News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 11, 2009

Historical Perspective: Organizing a professional baseball team in 1884 (Part I)

By Mike McCormick

TERRE HAUTE — On Jan. 10, 1884, at a meeting in Chicago, the Terre Haute Baseball Association-Incorporated officially became a member of the Northwestern League.

It was a significant milestone, marking the commencement of a 72-year old relationship between the city and organized professional baseball.

The season did began until May 1 but there was much to do. Farm clubs did not exist in 1884 (or for the next 50 years) so every pro team had to find players and a field manager, money to pay them and a place to play.

Terre Haute already had an impressive arena, the main reason the city was an attractive pro baseball venue. In 1883, the association had erected a “base ball amphitheater” on Edward Gilbert’s cornfield on the south side of Wabash, east of 17th Street. It probably was situated near 19th Street, the eastern city limits at the time.

The lot upon which the stadium was built had 300 feet of frontage on Wabash (or Main Street, as it was called) and was 450 feet deep.

Fifty feet off the south edge of the lot, separated by the fence from the playing field, was used for carriage parking. The stadium, constructed to seat 1,000 spectators, was extended 60 additional feet south before the season opener. About 1,500 seats were added, reserved seats were cushioned and the press box had telegraph connections.

Edwin Ellis, manager of Wabash Woolen Mills at 133 S. First St., was president of the Terre Haute baseball club and a true local pro baseball pioneer.

Others pioneers included city treasurer Charles A. Robinson, diamond retailer Eli Leeds, journalist Alonzo “Cap” Duddleston, miller John Stump, Vigo Circuit Court Clerk Merrill N. Smith, candy manufacturer August N. Eisner, grocers Jeremiah O’Reilly and Edward Fiedler, travel agent Michael W. Stack, sporting goods dealer Louis B. Smith, hotel proprietor Robert G. Watson and ironworker George J. Hammerstein.

Ellis and Robinson represented Terre Haute at the inaugural 1884 Chicago meeting, returning by rail at 4 a.m., Jan. 11.

The Northwestern League — the third-oldest professional baseball league — began operations in 1883 with teams from Bay City, Grand Rapids and Saginaw, Mich.; Peoria, Quincy and Springfield, Ill.; Toledo, Ohio; and Fort Wayne, Ind.

The Toledo Blue Stockings compiled the best 1883 record: 56-28. However, at the season’s end, Toledo joined the American Association so the top brass awarded the 1883 Northwestern League pennant to the Saginaw (Mich.) Old Golds, with a 54-30 mark.

At the time, the American Association and the Northwestern League, America’s only two “minor leagues,” were “at war.”

The league’s legislative board decided to expand the Northwestern League in 1884 to 12 teams: Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bay City, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Peoria, Quincy, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, Muskegon, Mich., and Stillwater, Minn.

A petition by the Evansville Riversides for admittance was denied because it was “too far out of the way.”

Each team had a member on the Northwestern League legislative board. Ellis was the Terre Haute representative. John J. Rust of Saginaw was named president of the league, succeeding Grand Rapids furniture manufacturer Elias Matter, and signed an agreement with the National League and the American Association to protect the integrity of players’ contracts and giving the players certain rights.

A planning committee concocted a schedule with each team having 55 home games and 55 road games. Sunday games were banned in 1883 and Terre Haute was among the teams favoring a rule change. Ellis urged that the unaffiliated, i.e., independent, 1883 Terre Haute pro team “would not have prospered” without Sunday games.

Each team was given the option of selling liquor at its park. Terre Haute chose not to sell booze on the grounds.

The league office served as a clearinghouse, notifying teams when a player was signed or released by another team. Until a field manager was secured, the local club pursued contracts only with proven players such as infielders Abe Litz of Chattanooga, James B. Donnelly of New Haven, Conn. and Jeremiah Dorsey of Albany, N.Y.; pitchers Ed Halbriter of Lyons, N.Y., Billy Nelson of Terre Haute; and J.H. Campbell, the noted ambidextrous pitcher from Akron.

In early February, Al Buckenberger of Detroit emerged as a leading candidate for field manager. He signed in early March. Meanwhile, overtures by representatives from Evansville to form an Indiana baseball association to include all four Hoosier cities with pro baseball teams: Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute and Evansville.

Ellis would not consider the proposal unless President Rust approved. Meanwhile, Albert “Bart” Grether and George Richard Mappis — two former Evansville players — signed with Terre Haute. Rust later asserted that “it is contrary to the intention of the national agreement for any club to be a member of more than one association.”

As an accommodation, Rust later agreed to honor player contracts with Evansville, Rock Island and Covington, Ky., three independent professional teams, but Terre Haute’s contacts with Grether and Mappis remained valid.

The league schedule was released in March 11. The season opener was May 1. Terre Haute aggressively pursued scheduling of exhibition games during April, including some with major league teams.

Ellis found an acceptable place for baseball club’s business office at 4051/2 Wabash Ave., on the third floor above Mrs. Louis Rosenberg’s Notions & Fancy Goods store.

A trip to Covington, Ky., secured oral commitments from catcher Anthony Hellman and first baseman William “Big Mox” McQuery, who became team captain on April 3.

When Buckenberger became Terre Haute manager, the Terre Haute Gazette declared that “the coming season will be the greatest ever known in base ball circles.” More than 70,000 copies of Spaulding’s 1884 League Guide were sold before April 1.

Local cigar dealer Miff McKennan, whom Ellis had advanced as a candidate for league umpire but did not make the cut, was appointed groundskeeper and official scorer.

On April 6, 1884, more than 1,000 fans attended the team’s first intersquad game.

Continued to next week