago for the pennant. As the 1887 season began, the teams in the National League were the Detroit Wolverines, Indianapolis Hoosiers, Washington Nationals (where the name for the current franchise came from), Pittsburg Alleghenys (later the Pirates), Boston Beaneaters, New York Gothams (later the Giants), Chicago White Stockings, and Philadelphia Quakers (later the Phillies). Much of the future franchises were In place, but were beginning their existence. The Detroit Wolverines jumped out of the gate on April 28th, winning their first three against Indianapolis before dropping a game to Pittsburg. They then shot off to a 8 game winning streak over both teams before losing again on May 12th to Chicago. They rattled off another 8 game winning streak after that, and finished the first 20-5, in the midst of their longest losing streak of the season of four games. They would have a seven game winless streak midway through the season, but a tie split that into two 3 game losing streaks.
The Stretch of 1887
Heading into the final month of the season, the Detroit Wolverines were 64-37 with a seven game lead over Philadelphia. In the final month, the Detroit Wolverines played 24 games, going 15-8 and clinched the pennant on Monday October 3rd with a 10-5 win in Pittsburg. After the pennant was clinched, owner Fred Stearns issued a challenge to the American Association champion St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals). The Detroit Wolverines and the Browns would play “a series of contests for supremacy”, in essence an early version of today’s World Series. The Browns had played this sort of series twice before, both times against the Chicago club, tying the first 3-3-1, and winning the second 4 games to 2. They also had a Triple Crown winner in Tip O’Neill, who batted .435 with 14 home runs and 123 RBIs.
This one was scheduled for a best-of-15 series. The series started on October 10th, the day after the Browns finished their season 95-40, in St. Louis. St. Louis defeated the Wolverines 6-1. In game two, the Wolverines scored 5 unearned runs and won the game, as well as game 3 in Detroit. Then the series went on tour, as games were scheduled in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, and Chicago.
The Wolverines took Game 4 in Pittsburgh 8-0, behind a two-hitter by ace Charles “Lady” Baldwin. The Browns won Game 5 in Brooklyn, but dropped Game 6 in New York at the Polo Grounds 9-0 as Charlie “Pretzel” Getzien got revenge for getting racked up for 13 hits in Game 3 by taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning. The Detroit Wolverines also took the next three games at Phillies Park in Philly, the Dartmouth Street Grounds in Boston, and Athletics Park in Philly.
The Detroit Wolverines needed one more win to clinch, but the October 20th game in Washington was rained out. The next morning, the game was played, with the Browns winning 11-4, pulling off a triple play during the game. Immediately afterwards, the teams traveled to Baltimore and played the scheduled game there. The Wolverines won handily 13-3, gaining their eighth victory of the series and clinching the title of World Champion. The series continued, though, because tickets were sold, and the teams split the remaining games, with the Detroit Wolverines taking the series 10-5.
Looking Back at the Detroit Wolverines
The Detroit Wolverines had some standout players over the course of the season. 5 players – Deacon White, Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Big Sam Thompson, and Hardy Richardson – batted over .300, with Thompson leading the league with a .372 average and 166 RBI – he was six home runs shy of the Triple Crown, with 10. Pretzels Getzien went 29-13 with a 3.73 ERA while Lady Baldwin went 13-10 with a 3,84 ERA. Four of the players – Dan Brouthers, Deacon White, Sam Thompson, and Ned Hanlon, would go on to be inducted to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Brouthers has the ninth highest career batting average at .342. Thompson would go on to hit many more homer runs, ending his career at 126, at the time second on the all-time list.
Another player on the team was Charlie Bennett, a catcher. His career came to an abrupt end in 1893 when he lost both of his legs in a train accident. When the Tigers opened their park in 1896 at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell Streets, they named it Bennett Park in his honor, and it remained that name until 1912.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. After three years of spending, with a league cap of $125 per game maximum share-of-gate for visiting clubs, instituted after the purchase of the Bisons, the team was broke. Detroit did not have the population yet to support the cost of running a franchise of high caliber. Owner Fred Stearns had no choice but to shut down the club after the 1888 season.
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