Wasn’t long ago a friend gave me an extra copy of David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, a comprehensive attempt to complete the statistical and narrative history of the national sport’s early days. As I was reading along, it came to me that this would be a great source for a blog post on baseball trivia from that era. I got a stack of sticky notes and started tagging pages as I went.
Just to be quite clear and except where noted, all this information is mined from Mr. Nemec’s book, and I credit all of it to him. I recommend the source work to every hardcore old-time baseball enthusiast.
–In 1871, home plate was a 12″ stone square. Not until 1900 did it assume its modern five-side form, being 17″ wide.
–Batting averages did not mean quite what they mean today. In 1871, the National Association’s batting champ was Levi Meyerle with a .492 average. The fifth-placer, Steve King, only hit .396.
–Betting was a serious problem. In 1874, John Radcliff of the Philadelphia Pearls bet big ($350…in those days, half a year’s good wages for a cowboy) on the Chicago White Stockings. Against his own team. The rules said he was to be banned for life, but he was back in action in 1875.
–The 1876 Philadelphia Athletics’ pitchers struck out only 22 hitters. That’s low even for a 60-game season.
–In 1877, the Chicago White Stockings managed to hit exactly zero home runs. Those were small ball days.
–The first grandstand screen behind the plate was installed in Messer Park, home of the Providence Grays, in or before 1879. Until then, the best seats in the house were also among the most dangerous.
–One of the forgotten greats of baseball’s past was George Gore, a sharp-eyed contact hitter who averaged over one run per game from 1871 to 1892.
–It’s common–and almost always unfounded–for hecklers to accuse umpires of having money on games. It wasn’t always unfounded. In 1882 Dick Higham showed such obvious signs of being in the tank that he received a ban from baseball. What did he do then? Became a bookie.
–Some of the day’s nicknames would scandalize us today. In addition to a few players nicknamed “Nig,” and any Native American player liable to be nicknamed “Chief” (these details are outside the book’s sourcing and are generally common knowledge among old baseball buffs), any deaf player was tagged with “Dummy.” I believe that the first of these was “Dummy” Dundon, an 1883-84 Columbus Buckeye and alum of the Ohio School for the Deaf. He was the reason umpires developed hand signals for balls and strikes.
–In 1884, Hoss Radbourn won either 59 or 60 games depending on which source one embraces. I doubt anyone since then has even come close to that. (He lost only 12. In those days, pitchers didn’t get yanked on strict pitch counts.)
–Pete “The Gladiator” Browning won three batting titles and hit .341 for a twelve-year career in the 1880s and 1890s. One year he stole 103 bases. He is somehow not in the Hall of Fame.
–Before the mid-1880s, the conventional wisdom said that no lefty could become a great pitcher. By 1886 that outlook was fully discredited, with a number of left-handed pitchers posting excellent records. Between Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell, Randy Johnson, and let’s not forget Sandy Koufax, the notion seems almost quaint today.
–Until 1887, teams sometimes used substitutes from the crowd. Often they didn’t even put on uniforms.
–The youngest player known to have ever played in a major league game is not Joe Nuxhall. In 1887, 14-year-old Fred Chapman started for Philadelphia against Cleveland. And won–by forfeit, not through his pitching. For unclear reasons, the umpire awarded the Athletics the forfeit after an argument about officiating.
–In an 1889 contest between St. Louis and Brooklyn, when the umpire refused to call the game on account of darkness, the Browns refused to remain on the field and set candles around their dugout. After the game, the Brooklyn faithful bombarded the Browns players with beer steins on the way to their transportation.
–Also in 1889, unstable but brilliant pitcher John Clarkson of the Boston Beaneaters shot the statistical lights out. 49 wins, 620 innings pitched, 68 complete games, 284 strikeouts, a .721 winning percentage, a 2.73 ERA, and an on-base percentage of .305. All were league-leading marks.
–If they could see 1800s baseball, those accustomed to slick modern fielding might think they had gotten lost and wandered into a slapstick routine. Two players made 122 errors in a season (per baseball-reference.com, the 2021 Miami Marlins led both leagues in errors with exactly that number for the whole team’s entire season), and seventeen achieved the infamy of clearing 100 miscues in a season.
Imagine a team batting average of .349. Dress them in Phillies flannels, because that described the 1894 Philadelphians. The team leader hit .416.
Here’s a list of interesting nicknames I tagged as I went along:
- Charles “Lady” Baldwin
- George “Foghorn” Bradley
- Edward “Cannonball” Crane
- Hugh “One Arm” Daily
- Lewis “Buttercup” Dickerson
- Patrick “Cozy” Dolan
- William “Cherokee” Fisher
- Frank “Silver” Flint
- Jim “Pud” Galvin
- Welcome Gaston. Not a nickname!
- George “Chummy” Gray
- Frank “Noodles” Hahn
- John “Egyptian” Healy
- Charlie “Piano Legs” Hickman
- William “Brickyard” Kennedy
- Alphonse “Phoney” Martin
- Samuel “Leech” Maskrey. Not exactly a nickname, but not exactly not; Leech was his middle name.
- George “Doggie” Miller
- Thomas “Toad” Ramsey
- James “Icicle” Reeder
- John “Count” Sensenderfer
- Oliver “Patsy” Tebeau
- Charles “Pussy” Tebeau
- George “White Wings” Tebeau. What the hell was with the Tebeau tribe?
- Ledell “Cannonball” Titcomb
- William “Peekaboo” Veach
- William “Chicken” Wolf
This book is a treasure haul of such information. Nemec has done a fantastic job.