Monday, August 11, 2008

1881 NL

The National League seemed to be in great shape entering 1881 after another fairly uneventful off-season; other than the expulsion of Cincinnati and their subsequent replacement with Detroit, the structure of the circuit was unchanged.

The customary annual rule changes were important. The maximums were lowered to seven balls and three strikes. Batting order had to be set prior to the game (previously, the manager could determine the order during the first pass through the lineup. Cap Anson was purportedly a practitioner of this strategy, choosing to bat himself in the first inning should there be runners on base but holding himself back if there were not). Most importantly, though, the pitching box was moved back five feet, from forty-five to fifty.

The pennant race was another breeze for Chicago. Although they declined by eleven games, they still boasted a .667 W% and a nine game margin on second place Providence. The White Stockings went 13-6 in April to take a 1 1/2 game lead on the Grays; after a 12-4 June, their lead was 4 1/2 over Buffalo and would increase from there, with Providence besting the Bisons by 1 1/2 for second.

On June 25, George Gore of Chicago stole seven bases in a game against Providence. On September 10, Roger Connor of Troy belted a two-out, walkoff grand slam in the bottom of the ninth against Worcester to pull the game out 8-7. This was the first “ultimate grand slam” (down three with two outs) in NL history.

On September 29, the league blacklisted ten players for “confirmed dissipation and general insubordination”. They were Lew Brown (Providence), Ed Caskin (Troy), Bill Crowley (Boston), Buttercup Dickerson (Worcester), Mike Dorgan (Worcester), John Fox (Boston), Emil Gross (Providence), Sadie Houck (Detroit), The Only Nolan (Cleveland), and Lip Pike (Worcester). This wound up marking the end of the major league careers of exactly zero of these men.

The next day, a new standard player contract was approved. It enabled fines for any conduct considered “detrimental to the team”; it also provided no salary protection for injuries or coverage for medical treatment. With the strong-arm tactics against players (new contracts, blacklisting, and the reserve clause), the NL was engendering a fair degree of anti-management sentiment among its players. This would help set the stage for the tumultuous events of the next few years.

One of those events were efforts to establish a new challenger to the NL, one that would address the lack of league teams in major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.

While all eight NL franchises returned for 1882, the baseball scene they would encounter in 1882 was different than any they had seen before. Their leader would be dead and their strongest rival would be in business.


Buffalo played well above their EW% and PW%, while Cleveland did the opposite. Chicago looked even more dominant on paper than they did on the field. Boston declined again, holding sixth place but losing 1 1/2 games in the standings, while the newcomers from Detroit acquitted themselves nicely with a first division (albeit sub-.500) finish.

As David Nemec points out, 1881 was the most balanced season for the NL in the nineteenth century. Only 23 games separated top from bottom, only 15 games separated second from the cellar, and no team played under .390 ball.

In 1881, the league hit .260/.290/.338, for a .120 SEC, with 5.10 runs and 23.94 outs per game. The fielding average once again reached a new high, this time .905.

It is of course impossible to quantify the exact effect of moving the pitcher’s box back, but it certainly seemed to increase offensive output. Batting average was up 2%, isolated power was up 5%, while walk rate spiked, although only to 4.2% of plate appearances (a 93% increase from 1880). Runs/game were up 8.7%, and strikeouts as a percentage of PA dropped from 8% to 7%.


“If it’s not broke, why fix it” could well have been the motto for the defending pennant winners, as all regulars returned in their same positions. The team lost ground in terms of dominance but was still heads and shoulders above the best of the league.

Silver Flint continued his off and on pattern of hitting; a 74 ARG in his rookie year (1878) had been followed by 121, 45, and 111. Joe Quest must have also been a fine defender, as he did not hit. Abner Dalrymple and George Gore, the best hitters at their position in 1880, lost a bit of production but were still good, while Cap Anson turned in what could be considered a career year. The rookie pitching sensations of 1880 were not quite as brilliant, but then again the movement of the box seemed to draw a lot of pitchers towards the mean as they made adjustments.


The Grays declined by five games but also found themselves six games closer to first place, although still well behind at nine games back. Catcher Barney Gilligan from Cleveland replaced Emil Gross after an August leg injury took him out of action. The loss of shortstop John Peters was costly, as his replacement, Bill McClellan, had not played in the NL since 1878 (CHN), and had a horrendous (-.7 WAR) season at the plate. Pitcher Bobby Mathews was back after not appearing in 1880.

Rookie third baseman Jerry Denny was the first significant player from California; born in New York, he grew up in a San Francisco orphanage after the death of his parents. Andy Piercy, who appeared just eight times at the plate for Chicago, was the first California-born player in this same season (see Nemec, pg. 152 for his account of early California major leaguers).

Fellow rookie Hoss Radbourn (not yet known as Hoss, one would assume, but things would get awfully confusing if I didn’t refer to players as they are known today) was actually the Grays’ most effective pitcher. He had played in six games as a position player for Buffalo in 1880, and returned home to resume his occupation as a butcher’s apprentice. Providence, seeking a utility man, wired him; a friend answered for him, asking for $750, then convinced Radbourn to report. When Monte Ward came down with a sore arm, Radbourn got a shot at pitching, and the rest is history.

There was quite bit of boardroom intrigue surrounding the franchise this season. In August, the shareholders were angry over a projected loss of $1,500 and perceived soft treatment of players (this audacious behavior included paying the salaries of injured players). The board was overhauled, and manager Jack Farrell was replaced by Tom York as manager.


The Bisons see-sawed their way back to the level of their inaugural 1879 NL campaign, in which they finished third, ten games back with a 46-32 record. This year, they went 45-38, ten and a half back and in third place. The 24-58 1880 season certainly appeared to be the outlier.

Buffalo got a big addition in Jim O’Rourke, who was not reserved by Boston; he was named manager and was installed himself at third base; Hardy Richardson was moved to center to make room. This move was somewhat interesting, as O’Rourke had just 42 previous appearances at third in the NA or NL and Richardson had not played outfield in his two previous seasons. Pete Palmer’s Fielding Runs peg O’Rourke at -19 runs on the season, with Richardson at +23, so on the balance I suppose one could say it didn’t work out too badly. On the other hand, it seems as if there should have been a better way to shift the pieces around (White at third?)

Curry Foley also came over from Boston and was used primarily as a right fielder (although he did pitch 41 innings). Veteran stars Johnny Peters (Providence) and Deacon White (Cincinnati) were also valuable additions, but the canniest pickup may have been first baseman Dan Brouthers, last with Troy.

O’Rourke’s nickname was “Orator Jim”--this was due to his loquaciousness. There are numerous anecdotes about O’Rourke’s vocabulary and his willingness to unleash it in everyday use. One deals directly with this season; according to Cooperstown: Where the Legends Live Forever from The Sporting News, Peters asked O’Rourke for a raise. I’m not sure that I buy this, because O’Rourke would not be in charge of payroll, although I suppose that as manager he could have been the intermediary between the ownership and his fellow players. Anyway, I’ll repeat O’Rourke’s supposed response here, because it exemplifies the other tales you’ll run across:

“I’m sorry, but the exigencies of the occasion and the condition of our exchequer will not permit anything of the sort at this period of our existence. Subsequent developments in the field of finance may remove the present gloom and we may emerge into a condition where we may see fit to reply in the affirmative to your exceedingly modest request.”

Wouldn’t he have at least said “I deeply regret” instead of the simple “I’m sorry”? What kind of purported wordsmith was this guy anyway?


The Wolverines acquitted themselves nicely, finishing in the first division and narrowly missing the .500 mark at 41-43. A reported profit of $12,000 also bode well for the newcomers.

The team was largely composed of NL veterans; only first baseman Martin Powell and pitcher George Derby were true rookies among the regulars. Worcester was the biggest source of talent, providing Charlie Bennett, Art Whitney, George Wood, and Lon Knight. Sadie Houck came from Providence, Ned Hanlon from Cleveland, Stump Wiedman from Buffalo, and Joe Gerhardt returned to the NL (last having played in 1879 with Cincinnati).


The Trojans kept most of their team in place and essentially treaded water with a slight decline in the win column. Roger Connor was moved to first base, and his vacant third base position was filled by Frank Hankinson of Cleveland. While Dan Brouthers was allowed to leave for Buffalo, Troy introduced another young player into the lineup as Buck Ewing became the regular catcher (he had 46 PA in 1880).

The Trojans continued to struggle at the gate, drawing just twelve fans for a September 27 game against Chicago. Management broached the possibility of moving the team to Pittsburgh.


The Reds were unable to pull out of their funk, holding sixth place and falling a game and a half in the standings. On July 2, the proud franchise fell into last place for the very first time.

Pop Snyder returned after not playing in 1880; Ross Barnes did the same, having last been a Red. This would be his swan song, and he acquitted himself quite nicely. Joe Hornung and Bill Crowley moved over from Buffalo, and rookie Fred Lewis was the primary right fielder.

The Reds had their own pair of rookie starters, perhaps trying to emulate the success of Chicago? Tommy Bond was discarded; he pitched just three times, going 0-3 while allowing 17 runs in 25 innings, and was released on June 1. John Fox was sub-replacement level (and managed to get himself on the blacklist after just one season), but Grasshopper Jim Whitney was average in the box (leading the league in wins…and losses) and excellent at the plate, finishing third on the team in WAA.

Whitney’s sobriquet was due to his appearance; Bill James quotes an unnamed reporter as writing that “[Whitney had] a head about the size of a wart with the forehead slanting at an angle of 45 degrees.”

The Harry Wright era ended after the season, as he followed the same trail younger brother George had, departing the Reds for Providence.


The Blues were unable to hold their gains of 1880, dropping back to seventh place. Mike McGeary was made starting third baseman and manager, but quit after eleven games. He was replaced by John Clapp, who came over from Cincinnati in the offseason. This marked the fourth consecutive year that Clapp had managed a different club. George Bradley, last with Providence, took over the third base duties and pitched just 51 innings, marking the first time in his career he had been used primarily as a position player. Mike Moynahan came from Buffalo while Jack Remsen had last played with Chicago in 1879.

The Only Nolan also made his triumphant return to the NL after last pitching for another team called the Blues (Indianapolis) in 1878. Unfortunately for the sake of people who like silly anecdotes, he was one of the players blacklisted in September.


The Brown Stockings finished last, but as mentioned above, the NL was pretty balanced. At .390, they had the highest W% yet for a last-place team, and a record good enough to have finished ahead of two teams in 1880 and three in 1879. The team added Hick Carpenter from Cincinnati, Pete Hotaling from Cleveland, and Mike Dorgan from Providence. Doc Bushong inherited the starting catcher role with the departure of Charlie Bennett.

Dorgan started out as the manager, but his play was hampered by a sore arm in June and then was relieved of his duties in August, to be replaced by Harry Stovey. Lee Richmond asked for his release in June, but was brought back in August, then closed the season by purportedly getting into a beanball war with Boston’s Jim Whitney.

Some of the Brown Stockings became suspicious of outfielder Lip Pike (5 games) when he made three errors in one game; he was suspended and later blacklisted. The Brown Stockings also saw Dorgan and Buttercup Dickerson placed on the list. The latter did not help his cause when he told manager/front office man Freeman Brown that he would stop drinking. Brown asked “When does the good work start?”, to which Dickerson replied “As soon as they shut down the distilleries.” (Nemec, pg. 138)

Here is a link to the leaders/trailers and all-star post.

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